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.

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