Night of the Hunter

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Last night I lucked into a screening of Alex Gibney's new documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter Thompson. It's funny and raw as hell, as any documentary about Thompson has to be. It's also deeply marred by political agit prop, and a narrative that turns Thompson into a martyr for the soul-killing effects of right-wing politics.

That isn't a surprise dropped later into the documentary. Gibney starts off with a slow pan of Thompson's (well-preserved) office, across dictionaries, snapshots, and photos of Hemingway, Twain, and Faulkner. Talking heads (to whom we'll be introduced in a bit) claim that Thompson was in steep decline by the time he shot himself in 2005, but that he still had moments of brilliance. A Thompson lookalike sits at a typewriter and pounds out an ESPN column for September 11, 2001. And it's really not a great column. It's a catalogue of worries and "Bush is dumb" jibes; compared to, say, his obituary for Richard Nixon, it's thin and watery stuff. But the Thompson lookalike sits there and types, as green-screened shots of 9/11 and hideous warfare are superimposed on his window and sunglasses. It fills the viewer with dread, and the dread does not subside when Johnny Depp, his Errol Flynn mustache in a ratty stage of growth, reads Thompson's prose from a bar in his house, temporarily adorned by a copy of Hell's Angels and burning candles.

It gets better from there, for a while. Gibney's archival footage of Thompson starts with a 1965 game show appearance where, 26 years old, he nervously parries questions about his investigative saga of the biker gang. Gibney's interviews, photos and footage from this period—even his chintzy re-creations of scenes like the infamous gang bang—are gripping and revelatory. This Thompson is not a cartoon character. He's a paycheck-to-paycheck reporter and photographer who's dazzled by his fame and unusually insightful on the subculture he had lived in. Gibney intercuts footage of a few sensationalist, fedora-wearing TV journalists doing their own Hell's Angels stories; Thompson's insight looks that much greater.

The film slows down a bit as Thompson enters the 1960s California counterculture. Maybe there's a unique way to portray the 1960s besides footage of civil rights activists being hosed and hippies dancing soundtracked by "Get Together," but if there is, Gibney didn't find it. The section on Thompson's run for sheriff of Aspen is fantastic, mostly, once again, because of the original footage: Thompson's insane campaign ad (he rides a motorcycle as a narrator proclaims that he "understands the grass movement"), his debate with the incumbent (and talk of "freak power"), his election night party where he doffs a George Washington wig and American flag and tells supporters that "I proved what I set out to prove, that the American dream is fucked."

After that we're thrust into the "Fear and Loathing" era, and it's a disappointment. Gibney leans heavily on footage from the Johnny Depp and Bill Murray films that recreate scenes of Thompson tripping in Vegas and shooting his mojo wire. The 1972 presidential campaign is covered at length (George McGovern and his top staffers all speak), because Gibney sees this as Thompson's near-final bout of optimism about the stuff he was covering. As Depp reads one of Thompson's depressed screeds about Vietnam, Gibney splits the screen: On one half is imagery from southeast Asia, on the other is imagery from Iraq. On one half is Nixon, on one half is Bush. The message is sledgehammered into your cortex: Nothing changes! Everything's awful! Why didn't you rubes listen to Gonzo?

The sticker is that this… is not a bad movie. Not at all. Ignore the draggy middle and predictable "hey it's the 60s!" song choices ("Walk on the Wild Side" when Thompson runs for sheriff, the Jefferson Airplane's "Today" when hippies are partying on Haight Street) and there's an evocative movie here about a great journalist. There are moments of true insight, like when Gary Hart calls Thompson's politics "infantile." This is true, and it's important that Gibney packages all the McGovern-lovin' with Thompson's badly dated worship of Jimmy Carter. He was thrashing, angry, spiteful; he wanted not just to be left alone, but to see the enemies of his lifestyle "fucked and broken" by liberal optimists. Gibney succeeds in trapping Thompson; in his hands, that philosophy really seems doomed and childish.

When Thompson died, Matt Welch shot his ashes out of a (figurative) cannon here.

NEXT: The Aussie "Fat Bomb"

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  1. He was depressing and interesting all at the same time. Rest in peace, Thompson.

  2. I think like most people I liked the idea of Thompson more than Thompson’s actual writings. I mean his writing was frequently bad. The book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sucked for example.

    Oh well at least he thought for himself and sometimes had an interesting point to make. Thats more than most journalists ever acomplish in their lives.

  3. That is slander, stephen. You’ll be hearing from my Samoan lawyer.

  4. At least I think he’s Samoan.

  5. In the trailer, Thompson seems to be quite pro-gun. How much of this was brought up in the film?

    My favorite Thompson story is when he supposedly cornered in Nixon in a urinal and asked him about the doomed in the country; and Nixon replies, “Fuck the doomed.”

  6. As your attorney, I advise you to take another hit off the ether. Save the rest for me. I’m going to need it if I’m ever going to take your case.

  7. Hunter S. Thompson, may you go the way of Nixon, the sixties, and that bad bit of porridge.

  8. Colin, I think you have your story messed up. I believe Bill Murray cornered Nixon in a urinal and asked him that question.

  9. Is this thing on?

  10. Stephen, I’m genuinely sorry you feel that way. I thought Fear and Loathing was brilliant, if messy, and I loved the guy’s writing. To each his own.

  11. a 1965 game show appearance where, 26 years old, he nervously parries questions

    I suspect he wasn’t nervous so much as high as a kite.

  12. I feel the same way about Fear and Loathing, that I do about On the Road, and Easy Rider.

    That they are Glorified portraits of absolute losers. They are all self-righteous jackasses who choose to drop out of society because they suck at it. I guess they were important at their respective times to get some people to think about what they actually valued, but now they are just dated.

  13. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high-powered mutant never even considered for mass production…Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

    It’s interesting reading some of his early letters. He adored Ayn Rand. He longed to be a novelist and even typed out Fitzgerald and Faulker to get a sense of rhythm and style.

  14. a 1965 game show appearance where, 26 years old, he nervously parries questions

    This sentence motivated me to look up the definition of “parry,” and now that I have, the Frank Black song “Parry the Wind High, Low” makes a little more sense… Thanks, Weigel!

  15. Never been able to care.

  16. That they are Glorified portraits of absolute losers. They are all self-righteous jackasses who choose to drop out of society because they suck at it.

    Sounds to me like Libertarians should be huge fans. Zing!

  17. I think like most people I liked the idea of Thompson more than Thompson’s actual writings.

    Ya, he was fun to watch, and he liked guns. That’s about as far as it went.

  18. I tried reading that Nixon obituary and got bored half-way through.

  19. Yeah, I’m reading this Nixon obit, and it sounds like a child wrote it. This guy is a writer???!?

  20. Y’all are crazy. HST was a very good writer – some of his prose qualifies as brilliant, I’d say. I think he started to buy his own persona and got sloppier as the years went on, but often his words positively sizzled (as in the aforementioned Nixon obit).

    If you wanna see his gun nuttery on display, find yourself the video of the time he got Conan O’Brien to come out to his place, drink whiskey, and shoot guns.

  21. “This guy is a writer???”

    Well, he’s no Ayn Rand…

  22. Thompson was in steep decline by the time he allegedly shot himself in 2005

    Fixed. 😉

  23. Well, he’s no Ayn Rand…

    Zing!

  24. zoinks.

    “If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

    now c’mon. that’s funny.

  25. That ass-sucker Tim Russert could never have written a book as good as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

  26. P Brooks,

    But Tom Wolfe could do much better.

  27. Sorry, but if I every meet any of y’all in the real world now, I’ll be forced to kick the asses of about half of you.
    RIP HST.

  28. I assume Thompson and Mencken whoop it up big together in the journalists’ Valhalla.

  29. Citizen Nothing,

    You are scaring me to death, you are scaring me to death, you are scaring me to death. You are making me in fear of my life.

    Please don’t scare me any more. I must now go change my pants.

  30. I’m saving you for last, Montag.

  31. Please stop scaring me. I expect you to try to kill me the first time we meet in VA, TN, NC, AR, AK, AL, MS, FL, KY or several other States.

  32. You know I’m not allowed in those states any more, Montag.

  33. “Maybe there’s a unique way to portray the 1960s besides footage of civil rights activists being hosed and hippies dancing soundtracked by “Get Together,” but if there is, Gibney didn’t find it.”
    What, he couldn’t get the rights to a Dylan cover by The Byrds?
    “Hey man, is that FREEDOM ROCK?”

  34. I am exploring the theory that the 1960s existed only as a montage…a turbulent montage.

  35. I kind of enjoyed his Nixon obit, and although I’m not a huge fan of HST, it seems ever more clear why he killed himself.

  36. I think like most people I liked the idea of Thompson more than Thompson’s actual writings.
    My thoughts exactly: he was a wonderful at playing, in real life, a character he created for his books, but his writing got progressively sloppier and lazier. I think Hell’s Angels is his best book.
    BTW, the character he created lives on in The Venture Bros.

  37. Goldbricker et al, I suspect you’re just afraid of the politics of what Hunter was all about. If you can seriously criticize his best writing, you are tone-deaf to the music of the English language. The man was a master. Not everything he wrote was brilliant, or even noteworthy, but you will never do anything, in your entire lives, as well as HST did on a good day.

  38. Get a checkup, zeph, I think your Alzheimer’s might be kicking in at last.

  39. Die Schweine ‘Hufen begraben der Perlen im Schlamm.

    The Rumsfield-Cheney axis has self-destructed right in front of our eyes, along with the once-proud Perle-Wolfowitz bund that is turning to wax. They somehow managed to blow it all, like a gang of kids on a looting spree, between January and July, or even less. It is genuinely incredible. The U.S. Treasury is empty, we are losing that stupid, fraudulent chickencrap War in Iraq, and every country in the world except a handful of Corrupt Brits despises us. We are losers, and that is the one unforgiveable sin in America.

    [. . .]

    The American nation is in the worst condition I can remember in my lifetime, and our prospects for the immediate future are even worse. I am surprised and embarrassed to be a part of the first American generation to leave the country in far worse shape than it was when we first came into it. Our highway system is crumbling, our police are dishonest, our children are poor, our vaunted Social Security, once the envy of the world, has been looted and neglected and destroyed by the same gang of ignorant greed-crazed bastards who brought us Vietnam, Afghanistan, the disastrous Gaza Strip and ignominious defeat all over the world.

    The Stock Market will never come back, our Armies will never again be No. 1, and our children will drink filthy water for the rest of our lives.

    The Bush family
    must be very proud of themselves today,
    but I am not.
    Big Darkness, soon come.
    Take my word for it.

    Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “Welcome to the Big Darkness“, ESPN Page 2, July 7, 2003

    R.I.P. Doc

  40. Please people, you don’t make yourselves sound superior by bashing our best and brightest. HST was perfect at stripping away the veneer to reveal the ugliness that was festering underneath. It’s what this country needed in the Watergate era and it’s what it needs now.

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