Saturday, July 5, 2008

"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" review by Ben Kenber

What better way to spend the Fourth of July then watching a documentary on one of the craziest and most original American writers of the 20th century: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. I felt like I could never figure Hunter out. Whenever I saw other films of his, he seemed like some crazed lunatic who was living in a world of his creation and madness. After watching “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” I feel like I finally get what he is all about. Hunter was as patriotic as an American can get, and while he always seemed to be losing his mind, you cannot deny that he was a true visionary in a lot of ways. One thing is for sure, this fucker was never boring!

This documentary was directed by Alex Gibney who has previously directed the Oscar winning documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Alex managed to get a lot of people on camera to talk about Hunter from friends and family to those he derided in his articles. The fact that Pat Buchanan participated in this is a big surprise considering that Hunter described him as a “half-crazed Davy Crockett running around the parapets of Nixon’s Alamo.” The writings of Dr. Thompson are featured throughout and narrated by Johnny Depp who played the eccentric author in Terry Gilliam’s film version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Hunter S. Thompson is credited with creating Gonzo journalism, a style of reporting where reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories. This made his writings all the more unique, as there was really no one else on earth like him. Hunter would take on assignments given to him like covering a motorcycle event, and then he would veer off into something else like the death of the American dream. Through his writing, he got at the ugly heart of the matter, and exposed it for all its misleading falsehoods.

“He was a reporter with a wild imagination.”
-author Tom Wolfe

“He was not afraid to express himself in sometimes shocking ways.”
-former President Jimmy Carter

We see Hunter take on his first big assignment while he follows along with the Hell’s Angels in California which he looked up to as the last outlaws in the world. This relationship however turned sour as Hunter witnesses the gang of motorcycle riders gang bang a woman at their party. The group later suspected Hunter of simply trying to profit off of what he wrote, and they beat him up severely. This whole experience ended up shaping as a writer as he looked beyond the fa├žade that is sold to the public on a regular basis.

One of the most interesting parts of this documentary is how it shows his love of America and of his sadness over the death of one of his most favorite politicians, Robert Kennedy. It is made clear how Hunter so wanted to believe in the hope of a better future. His sadness only deepens when he is witness to the gas and the beatings at the Democratic convention that same year Bobby died. Hunter ends up berating the democrats for not doing their part to put an end to it.

I got a huge kick out of the section of the film where he runs for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. This part of the documentary really showed how visionary Dr. Thompson really was as he had all these plans for revitalizing the town of Aspen. He called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but wanted to keep a ban on trafficking as he was no fan of people profiting off of selling it. Furthermore, he wanted to tear up the streets and replace them with grassy pedestrian malls, he proposed placing a ban on tall buildings being built as they obscured his view of the mountains, and he wanted to rename Aspen “Fat City” as to deter investors who wanted to commercialize the city endlessly. Of course, Hunter lost the election which was no real surprise to him, but his run for the office was never forgotten.

The documentary also does a great job of looking at the various relationships that Hunter had throughout his lifetime. We get a look at his marriages and learned what it was like living with him. To know Hunter was to tolerate him. Perhaps the most interesting relationship documented in “Gonzo” is that of Hunter and artist Ralph Steadman, who created some of the most insane drawings that accompanied Dr. Thompson’s feverish writings in Rolling Stone magazine. It is interesting to see that Ralph was actually a conventional artist whose work was no different from anyone else’s. Then Hunter turned Ralph on to drugs which he had never done before, and his work evolved into what he is best known for. There is a great moment where we see Ralph at work, and he has this utterly insane look on his face like he is gleefully possessed. Who knows what would have happened to Ralph had he never met Hunter.

Perhaps the most important (and overlong) section of “Gonzo” is when Hunter supports George McGovern’s run for President of the United States. McGovern was the democratic nominee who was running against incumbent President Richard Nixon (and we all know what happened to him). The war on Vietnam was raging on, and hundreds of young American lives were being snuffed out day after day. McGovern ran and sought to put an end to the Vietnam war which the whole country had now gone against. Hunter had a vicious hatred of Nixon, and he saw the possibility of Nixon going on to a second term as President as a possible death blow to this country.

As important as this section of the documentary, I felt it was a bit overlong and could have been cut down some. It gets redundant and that we clearly get the message of Thompson’s disillusionment with politics and with politicians in general. I found myself getting sleepy and restless. Fortunately, “Gonzo” does pick up in the last half as we see how Hunter became trapped by his fame, and how his work suffered as a result. But the McGovern section is still important, especially when McGovern is interviewed in the documentary and says this:

“I desperately wanted to put an end to that senseless war [in Vietnam]. I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Sound familiar? No wonder Hunter got so depressed when George W. Bush got elected, and of when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11th, 2001. Hunter did write about that in Rolling Stone and I remember reading a lot of his work on that. Hunter wrote on that as if he knew exactly what this would all lead, another war overseas with America striking back in revenge mode. The question was which country was going to feel our wrath. This was all another depressing example of how history repeats itself (doesn’t anybody fucking learn?).

For the most part, “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” does a great job of making you understand him better, and to understand where he was coming from in his work. We need people like Hunter in our world, people who challenge authority and to get us riled up about the way the country is heading. His suicide, other than being very selfish and hardly noble, robbed us of a powerful voice that we need in times like these where we have a President who’s make the same mistakes all over again. Hunter was a crazy man at times, and he was probably also proof that if you take enough drugs, they will completely mess up your head. But you had to love the son of a bitch because he was never boring, and he was always fearless. We may not want to indulge in illegal drugs, but I imagine that many of us would love to be as forceful, intelligent and fearless as Hunter was.

This documentary makes me want to read (or re-read) Hunter’s work which is a vision in beautifully cathartic writing. There will never be another man like him.

Also, if you have a chance, rent the Criterion Collection edition of Terry Gilliam’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” The commentary track with Hunter on that disc has to be heard to be believed!

***1/2 out of ****

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