Too weird to live, too rare to die
Thanks to the blogosphere, there are now more edgy pundits in the world than stars in the sky. Or at least, we like to think we’re edgy, though the majority of gripping, incisive commentary seems to consist of “George W. Bush is evil!” and “War is bad!” In other words, we’re all just singing the same tune, just with different lyrics.
Political and cultural blogging wouldn’t exist as it does today without Hunter S. Thompson. For better or for worse, he gave license to and inspired other ordinary, working-class citizens who were disillusioned with the way things were going in their country to speak up and express that anger. As Americans we were given the right to free speech, now we were shown what to do with it. Thompson’s legacy is celebrated in Alex Gibney’s new documentary Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a very fine film that manages to praise its subject with a minimum of fluff and blind adoration.
It’s likely that Gonzo will be considered the definitive Thompson documentary, as it was made with the cooperation and participation of his first wife, his widow, his son and numerous friends and collaborators, including Jann Wenner, Johnny Depp, Ralph Steadman (who claims it wasn’t until Thompson introduced him to psilocybin that he began to create the grotesque caricatures that made him famous), and even Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan. It also includes rare personal photographs and audio/video footage, including a hilarious recording of Oscar Zeta Acosta, his traveling companion in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, telling a roadside cafe waitress that they were out searching for the American Dream, to which she speculates that that might have been the name of a closed down nightclub. It is alternately amusing and depressing, and always fascinating.
The film wisely chooses not to spend too much time on Thompson’s childhood in Kentucky, though it does do an excellent job of establishing his lifelong belief that he was an outsider looking in, and when he was eventually allowed in he never felt quite at peace there. In fact, being on equal footing with those he once mocked might very well have led to the gradual downfall of his career. A large portion of Gonzo focuses on Thompson’s unsuccessful but memorable run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado in 1970, followed by his vocal support for 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, which led to his second most famous book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Both of these events established Thompson as perhaps the definitive cynical optimist, doubtful yet hopeful that he could get people to listen to him, and shocked and delighted when he did. Yet when both of these endeavors proved sadly unsuccessful in the end, the disappointment he felt was profound and far-reaching.
A relentless sense of disappointment, not only on a personal and professional level, but with the world at large seems to be what eventually sent Thompson spiraling into that all but stereotypical abyss of substance abuse, though it’s difficult to say for certain, as it would appear that there was rarely a moment in his adult life when Thompson wasn’t drunk or stoned. Like Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald and far too many other amazingly talented yet deeply troubled writers to list here, it’s likely that Thompson did his best work, or at least, thought he did his best work while steeping in a vat of alcohol. Again, like Kerouac, Fitzgerald, et.al. while Thompson was a much beloved writer and sociopolitical critic, with a healthy share of fans, groupies and various other hanger-ons, he simply was not an easy person to live with. I was genuinely surprised to discover that his first wife, Sondi Wright, hung on for nineteen years, considering that Thompson spent most of those years working, traveling, womanizing or heavily intoxicated, quite often a combination of all four, and when he was around he was a temperamental bully towards her and an indifferent father to their son.
But really, isn’t that part of the romance of writers? The fact that, despite being able to produce eloquent words that can move people to laughter, tears, anger or action they can barely hold themselves together? The best art is born of chaos, and honestly it’s a little boring to hear about an author, or any artistic type, really, whose life has been relatively free of strife and adversity. There’s something manufactured about their passion, and it comes through in the work. Even if you’re not a fan of Thompson’s work, he always wrote with fire and conviction. You never had the sense that he was trying to pull one over on you.
Or at least, he did up to a certain point. The second, post-McGovern campaign half of the film takes a darker turn as it follows Thompson’s trip on the downward slope. Trapped in the “Raoul Duke” persona created in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and unwilling to evolve and compromise, he began willfully missing deadlines and turning in unpublishable work, significantly damaging his relationship with Rolling Stone, the biggest champion of his work. His later works, while still of good quality, simply didn’t measure up to the two books that made him famous. The decline in the quality of his work was only exacerbated by that profound, lifelong disappointment descending into depression, particularly (and not surprisingly, really) after the events of September 11th. By that point he was writing a column for ESPN.com, and was considered, with some level of affection, as an amusing relic of the decadent 70s.
Gonzo wisely chooses not idealize Thompson’s suicide. While it’s clear that Thompson himself thought it was a brave act, taking the man’s way out rather than exiting quietly at a later time, those who were close to him disagree. It seems more like he simply gave up, ran out of steam, couldn’t bear to see how things were going any longer, and he took with him some of the best and sharpest, call you on your bullshit words America has ever known. Just think of the delicious poison he could have doused onto our current presidential campaign. What a joy it would be to read what would be an undoubtedly vitrolic take on reality television. You want to talk disappointment, that’s disappointing. No heir to his throne has been found as of yet, and it doesn’t seem likely that one ever will. Many of us try to emulate the good doctor, few of us succeed. The best we can hope for is to create a reasonable facsimile, to ensure that voices like his remain a loud and angry shout into the world.