Books

Fear and Loathing in the Belly of La Chupacabra: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005

Tim O'Neil

The problem was the '60s. Even as that hoary decade recedes faster and faster into the past, the red-shift switching to magenta and eventually to a deep painful purple, the echoes of lingering culture war still hang in the air like cordite.

We were somewhere around Crawford on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. There was screaming, I remember that much, but there wasn't a whole lot worth remembering besides that. It wasn't a hoax, it wasn't a dream or even an imaginary story -- the ugly reality of 2005 was sitting on the porch and drinking a diet soda.

Crawford is the epicenter, the dark heart of the latest in a seemingly endless series of Evil Empires, perpetually rising from the ashes of their predecessors to march across the savage dusty plains of American politics, stronger and meaner and faster with every passing generation. Every time the beast seems dead it just gets up and starts running around again, fresh as a daisy and animated by the power of pure spite.

The problem was the '60s. Even as that hoary decade recedes faster and faster into the past, the red-shift switching to magenta and eventually to a deep painful purple, the echoes of lingering culture war still hang in the air like cordite. We got Civil Rights and a man on the moon, but at the end of the decade we woke up and Richard Nixon was in the White House. Ever since Progressive politics got up and decided to upturn the apple cart, the Grand Old Party has dedicated itself to ensuring that the only new ideas are the old ideas, painting a perpetual appeal to the supposed wisdom of our drunken forefathers as some sort of revolutionary Demiurge.

The Right will never forgive the Left for the '60s, and the Left will never live them down. Something shifted, something dark and sinister born in the heart of the American Dream that was dedicated to the perpetuation of the Status Quo as an end in and of itself, totally ignorant of and in defiance to the laws of history. Even Watergate, we can see now, was just a feint, a momentary diversion on the way to the inevitable Morning in America. The liberals got their blood sacrifice but that was the last blood they would draw for decades -- and in the end even Nixon would be canonized.

But Nixon was merely the beginning, the first in a long line of experimental prototypes dedicated to standing sentry against the forces of progress. Focusing on him to the exclusion of all else was what got us in trouble to begin with. It felt good to depose such a corrupt and incompetent king, but at the end of the day the impulses which had twice elected Nixon were alive and well at the heart of the body politic. They needed a new vessel, and had no problem finding one in the form of a charismatic California governor who just happened to have been a movie star. Reagan's influence was enough to push the country so far to the right that the comparative virtues of William Jefferson Clinton were almost transparent. Eight years dedicated to ensuring merely that the opposing party succeeded in executing none of their divisive platforms -- eight years of fighting the floodwaters of incipient fascism masquerading as religious piety and common sense.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson saw everything important about the '60s die, as everything that mattered to the cause of Progressive liberalism was dragged behind the barn and shot in the head. It was enough that he actually believed in a Platonic ideal of the American Dream -- he lived long enough to see Jack and Bobby and Martin pulled back out of the ground, only to be raped and molested by hordes of rampaging swine. Maybe these ideals only existed in hindsight, in the rear-view recriminations of a lost generation buffeted by constant, unending defeat and bolstered only by the sepia-toned memories of a few fading Pyrrhic victories. But they existed insomuch as they could be betrayed, repeatedly, and it was enough for Dr. Thompson that the end of these ideals was a constant source of grim inspiration. When the going gets tough, the tough turn to black comedy.

So what do we remember? The image flickers and we see Gary Trudeau's rough caricature of Uncle Duke, a buffoonish patsy marooned on the shores of the collective unconscious but shorn of dignity. Bill Murray's underrated performance in the forgotten Where The Buffalo Roam was superceded by Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam's faithful adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Amazingly, Thompson's vision of gonzo journalism became a twisted prophecy -- but instead of disillusioned Liberals wandering around the desert with a satchel full of narcotics in order to pierce the veil of reality and see the deeper truths at the heart of power, we've got Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly playing Laurel & Hardy, pushing that piano up the steps, screaming and screaming until the swarming black bats die of sheer exhaustion.

In the end, everything important is co-opted and corrupted. The '60s and '70s have become pre-packaged nostalgia trips for aging boomers and their gelatinous offspring, shorn of any meaning and sold in the streets. Hunter S. Thompson woke up from the '60s fever-dream of utopian enlightenment and saw that at a crucial juncture something had gone Very, Very Wrong. The Left pushed too hard and got pushed back, and the Right has never stopped pushing, trying to push the clock back even further than Kennedy, to Hoover and Harding and a time before the New Deal. He saw the heart of the American experience grow black and loamy, and beheld the changing face of a growing conservative movement that would eventually triumph so fully and completely that the very notion of objectivity would shift and warp to fit the changing times. There was fear coiled around the belly of the beast like a tapeworm, a fear that fed off the blood in the belly of the goat-suckers and made the body politic loathe all that was different and new. There's something ugly in Crawford, but Dr. Thompson could no more put a stake through the heart of this shambling beast than he could ever really kill Nixon.

Futile resistance in the face of total ideological attrition is the mark of either a madman or a prophet. If there's anyone left in the ruins of the Great American Empire in a hundred years' time -- whomever's left to pick up the pieces after this misguided conservative revolution has its way -- perhaps they will find a weather-beaten and yellowed copy of Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, and see that someone understood what was happening, and had the courage to call out the fear-mongers and hate-beasts for the empty electioneers that they were. Of course, prophets who operate with any degree of accuracy are usually ignored and derided in their own times, and Thompson lived to see his own image commoditized and pasteurized, all the edges sanded off and presented on a Disney Channel historical safari. Perhaps the only thing left to shock us with was his own death -- but no, I refuse to believe that the good Doctor was anything but a determined survivalist. Anything else, including the bullet that killed him, could only have been indigestion. He was an antibody in the heart of the American vampire, a source of perpetual indigestion to the Chupacabra class -- and a greater calling he could not have found.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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