American Tradition and the Gonzo Talent

Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Brooke Olaussen

Pop culture has immortalized Hunter S. Thompson as Dr. Gonzo blazing through Las Vegas in a red Cadillac – trunk brimming with drugs, mind bubbling with fear and loathing. How well does pop culture remember Thompson’s quest to document the death of the American Dream?

Thompson’s 1970 bid for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado is perhaps less-well remembered. For his campaign he developed his own logo: a two-thumbed fist (think black power) clenching a peyote button (think freak power). Thompson offered a thorough restructuring of power. The second proposal of his platform for sheriff read as follows: "Change the name of Aspen to Fat City. This would prevent greedheads, landrapers, and other human jackels from capitalizing on the name of Aspen." He also offered humor.

And did you know that this anti-Christ trained in the Air Force? It was, however, a short stint. "In summary," his commanding officer reported before recommending him for early honorable discharge, "this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy."

Hunter S. Thompson was so visionary, so mad, so titillating articulate that upon reflection he seems bred from ethereal waters. Yet, Thompson’s greatness came not from broadcasting a new, different, freakish American culture, but just the opposite. He understood and believed in the tradition of the American political system so deeply that he sought out a vision of America in which the American Dream was attainable. In this call for intellectual revolution he was far from alone.

Alex Gibney’s new documentary Gonzo: The life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson propels you into the aura of Thompson and the forces of his times. It’s Thompson’s alter-ego Gonzo synergized with the last 50 years of American political history.

Everything you could want in a documentary film is in this one. By bringing you the mood and life-force of Gonzo, the film enchants, both visually and philosophically. The multiplicity of voices/interviews, footage, photographs, and songs transports you into the scene, as if like Alice you stepped through the looking glass. The soundtrack, Johnny Depp’s narration of Thompson’s writing,and interviews with friends and family guide you through Thompson’s wonderland. Those interviewed include: illustrator Ralph Steadman, fellow journalists and friends Tom Wolfe and Tim Crouse, historian Douglas Brinkley, his Rolling Stones editor, an ex-Hell’s Angel’s leader, his first wife, second wife, his son Juan Thompson, and even Pat Buchanan.

Click Read More for, well, more.

The magic of this film lies in its editing. It’s a kaleidoscope of Americana ardor, anti-heroics, and poetic tragedy, all folded onto 35mm.

The title says it all: Gonzo. This film is about what inspired Thompson’s politics and how his tour-de-force alter ego formed from his experience with the American political machine. Keep Gonzo alive is the film's message.

It’s a political message, which is fitting considering director Alex Gibney’s last two films, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side. While Gibney presents perspective, he does not spin. Rather, Gibney has done something quite remarkable – he has located the unexposed underside of the behemoth and shined camera lights upon it. Gibney’s documentary offers an intimacy that Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas cannot.

Victor Hugo said it best: "there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come." If anything, this film shows you that Hunter was not a fish out of water but a man who dared to shake the clockmaker and shift his gears.

In its opening scene Gonzo shows you Thompson as politically savvy and impressivly prescient. Johnny Depp reads what Thompson wrote on September 11, 2001: "It will be a religious war…jihad…we are going to punish someone…but just who or what we blow to smitherines is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, or Iraq…this is going to be an expensive war…he will declare a national security emergency…Winston Churchill once said the first casualty of war is the truth…" Thompson didn’t want to escape America. He wanted to expose the rot in the foundation so that a more sound house might be built.

As an epitaph for Thompson, I offer the words of T.S. Eliot - a man who sculpted a modern tradition of his own, to which Thompson was his worthy successor.

"The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…the poet has, not a "personality" to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways... The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living."

Hunter was a great American. He was a man in mad waters who wasn’t afraid to take hold of something electric just when the current is surging through.

IS it screening anywhere

IS it screening anywhere yet?