Changing the world is quite a weight for anyone to carry. Whether it’s through direct or indirect activism, it takes spirit and determination to keep treading the path, for the world can be a dark, large and deeply complicated thing to alter.
For an artist, that darkness can all too easily consume its host. However, it can be honed in to create something truly and remarkably influential.
Surprisingly affable English man and renowned artist Ralph Steadman, most widely known for his illustrations for the iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas novel, picked up a paintbrush as a reaction to the corrupt world around him. Maybe he couldn’t be a doctor or a soldier on the front lines, but he could do something perhaps even more powerful: use ink, paint and paper to create drawings and cartoons that expose the malicious beings of politics and global culture.
It sounds like heavy and somber work, but Charlie Paul’s documentary For No Good Reason shows that Steadman’s work is ultimately meant to be empowering. By trailing Steadman’s art back through his long career (first as a subversive counterculture artist) and spending more than a decade with the artist and his work, Paul exposes what passion paired with a paintbrush can accomplish.
For No Good Reason is by no means simply a film about an artist, though; it is art about an artist. Just as Steadman uses various mediums and methods in his cartoons and illustrations, Paul does the same in his documentary, spanning from almost every filmic format in order to create his “texture.”
“Where an artist uses paint, I use film as my different types of medium...So, if I were trying to recreate a 1970’s scene, I’d shoot on a Super 8 on stock actually made in the 1970s…That was my kind of artistic contribution to Ralph’s artistic contribution,” said Paul.
The result is a multilayered feast for the eyes, where Steadman’s art is not the only thing that moves you. Paul essentially guides us through film, making his presence as a documentarian and an artist known. The interplay between both him and Steadman becomes a conversation rich with artistic intellectualism.
That conversation lasted for more than 15 years while Paul documented Steadman’s process.
“I put a digital camera above Ralph’s desk with a big button and lights that went on,” he recounted. “So whenever he walked into the studio…he’d press the button, [and] the lights would come on. And whenever he was done drawing, he’d press a button, and it would take a frame. Each week he’d ring me up and say, ‘Oh the camera stopped working,’ and of course it was because the chip was full.”
Paul would then return to the studio to replace the chip and talk about the work that Steadman had produced that previous week. Slowly, this became the basis of For No Good Reason. Months turned into years, years turned into decades, and Paul still couldn’t take his eyes off of Steadman and his captivating, edgy cartoons.
But as fascinating as Steadman’s artwork is, it is not the only subject of Paul’s lens.
When Steadman agreed to have his life documented, he handed Paul a box of videocassettes. Paul assumed most would be trash, but then he realized they were full of scenes capturing Steadman’s tumultuous relationship with infamous writer Hunter S. Thompson.
Steadman illustrated Thompson’s prolific novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which officially introduced Steadman to an international audience, and shared an intimate yet highly turbulent friendship with the writer.
Through Steadman’s videotapes, we catch a glimpse of the duo’s spontaneity and their time as artistic collaborators and founders of the revolutionary idea of “gonzo journalism,” always with the spirit of adventure…yet always tinged with an edge of melancholy.
Even still, Paul pushes further with something Steadman himself never even considered: animating his work. At first, Steadman was hesitant; he wasn’t sure it could be done properly, and even Paul admitted he hit several walls as he tried to bring the drawings to life, never seeming to get it quite right.
Suddenly, the clouds parted when Steadman pinpointed exactly what his art is.
“Ralph described it as, ‘When you’re driving down the freeway at 100 miles an hour, and a fly hits your windscreen in the opposite direction, and the moment that fly splats, and as life exited that fly, this twitching goes on. That’s my art,’” said Paul. “So…we then decided to animate up until his drawing. All of the animations in the film are animations preceding the drawing—the last image you see is Ralph’s art.”
And so, the genial Englishman keeps on going, churning out piece after piece and hoping he’s not creating “visual pollution.” However, I highly doubt you’ll hear any complaints from us, the onlookers.
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