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Sundance 2008 | Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Sundance 2008 | Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

It’s just about the midway point at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and I have to be honest; There is an grumpy little malaise that has settled over this place like a deep, dirty puddle of polluted snow.

It’s just about the midway point at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and I have to be honest; There is an grumpy little malaise that has settled over this place like a deep, dirty puddle of polluted snow. The entire town seems to be overwhelmingly bitchy, with gripes about everything from the frequency of buses (“not enough!”) to complaints about the size of the press screening rooms (“not enough seats!”) to the films themselves (“not good enough!”), all of it audible in loud-mouthed conversations and manifest in the body language of many of the industry delegates I have seen trudging, shoulders slumped, across the slush-soaked parking lot between the Yarrow Hotel and the Holiday Village Cinemas. No one has been knocked out yet, no one has had that elusive, transformative experience in the theater when a movie grabs the entire town by its downy ski jacket collar and stirs things up. There is no consensus, true, but there is also no feeling that a missed screening will be an unforgivable mistake. Instead, there are hundreds of individuals championing a film here and there, most of them in the Documentary program, and while some seem to be making an impression (The Order Of Myths, Trouble The Water and my own favorites Ballast, American Teen [more on this one soon] and Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired seem to be the films about which I have heard the most positive discussion), many others seem not to have inspired too much conversation so far.

My own schedule (twenty films in four days) has been a bit of a up and down affair, but last night’s screening of Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson was a much-needed shot in the arm and a reminder of how passionate artists can re-imagine the world and provide a desperately important insight into our times. While his subject matter is, on the surface, outside of Gibney’s traditional concerns as a Director of films like Taxi To The Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Gonzo immediately erases any doubts about Gibney’s intention to place Hunter S. Thompson’s life and work in anything less than a deeply political context; Over the still profoundly moving images of those planes smashing into the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001, Thompson’s analysis of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” is intoned, announcing the end of an era in American democracy and stating with frightening prescience the grim reality of our times that was then yet to come.

Gibney then rockets us back in time to provide a chronological look at Thompson’s life and his development as a writer and personality. Beginning with the writing of his debut book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Thompson’s life and work merged into a complicated blend of empathy, morality and excess; After spending a year with the notorious gang and raising hell with them, Thompson’s intervention in a domestic dispute between a pissed off biker and his abused wife earned him a terrible beating. This moment, coupled with Thompson’s observation of a rough gang bang at a party the Angels crashed, shook him up and drove him away from the California scene and into the relative isolation of pre-billionaire Aspen, Colorado. There, Thompson found a way to blend his anti-authoritarian faith in individualism with his belief in the power of the people into a campaign for County Sheriff (he lost) before setting out on the 1968 campaign trail and delivering some of the most original, insightful journalism of our time.

Have Gun, Will Travel: Hunter S. Thompson

And here, another life-changing moment in Chicago during the battle at the Democratic National Convention; Watching the leaders of the Democratic Party back Richard Daly and his strong-armed police force as they battered the young people protesting at the convention shattered Thompson’s faith in the country and proved to him that no political party was to be trusted; Everything was personal now. It is here, covering Thompson’s heyday from 1968 through the writing of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (represented here by Thompson’s own audio recordings and Terry Gilliam’s film of the book) to his incredible coverage of the McGovern Campaign in 1972 and his career writing for Rolling Stone magazine (and his discovery of Jimmy Carter), that Gibney’s film settles in and takes flight; Gibney does an outstanding job of weaving Thompson’s drug use and his addiction to using firearms with his powerful, resonant work as a journalist and writer. Fortunately, Gibney was able to procure the services of Johnny Depp (who played Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke in Gilliam’s film of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas) to provide the voice of Thompson’s written words, and Depp’s readings (and Gibney’s generous use of Thompson’s incredible writing) provide a very moving reminder of Thompson’s genius and insight; There is hardly a passage in the film that doesn’t somehow feel like an elegy for today’s America. Gibney restores Thompson to his rightful place as one of our culture’s greatest critical voices, a voice that, despite some difficult times negotiating between living the “gonzo” lifestyle and providing the depth of creative feeling so crucial to his writing, carried at its heart the search for the ever-elusive American Dream.

In retrospect, I think Thompson found what he was looking for in the outsized life he created for himself, but Gibney also clearly conveys Thompson’s despondency that the dream was never shared by his fellow citizens. While Thompson embraced the fullness of experience and followed his interests with an unrivaled passion, he saw our America as a land of “used car salesmen who… don’t give a damn ” about the suffering they inflict on others. Gibney clarifies Thompson’s moral stance as being a true extension of the uncompromising life he lived, and as Thompson’s suicide comes into focus, the film somehow manages to transform itself into a celebration not only of the maverick, but a longing to forge a society that embraces him. Gonzo restored Thompson to me and reminded me of how his words could tear you two when you read them. Heading home, alone on the bus against the darkness of the mountains, I couldn’t help smiling. A model life? No, but suddenly, late at night, a deep empathy and the need to live up to those words, to find them in myself, in this time.

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