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Friday, Feb. 11, 2011
'Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson'
Fear and loathing in Hunter S. Thompson
On one level, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's career can be described simply: He was a writer who wrote best when loaded. Sure, you say, but tell me which great American writer wasn't a raging alcoholic. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Jack Kerouac? Ernest Hemingway? William "There is no such thing as a bad whiskey" Faulkner? Oh, wait, I got it — Charles Bukowski, ha ha ha ha.
And yet, with the possible exception of Bukowski, Thompson had no peer when it came to excess. Who else would cover a national district attorneys' conference on narcotics while off his face on psychedelics, as Thompson did in his classic 1972 novel "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"? (His logic: "If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level drug conference, we felt the drug culture should be represented.")
This book, which walked a very fine line between incisive first-person reporting and flights of dope-induced fantasy, established Thompson's utterly unique style of "gonzo" journalism. "Bad craziness" was his beat, and while someone such as Tom Wolfe could embed himself into a situation and report from an intimate yet hands-clean vantage point, Thompson, as often as not, plunged in headfirst. These days, his acid-rush ravings may seem as much a hippie cliche as a tie-dyed T-shirt — cue the hallucinations of lizards and bats — but his scathing prose, fueled by a disillusioned idealism, continues to amaze. The author's legend lives on, despite the fact that he checked himself out in 2006 at the age of 67 with a well-aimed .45-caliber bullet to the head.
The good doctor was no stranger to the big screen: Both Bill Murray and Johnny Depp played Thompson's written-page alter-ego Raoul Duke ("Where the Buffalo Roam" in 1980 and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in 1998). Lefty director Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") decides to look behind that persona in "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," a sympathetic documentary that tackles the author's legacy.
"Gonzo" gives a good introduction to Thompson's career for newbies, from his early years writing in Puerto Rico to his sensational breakthrough coverage of the Hell's Angels biker gang, his quixotic run for sheriff in his Colorado hometown (on the "Freak Power" ballot), his "Fear and Loathing" peak, and his late-career burnout. Dedicated fans may find this a bit too much of a "greatest hits" compilation, though, with lengthy quotes from "Fear and Loathing" and clips from the (excellent) Terry Gilliam film of the book.
Gibney does get good access to many of those closest to Thompson — his ex-wives; his longtime comrade and illustrator, Ralph Steadman; his publisher at Rolling Stone magazine, Jann Wenner; and a vast panoply of friends, from musician Jimmy Buffett to former presidential candidate Gary Hart.
Perhaps nothing defined Thompson as much as his contradictions, and "Gonzo" highlights them. This was a man who could savage acid guru Timothy Leary on the one hand and paranoid President Richard Nixon on the other. He was a dope-smoking child of the 1960s, yet a huge fan of firearms and explosives. The film has his first wife describing him as "loving, generous . . . and absolutely vicious"; his second wife as "generous, beautiful . . . scary, mean."
His mood swings infected his political coverage as well, despairing of an America run by Nixon-esque cheap crooks and cops, "a nation of used car dealers with guns," while every so often finding a brand new hope to cling to (George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in '76, John Kerry in 2004) before crashing back to earth. Still, he could nail a politician with a brazen honesty rarely expressed in public by professionals. ("Did you see Bush on TV, trying to debate? Jesus, he talked like a donkey with no brains at all.")
"Gonzo"s most trenchant point — and one it could have explored further — was how Thompson found himself trapped by the literary persona he had created: Duke, that twisted dope-fiend of insatiable appetites. As Wolfe puts it in the film, "He's so identified with the life he's describing, it's hard (for him) not to be in character."
But as the film only hints at — by glossing over the '80s and '90s, where his output was spotty at best — Thompson's career became yet another example of crossing that fine line between drug use and drug abuse that burned so many '60s icons. For the king of gonzo, drugs opened up any number of creatively useful doors, but sustained indulgence saw him losing the plot completely on assignments such as the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman prize fight in Zaire, unable to pull his work together coherently.
There are larger issues surrounding Thompson and his journalism, however, that "Gonzo" ignores entirely. In interviews, Thompson has defended his flagrantly subjective style by saying, "Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can't be objective about Nixon."
While I basically agree with Thompson's point, where exactly is the line between him playfully suggesting that a vice presidential candidate (Edmund Muskie, '72) may be addicted to the rare hallucinatory substance ibogaine, and Fox TV host Glenn Beck claiming that Barack Obama is some sort of sleeper-cell socialist/racist dictator? Both are fantasy, and while Thompson could admit his satire whereas Beck is deadly serious, Thompson's trashing even the pretense of objectivity may not have been good for journalism in the long run.
Stranger still is how "Gonzo" mentions not even once that Thompson's suicide was clearly related to health issues: A back injury and a broken leg put him in a wheelchair and, by all reports, he chose to check out with his dignity intact. That says as much about the man's stubborn independence as anything in the film, and a more careful doc would have noted that one of Thompson's earliest pieces was "What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum," which — rather tellingly — saw him investigating the reasons for that author's suicide.