Thursday, Jul. 03, 2008
The Mixed Pleasures of Hunter S. Thompson
By Richard Schickel
I still don't know what I think about "Dr." Hunter S. Thompson.
I say this despite my admiration for Alex Gibney's very thorough documentary account of the writer's disheveled life and career, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Aside from a first wife who became totally fed up with Thompson, it collects a lot of tolerant — if often head-shaking — comments on the good doctor's rattling passage through the history of recent American life.
Politically, these people range from George McGovern to Pat Buchanan; culturally, from Tom Wolfe to Jimmy Buffett. They all acknowledge Thompson's role as a founding figure among the ranks of the new journalists, who, beginning in the 1960s, usefully challenged objectivity as journalism's reigning standard by intruding themselves — their opinions, their emotions, their rages and outrages — into their accounts of the way we lived, publicly and privately, in a very troubled time. The downside of their efforts — especially in Thompson's case — was a highly unreliable subjectivity. It was covered over by Thompson's stylishness and eventually subsumed by the cult of personality that accreted around him. Eventually, Gibney's documentary concludes, it was celebrity that did Thompson in; his personality, more than any event he was covering, became the story, which was not as interesting as he and his acolytes thought it was.
That's because it's a pretty standard celebrity drama. In the beginning he was a tall, devastatingly handsome young man, with a polite, soft-spoken gift for ingratiation. This he employed to worm his way into the confidence of the Hell's Angels, the outlaw motorcycle gang, becoming a participant-observer in their rites and rituals and writing about them acutely in what I think remains his best book. There followed his Fear and Loathing books about Las Vegas and the political campaign of 1972. These books had their moments, of course, but there was something hysterical about the expression of his loves and hates in them as well — and there is something winking and indulgent in the comments Gibney has collected from those who eye-witnessed Thompson at work during those years. He remained likable — and readable — but he was not really taken seriously by the people he was covering. He was well on his way to being a "character."
Moreover, one suspects that the gonzo qualities of his work — not that anyone has ever defined what that term actually means — seem to be an expression of a nature grown increasingly addled by dope and drink. Like a lot of addicted people, Thompson often appeared to be rather sweet-souled, almost passive, when he was clear-minded. His rage came out when he was alone at the typewriter, pounding out copy against deadlines that he almost always missed. As is always the case in journalism, when he was against the gun, editors had two choices: run what Thompson wrote, however nutty it was, or spike it. But he was a name by then, and his audience was usually entranced enough by the insights he offered to accept all the dross that accompanied them. More important, he began to seem like a symbolic figure of the moment — the victim-saint fighting back against the clueless and often vicious Establishment. Richard Nixon had the capacity to do that to his distinctly disloyal opponents.
Thompson had, in the pre-revolutionary culture of that period, plenty of company, ranging from the psychiatrist R.D. Laing to the media guru Marshall McLuhan. The more gnomic their pronouncements, the more they seemed to the impressionable to be deeply wise and romantic. It is during this time that fame became a major factor in Thompson's demise. The groupies gathered, the legend grew and, soon enough, the work suffered even more deeply. A nadir was reached in 1974 when he was assigned to cover "The Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. He chose to float in his hotel pool, a bottle of hooch in hand, while the great fight took place, and he was unable to file anything. After that, it was largely writer's block, self-indulgence and personal disarray until Thompson committed suicide in 2005.
This seems to me a very sad story about an essentially minor figure. Thompson's was not a life to celebrate (and Gibney, to his credit, does not do so). But there is an implicit approval in this film that makes me uneasy. But then, irrationality always make me uneasy. All artists — and nominally, Thompson was an artist — need a touch of the lunatic about them. But only a touch. In the end they are obliged to produce. And they are obliged not to succumb to, or to excessively encourage, their own myths. Thanks in part to Thompson's example, journalists are now free to enter the stories they are telling, and that, on the whole, is a good thing. But it is not the only thing — and it does not grant the writer freedom to become the story. I think Gonzo, which is wonderfully rich in historical footage, needs some skeptics, some voices suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Thompson was part of the problem, not the solution, when America flirted briefly with revolution (or was it merely anarchy?), leaving consequences that continue to resonate today — and not always to our advantage.