Tuesday, July 08, 2008

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

Another documentary that showed at the AFI Silverdocs is now in general theatrical release from Magnolia Pictures, actually, it seems, produced by Cuban’s company GDNET. This is "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson", directed by Alex Gibney (198). The Silverdocs link is here. It sold out the night I went to see the Arthur Russell film (reviewed on this blog June 18) in another auditorium.

First, it’s good to note what gonzo journalism is. It is a kind of personalized journalism, observations often written in first person with a lot personal perspective and an interest in “connecting the dots” or drawing together of disparate elements. Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) is quoted as having said “fiction is often the best fact.” I would call it "do ask do tell" journalism.

The movie has an arresting beginning, showing the elder Thompson in his (Colorado) home, suddenly learning about the 9/11 attacks in New York, some of which are shown in encapsulation.

The movie is as much a tracking of the history of the 60s and 70s, when Thompson became famous, as it is biography. The see the “Medium Cool” shots of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Kent State incident in 1970, scenes from both 1972 conventions. The film pays quite a bit of attention to the Thomas Eagleton affair associated with George McGovern’s 1972 candidacy. McGovern picked Senator Eagleton from Missouri as his vice-president, and for a few moments at the convention, it seemed as though leftist McGovern really had a chance, given the seeming dissatisfaction of the country. Then Eagleton’s history of mental illness was disclosed (even shock treatments). Thompson was one of the first journalists to point out that the rest of the mainstream media was overlooking Watergate, which had already started. I recall a radio interview with McGovern that summer, where even McGovern said that very radical proposals would “drive the Democrats to defeat.”

The movie does show a lot of footage of Thompson as a young man, in his thirties during the Watergate era turbulence, as a kind of mixed radical leftist and survivalist, comfortable with his Second Amendment rights. He was still a “man’s man”, however much he had enjoyed Haight Asbury in San Francisco. He ran for sheriff in Aspen Colorado in the early 70s, and shaved his head as a campaign gimmick. But, all the time, while sometimes exercising the demeanor of someone you would find on the right, he articulated his disdain for the Establishment, and for libertarian style freedoms, which in his case sometimes included substances. Much of the film is told through his son.

The movie shows a lot of fantasy excerpts from the Terry Gilliam (Universal) film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998) based on his infamous novel. Gilliam had already done "12 Monkeys".

At the end, he took his own life. His family somewhat “romanticizes” the event, and the monument to him built in the Colorado mountains. The movie reports that he wanted to quit when he was ahead.

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