Thursday, December 11, 2008

Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die

Has it really already been nearly four years? Almost four years since Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, in one last defiant act of self-mythologising, picked up one of his many handguns and ate a round? Damn...

Director Alex Gibney celebrates the man and his words in the new documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, an anecdotal stroll through the life of the irascible doctor from the breakthrough publication of Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966 right up through to the moment where it all became too much on that day in 2005.

The main focus, though, is HST's political writings, particularly his coverage of the 1972 US Presidential Election between George McGovern and Thompson's archnemesis Richard Nixon. The film goes some way to redressing the balance of Hunter's reputation, moving away from the traditional depiction of HST as the crazed chainsmoker Raoul Duke roaring across the cultural wasteland of Las Vegas in a Cadillac dubbed the White Whale, to the unconventional and incisive commentator on the state of the political landscape, as a fundamentally decent yet flawed senator fights the incumbent monster and loses.

And let's not forget the artist in repose. Writers don't write by getting swacked on booze and passing out. Writers write by sitting and hammering the words out one at a time. And Gonzo reminds us of the peaceful Thompson taking refuge from the insanity of his country, holed up in Owl Farm, listening to music and weaving words out of nothing.

Personally, I've always felt that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is by far Thompson's most overrated work, a book that is lauded far more for its style than its substance, and lacking the lethal precision of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 or the reckless embedded journalism of Hell's Angels or the playfully vitriolic jabs at America found in the pieces collected in The Great Shark Hunt (in particular the glorious The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved - an article cited here as the birth of Gonzo with the arrival of Ralph Steadman's bile-flecked inks).

But Gibney overplays his hand a little and ends up overstating HST's political clout. Did Thompson really play such an integral part in the momentary rise of McGovern in '72 and the arrival of Jimmy Carter in '76? I don't think so. Without taking anything away from Hunter's blistering writings from that time, the readers of Rolling Stone magazine were such a tiny subset of the potential electorate that any changes wrought by his words would have been negligible.

Gibney deliberately draws subtle parallels between the McGovern-Nixon knockdown dragout and the devastating results of the 2004 US election. McGovern was the John Kerry of his age, and it's telling that Thompson took his life shortly after. Maybe he couldn't take that kind of crushing disappointment twice in one lifetime.

There is a jarring leap from the late '70s to his suicide in 2005, making the uncomfortable implication that HST was largely irrelevant for the last 30 years of his life, although Gibney does make the plausible argument that Thompson's increasing fame was instrumental in preventing him from doing what he did best - throwing himself into the action whilst casting himself as both major player and amused and horrified onlooker. When everybody knows who you are, it's not so easy to take on the role of overlooked observer.

Some theories postulated in Gonzo just don't ring true. It's disingenuous of Thompson's first wife Sandy to suggest that if HST were still alive he would have a lot to say whilst raging against the state of the world in the New American Century. Looking at HST's published writings over the last three decades, there is nothing to suggest that this would be the case. Granted, Thompson dipped his toe in and out of the Reagan, Clinton and the double Bush eras, aiming the odd barbed dispatch at the political establishment, but it was rare, and lacked the dead-on venom spat out in his anti-Nixon screeds.

Additionally, there are massive gaps in the narrative of Thompson's life, as the film excludes events such as the tragic disappearance (and probable murder) of Oscar Acosta in 1974, or the horrendous clashes between Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and Thompson in the latter stages of his career. But those are forgivable omissions, and in a life as eventful and wreathed in myth as Thompson's, something has to give or you'd end up with a mini-series instead of a two-hour movie.

The passing years and the Wild Turkey and the drugs all took their toll on Hunter. The fire in his belly had been dimmed by disillusionment and tranquilised by chemicals. It's devastating to look at the juxtaposition of Ralph Steadman exuberantly jumping up and down in his studio and then look at Hunter towards the end of his life slumped and slurring back at Woody Creek, the years of excess having ravaged his mind and body.

But it's not all memories of a life in self-destructive decline. The film is full of tales of Thompson the prankster and provocateur. Fun with ballistic weaponry and the mojo wire and deadlines that came and went to the frustration of his editors. Mischievously accusing Democratic candidate Ed Muskie of an Ibogaine addiction in 1972 and watching the fallout with glee. And there are the all-too-infrequent glimpses of the Young Hunter with the soulful eyes and the square jaw and the clipped Southern pronunciation leaking out of the side of a cigarette holder.

Then there's the glorious moment captured in a snippet of second wife Anita's home-movie footage from recent years of Hunter clacking away on a typewriter, swigging from a long glass, Elton John's Candle in the Wind interminably playing on a loop in the background as his eyes light up, there's a crooked grin and a clap of his hands. He's in the zone. When all the disparate strands swirling around in his head come together ready to be fired onto the page. The moment every writer always reaches out for.

Gonzo reminded me that the world was a far, far better place for having him in it, kicking against the pricks with the sunlight glinting off his reflective shades and a demonic sneer on his lips. We will not see his like again.

(With thanks to Little White Lies for the screening)

"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."
(The last published words of HST, sent in a letter to Anita four days before his death and published in Rolling Stone magazine as Football Season Is Over)