We are posting this as it was proudly written by one of our own who in doing so, started a correspondence with Ralph Steadman which led to the creation of what we call our “sacred bat” you see on the head of our site. Mr. Steadman drew the Bat for us and even gave us orders which we follow the the letter this day and every day.
“I fully expect you all, in sacred Bat country, that you live up to
the strange and sinister calling that bats sounds bestow upon their
devotees. You may have been chosen and because of it, you are now
responsible souls of darkness and deep thoughts…” – Ralph Steadman
Ticket Bought, Ride Taken.
Alex Gibney’s new documentary GONZO: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson presents a balanced portrayal of the controversial cult hero.
text Heather Reagan
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, speaking in a ‘70s-era interview:
“The myth has taken over, and I find myself an appendage. Not only am I no longer necessary, but I’m in the way. It would be much better if I died. Then people could take the myth and make films.”
It’s quite possible that Hunter Thompson’s most singular gift to America—his remarkable prescience and clar-ity of vision about the state of our nation, and his dogged insistence on saying it like he saw it—may in the end have been his biggest personal liability. For forty years, we’ve been wishing he wasn’t right about loads of things: about Nixon, about the death of hope, about George W. Bush. About 9-11’s probable legacy, how politicians worth electing will almost never win, and the terminal illness of the American Dream. Most often, though, he’s been right.
It just really blows that one of the things he was wrong about is that “it would be much better if [he] died.” Because now he’s gone. He threatened to pull the trigger for over 25 years, and in 2005, he did it. He did get one part right: People have made films. People are making films. People will continue to make films. There’s a reason we keep talking about Hunter S. Thompson. He was exemplary in a way your grandmother might not immediately understand, and in a way that George W. Bush will never understand. But he was exemplary nonetheless.
More on the Good Dr. after the jump.
Writer/director Alex Gibney’s new documentary GONZO: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, using careful structuring, archetypal music, archival footage and photographs, Johnny Depp in voiceover reading Hunter’s own words, Ralph Steadman’s ingeniously distilling imagery, interviews with Hunter’s friends, family, and contemporaries, and well-placed recreations starring a Hunter stand-in, presents a balanced portrayal of the controversial cult hero. It’s detailed without being exhausting, focusing on periods of Hunter’s life that are key to understanding his development and his significance. It positions the man firmly within a political, social and historical context, helping to illustrate how the times made the man, the man made his character—and, ultimately, how the times compelled the man to become his character. And while it’s clearly a sympathetic portrayal, the film doesn’t fall prey to the prostrating hero-worship that Hunter tends to incite.
Gibney chose not to use a traditional “narrator” for the film: he instead lets the facts, the people who knew Hunter, and Hunter himself tell the story. Getting his viewers to form their own opinions seems a common theme for Gibney as a documentarian. He lays out his stories in a way that exercises the brain. And if we want to make another sweeping generalization (and oh, we do), his documentaries work to detangle and deconstruct the state of the American soul at the dawn of the 21st century. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) turns a story of corporate corruption into a thought-provoking analysis of American “values” and the subjugation of individual morality for corporate profit. Taxi to the Dark Side (which won the 2008 Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature”) stretches out the chain of events leading up to Abu Ghraib, adding weight to its links with the story of an innocent Afghan cab driver who died at the hands of his U.S. military interrogators. The doc also brings us to meet some of the interrogators, and we are obliged to understand how easily “following orders” translated to unspeakable acts of torture. As a producer or writer, Gibney has also tackled the American occupation of Iraq (No End in Sight, 2007), the uneasy relationship between big business and renewable energy (Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006), and Henry Kissinger’s purported war crimes (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, 2002). And the upcoming Casino Jack will, using as a lens the career of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, examine the peculiar ways in which our government is today bought and sold.
On first glance, a documentary on the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson might not seem a logical step in this arc. In fact, there’s nobody better than Hunter to illustrate the struggle between our idealized American “values” and our awareness of how difficult it can be to adhere to these values within the world we’ve created. Hunter S. Thompson was one giant steaming reeking pile of individual will, original thought, audacity and creativity. He felt deeply the sanctity of the supposed “American Dream,” and so spent most of his life writing about what he foresaw as its impending, choking death. Hunter was an incorrigible patriot who could so clearly imagine the beauty of what we could be, and so relentlessly revealed us for what we really are. In his review of Hunter’s only novel, The Rum Diary, Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy isolates the “idiopathic anger of the righteous outlaw” that pervaded Hunter’s work. As Hunter himself put it (writing of the Hells Angels of the 1960s), “In a nation of frightened dullards, there’s always a sorry shortage of outlaws. And those few who make the grade are always welcome.” So, early in the film, reads Johnny Depp, setting up the paradigm by which we begin to understand Hunter.
“Hunter S. Thompson was one giant steaming reeking pile of individual will, original thought, audacity and creativity.
“America loves outlaws, mostly because none of us are really outlaws,” assesses Gibney. This helps to explain the incredibly wide-ranging appeal of an unapologetic, unpredictable, drug-addled, gun-happy, utterly self-indulgent and often quite cruel man. People across social strata admire Hunter. He may have been a crazy freak, but he stood up against tyranny, and consistently fought on the side of individual freedom and justice. He broke rules, he asked questions, and he said what everyone else was afraid to say. And he was incredibly entertaining while doing all of it.
This picture of Hunter emerges in large part from the interviews peppered liberally throughout the documentary: Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Gary Hart and Pat Buchanan reminisce about the odd pleasures of being deconstructed by Hunter’s pen. Rolling Stone EIC Jann Wenner shares stories of the galvanizing politics of the day, and of Hunter’s electric writing, incredible energy and astronomical expense budgets. His ex-wives and son explain what it was like to coexist with Hunter’s two very different personalities. Author/journalist Tom Wolfe paints him as a modern-day Mark Twain. Hells Angel Sonny Barger calls him one of America’s greatest writers and biggest jerks he ever knew, all in the same breath. Historian (and executor of Hunter’s estate) Douglas Brinkley provides valuable context and insight on his life and career. And that’s just a sample.
Throughout his life, Hunter liked to explain that he became a writer because he simply wasn’t capable of doing anything else. While this may be true (the U.S. Air Force certainly agreed), this bypasses the undeniable truth that Hunter had a real zeal for the written word, matched by a talent and a style that will forever remain original. His natural instincts formulated an approach that revolutionized journalism, breaking (or at least bending) pretty much every journalistic rule there was.
When Hunter was commissioned by The Nation to do a story on the legendary Hells Angels motorcycle gang, he didn’t just visit the scene, ask questions and go home—he infiltrated it, existing within it for nearly a year. The articles and book that resulted weren’t yet ‘Gonzo,’ as Hunter’s inimitable style came to be known, but it was definitely the new journalism. It was participatory; he was an integral part of the story. What’s more, he wrote about his subject in a style that suited it. A New York Times review of the book summarized well the book’s excited energy and insider sensibility, stating “his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust.”
Gibney’s approach to his documentary subject mirrors the latter method. He explains, “That’s what I think the new documentary is about. It’s all about finding a style that both expresses something about the subject and about the author in a way that isn’t ‘reported’, but is also not inaccurate.” Accordingly, a Gibney documentary about Hunter S. Thompson employs techniques that bring alive the documents, ideas, stories told, and Hunter himself: Johnny Depp, seated at the Woody Creek Tavern, candlelight glinting against the bourbon bottles, reads Hunter’s words while waving a gun; we ride in back of “Hunter” on his motorcycle, screaming 110 down a twisting seaside highway; interspersed clips of his appearance on the ‘60s quiz show To Tell the Truth set up our overarching question of “Who is the real Hunter S. Thompson?”
Gibney works to establish his concept early in the film. You see a photograph of Hunter aiming a gun at his typewriter—and then suddenly it’s a real gun, and it fires, and it’s a real typewriter—and then you watch as it all pops right back into the photograph. Says Gibney, “I think that stuff like that helps create a set-up, a cinematic rule, that allows you in. To feel an emotion that you wouldn’t, in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.” (One of Gibney’s upcoming projects is to document the fabled journey of Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. He says, “You’ll feel like you’re there. That’s the goal.”)
So the role of the “new journalist” becomes not simply to tell, but rather to show/explain/inhabit, framing and phrasing the subject in a way that assigns meaning and finds life. For Hunter, this meant sometimes stretching or rearranging the truth, or even outright fabrication. When he reported on a supposed rumor that Ed Muskie, Presidential Nominee Hubert H. Humphrey’s slated VP, was suffering the effects of Ibogaine, a powerful psychoactive drug, he failed to report that the rumor was originating on the page as he wrote it. The claim was his commentary on Muskie’s instability as a politician and a person. Hunter didn’t mean for it to be taken literally; mostly, he meant to get your attention. He joyed in shocking you. And anyway, if you actually believed something so ridiculous, well then you were stupid and Hunter didn’t care what you thought.
“He’s a reporter with a wild imagination,” assesses Wolfe. “He’s not trying to fool you—you know immediately that he is filtering reality through what Hunter called ‘Gonzo’.” He would show you how he saw it, so you could then see it as it really was.
When Hunter began his career, he saw himself as a photojournalist. Somewhere along the way the pen took precedence over the camera, but the whole picture that Hunter had to show consisted of both words and images. When he met artist Ralph Steadman in 1970, Brinkley says, “It was their chemistry that made ‘Gonzo’ possible.” Ralph was “someone who saw the thing in pictures as he saw it in words.” Ralph and Hunter’s seminal coverage of the 1970 Kentucky Derby set the protocol: they got the story by merging with the story. They setout to show that (as the title of the article phrased it) “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” and so, Hunter acting the impolitic beast and Ralph performing semi-mutilatory open-heart surgery by penstroke, they raised themselves to dizzying heights of decadence and depravity. And it worked. Here was ‘Gonzo.’ Here was the formula that, by virtue of holding nothing back and nothing sacred, established an entirely new journalistic plane.
To understand Hunter’s evolution, you have to understand the events that shaped him: this is one of GONZO’s fundamental assertions, and largely what sets it above the typical take on Hunter’s life and career. For example, it illustrates how Hunter’s “utopia” forever remained early-‘60s San Francisco. In the sparkle and abandon of Haight-Ashbury and the potsmokehaze open space of Golden Gate Park, it was possible to be optimistic about the future of the nation and its population.
This optimism found its political embodiment in the figures of John and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom Hunter admired greatly. Brinkley explains, “He liked that they had such hubris: they could be great politicians, but play hard at midnight. That was important to him.” The camera then pans upward on a Polaroid photo of John and Bobby Kennedy standing in a doorway, backlit to shades of angels, with these words handwritten at the bottom: “Kick Ass, Die Young.”
With their deaths bloomed disillusion. But the real groin-kick for Hunter came during the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He was in Chicago to cover it, and from his hotel room witnessed “at least ten beatings… that were worse than anything I’d ever seen the Hells Angels do.” He continues, “I left in a state of hysterical angst, convinced by what I’d seen that the American Dream was clubbing itself to death.”
For the rest of his writing career, Hunter would return to this central theme of the “American Dream.” He was stuck to it like flypaper. He would write its prolonged death scene, capturing each nuance on the page—and beside him, Ralph would sketch feverishly, trying to get at the exact, grisly contours of its death mask. Till they found the death certificate, though, they would keep up the hunt, looking under beds in gaudy casino hotel rooms, asking at taco stands outside Barstow. They would remain perpetually in search of the American Dream.
Dr. Samuel Johnson said, “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” The film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas takes this quote as its epigraph, and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson could have called it a motto.
Because in the end, it was all too much. He felt it too keenly, and so didn’t want to. Hunter created his alter ego, the abrasive, drug-addicted, profoundly cynical, hedonistic “Dr. Raoul Duke,” partly as conduit, partly as escape, and partly as excuse. Hunter could now say or do anything, because he could make “Raoul” say or do anything. Gibney explains: “In his heyday, he was living inside and outside: he’s playing a character, and he’s going to write about this character that he’s playing.”
Hunter’s penchant for drugs and liquor is wellknown, mostly because he gleefully told us about it at every opportunity. The opening credits of the film remind us that Hunter was always fascinated by “the edge”—in getting as close as he could to it without going over. Raoul, however—it wasn’t totally clear that Raoul would know when to stop. Raoul was like that. And yes, to review, Hunter and Raoul were the same person. So you see that this was bound to be a problem.
Eventually, he became the character he and Ralph had drawn him to be. Raoul was the one people wanted to hear about, the one they wanted to meet. Friends and family describe a man who had started thinking of himself in the third-person. In part, says Gibney, this was a result of a focused awareness of his probable “legacy,” liberally mixed with narcissism. “It’s like Tom Wolfe said, he was trapped in Gonzo. At the end of the day, is it really a revolutionary act to be four hours late to some event and then babble incoherently? No.”
His suicide, too, bore sad imprints of this thirdperson viewpoint. “He wanted to believe he would go out this way,” says Gibney, head shaking. “He probably thought that someone was going to yell ‘cut’.”
In the same ‘70s-era interview in which Hunter had posited that it would be better for everyone if he died, he said, “I feel like I am a walking, glowing monument to the American Dream in action—really.” At 5:42pm on February 20, 2005, the 67-yearold American Dream committed suicide in his kitchen, his son, daughter-in-law and six-year-old grandson in the next room. Reportedly, he’d been on the phone with his wife Anita at the time. He’d just asked her to come home after the gym so they could work on his ESPN column. She’d said okay, and then she describes hearing a tapping or clicking noise. Now, she’s pretty sure it was the sound of him loading the gun.
Not a particularly gallant way to go out, when you think about it. But, as with everything, he had done it on his own terms.
“People manipulate writers who play by the rules,” says Gibney. “In his best moments, [Hunter] beat them, because he could do things that other people weren’t allowed to do—or didn’t think they were allowed to do.” Gibney names Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as helping to carry on Hunter’s journalistic torch. In a world where you have to check which channel you’re watching before you decide whether you believe the “news,” Stewart and Colbert have set up a new model for spreading the truth about the inconsistency, stupidity and ridiculousness sometimes espoused by our government, our media and our society. Anybody who’s seen Colbert’s masterful skewering of Dubya at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner won’t imagine but that Hunter would’ve been tickled purple.
Gibney says, “To tell the truth is a revolutionary act.” He speaks eloquently of the danger of what happens to a population when it stops being curious. In his documentaries, Gibney asks difficult questions, and tries as best he can to suss out their answers—honestly, humbly, fairly and with sensitivity.
In discussing the motivation for making this film, Gibney relates, “It seemed to me now that there is a moment when Hunter is important. He has something to say to us now.” The interviewees seem unanimous in this sentiment. Hunter had been threatening to commit suicide for years. Everyone knew the day would come. (Ralph Steadman: “He told me twenty-five years ago that he would feel trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable.”) But when you have a source as seemingly unlikely as Pat Buchanan expressing that “he had so much more he could give his readers and his people—and himself,” you better understand the magnitude of what the world has lost.
Talking of Hunter’s death, Ralph writes, “But you leave us with a blueprint, old sport. Take it up with the gods. Send word.” “Mr. Tambourine Man” may have been Hunter’s theme song—Hunter often wanted it all to go away, and so made it, using whatever manner of sedative or hallucinogen was closest at hand—but at base, he never totally stopped believing in the power of the individual to enact real change. He did what he did because he thought he could make a difference. And he did.
When I ask Gibney what Hunter’s response might be to the current political scene, he responds,
“I hope he’d get angry. That was when he was at his best—when he was really angry… and he had that sense of humor, that bitter irony. Laugh/cry/laugh/ cry.” As in, you laugh, you cry, you laugh again, and then you cry again, because sometimes, it’s the only imaginable response.
Hunter was angry. For him, anger was a defining force. No matter your opinion on gun control, once you see the world through his eyes, you totally get why he kept an arsenal of firearms at his Owl Creek farm, and why he took such pleasure in shooting the crap out of targets and clay pigeons and personal electronics and the goddamn sky.
The “blueprint” Ralph means is exactly this: Get angry. Raise hell. Break the rules, especially when you think the rules are stupid. Laugh your ass off—most especially when you think your ideals may be on the verge of being exterminated for moronic reasons nobody understands. Say what you think, and say it loud. And have a fucking good time while you’re here, because otherwise, what’s the point.
In Hunter’s famous summary statement, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Anyway Hunter left. He got tired. His good friend Johnny Depp (in accordance with his wishes) spent well over a billion dollars building him a 150foot cannon that shot out 34 firework casings which had been packed with Hunter’s ashes. Hunter’s in the air. Inhale, and understand that it’s your turn.
Q&A with illustrator Ralph Steadman
Hunter was always “in search of” the American Dream; this is vividly reinforced within the documentary. How do you think Hunter defined “The American Dream”? Do you think he ever “found” it?
It should have been around the Taco Stand but it was never found. The nearest place I guess would be the kitchen at Owl Farm on his working top—inside the golfball typewriter. Or Nixon stole it—Hunter said he was a crook.
Any thoughts on what Hunter might have to say about the current political scene? What would he think of our candidates?
He would probably have balked at two smart Democrats with egos bigger than both of them destroying the one chance to get them both in on a balanced ticket, and give Hillary her one chance to be President while Obama bin Barack has got all his future ahead of him. Now you will have McCain, and he will pretend not to go to war ever again…
Tell me about your first meeting with Hunter using five words or less.
He was bigger than me!
What do you miss most about Hunter?
His hard-assed insults.
Popular culture paints a very specific picture of Hunter S. Thompson. What would it surprise people to know about him?
That he was an extremely polite gentleman with elderly people.
What do you like best about how GONZO: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson turned out? As a film? As an accurate representation of Hunter?
It was the most accurate because it truly placed Hunter within the politics of his era. Got inside his soul with a meat hook and left him un-injured and whole.
Is there anyone in modern culture today who is carrying Hunter’s torch onward? Whether in politics or pop culture or the deserts of Namibia?
There is no one who can be like Hunter. There are loads of wannabes who try.
Why are we still talking about Hunter?
Because he was very funny and perceptive.