Bedtime for "Gonzo"

Alex Gibney talks about his Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" and his new look at Hunter S. Thompson, American hero. (Plus: Audio podcast.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 4, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

Gonzo journalism pioneer Hunter S. Thompson and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney don't seem like the most natural pairing, at least at first. Gibney's films, including the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side" (which has produced an ugly dispute between Gibney and the film's distributor) and the Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," essentially present old-school investigative journalism, filtered through a pop sensibility. Gibney himself has compared his research-intensive work to archaeology, and I doubt anyone has ever described Thompson's work in those terms.

Without question one of the most influential journalists of the past 50 years, Thompson was both immensely talented and immensely undisciplined. His bookend masterpieces "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," permanently changed the relationship between the reporter, the self and the subject in American journalism. Even in his best work, Thompson walked a thin line between honesty and fatal self-indulgence, and over the last 30 years of his life he gradually slid into booze-hound, gun-crazed, paranoid self-caricature, closer to the Uncle Duke of "Doonesbury" than to the lacerating wit who ripped through the mendacious superficiality of American political and civic life.

Gibney's immensely funny and sad new motion picture "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" -- the "Dr." was a mail-order divinity degree -- is principally intended to rehabilitate Thompson and introduce his work to a new audience. The primary focus of Gibney's mixture of interviews, archival footage and imaginative re-creation is the years from 1965 to 1975, when Thompson rose from obscurity to become a highly paid Rolling Stone correspondent and counterculture hero and wrote almost all his best stuff. Yet even at the end of his life, as Gibney reminds us, Uncle Duke had his moments of seeing through the charade and glimpsing the machinery grinding away beneath it.

In the fall of 2001, when the towers fell in Lower Manhattan, Thompson was writing an online sports column for ESPN. Of course he couldn't be expected to stay on topic, and while his column published on Sept. 12 is full of inaccuracies -- he estimated that more than 20,000 people were killed in the attacks -- it has weathered better than most of the mystified, pseudo-patriotic drivel written in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Gibney has Johnny Depp, who appears throughout the film as a narrator cum Thompson impersonator, read excerpts in an early scene:

The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives ... It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerrilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.

We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once. Who knows? Not even the Generals in what remains of the Pentagon or the New York papers calling for WAR seem to know who did it or where to look for them.

This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed -- for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won't hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.

I think that stands among the most lucid and penetrating passages of Thompson's entire career. If he had been able to write and think that clearly most of the time -- possibly by staying off the Scotch and the coke for longer than a day at a time -- he might not have ended up shooting himself at his Colorado home in February 2005. (Some 9/11 conspiracy theorists have contended that Thompson was working on an exposé about the World Trade Center attack and was murdered to hush him up. Thankfully, Gibney does not go there.)

It probably took someone as professional and level-headed as Gibney to get this movie made at all. He got full cooperation from Thompson's widow, ex-wife and son and unearthed treasures from the author's collection of audiotapes and home movies. We see early and late Thompson TV appearances, and interviews with Hells Angels, former presidents and candidates, political friends and foes, reporting colleagues and rivals. It's an amazing all-star cast, from Jimmy Carter and George McGovern (perhaps the only two politicians to evade Thompson's wrath) to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, unlikely drinking buddy Pat Buchanan, and "New Journalism" competitor Tom Wolfe.

There are snippets about Thompson's unhappy early life in Kentucky and his semi-depraved later life in Rocky Mountain isolation (in a 2003 interview with Salon, he called himself "an elderly dope fiend living out in the wilderness"). But most of Gibney's material is meant to celebrate the meteoric and unlikely rise of a logorrheic autodidact who made his own flaws and excesses part of every story he wrote and who loved America so passionately that he felt the need at every opportunity to "piss down the throats of these Nazis" who ran the place.

Between 1965 and 1975, Thompson published his breakthrough book "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," a mordantly funny and insightful work that nearly got him killed; a derisive article about the Haight-Ashbury that made the San Francisco neighborhood internationally famous; the article "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," with which the gonzo tradition was born; the mind-bending memoir-novel "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," which probably did more to make drug abuse seem cool than anyone or anything else since Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and the Merry Pranksters (coincidentally or not, the subjects of an upcoming Alex Gibney film); and the epoch-making "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72," a book that reshaped political journalism in its own image. As Gibney captures hilariously in the film, in 1970 Thompson also ran and nearly won a patently ridiculous "Freak Power" campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colo., where he lived.

Especially in the '70s and '80s, Thompson spawned legions of journalistic imitators, and it was almost always a bad idea. (The same could be said about Stanley Booth's book "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones," probably the best thing ever written about 1960s rock 'n' roll culture -- and a massively terrible example for younger rock journalists.) Most of that emulation was a matter of run-on sentences and substance abuse, when what today's journalism really needs is a fraction of Thompson's unjaded ferocity and righteous anger. As Gibney has said, Raoul Duke's spirit seems to live on largely among comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, not among the so-called professionals.

I recently joined Alex Gibney for breakfast at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, one of those media-centric whoremonger power lounges that would have fascinated and appalled Hunter Thompson, and where he might have needed "two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers [and] laughers" just to start the day. We had none of those things, sad to tell, and I had to begin by quizzing Gibney a little about his teapot-tempest dispute with ThinkFilm, the distributor of "Taxi to the Dark Side," which recently prompted a front-page story in the New York Times. (Listen to the interview here.)

I don't want to eat up too much of our time talking about your last film instead of your new one, but "Taxi to the Dark Side" has been in the news lately. So let's review: You won the Oscar for best documentary, but then the film failed to return the dividends that everyone involved was hoping for. You ended up grossing less than $300,000, which I'm sure was a big disappointment. And now you're in arbitration with ThinkFilm, trying to get the distribution rights back and also some payment for damages. You're actually arguing that they mishandled the film to the point of fraud?

Well, I would divide it into two parts. I think they did a reasonable job up to the point we won the Oscar. And the whole strategy, which was a sensible strategy for a film about such a difficult and dark topic, was to win awards and capitalize on those awards, which give people permission to go see the film. But after we won the Oscar, nothing happened. In fact, the Web site was taken down and we didn't know why. We were mystified, and then over time we learned that they hadn't paid any of the vendors. They hadn't paid the labs, so they couldn't manufacture more prints. They hadn't paid the Web site people, so the site was taken down. All the publicists didn't get paid; one single mom was owed $100,000. Clearly, they weren't putting anything in advertising. One week when the movie was playing in New York at the Quad Cinema, I looked in the New Yorker, New York magazine and Time Out. Never mind the fact that there weren't any ads. There weren't even any listings.

So the only way that you knew about the movie is if you happened to walk by the marquee, and generally speaking, that's not a good strategy -- to rely on foot traffic for advertising. Our view is that ThinkFilm didn't disclose their financial condition to us, and they certainly didn't disclose it to us as we're coming in to Oscar time. I don't want to get too much into the weeds with this, but [ThinkFilm president] Mark Urman was quoted saying how he tried extra hard to move the film to HBO at great cost to Think. How was it at great cost to them? HBO paid them a large sum of money in order to delay the DVD release, and ThinkFilm demanded that they be paid instantly. Like, they had to be wired the money within hours of signing the contract, probably so they could use it for another film.

So it was very disappointing. You know, I respect Mark's taste in films, but he should have said to his financiers, "Look, you're gonna have to pay all the people we owe all this money to." It was embarrassing, because there were a lot of people who gave breaks to the film because they believed so strongly in the message. To see them get stiffed, that was a bitter pill to swallow. We are trying to compensate some of the vendors. It's ThinkFilm that owes them money, and we're trying to help them out. So the idea that we're somehow being greedy is ridiculous. We're looking for a businesslike relationship, and we don't feel like we got it.

This whole affair seems like unfortunate testimony to the problems the whole independent film business is having right now. We've got an Oscar-winning independent filmmaker and a respected indie distributor, most likely with similar political and artistic visions of the world, at each other's throats.

Well, Hunter Thompson put it in perspective. Let's see if I can get this right. He said the entertainment business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free and good men die like dogs. There was also, said Hunter, a negative side.

Yeah, let's turn to Thompson and "Gonzo," which you premiered at Sundance to a very strong response, and which opens in a whole bunch of cities on the Fourth of July. Is it a patriotic film?

Absolutely. We're celebrating American independence.

For people who know your work, not just "Taxi to the Dark Side" but your hit film from a few years ago, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," this might seem like a departure. It's lighter subject matter, at least in some ways.

Well, look, someone in Australia described "Enron" as a comedy that turns to farce and ends in horror. Because it was a story about fraud and illusion, it had a certain amount of laughs in it, even though it ends rather darkly. I think of "Gonzo" as a dark comedy. There's certainly a lot of political content, but there are also a lot of laughs in there. I needed those, and Hunter -- I think his great talent was to take this anger he had and to turn it into comedy. That was his weapon.

Yeah, it's a dark comedy about somebody who was clearly a revolutionary writer and journalist and also somebody who wound up...

Blowing his brains out.

Yeah, a dysfunctional alcoholic, drug addict and suicide. What drew you to Thompson in the first place? Were you a fan?

I was a fan, but let's say I wasn't one of those people that read every semicolon. I read "Vegas." I read "Campaign Trail." And I read the reprint of "The Derby." But I hadn't dug into Thompson in a long time. I had read a lot of his later stuff and I was always amused by Garry Trudeau's version in "Doonesbury." I followed the exploits of the good doctor from time to time, but this movie gave me the opportunity to kind of dig in.

As Frank Rich pointed out in a piece not long after Hunter committed suicide -- you remember that guy Jeff Gannon, the sometime male prostitute who was somehow, mysteriously, given a White House press badge? Whenever Scott McClellan or anyone else would get into trouble, Gannon would wave his hand and say, "I think it's terrible. These people are running down this administration. They're trying to do such good." They were getting actors to pose as journalists, and at a time like that, you need somebody who's going to ruthlessly start goring some sacred cows.

I definitely felt, when I watched the film, that Thompson provides an instructive example to today's journalists. Maybe both a positive and a negative example.

A lot of positive and a lot of negative. You can't really imitate Hunter. He was unique, but there were times when he got it dead-on. What was it Frank Mankiewicz [who directed George McGovern's 1972 campaign] said in the film? Hunter's coverage of the '72 campaign was the least factual, but most accurate coverage.

Yeah. At his best, he was able to do that. Highly personal commentary that captured the spirit of things better than objective reporting.

Sometimes even flying into fantasy is useful. Ed Muskie was a peculiar guy, and he had this kind of stone face that would occasionally erupt into rage, or in one famous incident, crying. Hunter's way of dealing with that was not simply to say "Mr. Muskie, with his long, drawn-out face," but was to imagine that somehow Ed Muskie was hooked on this strange Congolese hallucinogen called Ibogaine. He had all the hallmarks of Ibogaine addiction! Rage, a stone face, you know. They said he was deep into it. And then some people in the media picked it up and actually treated it as a story, and I think if you read it in the original, it's pretty clear it's a tall tale in the Mark Twain tradition.

As Hunter says in the movie, when somebody's asking him about it, "Well, I didn't say he was taking anything. I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was taking something, and that was true. Of course, I started the rumor in Milwaukee." So he was playing with all sorts of conventions and having a good time.

Yeah, it was almost like the Onion before its day. Newsweek or Time picked up the story and ran it as if it was for real. And suddenly Ed Muskie was a drug addict.

Right. "It's trouble on the Congo for the senator from Maine!"

Your approach to storytelling, to documentary film, is closely based on hard-hitting investigative journalism. It's really different from Thompson's approach, which is highly personal and deliberately outrageous.

It is different, but it's liberating to think about. And there are moments, I would argue, when my work exhibits, in a formal way, the playfulness of Hunter. In "Enron," there is a moment when we're talking about the enormous risks these guys were taking. And then we cut to this skydiver falling through space. Well, that's not Ken Lay! That guy doesn't work for Enron! We had fun with all these wacky Motocross and extreme-sports things that they were doing. We used bits from horror movies as a playful way of saying, of expressing, what is supposed to be expressed in monotone, third-person narration that dutifully explains the facts. Sometimes if you cut to a guy in the basement of some horror film, pulling these levers, that says more about what these loonies at Enron were saying or doing than describing the details of mark-to-market accounting.

In the Thompson film we also tried to have fun with the tall-tale thing, in a formal way. We found this audiotape of Hunter and [longtime sidekick] Oscar Acosta at a taco stand, where they ask this woman, "We're looking for the American dream. We don't know where it is." And she says, "Well, I think it's over by the psychiatrist's office on State Street." We have the original audiotape, which is fantastic. It was a great find. It's published in the "Vegas" book verbatim, which I didn't even realize. He was tripping, but that was true. But the way we filmed it was, we got some actors and we made it look like a home movie. At first, it plausibly could be. Then suddenly the scene opens up and you're seeing the taco stand from three or four different angles -- inside, outside -- and it's clearly a movie, it's fiction.

Early on in the film, you see this photo of Hunter pointing a gun at a typewriter. We zoom in to his hand holding the gun, and then suddenly the hand becomes real and the gun shoots. It was a way of saying we're going to have some fun, a little bit like Thompson did. I approach this stuff by playing with the form, but being straight about the facts.

Here's one question that I come away with after seeing this film: How much of Thompson's wild-man persona was an act, and how much was it real? You know, he writes about staying up all night in a San Francisco motel, doing crank and typing out the manuscript of "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72." How much is he kind of fronting and playing with that, and how much is he recording what really happened?

It's hard to answer that. I mean, I think he was doing speed in tremendous amounts and going on these binges, but earlier on it was more of an act and less of the real McCoy. He kind of descended into his own character later in life. He was doing all the drugs and all the alcohol all the time, and it started to slow him down. Rather than pretending that he was always on speed, maybe he was on speed a lot of the time. He used to have this big pill bottle. Tim Crouse [Thompson's Rolling Stone reporting partner] talks about how he would gently say, like a father figure, "Don't go for too many of those gray ones, Tim. Those are for people like me, not for you."

So there's no question that he was doing the drugs, but I think there was an act to it, too. He was creating a kind of action-hero figure for himself, and he was pretty serious about the writing. If you look at his output from '65 to '75, it's extraordinary. Somebody who was high all the time just can't crank it out like that.

You know, when I went back to Thompson's work after seeing your film, I read "Campaign Trail" for a piece I was writing about this year's campaign. And one thing that surprised me is that, on the one hand, he's totally spoofing the traditions of campaign journalism and ridiculing his fellow reporters, and on the other hand, he's capable of some remarkable feats of completely mainstream reporting.

Like at the Democratic convention.

Right, that's played completely straight. And sometimes he'll startle you with the things he pulls off. You remember the episode in 1968, when he somehow gets himself into the back seat of a limousine with Richard Nixon and they talk about football the whole way?

Sure, and that was a great credit to Hunter. Unlike a lot of the bloviators on TV today, Hunter was always interested in talking to people outside his tribe, to anybody really. So he pestered Pat Buchanan to get a ride with Nixon, he got in the limo, and for an hour he talks football with Nixon.

And as much as Thompson clearly hated Nixon, he gives him credit: Well, he did know a lot about football!

He describes these little details that Nixon clearly knew about the game, where certain pro players came from, and where they had gone to college. He was impressed.

Speaking of Pat Buchanan: He's in your film, and you might not automatically think of him as one of Thompson's friends. They were diametrically opposed, at least politically, but it's clear that Buchanan respected and liked him.

No question. He loved Hunter. They used to battle it out late at night over a bottle of Wild Turkey.

I bet Buchanan could put it away, too.

I think he could. They would get hammered together and scream at each other about the Cold War. Buchanan's a smart guy, and I think he really was amused by Hunter. He loved him. He also points out that while Hunter was of the left, if you want to put it that way, he leveled some of his hardest hits on liberals, people like Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. He was a pomposity deflater. He went after everybody. Well, he was pretty gentle on George McGovern. Buchanan really liked the way Hunter captured how ridiculous the whole process is. People who are inside the process really do, at heart, understand what a ridiculous thing this political pageant is.

You're right in saying that Thompson arguably had a lot more distaste for mainstream liberals than, in some cases, for right-wingers. He hated Hubert Humphrey so much. Many Democrats felt very wounded by that. You know, Humphrey was a civil rights leader in the Senate, a loyal party soldier. And you have Thompson writing that he was addicted to some exotic kind of speed.

Wallet, he called it. He said they should stuff Hubert Humphrey in a bottle and let him float out in the Pacific Ocean on the Japan Current.

Thompson never stipulated whether there was any truth to that one, but it probably belongs in the same category...

As the stuff he wrote about Muskie. Again, though, it kind of captured something. If you see Humphrey, he's kind of artificially perky all the time.

I felt like we badly needed Hunter this year. I don't know what he would have made out of Clinton vs. Obama, or exactly what outrageous lies he'd be spreading about John McCain. But they'd be merciless.

I agree, but we needed the early Hunter, not the late Hunter. A guy operating at the peak of his powers.

That's right. Your movie is clearly an appreciation, but it's not a hagiography. You depict the decline in his later years, and it's not pretty. Was it the drinking and drugs finally catching up with him, or do you think those things were symptomatic of something else?

At the end of the day, the drinking really did him in. Whether it was the image that he had become obsessed with -- everyone was counting on him to be this gonzo character -- or whether he was afraid he was going to lose his muse if the drugs and drinking stopped, I'm not sure. Because I do think the drugs early on kind of loosened him up. You can see the writing change after the drugs start -- in an interesting way, in a good way. But at the end of the day, he couldn't kick the booze. It was destroying him. His health got worse and worse and worse, and he wasn't ready for that. It wasn't pretty at all.

I can come up with all these rationalizations for him. People are amused by you for keeping it up, for getting up at one o'clock in the afternoon or whatever with your tumbler of Chivas Regal and your little packet of cocaine. It is amusing, but living that life every day takes its toll.

One of the most upsetting things in your film is this moment when you see the wheels fall off for Thompson. It happens when he goes to Zaire to cover the Ali-Foreman fight in 1974. Such a delicious subject for Hunter Thompson, such a strange cultural event and enormous athletic event. The conflict between the wily veteran and the young giant, with an ending that shocked the world. A fight that itself became the subject of a great documentary.

"When We Were Kings." Which we quote in the film.

And he never wrote anything about it, not a word. What the hell happened?

Well, I think he'd already become something else, you know. It was like when we hear athletes talk about themselves in the third person. Hunter had become more important than the story. He was clearly high as a kite, snorting coke the whole time. They had these huge duffle bags full of marijuana. While the fight was going on, he playfully emptied one into the pool and just watched the dope go through the drains while he was sipping his Scotch. So he was high, way high, and there was a mixture of narcissism and a growing disability, where he was just having too much fun not doing his work.

But I also think something weird happened there, and this is just a guess. But by all accounts, he loved Muhammad Ali, and he was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. He was thinking, you know, about all these people he had backed, all the noble losers who had lost. And coming into the fight. everybody said Foreman was just going to take Ali apart. Here was a guy who was so big, and so brutal. He had demolished Joe Frazier. So maybe Hunter decided that this is not going to be any kind of fight and so screw it.

And after the fight happened, it must have had a peculiar effect on his psyche. It's like, once you stop believing, and then what you formerly believed in wins -- it's like being a Red Sox fan for 20 years and thinking, Oh, I'm so tired of this now. And then you start rooting for the Yankees, just so that they'll win. Right? And then the Red Sox beat the Yankees? Well, you can't take any pleasure in that anymore. It's kind of debilitating. It shows a loss of faith, and I think Hunter had that. There was a moment when he just lost faith, and that was hard for him to reckon with.

So he got fucked up there. And then he didn't recover from that, I think. Not only did he not file anything -- I mean, zippo -- but I think he had also undermined his own sense of commitment to the other side of the American psyche. To the sense of possibility, rather than the fear and loathing.

"Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" opens July 4 in New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas; July 11 in Cleveland, Detroit, Santa Cruz, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., St. Louis, Columbus, Ohio and San Antonio, Texas; and July 18 in Bend, Ore., Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., Durham, N.C., Eugene, Ore., Indianapolis, Kansas City, Madison, Wis., Nashville, New Haven, Conn., North Falmouth, Mass., and Dayton, Ohio, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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