Saturday Night At The Movies

The edge is still out there

By Dennis Hartley

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

-The Stooges

"No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt."

-Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl out those words with a black magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of patented gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of walking contradictions, someone who will likely always remain a bit of a cipher. He was a man whose work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by a full personal commitment to the hedonistic enjoyment of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, watch stuff blow up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy a biographer in any medium such a daunting task.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney, who is a bit of a shit-stirrer in his own right (Taxi To the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room, ) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself and runs with it, utilizing a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies, feature film clips, animation, rare audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become Thompson’s theatrical avatar, like Hal Holbrook’s synonymous identity with Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney ostensibly begins his film with an examination of the 1966 book Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of method journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang, decades before that term was coined). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That period is bookended by an account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, which the director posits as the first inkling that the personal excesses were starting to profoundly affect his ability to dependably knock one out of the park with every essay.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff (!) of Aspen Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections. In fact, the segment regarding the 1972 campaign(recounted in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72) is nearly a stand-alone “film within the film”; it’s such a riveting and well-crafted piece that I wished Gibney had expounded even further and turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney points out (quite rightly so) that the Eagleton VP nom debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was a crushing blow to Thompson’s earnest 1960s idealism, and signaled the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that permeated his political writing from that point on. Gibney also reminds us of something else largely forgotten, the fact that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight back in 1974, by championing his amazing Law Day Speech (pdf).

Consequently, I think political junkies are going to dig this film a lot more than the fans who remain solely enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s more superficial, substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, which were spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (kind of like Elvis at Graceland, now that I think about it) the director admirably suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here as well. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is certainly no sugar-coated puff piece; there are several ex-wives and associates aboard who make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter. Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

Gonzography: Where the Buffalo Roam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, When I Die, Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver.