Guy at the Bar
by Chris Knipp
Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,
Alex Gibney's vivid, compelling depiction of the Sixties and Seventies
superstar journalist, coming after the director's Enron: The Smartest
Guys in the Room and Taxi
to the Dark Side, clearly announces the emergence of
one of the best documentary filmmakers we've got, and also one of the
a very smart, very verbal, very funny, but also intensely significant
story here. Some of the people who speak most highly of Thompson on
camera are Billy Carter, George McGovern, and longtime Republican presidential
adviser Pat Buchanan, as well as Gary Hart, writer Tom Wolfe, and Thompson's
editors Jann Wenner and Douglas Brinkley at Rolling Stone, for which
he did his best periodical pieces, the notable ones turned into books.
More intimate details--but the man was such a perpetual performer that
public and private are hard to separate--come from Thompson's first
and second wives. And the English artist Ralph Steadman, who illustrated
the writing, has much to say, as do plenty of others, including his
son Juan. When Thompson first met Steadman he fed the Brit psilocybin,
and he was never the same. Steadman became an invaluable cohort and
collaborator, and his wild drawings provide a perfect visual counterpart
to Thompson's written words on screen.
a notorious wild man from early on. "I wouldn't recommend sex,
drugs or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me,"
he said. Prodigious in his consumption of drugs and alcohol, he was
witness to some of the great events of his time, and got deeply involved
in politics, opposition to the Vietnam War, and of course, the counterculture.
Lean, athletic, flashily dressed, with trademark balding pate, big aviator
sunglasses, cigarette holder and drink in hand, Thompson was a demon
at the IBM Selectric, gleefully spinning out brilliant pieces nobody
else could have written, a master of outrage and wit.
To describe these
events, fueled by craziness, substances, and tongue-in-cheek joie de
vivre, he devised his own outrageous style of writing in which cold
clear fact was blended with wild invention and the adjectives and metaphors
flew like hornets around a honey pot. Others too partook of the kind
of journalism he practiced. The times--the flamboyant and boisterous
and revolutionary Sixties and early Seventies-- seemed to call for a
new, more violent, more committed language in journalism, a "New
Journalism." Norman Mailer also wrote about the Democratic convention
in Chicago in 1968, and on hand for Esquire were the likes of Jean Genet
and William Burroughs. Three is something of Burroughs in Thompson,
the drugs and the outrage and a way of seeing convention as conspiracy.
One of Thompson's famous quotes gives a hint of the link: "America...
just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the
money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in
the world who tries to make us uncomfortable."
This was the moment when the distinction between fiction and non-fiction
blurred: Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which
used raw material from the more adventurous Thompson); Hell's Angels,
Thompson's act of "embedded journalism," as Wolfe calls it;
Truman Capote's true murder story In Cold Blood, done for The
New Yorker; were all variations on the idea of the "non-fiction
novel." The film might do a bit more to put Thompson in all this
context, but it's clearly implied. He called his wild style "gonzo"
journalism. In it the "reporter" is a central figure in his
stories, with nothing hidden from view. To that he adds a mix of fact
and drug-fueled fantasies that may terrify you and also may crack you
wrote about Las Vegas as the American dream and about Nixon, whom he
loathed. He used a tape recorder a lot: the spoken word fuels all his
writings. Tapes provide great material for the film. So does Terry Gilliam's
screen version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Johnny
Depp, who played Thompson in it and became a great fan and friend, reads
salient passages of Gonzo prose sitting in front of a well-stocked bar.
Depp paid for the spectacular funeral for the writer that Thompson had--on
film--planned out long before, in which his ashes were fired into the
Colorado mountains from a canon mounted on a tower atop the Thompson
symbol: a giant fist clutching a peyote button. Ralph Steadman did the
sketches. This event is shown at the end of the film flaming bright
against a dark blue velvet sky, and it provides a lovely and celebratory
son et lumière finale.
Thompson's innate violence may explain how he could have blended in
so well for a while with the Hell's Angels. He kept at least twenty
firearms on hand in his house, all loaded, his first wife reports. He
always planned to end his life with suicide, and he ended up shootng
himself. He did it on a nice day in February, 2005, almost as a family
event, with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson at the house and on
the phone with his wife, a shot to the head, at the age of 68, not an
act of depression but the completion of a careful plan. It was over.
And he had been here to see George W. Bush and to accurately predict
the decline and fall of the American empire. A late collection of short
pieces is entitled Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and
the Downward Spiral of Dumbness.
the maxed-out, maddened descendant of H.L. Mencken. His dissipation
took its toll and so did fame. He fell into playing a self-parodying
avatar of himself and his writing deteriorated after the later Seventies,
so he had about ten good years and about twenty not-so-good ones. Some
have dwelt on his decline; Gonzo doesn't. His writing faltered
as early as 1974 when he went to Zaire with Steadman to cover the Foreman-Ali
"Rumble in the Jungle," got drunk at the pool during the fight
and never finished the story. Given how bright he burned and how hard
he lived, it was inevitable that the man would burn out early. But the
writing did not by any means fizzle out, even into the Nineties and
There is an immense wealth of spinoffs on film; Gibney had rich, rich
material to work with here. Outrageous, hilarious, and brilliant, Thompson
partied and rode with motorcycle gangs, ran for sheriff of Pitkin County,
Colorado, was a serious photographer, made a film Breakfast with
Hunter, and such was his glamor and appeal that he understandably
came to confuse himself with his legend and his literary persona.
The best that could happen is that this beautifully edited and greatly
entertaining film makes a host of new converts to the writing. And doubtless
that's one of its chief aims.
©2008 Chris Knipp