This article also appeared as the cover story for the August 21, 2008 issue of ACE Weekly in Lexington, Kentucky.
“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
In recalling the strange and fantastic existence of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one must attempt to navigate between fact and legend—the man and the Gonzo, and so forth. This revolutionary discourse eventually became the basis of the good Doctor’s journalistic method and reputation. The Louisville-native would so envelope himself in his story or subject that readers often failed to recognize the difference between Thompson’s version of reality, and their own. Far more challenging was the attempt to then document Thompson’s life and work (following his unfortunate suicide three years ago). Fresh off the success of his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, filmmaker Alex Gibney immediately dove into the history and legend of Dr. Thompson. Sundance joyously received the resulting biopic—entitled Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson—like a glass of fine Kentucky bourbon. As Gibney’s film now slowly trickles into theatres across the country, audiences have finally learned to taste the overwhelming importance of the legend.
Unfortunately, the documentary lightly glosses over some of the less celebrity-filled facts. For example, Hunter Stockton Thompson grew up, with his two brothers, in an older area of the Louisville Highlands known as the Cherokee Triangle. After World War II, many families moved away from older suburbs like this. When Hunter’s father died in 1952, the three boys chose to stick around the Highlands a while longer. Although he attended both Atherton and Male High School, this part of Hunter’s life appears in Gibney’s film only to spotlight the birth of Thompson’s criminal record. After spending about a month in the Jefferson County Jail (which has now been converted into a Law Library) on accessory to robbery charges, Thompson joined the Air Force and left Kentucky. For the purposes of the Gonzo documentary, Hunter’s legend begins here.
Gibney’s documentary suggests that the key to truly understanding the Father of Gonzo Journalism must emerge from a parade of contradictions. Both Gonzo and last year’s Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride effectively portray him as a master of his own destiny (mostly to shed a more positive light on his suicide). Following the Air Force, Thompson then unexpectedly spent about a year thundering around with Hell’s Angels—arguably the most lawless organization around at the time. What better way to then follow a stint like that than by running for Sheriff? Finally, you top that off with the Doctor’s Fear and Loathing rampage and you have yourself a very complicated individual. While Buy the Ticket spends far more time with this idea, it becomes fairly clear with any review of Hunter’s life story. Gonzo’s implication is that Thompson refused to live by a set of basic expectations or established ethics—he called himself a “freak” and was quite proud of it.
In Gonzo, Thompson’s long-time friend and illustrator Ralph Steadman explains that, for Hunter, life was always “victory or game-over.” Steadman met Thompson when the renegade journalist hired him to help cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby. As well as being the real birth date of Gonzo Journalism, Thompson and Steadman’s piece, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, marks the documentary’s opening discussion of psychedelic drug usage. The film makes an effort to show not only its effects on Thompson’s writing style, but on Steadman’s illustrations, as well. In fact, one of the most admirable elements of Gibney’s film concerns the outstanding influence of Steadman’s illustrations on the eventual theory and perception of Gonzo Journalism. The translation of Thompson’s work onto the Hollywood screen relied heavily on Steadman’s ink work, especially in the case of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There is a great clip in Gonzo of Thompson on the phone with a prospective Vegas director who wants to include some animated sequences. The Doctor rips the poor boy to shreds, clarifying that he will tolerate no perversion of such an integral facet of the original work. Steadman’s art perfectly reaffirms the visual style already suggested by Thompson’s writing.
Very rarely, however, is the visual style of a documentary ever considered. Some critics have condemned Gonzo’s rather excessive amount of re-enactment scenes. Although they may, at times, make the film seem a bit “cheap” or “forced,” the average viewer may very well not even notice them among the high volume of legitimate archival footage. Furthermore, the after-effects applied to the re-enactments, while designed to help match the rough quality of the real clips, help establish a definitive, overall look for the documentary. The aged, rustic visual style engages the viewer, as actor Johnny Depp fluidly narrates with authentic quotes from Thompson’s work. This directly contrasts the roughness and force of Nick Nolte’s narration in Buy the Ticket. Despite the insightful script by Kentucky native Thomas Marksbury, Nick Nolte’s delivery was accurately described in The New York Times as, “less like an outlaw than a slightly slow student who doesn’t understand the words he is reading.” While waving around a .44 magnum in Gonzo, Johnny Depp proves beyond all doubt his uncanny ability to enliven the late Doctor’s words.
The only other thing that can be said against Alex Gibney’s outstanding documentary is his occasional lack of focus. While Buy the Ticket stays very much focused on Hunter as a writer and an individual, Gonzo relies heavily on the events surrounding Hunter’s life. In detailing Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 election, Gonzo becomes painfully sidetracked in an excess of political history (Richard Nixon, George McGovern, et al.). Subsequently, the film enters a lengthy segment that involves former President Jimmy Carter far more than the Gonzo Journalist who was so affected by him. Nevertheless, this disproportionate tangent does yield a successful climax in its eventual comparison to present day political conflicts. Perhaps, the good Doctor foresaw our current situation and feared for the future of peace, liberty, and that never-ending source of inspiration called the American Dream. If Gonzo Journalism means becoming a part of your own story, then perhaps Thompson felt the contemporary American story was one his legend had already exhausted and endured. Either way, Gonzo tells Hunter’s story as the Doctor hopefully meant for it to be: both the facts and the legend.
Tags: ace weekly, alex gibney, buy the ticket, charles thomason, charlie, cherokee triangle, film, george mcgovern, gonzo, hell's angels, hunter s. thompson, jimmy carter, johnny depp, journalism, kentucky, louisville, movie, nick nolte, ralph steadman, recycled film, review, richard nixon, take the ride, taxi to the dark side, thomas marksbury