New film captures the Gonzo way
Aspen Times Weekly
The Hell’s Angels , with their propensity for drugs, weapons and motorcycles and an overall embrace of the outlaw persona, would seem to be Hunter S. Thompson’s kind of people. But when Thompson infiltrated the California biker gang for his breakthrough book, 1966’s “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga,” the relationship ended on a strange and terrible note of its own. At a gathering of the Angels and Ken Kesey’s LSD-soaked Merry Pranksters, Thompson intervened in what he saw as a sexual assault. A Hell’s Angel claimed it was a more private confrontation between himself, his lady friend and his dog. In any event, Thompson emerged from the fray with a severely messed-up eye, and a fractured relationship with the Hell’s Angels.
But that was Thompson ” an outsider at odds with the group, no matter what the group in question. The late writer, who fatally shot himself three and a half years ago at his Woody Creek cabin compound, naturally struck a confrontational stance against politicians, straight journalists and anyone else who reeked of having too close an association with the Establishment, but also friends, editors, collaborators, neighbors, wives, girlfriends and bikers.
In the new biographical documentary film “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” director Alex Gibney nails the pivotal point of Thompson’s life to a moment when the writer was a teenager, in his native Louisville, Ky. A charismatic, well-read and ambitious kid, he attracted friends from Louisville’s well-to-do families, even though Thompson was lower-middle-class, raised by his librarian mother after his father died when Hunter was 14. Thompson’s clique, which was as literary as it was hell-bent, were busted in a bullying incident in the final weeks of their senior year of high school. Thompson, who lacked his friends’ connections to the higher rungs of society, was the only one who drew a jail term; he missed the graduation ceremony and was later voted out of the literary club to which he had devoted himself. If he didn’t already feel like he was gazing across the fence into someone else’s party, that episode finished the job.
The big early touchstone for Thompson, then, was “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald’s story of American wealth and class. Douglas Brinkley, a historian who befriended Thompson and became executor of his literary estate, observes that “‘The Great Gatsby’ was filled with anger that the whole deal in American life was rigged. The difference was Fitzgerald would look in on the candy store window, the window that was the storefronts of the rich. Hunter wanted to smash the windows.”
“Hunter wasn’t allowed to walk with his graduating class,” said Gibney in a phone interview. “He was from the wrong side of the tracks and looked over at the upper class. That was a kind of anger that hangs over him.”
That outsider status would last well into his career. Even after his attention-grabbing series of political columns for Rolling Stone, and the landmark of Gonzo journalism, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Thompson relished being the odd-man out. His brash coverage of national candidates ” he once started, then reported on, a rumor that presidential candidate Edmund Muskie was addicted to a powerful Brazilian drug, Ibocaine ” was traced to the fact that he was not one of the “boys on the bus.”
“The last thing I cared about was making long-term connections on Capitol Hill,” says Thompson in “Gonzo.”
Gibney, whose past work includes “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” earned an Academy Award last year for the examination of torture, American-style, “Taxi to the Dark Side.” But while that film felt methodical, almost like the director’s duty as an American to point out the abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration, Gibney injects a joyous energy into “Gonzo.” Thompson’s outsized frustrations, ambitions and appetites are reflected in the film’s dynamic style.
Johnny Depp doesn’t merely talk about Thompson, but embodies his friend and fellow Kentuckian ” reading his words, waving the cigarette holder, manning the kitchen at Owl Farm, Thompson’s Woody Creek home from the late ’60s on. Sandy, Thompson’s first wife, is presented as a talking head ” but typically with a swirl of psychedelic colors behind her, adding a whiff of the idealistic ’60s that shaped Thompson. The film is packed with historical footage: clips from Thompson’s doomed 1970 run for sheriff of Pitkin County; scenes from various campaign trails; a truly bizarre on-screen confrontation between Thompson and Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger, with the latter riding into a TV studio on his motorcycle. Gibney doesn’t mind nipping the work of other filmmakers; he includes footage from the too-weird-for-words 1998 feature film, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (the first screen project to feature Depp as Thompson); and from Wayne Ewing’s 2003 documentary “Breakfast with Hunter.” For a writer, Thompson’s oeuvre was intensely visual, from his penchant for rubber masks (usually Richard Nixon) to his habit of exploding things to the iconic Ralph Steadman illustrations that accompanied so much of his journalism. “Gonzo” makes full use of Thompson’s visual side.
But “Gonzo,” while firmly placing Thompson in the upper pantheon of writers, plays out like an American tragedy. One reason for this is that the film, as much as it is a biography of Thompson, it also is a look through his eyes at the America that he covered and critiqued. And it was not an especially inspiring slice of history. Thompson was in San Francisco for the dawning of the Aquarius age, and he optimistically bought into it. He had a crush on Grace Slick of The Jefferson Airplane, revered the Kennedys with an astonishing lack of cynicism, and of course, gobbled up the drugs. He believed there were high times on the horizon for the country he loved.
That illusion didn’t last long, though, as Vietnam escalated, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, and Thompson found himself tailing Nixon, Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, all of whom he loathed and feared with twisted humor and insight. As Frank Mankiewicz, campaign director for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential run, said of Thompson’s coverage of the Democratic primary race, it was “the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.”
“Gonzo” is likewise a tragedy in how it tracks the fall of Thompson’s career. The central aspect of the tragedy is not the drugs and booze; in fact, he seemed impervious to the effects of any substance.
Rather, it was how he lost his outsider’s perspective. In a way, Thompson’s success made him the ultimate insider, a mythical figure surrounded by adoring fans and fellow journalists ” and probably even more so, still-fresh journalism students, aspiring to follow in his Gonzo footprints and making pilgrimages to Woody Creek to learn from, and party with, their idol.
“He’s like the journalist action-hero,” said Gibney. “Journalists go through life dealing with the concerns of advertisers, with people who lie to them. What Hunter did was, he made up something that epitomized what a ridiculous prevarication all this was. For journalists, Hunter had all this freedom other people didn’t. He was half novelist, half journalist. All journalists lived vicariously through him.”
The epitome of Thompson’s move from journalist to celebrity was the appearance of the character Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, “Doonesbury.” Thompson despised being made into a cartoon character. But also he loved the perks of celebrity; despite his acclaim and notoriety, he didn’t even approach financial comfort till his last years. From the late ’70s on, Thompson engaged in a balancing act between embracing the persona he had created and resisting it.
“He had to inhabit this character he created,” said Gibney, adding that, even in his relatively fallow years, Thompson produced classic works, like his 1983 coverage of Roxanne and Pete Pulitzer’s divorce trial. “Mostly, he was a kind of parody of what he had been. Inevitably, you have to show how high he rose, and how he fell.”
“Gonzo” features a line of Thompson fans, who mostly illuminate, rather than recite, their admiration. Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffett and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner all express their appreciation for both the person (drinker, hot-head, asshole, patriot) and the writer (satirist, reporter, inventor of the first-person Gonzo style). Gibney says that without the writer, the character really is a cartoon.
“A lot of us remember him as this wild and crazy guy who did a lot of drugs, a lot of crazy stuff,” said Gibney, who grew up admiring “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but was not a Thompson devotee, and never met his subject. “But I don’t think we would have even noticed that if he hadn’t been a great writer. I think he’ll always have a place in American letters. Because some of his best writing was magnificent ” funny and poignant. And it captured the American character in a way few people have.”
“Gonzo” ends with the obligatory scene of Thompson’s 2005 funeral, his ashes shot into the sky above Woody Creek. Thompson, who had long predicted a much earlier death, had choreographed the service decades in advance, down to the 153-foot cannon featuring the gonzo symbol of the two-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button.
“Hunter narrates his own story. And he wrote his own epitaph, his own funeral, his own death ” and how cool is that?” said Gibney, who was present at the memorial, and later rummaged through boxes of Thompson’s archives, in Denver and in Woody Creek.
The finale may have been obvious, but Gibney heightens the poignancy by playing in the background, Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It was said to have been Thompson’s favorite song for decades, but also it seems a prophecy for the arc of the writer’s life and career, the tricky business of creating something mind-blowing and original, and figuring out what you do next:
“If you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme/ To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind/ I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing.”
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