Thompson film a fun ride, without much gonzo
August 20, 2008
ASPEN There are many words one might associate with Hunter S. Thompson: dangerous, unstable, penetrating, incomprehensible, magnetic. Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney seems to have focused on a more unlikely one: fun.After looking through the material that he would eventually use for Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Gibney realized the project was going to be an entertainment, the filmmaker said in a phone interview in June. Hunter was giving us permission to have some fun, like he was having fun, so we had license to do the same. There was a sense of fun and playfulness and inventiveness that captured our attention.Gonzo hardly ignores the seriousness of purpose that Thompson brought to his singular style of journalism. His 1970 campaign to be elected sheriff of Pitkin County, for instance, could well have been treated as a publicity stunt. Instead, Gibney frames it as an earnest, hard-fought bid to steer Aspen in a more liberal direction, with a libertarian approach to drug use. Moreover, there are even hints that Thompsons campaign was an effort, ultimately quixotic, to make Pitkin County the central battle in a nationwide war against the musty old status quo. The film also locates the late writer near the center of such upheavals as the San Francisco 60s counterculture, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the unseating of his arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon.But Gibney also hits the mark of making Gonzo an entertainment. A simple explanation might be that, after making Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary on torture, American-style that played like a grim civics lesson, Gibney was looking to have a little fun of his own. (It must be noted that Gibney earned an Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side, which was released last year.) But the two films overlapped in terms of time, so, no, there wasnt any balancing of the fun ledgers going on.The enjoyable ride that Gonzo takes us on is fueled by the visual aspect, and Gibneys got a lot to work with. For a writer, Thompson could be a feast verging on an overdose for the eyes. The shaved head, the cigarette holder, his love of plastic masks, draping himself in an American flag, the staccato way he moved and typed all register as uniquely Thompson-esque. Its little wonder that British artist Ralph Steadman, featured heavily in the film, was so inspired to create the visual component to Thompsons writings, and that those illustrations became iconic in their own right. Or that the 1998 film adaptation of Thompsons classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also used extensively in Gonzo, was such psychedelic eye-candy.Even the talking-head sequences in the film come to life. Every time Thompsons first wife, Sandy, appears, the background is a swirl of colors, representing the groovy 60s that spawned Thompsons career. And instead of a disembodied voice reading Thompsons own words, we get a body that of Thompson pal Johnny Depp, who has been plopped into the kitchen of Owl Farm, cigarette holder in hand, to take the writers place. Gibney is to be commended for the wealth of archival footage, especially of Thompsons bid for sheriff.Gonzo moves fast and goes down easy. But partially sacrificed to this enjoyable treatment of Thompsons life is a penetration of his character beyond what we already know. Especially for Aspenites, and the diehard fans, its a given that Thompson was complex, balanced between the easily lampooned substance abuser and the hard-core, iconoclastic journalist. Gonzo leaves you feeling that a more no-holds-barred investigation of the subject a little more gonzo, if you will would have honored the subject better.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson shows Sunday through Tuesday, Aug. 24-26, at the Wheeler Opera House. The screening on Monday, Aug. 25 will be preceded by a reading and book-signing by Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and Woody Creek artist Michael Cleverly, co-authors of The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.firstname.lastname@example.org