For No Good Reason sheds light on Gonzo cartoonist

The relationship between Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson takes center stage in new doc

Thursday May 29, 2014 04:00 am EDT

The work of illustrator Ralph Steadman, perhaps best known for his many collaborations with journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), has so much of a dark, ferocious edge that it's surprising to learn that he is such a gentle, modest, and even seemingly straitlaced person. In one scene of For No Good Reason, the new documentary about Steadman's life, he draws one of his cartoonish but disturbing creatures — tongue lolling, ribs and guts showing, eyes bulging, blood spattering — and then examining the finished work, he says fussily, like a scolding English nanny, "What a terrible thing." The illustrations are one thing, but the documentary reveals the artist himself as someone mild, delightfully odd, funny, and likeable.

Director Charlie Paul has chosen a fascinating subject, and it's hard to go wrong with the film's central elements: We see plenty of Steadman's work, and even better we see him creating it. We delve into his collaborations with Thompson and his later innovation of creating caricatures by manipulating warm Polaroid photographs as they develop.

There was a special chemistry between Thompson and Steadman, fueled by special chemicals, all of which gets a thorough examination here in scenes that capture some of Gonzo journalism's anarchic, boyish energy. The phrase "for no good reason" was one of Thompson's, his answer to those who questioned why he did so many of the random and quixotic things he did. The relationship wasn't always a rosy one. In the film, Steadman compares himself to Thompson's talking mynah bird, which the latter victimized by banging on its cage and holding it tightly in his fist to lecture at or demand that it speak. Thompson may have been a kindred spirit to Steadman, but he was not an equally civil or gentle one.

Oddly, Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, hangs out a lot in this new documentary as a sort of interviewer and narrator. He looks serious and pensive, asking questions of Steadman in an affectedly ponderous voice. There may have been a good reason beyond his celebrity for including him, its just not immediately apparent.

Surprisingly, For No Good Reason never delves into some key aspects of Steadman's biography. Elements of violence, terror, and power figure prominently in Steadman's images. He's very anti-war, but the film never mentions that Steadman lived through the Blitz as a child growing up in England. Steadman is also firmly anti-authority and anti-conformity. Especially intriguing is the fact that his family grew up speaking Welsh in the household, but stopped during World War II when the government discouraged the practice for fear that the language could be used by spies for covert purposes. Steadman demonstrates his signature ink-splat technique, but we never hear about its origin or development. He learned drafting in the National Service and picked up drawing from a correspondence course — all fascinating stuff left out of the documentary.

Though it skips over some interesting biographical details, the film nonetheless provides a fascinating portrait of the artist. The antics of Gonzo journalism may have been set in motion "for no good reason," but as the documentary shows, the lasting work of Thompson and Steadman is all the reason anyone might ever need.

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