Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Myth, The Legend: Gonzo

Hunter S Thompson’s death was both premature and overdue. In February 2005, the trend-bucking journalist opted for the cliché when he took his own life with a gun – upset, perhaps, that decades of drug and alcohol abuse hadn’t done the job for him. He was 67, and fortunate to have lived that long. Many of Thompson’s admirers considered his exit a noble one, or at least an inevitable one; he’d talked about suicide for years. However, one of Thompson’s supporters, his first wife, thought it cowardly. In any case, Thompson is gone now, and thus Alex Gibney’s documentary about him, Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, feels like exactly what it is: a tribute to a dead guy.

Gonzo is polite to a fault. It’s two hours of mostly praise and admiration for Thompson from people who knew him intimately (two wives, a Rolling Stone editor, artist Ralph Steadman, etc.) and from famous figures who knew him intimately enough (Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Pat Buchanan, etc.). It’s telling about Thompson’s charm that none of the film’s talking heads can speak of him without smiling. Over the course of the film Thompson’s friends recount his colorful and unorthodox career: his big break infiltrating and writing about the Hell’s Angels in the mid-1960s; his experience at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; his campaign to be elected sheriff in Aspen, Colorado; and his episodes of Fear And Loathing – in Las Vegas and on the Campaign Trail. On the subject of the latter, it is said by one observer that Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 Presidential campaign was the “most accurate and the least factual.” Alas, Gonzo frequently feels like the opposite.

It’s not that Gonzo avoids Thompson’s more unpleasant aspects. How could it? Thompson’s substance abuse, egomania and cantankerousness are as well known as his prose. Perhaps better known. How long could you discuss the man without mentioning the foibles that made him such a singular American character? Not long, I suspect. Thus the film deals with all of it, but it doesn’t really confront any of it. Author Tom Wolfe calls Thompson a jerk and laughs as he says it. Others chuckle with amazement as they talk about Thompson’s profuse drug use. Laila Nablusi, a friend and movie producer, discusses Thompson’s volcanic temper with the starry-eyed glow of a teenager in love. “Aw, shucks,” they all seem to be saying. “That was just Hunter being Hunter.”

It’s no wonder Thompson broke so many rules of decorum. He was surrounded by enablers. Thompson’s foremost addiction wasn’t to drugs, I don’t think, but to his Gonzo persona. The latter fueled the former. He was the Evel Knievel of journalism, taking risks with his style and with his substances. Sometimes he succeeded despite the odds, such as when he showed up to report on the Kentucky Derby and to brilliant effect covered anything except the horse race. Sometimes he crashed, such as when he went to Zaire to report on Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman and covered nothing at all (when he was supposed to be at the fight, Thompson was high in the hotel swimming pool). Thompson’s recklessness was his most alluring trait, but it was also his undoing.

Jimmy Buffett notes in the film that with Thompson “everything was for effect.” At some point, Gonzo reveals (perhaps without wanting to), there wasn’t much to Thompson beyond the effect. That’s the trouble with making your name as a bomb-thrower – you’re only as interesting as your last explosion. In one archival interview with Thompson, in which he must be in his 40s, he admits that he’s losing himself to his persona. This from a guy who despised most politicians because he thought they were dishonest. Thompson was equally insincere – his manufactured Gonzo personality won him fame instead of elections. This irony seems obvious, but Gibney, whose films Taxi To The Dark Side (director) and No End In Sight (executive producer) were thorough in exposing the blunders of our government, doesn’t have the heart to go there.

Maybe that’s okay. If none of Thompson’s admirers saw fit to challenge him before, why start now? The trouble is that playing it safe (or as safe as is possible when discussing Thompson) undermines the very qualities that we’re supposed to admire in the man. One of Gonzo’s strengths is that it’s peppered with Thompson’s prose, read aloud by Johnny Depp, who portrayed the writer in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (how else could one rightly document the work of a writer?). In one of the quoted passages, Thompson assesses: “Some people would say that words like ‘scum’ and ‘rotten’ are wrong for Objective Journalism – which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.” In other words, tell it like it is. Bluntly. Gonzo doesn’t.

This isn’t to suggest that Gonzo is a careless profile or that Thompson is an unworthy subject. Radio shock-jocks, inflammatory columnists (there’s a term that’s fast becoming redundant), bloggers, memoirists – they all owe a little something to Thompson. The best example of his influence might be found on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, which filters the news with a blend of wit and common sense, frequently calling out the bullshit for what it is, rather than parroting it in the name of journalistic duty. Yet that’s how Gonzo fails, by doing little more than reprocessing the Thompson we already knew.

Packed with celebrity interviews and backed by a soundtrack dominated by all those “important” rock anthems of the 60s and 70s, Gonzo does its best to make Thompson out to be an American patriot. But it feels hollow. The film notes that when Thompson ended his life, his family was out visiting at his Owl Farm compound in Colorado. What it fails to mention is that Thompson called his wife just before he shot himself and forced her to endure the sound of his suicide over the phone. With Thompson, everything was for effect, right to the very end. True to form, his elaborate funeral, which he designed, included music and fireworks. More explosions from Hunter, so that we might yet again overlook the darker truth.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice post.

If Gibney had focused more on Thompson's insincerity, then perhaps that angle would have deflated the myth that makes the man interesting, and left the impression that Thompson was merely a fraud. I've noticed that these tribute documentaries full of star-studded testimonials can be underwhelming (having just seen Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten). The process of respectfully enshrining a performer takes away his or her edge automatically, and therefore the film misses the essence of what made the performer interesting to start with. In Thompson's case, as Johnny Depp suggests, it would be better to read his books.

hap hazard said...

Hi, I just started RSSing your blog recently, saw it linked from I don't know where. I know you're OK because you *love* The New World.

I think this is pretty insightful stuff here- I don't know about the movie, haven't seen it, but about Thompson himself.

You put a finger on it here- for a guy whose whole appeal was puncturing pretense, disappearing into his persona was a helluva ironic way to go. More- a tragic one.

He could still apparently write, even towards the end, but it's easy to see how he would lose his fire, knowing- he had to, on some level- that he wasn't capable of honesty, brutal or otherwise, any more.

It's bothered me for years- I devoured all Thompson's early stuff, and got to see him speak in '85 or so, at which point he'd already devolved into self-parody. You've gotten me, I think, some way towards understanding how that could happen. Thanks!