Loathing and the American Dream: A Review of Gonzo

This post courtesy of Todd Best, Gainesville, Florida, alumni of The Crossing

Of the nine films I saw at the True/False Film Festival, the one that prompted the most reflection was Gonzo. Gonzo is the biographical pat on the back to Hunter S. Thompson, one of American culture’s most iconic counter-cultural figures whose launch into fame came after he wrote an insider’s perspective about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. He would later galvanize his voice in popular form with the book-turned-movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson, a journalist by trade, pushed the envelope of the journalistic form, carving out a niche called Gonzo journalism. This form, finding its voice in frequent articles in Rolling Stone, took on a subjectivity and novel-writing style, blending fiction with nonfiction to get at truth. Gonzo style allowed for the flare and perspective of the writer to be featured, if not flaunted.

Gonzo, the documentary, is the project of director Alex Gibney, recipient of this year’s True Vision Award, given by True/False organizers to a “filmmaker whose work shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking.” Gibney is also the recent recipient of an Oscar for best documentary this year for Taxi to the Dark Side, also screened at True/False.

Alex Gibney’s artistry on Gonzo is colorful, creative, and almost euphoric at times. And it sparks moments of questioning if Thompson was what we saw or if he was simply his own fictional caricature. From the heap of interviews Gibney draws on, ranging from family members to other artist-friends to politicians, it is clear that Thompson was a mouthpiece for challenging the powers that be and for reclaiming the American dream. The problem is that, at least according to the film, it is far more evident what Thompson was “loathing” than what his idea of the American dream offers. The political scene is where much of the loathing is given voice. Much of Gonzo is dedicated to Thompson’s deep commitment to the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern and the related opposition to the Viet Nam war. While left unsaid until the end, this part of the story poetically parallels our current journalistic obsessions: the 2008 presidential campaigns and the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. It is toward the end that the hint is made that we might be able to benefit Thompson’s point of view currently. Still it’s up to the viewer to decipher an American dream made up of radical freedom to be whoever you want to be, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and making enemies with whoever would get in your way.

So why does this film provoke so many thoughts for me? The truth is it provokes internal conflict as much as it does thought. As one who has an affinity for voices like Thompson’s who are able to put their finger on cultural fissures that need overhaul, I find him to be an unexpected disappointment. I had hopes for liking this guy. What little I knew about Thompson before the film created an expectation that I would find an extension of the Beat thinking of Kerouac and Ginsberg, finding its full blossom finally in someone who could mainstream the ideas that challenge cultural norms. Instead what I found was a true-myth-like figure who had some interesting and fair critiques of American culture and politics, but who ultimately made those ideas unaccessible due to his reckless, combative, and contradictory life. For instance, Thompson was so opposed to the war and it’s violence on humanity, yet he was a fanatic gun collector who loved to use them in flashy ways. Furthermore, while he was critical of the oppressive ways of the powers in office, he was clearly a sexist who treated women as toys and exploited their beauty for his own pleasure, all the while being married. And while many admire him for his clear and forceful thought, his wild use of mind-altering substances make you wonder how he was able to function in his later life.

In David Wilson’s introduction of Gonzo, he said that Hunter S. Thompson might just be the patron saint of True/False. Personally, I see Thompson as a misfit of sorts. He certainly had a prophetic voice with important critiques of the establishment, but I’m not sure I see much hope for someone like him building enough bridges with his enemies to ever be compelling. Yet, that’s one thing that always impresses me about T/F over the years – filmmakers use their art form to create a neutral-enough space for considering ideas that may run counter to common thought. And Thompson strikes me as one of the guys who beats up his enemies. Ours is a culture that has adopted a war mentality to everything. it seems. Even those most against violence seem to think that the only hope of having one’s ideas survive is to stand behind the venomous sound bytes they use to posture for the camera while they reload a cannon with artillery to blast their opponents’ equally combative bytes. We don’t need more Hunter Thompsons; we need voices as prophetic and poetic as his, yet with the kind of human substance and respect to welcome enemies to the table, not turn them away. After all, it isn’t until we are able to sit down at the table with our enemies that we might just be able to look them in the eye and start to see that what makes them tick is the same thing that makes us tick. And who knows, we might just start to win them over – or, gasp, we might see that we are not as right as we thought we were.

At the end of the day, Gibney does a masterful job of capturing the colorful life of Hunter S. Thompson entertwined with American cultural history of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and simultaneously opposed to those factions of the culture which he thought threatened the American dream. What one is left with, though, is to decide whether that life is compelling or if it rings as another hollow but entertaining voice of all that’s twisted in American self-construction.

(note: for the sensitive viewer, this film contains sexually explicit descriptions, some nudity, and excess drug use)

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