Fear and Loathing on a Canvas, by David Bax
Charlie Paul’s For No Good Reason is ostensibly a documentary about the artist Ralph Steadman. But you will learn very little of the man’s life by watching the film, which is a blessing because documentaries about artists are most often painfully dull.
Steadman’s work is closely associated in the public mind with the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. In 1970, Steadman and Thompson covered the Kentucky Derby together for a magazine article and became longtime collaborators and friends. Much of For No Good Reason (including its title, which was Thompson’s explanation for why he was doing anything) springs from that relationship. But it also includes an enchanting overview of Steadman’s other works, including his other collaborations with the likes of Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam and others.
That celebrity presence is one of the reasons you may be wary of For No Good Reason. I certainly was. Johnny Depp, who acts as host and interviewer, is onscreen nearly as much as Steadman. And the yard-long list of notable names in the opening credits – some of them belonging to deceased people – is flat-out hilarious. By the time we reached the credit for Patrick Godfrey as the “Voice of da Vinci,” I was sure this was the funniest opening title sequence I’d ever seen.
My trepidation continued in early sections wherein Steadman’s drawings are turned into animations. It’s all very clever but perhaps too much so. Transforming these works seems to hint at a lack of trust in their existing power. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the film is taking on the characteristics of its subject. Steadman is not particularly precious about his work. His innate prankishness – the desire to fuck with people that thrums constantly beneath his persona – doesn’t leave much room for reverence. The glib anarchy would feel hollow or affected, though, if Steadman weren’t so immensely, gobsmackingly talented.
In those occasions wherein Paul shows us Steadman at work, it would be both insulting and apt to compare his process to a magic act. As with an illusionist’s performance, you can watch everything he does with a careful eye and still have no idea how he got to the breathtaking result. But this is no practiced trick. Rather, Steadman himself doesn’t seem to always know what he’s doing. He is forcing his genius to reckon with a taunting, blank canvas, a conundrum Steadman himself describes da Vinci struggling with.
Through Steadman’s passion for art and its history, For No Good Reason expands its scope to include the works of those who have influenced the man and the ways in which they are similar. Steadman is neither modest nor boastful, simply self-aware, when he compares himself to da Vinci or Rembrandt or Francis Bacon (the most empirically evident parallel). Only Paul tips over into the ludicrous when he suggests, visually, that Steadman’s work may have been directly responsible for President Nixon’s resignation.
Late in For No Good Reason, Steadman confesses to Depp the melancholy that keeps him awake at night. He thinks about his age and how little time he may have left. Steadman’s art has always been imbued with no small amount of morbidity. He presents most people as rotting, bloating corpses. Yet his pictures also threaten to rip themselves open with their own kinetic fury. There’s vibrancy and hope in this exuberant fatalism of his. Steadman and this film glibly admit that everything is getting worse and dying. But that’s no excuse for us not to rage with all we have to make things better.