Thursday, July 10, 2008

Out-Gonzoing Gonzo

In the wake of the wailing and breast-beating that followed the death of Tim Russert, the consummate Washington insider and neocon enabler, it’s interesting to read Hunter S. Thompson, who saw through the phoniness of the Washington press corps way back in ’73. From the introduction to his scabrously brilliant Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72:

“The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists — in Washington or anywhere else where they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in.”

Even in later years, with his best writing behind him, Thompson was amazingly prescient. Within days of 9/11, while the mainstream media marched in lockstep to Bush’s drumbeat, Thompson wrote, “We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy. We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once.”

Thompson was an astute political thinker, but he became in some ways a slave to a myth he created. The substance of his keen observations is often overlooked by his admirers, so besotted are they with his tough, anarchic persona and his style, the freewheeling, hallucinogen-fueled journalism that was christened “Gonzo” after the publication of “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” and brilliantly deployed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the aforementioned Campaign Trail.

Late in his life, which ended in 2005 as he always said it would, with a Hemingwayesque shotgun to the head in Woody Creek, Colorado, Thompson admitted it was hard for him to know who he was supposed to be. Were the lecture audiences who invited him expecting Hunter Thompson or Raoul Duke, the gun-waving persona to whom Garry Trudeau paid homage in Doonesbury (and for which tribute Thompson once vowed to set the cartoonist on fire)? He was a man at war with himself. His first wife, Sondi Wright, and his widow, Anita Thompson, describe him as a man of extremes — loving and generous and vicious and cruel.

People who try to write about him have an unfortunate tendency to try to “out-gonzo” Thompson, lapsing into mimetic gonzo prose while trying to characterize Thompson, who constantly evades their grasp. Who was this man who captivated so many readers and aspiring journalists, who tried, but always failed, to channel his sui generis style?.

A new documentary by Alex Gibney, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, succumbs to this temptation, using hallucinatory sequences, psychedelic music, and Johnny Depp, who played him in the poorly received movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reading dramatically from first editions of Thompson’s books.

Gibney directed Taxi to the Darkside, the important Oscar-winning documentary about U.S. torture policies. Thompson proves a far more elusive subject, one who has defeated many, including the directors of the movies Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Where the Buffalo Roam.

The film recognizes that Thompson’s life story is entwined with the history of the 1960s, so it tries to embrace everything: the Chicago riots, the San Francisco hippie scene, assassinations, Vietnam, Nixon, McGovern, Carter, and so on on, alongside a biographical portrait of Thompson. We have seen this ’60s footage ad infinitum, so the most illuminating portions of the movie are biographical. Born in 1937 in Louisville Kentucky, Thompson grew up lower-middle-class, fatherless at 14, troublesome, rebellious and resentful of his wealthier classmates, who received a slap on the wrist for a youthful robbery while Hunter got 60 days in jail. He longed to be a great writer, and toward that end would type copies of books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway to get a feel for the music of fine writing.

The film is remarkable for its wealth of detail, and also for how much it leaves out. There is no mention, for instance, of Thompson’s career in the Air Force, where he started his journalism career as sports editor of the base’s newspaper, or of his early stormy newspaper experience, including a stint in Brazil. But it does spend an inordinate amount of time on things like his failed 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on the “Freak Power” ticket, and clips from the Johnny Depp and Bill Murray movies.

The ’72 presidential campaign was arguably Thompson’s finest hour, when the man and the moment magically converged. Thompson, writing for Rolling Stone, became an unlikely campaign correspondent, impressing the boys on the bus with his superhuman capacity for alcohol and drugs (“He almost had the attributes of an action hero,” says one), and filing stories that were a mix of straight reporting and wild fantasy, in one notoriously proposing that Ed Muskie — a candidate he loathed — was addicted to an obscure West African drug called Ibogaine. He made no pretense of objectivity. He was enamored of George McGovern and despised Hubert Humphrey, whom he called “a shallow, contemptible old hack and a gutless old ward heeler.” But his deepest contempt was reserved for Nixon, whom he accurately described as a “cheap crook and merciless war criminal.”

The movie is at its best when recounting this heady period, though it occasionally lapses in taste, such as setting the story of VP candidate Tom Eagleton’s departure from the McGovern ticket, after it was revealed that he’d undergone electroshock treatment, to the Frankie Valli song “Goin’ Out of My Head.” Ouch.

Strangely, though Gonzo covers a lot of ground and features interviews with numerous friends, associates and family members, it doesn’t reveal much at all about the man behind the gonzo. One of the best archival items is a clip of Thompson’s appearance on the TV quiz show “To Tell the Truth” just after his first, pre-gonzo book, Hell’s Angels, for which he had infiltrated the outlaw motorcycle gang, which rewarded him for his perfidy with a vicious beating. “Will the real Hunter Thompson please stand up?” the announcer intones, and the tall, lanky young man rises to his feet.

earnestly mines the data, but it never quite discovers who the “real” Hunter Thompson was — perhaps because as with all good writers, the key to Thompson is in his work.

A shorter version of this appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Deal, New Doll

Watching Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, I thought about the irony of a movie about families struggling during the Great Depression created as a marketing ploy for a line of dolls for preteen girls.

But in a way, it’s fitting: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, mentioned in passing in this family-friendly film, was conceived as a way of saving capitalism from threats from the increasingly militant Left. And what better celebration of capitalism than a product tie-in for dolls that cost $90 each, a price that puts them out of reach for struggling families like the ones depicted in this movie? God Bless America!

American Girl, now owned by Mattel, is no ordinary brand of doll, but a socially conscious collection meant to represent particular periods of American history — from the Revolutionary era to the 20th century — with appropriate costumes and accompanying storybooks that depict issues such as poverty, racism, immigration and child labor. Representing the Depression-afflicted 1934 is Kit Kittredge, a plucky ten-year-old from Cincinnati whose family falls on hard times when her father loses his job. The movie based on her story — the fourth American Girl movie, but the first to receive a theatrical release — stars a blonded-up Abigail Breslin, the Oscar-nominated young actress from Little Miss Sunshine.

Kit enjoys a comfortable life with her mother (Julia Ormond) and father (Chris O’Donnell), a car dealer. An inquisitive and enterprising child, she writes human-interest stories and wants nothing more than to be a “real reporter” (God help her). She tries to get published by the fictional Cincinnati Register, whose irascible editor (Wallace Shawn) dismisses her story about the Chicago World’s Fair as old news and the work of a ten-year-old, which it is.

Trouble begins to befall Kit’s friends and neighbors. Some of them lose their homes and are reduced to raising chickens and eating in soup kitchens. A new kind of minority — hoboes — begins appearing on doorsteps asking to work for food, and raising suspicions in the well-heeled community. All this arouses Kit’s concern, but the Depression doesn’t really hit home until she spots her own father eating at a soup kitchen. To Kit’s distress, Dad goes off to Chicago to look for work, and her mother is forced to take in boarders to pay the mortgage. There is a traveling magician (Stanley Tucci); a spinsterish mobile librarian (Joan Cusack); a husband-hungry dance instructor (Jane Krakowski). The boarders, an eccentric lot, provide some wan amusement, though not nearly as much as you might hope.

The poignancy of the situation is occasionally affecting, particularly the scene introducing Kit’s basset hound, Grace, whom Kit first encounters on a street corner with a hand-lettered sign around her neck that reads, “Can’t feed anymore.” Kit’s mom, bless her heart, allows Kit to bring the sad-eyed dog home.

A Huck Finn-like hobo named Will (Max Theriot) and his younger black sidekick Countee (Willow Smith), become trusted handymen around the Kittredge household. When Will is suspected in a string of burglaries, Kit’s investigative instincts are aroused. In Nancy Drew fashion, she and her friends Ruthie (Madison Davenport) and Stirling (Zach Mills) sleuth out the improbable, Rube Goldberg-like solution to the crime.

During her investigation, Kit gets acquainted with the colorful itinerants who inhabit the hobo jungle where Will and Countee live. And at the same time, she finds a subject she can sell to the cranky Register editor: a portrait of the noble denizens of the hobo camp, illustrated by her own photographs. She is quite the prodigy, too, producing with her little box camera portraits worthy of Dorothea Lange.

Let’s be honest: this is not The Grapes of Wrath. The movie has an artificial, made-for-television look (it was produced by HBO), and its hobos, though portrayed with commendable sympathy, are the cleanest-looking bunch of tramps imaginable. And Breslin, so natural and adorable in Little Miss Sunshine, has become a grimly serious actress without much charm. In this movie, she is called upon to do little more than whine.

The movie has its heart in the right place, and it’s surprisingly timely as well, now that we are headed for another depression. Doll advertisement though it is, Kit Kittredge should get points for its message of tolerance and social justice, and for giving young girls something humane to look at during the season of Iron Man, The Hulk, Indiana Jones and other mechanical, boy-centric fodder.

A slightly different version of this appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Pretenders

In French, a roman de gare (“station novel”) is an easy-to-read novel, a thriller or romance that people buy to kill time in train stations or airports.

That’s the literary genre Claude Lelouch wanted to evoke in his 41st film, Roman de Gare, a tricky little potboiler with a largely unknown cast. Lelouch, whose lyrical 1966 Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman) made him famous, chose the title as a response to disparaging reviews that compared his recent movies to “photo romances” or romans de gare. “I played the game,” says Lelouch, now 71.

He played a game also with his identity, releasing the film under the pseudonym Hervé Picard. “I wanted one of my movies to be seen for what it really was and not as a Claude Lelouch film,” he has explained. He later called off the ruse, for legal reasons and because he felt it was wrong to show people a Claude Lelouch film when they have bought a ticket for a film by Hervé Picard. “I didn’t want to be a thief.”

It was a deception, appropriate for a film in which deception is one of the themes. The other theme, this being Lelouch, is love. The film’s characters all adopt false identities of some kind, and even the director (who also wrote the screenplay) willfully misleads the audience as to who the characters really are. Ultimately, love overcomes the need to wear masks.

Roman de Gare
is considerably smaller in scale and budget than early Lelouch films such as A Man and a Woman, but that suits its cheap-novel aspirations. It is essentially a road movie with interlocking narrative threads.

We first meet middle-aged, not very handsome Pierre (Dominique Pinon) as he drives his car in a rainstorm, listening to a radio program of songs by Gilbert Bécaud, a popular French singer of the 1950s and ’60s. (Windshield shots are a Lelouch trademark, and Roman de Gare is full of them.) Pierre sings along with the cheesy Bécaud songs, which are occasionally interrupted by bulletins about a serial killer just escaped from prison.

The movie strongly suggests that Pierre is the murderous pedophile, known as “The Magician,” who performs tricks to lure his young victims. Pierre, who looks a tad sinister with his gray beard stubble, does card tricks and conjures a bouquet of flowers for a little girl at a rest station.

He witnesses, at that rest station, a loud argument between Huguette (Audrey Dana) and her fiancé, who drives off without her. Pierre offers a ride to Huguette, a worried, chain-smoking hairdresser who berates herself pitifully for being “an airhead” and “a pain in the ass” who repels men. Huguette and her doctor fiancé had been traveling to visit her parents in the mountains. Pierre agrees to accompany Huguette and pretend to be her fiancé.

tells Huguette he is the ghostwriter for bestselling author Judith Ratlitzer, and then says he was only joking; he is really a schoolteacher who just walked out on his family. But that identity actually belongs to his brother-in-law, whose wife, Pierre’s sister, is frantically awaiting news about her missing husband.

Tensions arise when Pierre and Huguette visit with Huguette’s rustic family, especially when he becomes close to Huguette’s young daughter. If he is the child murderer, then Huguette’s daughter is in danger. Or is he a novelist, planning to use Huguette as a character in his next book?

The movie departs from the story of Huguette to focus on a mystery aboard the yacht of the jet-setting Ratlitzer (Fanny Ardant), who may be planning to kill Pierre. Lelouch seems more engaged with Huguette’s eccentric family and romantic troubles than with this artificial murder plot, which has the stale flavor of an old “Columbo” episode. Clearly the heart of the movie is Huguette, a woman who believes she is unworthy of love, until love unexpectedly finds her

Lelouch can call himself Picard and experiment with trash-novel tropes, but it in the end, he is revealed as Lelouch, the eternal romantic idealist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.