he first words of Alex Gibney's new documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson are spoken by Thompson's first wife, Sondi Wright: "He'd known for a long time that he was not a really great writer."
That's an important, healthy way to begin a film that tackles the artistic legacy of a man whose status as a countercultural icon eventually devoured his credibility as a journalist. But once upon a time, Thompson looked unstoppable. Gonzo correctly focuses on the era of his greatest creativity — a 10-year period between the late-1960s publication of his book Hell's Angels and the early-to-mid-1970s of Nixon, McGovern, Watergate, and Foreman-Ali. Gibney zeroes in on the relevant years of Thompson's life so well that it's almost possible to forgive his taste for hokey images, such as the one of Johnny Depp fondling a pistol while reading Thompson excerpts aloud.
Several of Gonzo's talking heads, notably 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, can't resist this mythmaking either, and they make dubious claims about Thompson's importance that only muddle his literary accomplishments. Contrary to media-generated legend, Thompson was not an inventor of "participatory journalism" (which ignores the efforts of everyone from Orwell to Twain to Herodotus), nor was he the first writer to write while high. (Anyone remember Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater?) And arguably, at his too-brief peak, he wasn't the best all-around journalist of his age: Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, and Thompson's Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse all wrote more substantive, less self-indulgent nonfiction.
To his credit, though, Thompson introduced English illustrator Ralph Steadman to psychedelics in a turn-on that rivals R. Crumb's dropping acid as a key moment in the development of 20th-century art. And Thompson was a personality of huge dimensions — a gun-toting roustabout seemingly impervious to drugs and alcohol. After running for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, in 1970, he often appeared in public as a shaved-headed Muppet whose voice was as fun to imitate as Cary Grant's or Peter Lorre's. The first line of his 1972 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas still works like catnip on people who like drugs and self-expression but prefer the latter to the former. At his best, Thompson could tap into personal reserves of anger, fear, and resentment that the curators of the officially sanctioned "Great American Sixties Story" (so-starring Creedence Clearwater Revival and more Haight-Ashbury hippie bullshit) seldom acknowledge.
Those responsible for the construction and maintenance of the Great American Sixties Story — the same ones, in fact, who are interviewed throughout Gonzo — hate it when their generation is scorned or criticized. But rage and disgust with the duplicity and failures of past generations fueled Hunter Thompson's most insightful and poetic prose. Ignoring that anger in his work is almost as bad as agreeing with Jimmy Buffett's false claim that Thompson "could have wielded a pretty effective sword" in today's journalistic climate. No, he couldn't have; he was too far gone by then.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Opening Friday, August 8th
Studio on the Square