Heroes of Katrina, ghost of "Gonzo"

An electrifying Katrina documentary blows the doors off at Sundance, and Hunter S. Thompson returns from the dead to eviscerate ski-resort Hollywood reptiles.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 21, 2008 5:45PM (EST)

[UPDATED below.]

PARK CITY, Utah -- Snow has fallen overnight on the Wasatch Range, blanketing the just and the unjust alike in clean, pure whiteness: the two guys I heard closing a deal on the Prospector Square shuttle ("HBO says they have money for this. But do they have money for this?"); the young women in cleavage-enhancing uniforms who hand out swag bags at the "gifting villas" of Main Street; the irritated local at the overloaded transit center, a homebound skier who said he'd been waiting half an hour for his bus and who asked loudly, in tones of mock-mystification, "Where did all these people come from?"

From low places in the earth, friend. We came here from the canyons of Hollywood and the canyons of Manhattan, hauling suitcases of Monopoly money stained with unidentifiable, foul-smelling ooze and dragging sticky, thrice-used dreams behind us like elk carcasses. We crawled and we slithered and we hopped, reptilian or arthropodal or insectal life forms that still believe we are human and still believe the mind-bending, sextuple-distilled blend of American narcotic we brew, ingest and sell deserves the name "entertainment" or, still worse, "art." Then we meet each other in the Albertson's on Park Avenue, buying Tostitos and Utah's watery 3.2 percent beer at midnight on somebody else's dime, and pretend to be normal: Hey, how are the kids? When what we really mean is: Isn't it nice to be up here on a frozen mountaintop with the other subhumanoid parasites, devouring the gizzards of American culture?

Forgive me. I guess. I've just seen Alex Gibney's sad and hilarious new film "Gonzo: The Life & Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," narrated in high Thompsonian style by Johnny Depp, and I've also ingested massive doses of the powerful new designer hallucinogen from Burkina Faso that Gibney passed through the audience before the movie's premiere. So I can't tell how much of the above Raoul Duke-style rant stems from my own thoughts, or from the mesmeric mind-control skills that have helped Gibney become a pop-Zen master at the leading edge of nonfiction filmmaking -- or from the hive-mind trance state that seemed to provoke a zombie resurrection of the brilliant and self-destructive gonzo genius himself!

(OK, here's a Cliff Note for the bewildered: the mixture of fact and outrageous fantasy in the above paragraphs was typical in Thompson's reporting, as when he suggested that Sen. Edmund Muskie's erratic campaign performances in 1972 resulted from clandestine treatments with a Brazilian psychoactive called Ibogaine, which were causing the candidate to hallucinate. The mainstream media treated this concoction as a serious story -- some things never change -- and it did lasting damage to Muskie's campaign, which was monumentally unfair. Unless maybe, in cosmic terms, it wasn't.)

With the opening weekend almost over here in Park City, and the thickest hordes of partygoers and scene-makers set to disperse -- leaving the mountain in possession of the above-mentioned insect-like fleshapoids, such as myself -- Sundance 2008 is looking like a terrific festival for documentaries and a highly muddled one for narrative features. I'm off to see a highly touted no-budget Southern indie called "Ballast" very shortly, but I wanted to grab a minute to sing the praises of "Gonzo" and, even more, of a Katrina documentary called "Trouble the Water" whose Sunday premiere was one of those electrifying, emotional, unforgettable experiences that captures Sundance at its very best.

Filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (longtime collaborators of Michael Moore's) went to Louisiana in the wake of Katrina to make a film about the Louisiana National Guard, many of whose members had just returned from Iraq to find their hometowns in sub-Third World devastation. At a northern Louisiana shelter they ran into Kim and Scott Roberts, a married couple who described themselves as "street hustlers" from New Orleans' Ninth Ward. The Robertses and their friends had stayed through the storm, as the nearby levees broke and their neighborhood drowned, and Kim -- an irrepressible trash talker, aspiring rap and gospel performer and all-around unquenchable spirit -- had been filming the whole time, using a video camera she'd bought on the street for $20 and barely knew how to turn on.

I shouldn't spoil this movie for you, because I simply can't believe it won't come out of Sundance with a head of steam and a distribution deal in place. Let's just say that Kim Roberts' raw footage from the Ninth Ward captures a tale of thrilling human drama, terrible tragedy and unbelievable heroism among some of America's most stigmatized and downtrodden people -- and that Kim and Scott's post-Katrina story, as captured by Lessin and Deal, is even more amazing than that. No human being I can imagine could watch "Trouble the Water" and not be overwhelmed by grief and joy, and humbled by one's sudden awareness of one's own prejudices about the lives, passions and dreams of poor people. George W. Bush would weep buckets at this movie. (Maybe Dick Cheney wouldn't, but notice that I limited my target audience to human beings.)

When Kim (aka Black Kold Madina) finds the only surviving tape of her own music at a cousin's place in Memphis a few weeks after the storm, and launches into an impromptu performance of her song "Amazing" -- well, every show-biz cliché you can think of applies. The audience of film-industry professionals and affluent ticket-buying ski-resorters went apeshit, and not for the only time. Kim and Scott Roberts had flown to Utah for the premiere -- which may have been kind of dumb, considering that Kim is 38 weeks pregnant! -- and received an explosive, uproarious standing ovation after the film. We cried, we laughed, we cheered and we generally felt as if our insect exoskeletons had melted away, at least temporarily.

It's lovely that the Robertses are being treated as heroes here, because that's what they are. But Sundance is of course the ultimate high-end liberal enclave, and the issues raised in such effortless and moving fashion by "Trouble the Water" go far beyond one family's story of redemption, no matter how remarkable. Danny Glover, who helped produce the film, spoke eloquently afterwards about New Orleans as a place where "the global South meets the global North" and where a brief window of opportunity exists to do battle against a redevelopment model that's based on the tourist and service economies -- and on a policy of malign neglect toward neighborhoods where people like Scott and Kim Roberts live. Then we walked out of the Park City library into the falling snow, dried our tears and started to look for taxis and dinner reservations and warm places to wrestle with our souls.

[UPDATE:] Breaking news from Park City! To ramp up the unlikely true-life human drama quotient of "Trouble the Water" still further, Kim Roberts, aka rapper Black Kold Madina, the 38-weeks-pregnant subject and star of the film, is pregnant no longer! She was driven through the snowstorm early on Monday morning and gave birth to a healthy baby girl in Salt Lake City at 6 a.m. (The vital statistics are seven pounds, one ounce.) Yes, that means that her daughter, presumably conceived in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, was born on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the nation's whitest and most conservative state. Really, what more can you say? Mother and daughter are reported to be fine and recovering comfortably.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Johnny Depp Movies New Orleans