Shiny Shelf

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Gonzo: the life and works of Dr Hunter S. Thompson

By Stephen Lavington on 04 November 2008

Few writers have created such a legacy of avid hero-worship and sycophantically fawning sentimentality as Hunter S. Thompson – especially from other writers and creative sorts. He is the author that every sixth-form student of that bent wishes to be, and this close attachment often lasts beyond graduation – Thompson has the sort of influence that not so much transcends the adolescent mind-set as carries it into adulthood. The core of Thompson’s appeal is wish-fulfillment – a combination of unashamed excess and substance abuse with a practically unmatched CV of adventuring and conter-cultural achievements. On the evidence of this year’s documentary gala, this certainly is what drove Hunter Thompson himself.

In a sense the documentary is simply repeating the received wisdom of the writings, and in a sense the central creed of Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, that the man in this case is the myth. Quite simply there is no act, no mask behind which Hunter Thompson concealed his real self – the character in the books was the character in real life. Common sense says this should present real problems to the documentary-maker who has no revelatory flourishes to fall back on. This is true inasmuch as filmmaker Alex Gibney has not produced a work which will change anyone’s opinions on Hunter Thompson. However, such was the richness and unique nature of Thompson’s career and personal life that a relatively conventional document of his life is still a breathtaking ride, and the huge selling point in this case is that the ride is immeasurably enriched by the access Gibney enjoyed to Thompson’s vast archive of recorded material.

For example one chapter of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ is largely comprised, on the page, of what appears to be a transcript of a taped interview. At first this seems contrived, playing to the image of the narrator as a shambolic wreck and the eventual book as being salvaged from the detritus of the events described within. However, when Gibney digs up the original tape-recording of this scene, which does indeed play out as described in the book it makes clear that Hunter Thompson, far from relying on a publicized image to sell himself as a character was perhaps one of the most honest writers of the period.

This comes through time and time again in a film which goes into great depths on perhaps his best work, ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ and, through extensive interviews with the surviving players in the 1972 presidential campaign, paints a picture of Thompson as the figure of integrity always at the heart of events. The zenith of this theme comes in coverage of Thompson’s 1966 book ‘Hell’s Angels’, specifically of a televised confrontation between the author and a member of the motorcycle gang whom he befriended, before being violently thrown out. Here Thompson is the very image of buttoned up sincerity; stone-sober and obviously outraged at suggestions he made-up descriptions of the gang’s behaviour.

Perhaps the film goes too far in this regard. It all but stops in 1975, with Thompson’s shambolic failure to cover the Mohammed Ali / George Foreman fight of that year as the last point of reference to his writing career. This was a conscious choice by Gibney who justifies it by the simple fact that little of Thompson’s subsequent work was actually any good. However, surely the slow, inexorable decline of Thompsons’ later years is just as valid for discussion as the brief blaze of success that made his name? To be fair, the film is pretty unsparing in describing how the author became the public figure, gradually slipping into a parody of himself as he held court in Woody Creek to a parade of star-struck visitors. This is commendable, as most fans of Fear and Loathing are happy to overlook the crotchety, childish irrelevance that Thompson had become by the 90s, and to forgive his philandering as an indulgence to a great writer.

Gibney also correctly judges the reasons for both Thompson’s success and his decline. The former was due to impeccable timing. He was the right man, a footloose young writer with no responsibilities and a delinquent’s background, at the right place, San Francisco and later Washington, at the right time, the mid-60s to mid-70s. He was perfectly placed to report on an era of great social turmoil, and the nature of this turmoil was such as to force the development his writing and reporting style. It was the emergence of Thompson as a journalist embedded in events that brought about decline. The key to gonzo journalism was the active presence of the writer at the centre of events and not just reporting on them as a detached, objective entity. As soon as Thompson came to fame in his own right, he could never return to the obscurity necessary for such a perspective to succeed. As Gibney makes clear, the whole reason for the success of Thompson as a political reporter in 1972 was that no-one knew who he was.

Ultimately Thompson wrote as a man of the time, and once that time had passed so the man became less relevant. This is as fundamental to understanding of his work as the booze, the drugs and the craziness. The latter three are all present in Gibney’s film but so crucially is the former point. It is this – and the astonishing nature of the material that Gibney has managed to obtain – that makes ‘Gonzo’ more than just another paean to being somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs begin to take hold.

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By Stephen Lavington

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