Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

A conventional film about an unconventional man, Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Works of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson plays like a greatest hits package—it’s everything you would expect of a film about Thompson, with most of the attention focused on his well-documented creative peak in the 1960s and early ‘70s. And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with crafting an introductory documentary on a subject, when a two-hour feature film can’t even match the depth and insight of a Wikipedia entry, I think it’s fair to say someone’s time has been wasted.

One would think Thompson is an ideal documentary subject. Anyone with even a glancing familiarity with the man already knows some of the most outrageous and fascinating anecdotes that litter his life story, and the film dutifully trots out these requisite highlights—talking football with Richard Nixon, running for Sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, the drugged-up road trip with Oscar Acosta that inspired Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney enlivens the film where he can with some nice archival footage and intriguing home videos, and the sometimes-surprising range of interview subjects reflects the disparate circles Thompson ran in during the course of his journalistic career. Sonny Barger, Jimmy Carter, and Pat Buchanan all make appearances to reminisce (sometimes critically) about the man and his writing.

As Gibney shuffles through these colourful stories from Thompson’s heyday, he is mostly intent on just hitting his marks. He accepts the basic narrative of Thompson’s life—that the man created a new style of journalism, succumbed to the pressures of drugs, booze, and fame, and slowly faded into irrelevance—without really caring to interrogate any of its details. Thus, we get Tom Wolfe lauding Thompson’s gonzo journalism, but very little consideration of the concept beyond generic praise. Does gonzo exist beyond Thompson? What made it such a significant innovation in the first place, and did it actually have a lasting effect on journalism? Was it just a cultural dead-end, resulting in a singular body of work but otherwise unfeasible as a method for others? With “gonzo” getting first mention in the title, you would think the film might actually show a bit of curiosity here.

There’s introductory and then there’s just plain shallow. Gibney’s film takes a rather superficial interest in Thompson and the tone often lapses into reductive glibness, relying on techniques so banal they verge on ridiculous. When Sandi, Thompson’s first wife, talks about a party at Ken Kesey’s compound notable for the presence of both the Hell’s Angels and LSD, Gibney sets the mood by blaring fuzzed-out guitar jams on the soundtrack and flashing stock psychedelic imagery of film negatives and lava-lamp globs.

Aside from being glaringly ugly, this sort of technique also seems a little obtuse and insensitive considering Thompson’s harrowing description of a woman involved in a gangbang with the bikers at that same party. Later, when one of Thompson’s editors from Rolling Stone comments on the pioneering way Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas explored the darker, more uncontrolled aspects of the hallucinogenic drug experience, it only highlights the infantile nature of the film’s own sniggering approach to the topic.

Such cheekiness aside, Gibney’s film is almost too reverent to Thompson. The man’s flaws are acknowledged and then discreetly passed by—every opportunity to complicate Thompson as a subject is ignored for the safe path of the well-worn story of his life. When Juan, Hunter’s son, speaks of wishing his father had been around more as a child, the film ignores the possibility of exploring the effects of fame on his family and lets the remark drop without comment. The creatively fallow 1980s and ‘90s are all but ignored, barely acknowledging Thompson’s life between the late 1970s and his suicide in 2005. There are few details of his youth or pre-fame days (an early run-in with the law is one of the few things Gibney feels worthy of mention). Is it too much to ask for a bit of spade work on these neglected areas, if only to create a richer and more subtly shaded portrait of the film’s subject?

In a BBC documentary following Thompson and cartoonist cohort Ralph Steadman to Las Vegas (which Gibney excerpts here; the entire documentary is found on Criterion’s DVD of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Thompson laments the pressure to live up to his myth, complaining that when he appears in public he no longer knows if they expect Thompson or Duke, his fictionalized wild-man persona. The BBC interviewer points out that the personal impression of Thompson largely matches up to the public profile—a charge that makes Thompson livid, even though he seems unable to refute it. Made in 1978, the BBC documentary shows Thompson already beginning to realize the pitfalls of his celebrity status; sadly, Gibney’s documentary eagerly and uncritically jumps into that same hole.

It’s the myth of the liberated man—the wild, outrageous rebel who can do any drug, hold enough booze for ten men, and shout the truths everyone knows but lacks the courage to even whisper in private. It’s the Edge he describes in Hell’s Angels, a place where limits are tested and greatness is revealed. And in Gibney’s film—scored, unsurprisingly, with all your favourite hits of the 1960s and ‘70s, including Dylan, the Stones, and CCR—it's the source of one giant boomer nostalgia trip for a lost era of rebellion and freedom.

“[T]hey are acting out the day-dreams of millions of losers who don’t wear any defiant insignia and who don’t know how to be outlaws,” Thompson wrote of the Hell’s Angels, unwittingly creating an epitaph for his own career at the same time. His greatest writing still carries an acid wit and stinging candor, but the main attraction now is his personality—his dissent commodified, his caustic observations about American life packaged as the amusing but harmless outbursts of a drugged-out, boozed-up walking party of a man. Gibney does make a creditable attempt to bring the writing (or at least some of it) back into the spotlight, but he finally settles for perpetuating the same worn-out myths. There’s something seductive in that personality—so many people readily identify with Thompson's defiance of social constraints in pursuit of his own particular dream of freedom. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson referred to this kind of identification as “psychic masturbation”—a term which quite eloquently summarizes the chief appeal of Gonzo.

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