we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…
The Rumble in the Jungle was fought the week after I was born. Yet, by the time Hunter S. Thompson shot himself on a Sunday evening in early 2005, I was thirty years old, married and it was the day my son turned seven months old. Those intervening thirty years, my lifetime, are barely covered in Gonzo: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson, the new documentary released today. And it’s not hard to see why.
Sondi, Hunter’s first wife, mentions that people have written her about how Hunter went out on top with a bang. She corrects that notion in the film. He wasn’t on top anymore, hadn’t been on top for a long time. His best writing was behind him and he knew it. And so those last thirty years flash by in just a few minutes, with the various interviewees discussing how hard it was for him during those years, how little he accomplished in terms of his writing. It is at this point that Jann Wenner, describing his friend, becomes so choked up that he actually stops the interview.
What becomes so tragic, what they can’t talk about is how the talent had seemed to desert him; how Hunter could still produce but what he wrote was no longer the same. He had written one of the great journalism books (Hell’s Angels), one of the great American novels (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and one of the great political books (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72) before the age of 35. And that period of amazing productivity, that time when he blazed a new trail through American journalism is what the film focuses on, when Kurt Vonnegut described him as “that rare sort of American author that must be read.” And rightly so that they pin their focus on that nine or so years when Hunter was at the height of his craft.
I obviously never met Hunter. I only knew him through his work which I have been reading and rereading for some fifteen years. I had completely forgotten he was even at the Rumble in the Jungle, precisely because he never wrote the piece. He tripped out, went swimming during the bout (there are great pictures that Ralph Steadman drew at that moment that he shows during the film) and never wrote the piece. I don’t remember that he was there because he only exists to me through his writing. And during the last thirty years, everything after that point, he got wrapped up in being who he was and knowing the people he knew and the writing became less important and less steady. There were some great pieces, of course, but they were more spread out.
What’s remarkable about the film is the complete access they were obviously given by everyone involved. In addition to interviews from such wide ranging people as George McGovern and Pat Buchanan, to colleagues like Tom Wolfe and Timothy Crouse, there are copious home films and audio tapes. We hear the original audio tapes that were transcribed to form parts of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. We saw vintage ads from his campaign for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970. There is a hilarious home movie of Hunter and Steadman (who we actually get to see draw on camera) discussing with a funeral director the planned memorial for Hunter (that was entirely funded by Johnny Depp, who excellently narrates the film, almost entirely with Hunter’s own words). There is great footage of Hunter driving around with a Nixon mask on.
The film does not mask Hunter’s great addictions to booze and pills. Though we don’t hear his great quote “I can’t recommend copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, but they’ve always worked for me,” but there is plenty of evidence of the depths of his substance abuse. And it seems that everyone was okay with it, while he was still producing great art. Ben Fong-Torres famously said “Don’t take anything Hunter says seriously. In fact, don’t take anything Hunter takes.” But then he added that Hunter can’t really be dismissed with a cheap one-liner, that his abuse is self-abuse and he doesn’t mean to hurt anyone else, and that he is, at heart, an American dreamer.
Gonzo will give you a glimpse into not only Hunter’s life and talent, but also the world that produced him. It deserves to be watched, not only if you were a fan of Hunter, but also if you want to understand the world we live in today. Watching George McGovern say, looking back at the 72 campaign, “I’m tired of old men in air conditioned rooms dreaming up wars for young men to die in,” one person in my theater started applauding. And there are plenty of moments where we can see the similarities between the Nixon era and today and understand, perhaps, why Hunter felt compelled to finally leave this world in the manner that he always told everyone he would. Or perhaps he knew the interaction Joseph Heller had with a young student in his last year of life: “You’ve never written anything since Catch-22 that was as good.” “Who has?” Heller replied.
Hunter could have felt the same about his own seminal works, as he rode the crest of that high and beautiful wave. I won’t quote the whole passage. It deserves to be read. It’s on page 68 of the Vintage trade paperback and Modern Library hardcover of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will appear in the final installment of the 100 Greatest Novels.