The work of British artist Ralph Steadman has been called everything: shocking, deranged, perverse, angry, and downright venomous. Charlie Paul’s documentary For No Good Reason aims to undermine this negative critique of Steadman, offering in its place a fresh look on his work. In fact, the film’s depiction of Steadman is actually quite warm and charming. Some might view this in stark contrast to the sardonic and acerbic character of his more political work. But as Steadman says in Paul’s film, “[One can be] …pleasant one minute, and vitriolic the next. They go together.”
Steadman’s art is often described as both satirical and surrealist, and his best work is characterized by its blotchy and dripping ink look. Like a Steadman illustration, it is easy to become absorbed by For No Good Reason. The film chronicles Steadman’s close collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson. Comprised of never-before-seen archival footage and clever reenactments, the film depicts the evolution from a creative working relationship into a meaningful friendship.
Steadman’s evocative and iconic paintings gained immense popularity with the release of Thompson’s 1971 book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. With Thompson’s cigarette clip in tow, the two traversed the world, did loads of drugs, and caused mayhem wherever they went: all while working for Rolling Stone magazine. They were kindred spirits; making their living off their collective hatred of social stratification and Nixon-era foreign policy. It was a perfect marriage. The tone of Steadman’s artwork, sinister and horrific to most, confronted the viewer to engage with the source material and see what the “cartoon” signified. As well as their styles may have complemented each other, the creative pair were not without problem. For No Good Reason depicts their relationship akin to jealous brothers, each trying to obtain the upper hand. Although “Fear and Loathing” has gained the most notoriety, Steadman’s illustrations have been featured in special editions of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Animal Farm,” and, one of my own personal favorites, Bruce Robinson & Richard E. Grant’s Withnail and I (1987). Paul demonstrates that despite Thompson’s substantive creative “breaks” or forays, Thompson and Steadman remained friends from 1970 until Thompson’s suicide in 2005.
Director Charlie Paul provides us with a sketch, a brief overview of Steadman’s life; woven as inseparable from his art. The result offers the audience a glimpse into the relationship between the art and the artist. Between his influences and his creations. By situating Steadman’s drawings artistically within the film, even animating them in several montages overtop photos from Steadman’s gonzo days; Paul is able to express this message.
In an astonishing bit of filmmaking, Paul gets Steadman to open up about the physical abuse he endured as a child in grammar school. Paul brings up this aspect of Steadman’s life in a very curious way. Rather than gain the sympathy of the audience, Paul uses the abuse of power by Steadman’s schoolmaster to explore the impact it had on his artistic focus. Though this linkage, Paul is able to connect these events to the emotions that have characterized Steadman’s art throughout his career. Seen prominently in Steadman’s desire to represent abuse of authority whenever possible. The profundity of Steadman’s words resonates with the gonzo movement’s contributions to journalism, literature, art, filmmaking, and pornography. Paul contextualizes Steadman and Thompson as purveyors of a former fantastic moment in American history.
Long after Thompson’s death, Paul depicts Steadman still struggling with between recognition as a violent cartoonist and talented artist. He appears unmotivated to create new artworks out of the fear he will be characterized as a “visual polluter.” In the digital age, where media saturation and the instantaneous spread of information reduces the effect of shock, Terry Gilliam is correct in saying that the days of combating the thought police is in the past: the days of their past. This sad truth appears momentarily but is quickly transformed into a happy-ending via Paul’s vision. This abrupt change is perfectly understandable. Can one end a major commercial film with the subject pondering his relevance in the post-9/11 nightmare of his twilight years?
Charlie Paul’s documentary chooses to only focus on the art that elicits these themes. Those interested in a much deeper and thorough portrait of Steadman as an old man will likely leave unsatisfied. Steadman’s art is the real star of this movie. Paul uses artist-is-the-sum-of-his-parts approach in this film. Steadman’s innovative style and imaginative creative process is an inspiration for anyone who flouts convention “for no good reason”. For that, Charlie Paul’s film is a must-see for all budding artists, spry in their youth and willing to learn about the experiential possibilities of art trapped within the “desert of the real.”