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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Note: This is the third in a three-part series on DVDs about Hunter S. Thompson from director Wayne Ewing. Check the sidebar for links to the other two.

When the friends and family of legendary author Hunter S. Thompson decided to follow through with his wish for his ashes to be “shot from a cannon” into the sky over his Woody Creek home, they thought it would be the proper thing for them to do. It would be the final chapter to an unorthodox life.

Deciding to do it was one thing. Actually getting it done would be another. In When I Die, director Wayne Ewing brings to us a visual record of a project that is sad, glorious and (well let’s just get this over with) truly a gonzo event.

Going Out with a Bang

It was not to be a slapdash affair. Indeed, it was like Thompson’s best writing in that it might appear to be insane and out-of-control but was in fact anything but. Instead it was a well crafted explosion of wit and imagination designed for maximum effect and contrary to convention in the extreme. Note that “contrary to convention” does not mean haphazard or chaotic.

At the beginning of When I Die, we see a clip of Thompson from a 1978 BBC film in which he specifies how he wants his ashes to be disposed. Was that an on-the-spot inspiration or something that he’d pondered for a while? When I Die does not comment. But having made the statement, the Woody Creek Rubicon was crossed and it only remained for Thompson to pass from this world for his wish would be fulfilled.

Flash forward to August 2005, and six months after Thompson’s death by a self-inflicted gun shot. Actor Johnny Depp steps up and offers to bankroll the project. This being America, where money will buy anything, the project leaps from “if it will happen” to “when and how it will happen”. It was now time to call in the pros from Hollywood.

This Old Cannon

The film then shifts gears and takes on the appearance of some of the “project” shows on cable TV like American Chopper, American Hot Rod and even Miami Ink. All the elements are there, the dedicated craftsmen, the fast-approaching deadline, the fantastic project. I’m a big fan of these programs because they show the care and love for craftsmanship that the artisans put in their work and it’s just darned interesting to see how this stuff is made. In When I Die we have the added challenge of making an entirely new kind of thing: a 150 foot tall double-thumbed fist-cum-fireworks platform with flashing electric peyote button. Oh, and one more thing, it has to be removed from the site once the memorial ceremony is finished. One wonders if this could be a pilot for a cable series of it’s own... American Funeral.

This is a job the crew from Hollywood can understand completely... no problemo. Making something to appear solid, monumental and yet is in reality transitory is what they do best. The fact that none of them have done anything like this before is simply incidental. Curiously, only one of them (Martin Phillips who designed the electric peyote button) seems to have any real attachment to Hunter Thompson. His description of Thompson’s “Hells Angels” as being the “first book I read when I came to this country 16 years ago” and a seminal experience is a tale oft told by fans of Thompson. Other members of the construction crew are simply curious. Trucker Robert L. Quinton wants to know “who was this writer ?... was he Left or Right? I hear he was into drugs and guns (laughs)”. The uncredited steelworker (who in my opinion was the star of the actual assembly of the monument) wonders who Thompson was to rate all this fuss. Outside of the assembly crew, it is Woody Creek Tavern bartender Christi Palazzi who has the sweetest reminiscences of Thompson shared while she stocks the hospitality tent refrigerator with beer (which she adds, is the wrong brand). My guess is that her appearance in the film would have pleased Thompson the most.

Hunter’s End

In that this is a documentary about the delivery of a very special event, I have to credit Ewing with keeping the sentimentality of that event from overwhelming the film. There’s just enough of Thompson and his life to keep him in mind and then it’s back to the practical matters of actually pulling off the big show. There is nothing of the memorial ceremony, the people who make the invitation list or their reaction to the final pyrotechnics. In fact, the event is almost a postscript to the film itself.

When I Die is a must-see for Thompsonophiles, and if you’ve got a dry eye at the end of the film, check your gonzo button at the door when you leave. Strangers to Thompson’s work may be mystified by why all this is necessary, but you will have to admire the effort. If it makes you the least bit curious about who this guy was, then so much the better.

DVD Extras


Picture and Sound

Very good on both counts. There is some first class time-lapse photography. The sound is good and everyone can be heard and understood even in the field. The music is understandably dated but according to the notes, some of Thompson’s favorites, so how could you use anything else?

How to Use this DVD

Watch this in the evening, preferably with friends who share your fondness for Hunter Thompson and his work. This DVD is one of three by Ewing featuring Thompson. (The others are also reviewed on Movie Habit.) You’ll want to get the other ones and watch them too.