Now or Later
The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others—the living—are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now or Later.
—Hunter S. Thompson, “Midnight on the Coast Highway,” 1965
Hunter Thompson used to type out The Great Gatsby, word by word, determined to absorb its lessons. Not the thematic lessons, that the rich are different or idealism is futile, but the lessons of its rhythms, its urgent, perfect poetry, language as a means to break down thought and inspire action. Even as he admired and even emulated the recklessness of those rebels and lunatics who went over The Edge, for much of his life Thompson also appreciated those who, like Fitzgerald, observed carefully and made instructive, incisive art of chaos, who called out crooks and monsters for what they were, and in so doing imagined lives beyond the those stretching before him, those venal, petty, “dishonest shitheads” of the current U.S. administration. “You haven’t heard the last of me,” Thompson wrote in Kingdom of Fear, his last book. “I am the one who speaks for the spirit of freedom and decency in you. Shit. Somebody has to do it.”
Thompson’s speaking took various forms—sometimes brutal, sometimes gorgeous, too often painful for those close to him, his wives and his son Juan. Thompson’s story is at the center of Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. An apposite next chapter in the filmmaker’s ongoing excavation of American excess and corruption (see: The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and last year’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side), Gonzo offers up pieces of Thompson and invites you to sort them out. Its devices include more or less standard talking heads (Pat Buchanan, George McGovern, and Jimmy Carter, Tom Wolfe, Jann Wenner, and Sonny Barger), readings of Thompson’s prose by essays by Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), re-enactments, archival and home movie footage, memories refracted, twisted, and chewed up. Reporting on bits of his life, his struggles as a manic young writer, his drunkenness, his work for Rolling Stone, and his lunatic run for sheriff in Aspen, the movie follows Thompson’s lead, eliding facts and fictions, appreciating his seeming gift for finding truth in between.
That’s the trick of Thompson, that his gift was seeming. Surely talented, he also worked hard, fought himself as much as anyone else. While he possessed and sometimes lost hold of a dazzling talent, while his perceptions were keen and his critiques dead-on, he crafted his art. Even apart from typing out Gatsby (“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,” again and again), he honed his own hard style. “We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world,” he asserted in Kingdom,
A nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us… No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.
Thompson expressed such rage throughout his life, finding purveyors and targets in his subjects, the Hell’s Angels most electrically, Nixon most dreadfully. But as he articulated anger, he reviled the horrors it produced. Combining glimpses of Thompson’s life and famously hybrid art (forging brainy fantasy and hardcore journalism), the film traces Thompson’s careening between fury and euphoria, a wild journey that ended with his suicide by gunshot in 2005.
Gonzo opens on Thompson’s room, panning shelves full of recollection and junk, books, Hemingway in a frame, handcuffs, a typewriter, and stamped, addressed envelopes. All varieties of communication, Thompson’s abiding passion, the ground of his career. Here a re-enactor types, as Thompson might have, on 12 September 2001: “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.” Starting with 9/11 and ending with Thompson’s own spectacular funeral (his remains shot up in a rocket, paid for by Depp, acolyte and friend), the documentary focuses on Thompson’s most hectic and productive period, 1965-‘75, as he became famous via the Angels and exploited his fame through the Nixon years. As noted by Tim Crouse, the era was nutty but also focused: “There was always two great moral pressures, the war and civil rights.”
Thompson responded brilliantly to pressure, before his self-medicating became unstoppable. In the process, he was also sucked into the maelstrom of stars and pols he covered, lit up by their brightness while dissecting them (biographer Douglas Brinkley says, “Hunter infiltrated the story, he considered himself a photojournalist,” his images made of words, captured by the tape recorder he took everywhere). Thompson’s early, awkward reactions to celebrity are conveyed in a couple of brilliant clips: in one he rides in a convertible with a mic, natty and fedoraed as he reports on the bikers who roar along behind him. “Oh shit,” he announces, just seconds into the spot, “I just can’t do it.”
Equally resonant is his appearance on To Tell the Truth. Looking dour in black and white, seated between two impersonators, Thompson fields queries from the celebrity panel, including the fabulous Kitty Carlisle, who asks, “The Merry Pranksters gave a party for the Hell’s Angels for two days: were you there?” Thompson leans down to the microphone: “Uh, yes.” When time comes for the show’s ritual climax and closure—“Will the real Hunter Thompson please stand up?”—it’s as if a roadmap for his life-after has been laid out. If there can never be a real Hunter Thompson, in the most mundane, pop cultural sense, there will be multiple versions, each more outraged and resolute than the one before, all mad and immoderate, all making poetry out of noise.
While the film makes a familiar case, that Thompson frequently lost himself in celebrity, it also argues for his legacy, not cynicism but optimism. If in his coverage of politics Thompson took aim at campaigns, wars, and the liars who made them, his language took flight, ecstatic and weird and meticulous, gritty and fierce. If the film infrequently slips into cliché (McGovern’s rise in Newsweek and Time covers under Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” Nixon’s 1972 triumph montaged under “American Pie,” a final side-by-side comparison between the Vietnam and Iraq wars), it more often makes sliding between ostensible fact and reimagined insight seem revelatory. As Thompson’s stylistic excess reflected his subjects’ desperation (“At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and the head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the south wing of the White House…”), so the film is informed by Thompson’s too-muchness. “In his best pages,” says Crouse, “I think he captured certain truths about human perversity that will never lose their sting.”
It’s that sting that we remember and miss amid the bland, loud cable news cycle. It was a sting based, incredibly, on hope. Thompson’s ex-wife Sondi provides an ongoing gloss on his story, her interviews framed by a backdrop of archival images (bikes, drugs, monsters). “He had the passion to move people and make them act,” she observes, even as she also reports on his bad behavior in the marriage. Despite everything, he believed he could “change the system and make the system work and make the system good. He had that in him.” Among other things.