The Crazy Never Die: Hunter S. Thompson in Rare 1988 Documentary (NSFW)

What should we make of Hunter S. Thompson today? Only a hardened contrarian could downplay his importance as a chronicler of the collapse of sixties-style utopianism in America. Few readers could forget — or refrain from committing to memory — the famous passage of Thompson’s journalistic and psychedelic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) that looks back on the ruins of hippiedom from within the hangover of the early seventies. With unmatched clarity, he traces how “the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash,” the “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil,” the feeling of “riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave,” and how, “less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

In the seventies, Thompson counted among his friends San Francisco pornographers the Mitchell brothers, best known for producing Behind the Green Door, which hit the zeitgeist the year after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In 1988, the Mitchell brothers grabbed their cameras and followed Thompson around on a lecture tour, to places like the University of Kansas and Portland, Oregon’s First Congregational Church, collecting material for what would become the half-hour documentary The Crazy Never Die. It follows from the title that, since the news of Thompson’s having removed himself from this mortal coil broke seven years ago last week, he either did not die, or was not crazy. Though the latter possibility seems more plausible on its face, those familiar with the trappings of Thompson’s public persona — the “fortified compound,” the rounds unloaded into the typewriter, the peacocks — may find the former easier to swallow. Just look at the footage cut between the lecture segments: Thompson spraying a makeshift aerosol flamethrower, Thompson lighting a cannon, Thompson viciously attacking the camera with a Mexican restaurant-napkin — all rigidly in line with his man-out-of-control image.

Witness to the end of the Age of Aquarius, drug-fueled bon viveur, sociopolitical critic, flailing maniac: Thompson contained multitudes. His Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of the most incisive texts I’ve read on the Democratic party — more so than anything political science classes assigned me — but over the following decades his political positions curdled into a sad sort of paranoia. The Crazy Never Die captures Thompson in full gadfly mode, packing houses and easily entertaining them, whether on time or (more commonly) not. But the content of these talks, assuming you can follow it, seems altogether less relevant to the man’s enduring appeal than the life and sensibility that produced it. He takes the usual crowd-pleasing swipes at Nixon and Reagan, but then delves haphazardly into elaborate theses involving Oliver North, George H.W. Bush, and Iran. (1988, recall.) He takes particular exception to Ed Meese, a name I imagine very few of Thompson’s younger fans recognize. But when the name of Meese and whatever crimes may or may not be pinned upon it has long faded from living memory — and surely that time is upon us — the name of Thompson will keep on resonating and fascinating.

(NSFW warning: Staying true to form, the Mitchell brothers saw fit to include a few flashes of nudity throughout this documentary.)

The Crazy Never Die has been added to our collection of Free Online Documentaries, a subset of our meta list 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Wes Anderson from Above. Quentin Tarantino From Below.

When you watch a director’s work long enough, you pick up on his/her signature tricks — the themes and camera work that appear again and again. Last month, a YouTuber who goes by the name “Kogonada” created Wes Anderson // FROM ABOVE, a montage capturing Anderson’s penchant for the aerial shot, a move that contributes to the lightness, playfulness and quirkiness of his films.

Now “Kogonada” returns and looks at Quentin Tarantino’s work from a new angle — from below. The view from below has two advantages. It puts the actor in a position of clear dominance, and it lets the viewer know that violence has taken place, without actually having to show the damage done. For someone like Tarantino, it’s a handy way to go… H/T @webacion

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The Power of Silent Movies, with The Artist Director Michel Hazanavicius

When The Artist won the top Oscar on Sunday night, critic Roger Ebert compared it to an episode of The Twilight Zone. “The Academy Award for best picture went to a silent film in black and white,” he wrote. “Its victory will send Hollywood back to its think tanks.”

In this short film by Joe LaMattina of Last Call With Carson Daly, the writer and director of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius, talks about the challenge of holding an audience’s attention without dialogue, and the magic that happens when it’s done right. “There’s a very interesting process with silent movies,” Hazanavicius says. “The black and white and the lack of sound creates a mystery.”

The Artist has taught audiences in the 21st century that silent films can be a delight. If you would like to explore some of the great films from the golden age of silent cinema, visit our collection of 100 Free Silent Films: The Great Classics, which includes works by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst and many more. They’re all part of our bigger meta collection of Free Movies.

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Neil Young Busking in Glasgow, 1976: The Story Behind the Footage

The day was April 2, 1976. Neil Young was flying into Glasgow, and a local camera crew was waiting at the airport to meet him. Director Murray Grigor and cinematographer David Peat had been hired by Young through his record company. As they waited there, at the airport, they had no idea what to expect.

“The irony,” Peat told Open Culture, “is that neither Murray or myself were particularly knowledgeable about the rock world, and we knew little of this guy Neil Young. So we turned up at the airport in sports jackets and ties to meet him!”

Young’s scheduled flight from London arrived, but he wasn’t on it. When a second flight came in, Peat and Grigor watched anxiously as all the passengers cleared the terminal. Still no Young. Finally, said Peat, “this tall bloke in a long coat came ambling down the corridor.” The filmmakers introduced themselves to Young and asked what he wanted.

“Just give me some funky shit footage,” said Young.

Nae bother, as we say in Scotland,” Peat said. So the filmmakers tagged along as the musician and his band, Crazy Horse, headed into the city. At this point Murray Grigor picks up the story: “Our filming got off to a tricky start. When Neil and the band finally made it to their lunch in the Albany Hotel’s penthouse, one of them set fire to the paper table decorations, which we filmed. ‘Just like Nam,’ another one said as he warmed his hands over the small inferno lapping up towards the inflammable ceiling.”

At that moment, Peat added, “this very Scottish floor manager leapt in and completely cowed them with her rage.” The woman turned to the nearest person and demanded to know what was going on. “That happened to be our sound recordist, Louis Kramer,” said Grigor. “She then shouted at them to get everything burning into the bathroom–and generally gave them all a dressing down.”

As Grigor explained, “Neil and the band were all stoned out of their skulls.”

When the smoke had cleared at the Albany Hotel, the crew followed Young out onto the streets, where he began accosting passersby. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell me where the Bank of Scotland is?” He soon settled on a different destination. “It was entirely Neil’s idea,” Grigor told us, “to flop down at the entrance to Glasgow’s Central Station and then wait and see who would recognize him.”

With a scarf wrapped around his neck and a deerstalker hat pulled down over his face, Young took out his banjo and harmonica and sat on the pavement. Peat, whose forté is observational filmmaking, panned his camera back and forth between the famous street musician and the people passing by. Kramer’s sound recording provided the continuity that made it possible for Peat to move around and cover the scene from different angles. He noticed that Young was singing about an “Old Laughing Lady,” so when he saw one, he filmed her. The whole thing lasted only a few minutes.

Later that evening, Young and Crazy Horse opened their show at the Glasgow Apollo with “The Old Laughing Lady.” It was the last concert of their European tour. The film crew documented the crowd going into the Apollo and the show itself. When it was over, Young asked Grigor to synchronize the sound and film for later editing. Local editor Bert Eeles did the synch work, Grigor sent in the film, and that was about the last they ever heard of it. “I always understood Neil commissioned it for his own use as a kind of ‘home movie,'” said Peat.

The fire scene from the Albany Hotel resurfaced in Jim Jarmusch’s 1997 film, Year of the Horse: Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live. When the busking scene at Central Station recently appeared on the Internet, Peat was happy to see it, but disappointed with the state it was in (see above). “The quality is poor and the sound appears to be slightly out of sync,” he said. “It looks as though the material is in black and white, but I’m sure I shot it in color.”

Peat and Grigor collaborated on a number of other projects, including the 1976 Billy Connolly documentary Big Banana Feet, which was screened at the Glasgow Film Festival last Sunday for the first time in decades, and the 1983 film, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Architecture has been a major focus of Grigor’s work. Last month he received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to architecture and film. Peat is the subject of an upcoming special on BBC Two, A Life in Film: David Peat.

The strange assignment to shoot “funky shit footage” for a strung-out rock star was a minor footnote in Peat’s long career, but he looks back on it with fondness. “The footage of Neil has achieved a sort of iconic status in Glasgow,” he said. “I was in a music/video store recently trying to find out if it existed on any published DVD, and the guy behind the counter nearly fell over when I revealed I had shot it. He probably just saw an old bloke with a beard instead of the lithe young man who used to dance around with a camera!” H/T Dangerous Minds

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Futurist Ray Kurzweil, 17 Years Old, Appears on “I’ve Got a Secret” (1965)

Ray Kurzweil — he’s the futurist of our time, a prophet of technology who foresees a day when we will achieve Singularity, a moment when humans will enjoy superintelligence and longer life expectancies (perhaps even immortality) thanks to rapid technological advances. It’s heady stuff, and you can learn more about it by watching his opening speech at the first Executive Program at Singularity University.

Now we take you back to 1965, when Kurzweil wasn’t yet a futurist. Only 17 years old, he was a wunderkind, a high school student immersed in artificial intelligence who tinkered away, and eventually figured out how to program a computer to produce original musical compositions. When the producers of I’ve Got a Secret discovered his talents, they brought the young Kurzweil on the show. And the rest you can watch on the videotape above.

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Errol Morris Captures Competitive Eating Champion “El Wingador”

You might know Errol Morris from his documentaries like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, on emergent systems in topiary gardens and naked mole-rat colonies; The Fog of War, on the shadowy career of Robert McNamara; and Gates of Heaven, on competing pet cemeteries (which no less a critical authority than Roger Ebert has called one of the greatest films of all time). You might remember Morris’ interview-driven television series First Person with fondness — and, given its episodes on serial-killer groupies, cryonic head-freezers, and professional high-school students, perhaps a dash of disbelief. If nothing else, you’ve almost certainly seen Morris’ commercials for the likes of PBS, Volkswagen, and Miller High Life. In the last few years, he’s put out a new film, Tabloid, a book on the relationship of photography to reality, Believing is Seeing, and many a post on his New York Times blog. For Errol Morris fans, these are hearty times indeed.

As the newest addition to this Morissian abundance, the ten-minute documentary El Wingador profiles five-time Philadelphia Wing Bowl champion eater Bill “El Wingador” Simmons. To win the Wing Bowl, you must simply eat as many chicken wings as possible in the shortest amount of time. Such a mandate stretches the definition of “eat” to its breaking point; the trick, as Simmons tells Morris, is to train your jaw and esophagus not to chew, per se, but to bite and swallow, bite and swallow, bite and swallow — “don’t worry about choking.” For a man like El Wingador, eating, like any everyday activity taken to the level of elite competition, makes demands that would strike outsiders as grotesque: consuming eleven pounds of food per day, putting in hours-long sessions with baseball-sized wads of Tootsie Rolls, shoveling down handfuls of searing-hot pizza cheese, gnawing on rawhide bones meant for German Shepherds. And sometimes even insiders seem flummoxed by it all: asked if he would really consider his regimen an eating disorder, Simmons replies, “It’s gotta be a disorder, ‘cause it’s crazy, man.”

As a seemingly marginal subculture with its own rules, customs, hierarchies, and personalities, competitive eating would seem to comfortably inhabit Morris’ wheelhouse; it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d opted to make a feature-length documentary about it. But even in the brief minutes with Simmons El Wingador offers us, we glimpse enough of this world and its leading lights — the young hotshot Joey Chestnut, the eerily skinny Sonya Thomas and Takeru Kobayashi — to suspect that the substantive differences between competitive eating and “real” athletics may amount to less than we’d assumed. One might make a solemn point here about starvation in the developing world even as the Philadelphia Wing Bowl puts decadent ancient Rome to shame. But it gives me just as much pause to ponder the unsettling lack of differences between cramming chicken wings down your throat in the center of a roaring stadium and most other forms of human endeavor.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

John Steinbeck’s Six Tips for the Aspiring Writer and His Nobel Prize Speech

Today is the 110th birthday of writer John Steinbeck, whose great novel of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath, gives an eloquent and sympathetic voice to the dispossessed. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” You can watch him deliver his Nobel speech above.

And for insights into how Steinbeck reached that pinnacle, you can read a collection of his observations on the art of fiction from the Fall, 1975 edition of The Paris Review, including six writing tips jotted down in a letter to a friend the same year he won the Nobel Prize. “The following,” Steinbeck writes, “are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.”

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it–bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue–say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

“As you write,” Steinbeck says, “trust the disconnections and the gaps. If you have written what your eye first saw and you are stopped, see again. See something else. Take a leap to another image. Don’t require of yourself that you understand the connection. Some of the most brilliant things that happen in fiction occur when the writer allows what seems to be a disconnected image to lead him or her away from the line that was being taken.”

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Watch Francois Truffaut’s Short Film, Les Mistons, Or What He Called “My First Real Film”

By the French New Wave’s standards, François Truffaut made films with a startling straightforwardness. Yet something about the man’s entire body of work feeds the sneaking suspicion that, no matter how many times you’ve watched everything in it, you’ve never gazed upon its depths. This applies equally to his beloved, obliquely autobiographical The 400 Blows and its sequels, his well-known pictures like Fahrenheit 451 and Jules and Jim, and the Small Changes and Mississippi Mermaids of the world that few seem to watch today outside of revival screenings. Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut’s cinematic colleague and one-time friend, ultimately dismissed nearly everything in Truffaut’s filmography as nothing more than “stories.” Every cinephile must go through a moment of temptation to do the same, but the films have a way of haunting you into revisitation after revisitation — just like, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s. No wonder those two had so much to talk about.

Les Mistons, the second short film Truffaut ever made and the first that ever satisfied him, showcases these qualities in miniature. A teenage girl named Bernadette, skirt flying in the wind, bicycles across the countryside for a rendezvous with her strapping gentleman friend. This presents a fine opportunity for a quintet of mischief-minded prepubescent boys. Obscurely tormented by the older woman’s desirability and their own inability to process it, they follow her around day after day, sometimes tormenting her, sometimes helpfully fetching her tennis balls, but usually just staring. They might spend one afternoon playing cops-and-robbers; they might spend another getting beaten up by the object of their quasi-affection’s boyfriend. They lead rich lives, these rambunctious, short-shorted, early 20th-century petits écoliers.

Then the narrator, a now-grown member of this comically harmless gang, remembers the central event: the man who has become Bernadette’s fiancée has perished in a mountain-climbing accident. This leads to the quintessential Truffaut moment, elegiac yet faintly troubling, that is Les Mistons’ last: months after the incident, the boys happen upon a darkly dressed Bernadette strolling stiffly down the road. Hiding behind a wall, they stare as she passes and disappears from view. Experienced Truffaut-watchers should also note, of all things, the visual effects. Early examples of the filmmaker’s light but selective touch appear in the slow-motion kiss one boy plants on Bernadette’s bicycle seat and the reverse motion that allows another to rise from his imaginary death and re-enter his imaginary gunfight. Almost everyone operating in the creative space blown open by the French New Wave could do this sort of thing, of course, but few besides Truffaut could do it — or would even consider doing it – in the service of understatement.

Find Les Mistons in our collection of Free Movies Online.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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