Books

Hunter Thompson: The Vultures are Gathering

Michael Stephens

Thompson's death shatters the illusion of his life, and the first layer of that illusion is that we knew him. What we knew was a mask, a fictionalized self.

The vultures are gathering. In the American desert Hunter S. Thompson is -- was??? -- a mythological figure, one of those hallucinatory deities that coils around the Peyote cactus, a tombstone head and a graveyard mind, just 67 and don't mind dyin'. Thompson was a counter-cultural giant at the very least and when giants fall, scavengers darken the sky and deafen our ears with the bony rasping of their beaks.

What's weird about Thompson's death is that it seems like he made an offering of himself to the vulture culture he raved against for so long. Now every right wing reactionary and his brother, including the newly recovering Rush Limbaugh, will be lining up to lay his Fortune Cookie "I Told You So"s on Hunter's grave. Nobody expected that Thompson would kill himself, but maybe we should have. Maybe that's where we were dead wrong about Hunter.

Kurt Cobain took the same way out, but Thompson, in his public persona at least, seemed to come from a more testosterone-addled order of druggies. A two-fisted, rattlesnake-wrasslin' Lee-Marvin-on-PCP kind of cat, Hunter always made it seem like he would go down fighting with his demons and probably take a few with him. Having tangled with Hells Angels and ridden his Vincent Black Shadow full tilt down the snakeskin highway of every mind altering drug known to man, Thompson did not seem like someone who would be easily fazed by life's little zigs and zags.

But Thompson's death shatters the illusion of his life, and the first layer of that illusion is that we knew him. What we knew was a mask, a fictionalized self. Thompson fostered this illusion in his trademark substitution of a cantankerous and inebriated subjectivity for the traditional journalistic pose of neutrality. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the most famous example of Thompson's installation of his own overheated, drug-warped consciousness at the heart of the American nightmare. The book works so well because Thompson succeeds in making his readers feel like we are his drug buddies and co-conspirators. We know this stoned freak. To graying '60s heads and freshman students alike, Thompson is everybody's favorite acerbic stoner friend writ large and catapulted down the highway to the end of the night.

We didn't expect this droll space cadet to put a gun to his head. We figured that old coyote could find his way out of any psychic jam. No matter what the odds, he'd show up sooner or later in the corner of some palm-tree polluted hotel bar, in a pith helmet and Hawaiian shirt with the bamboo cigarette holder between his teeth and a spiked cocktail in his hand, glazed but in control, plotting his next outrage.

His death shattered this fantasy with the cold-water realization that the gonzo character in his books was a fiction, an idealized narrative voice that is no more a genuine representation of Hunter Thompson than Philip Marlowe is a genuine representation of Raymond Chandler. Even though Thompson let it be known that he preferred to live in seclusion and was a "very private person", the fictional Thompson lived on in press stories and popular mythology. The very private person made more appealing copy when he was dressed up as an eccentric wild man in a fortified compound in the Colorado hills typing vitriolic rants between target practice with an elephant gun and alternating hits of tequila and mescaline.

Another illusion that Thompson's death may help to destroy is that of the exceptional user who can somehow, though personal strength or good genes, "handle" drugs and alcohol. The myth of the life-long alcoholic/addict who has transcended the need for recovery and is "happily" drinking and drugging his way into old age can be seen in the media's treatment of Hunter Thompson, Keith Richards, Shane McGowan and other unreconstructed "survivors" of long-term substance abuse. Thompson's suicide underlines what we should already know: drug and alcohol abuse are always symptoms of a fatal illness that brings with it deep unhappiness and an inability to cope and from which the only reprieve is in life-long sobriety and recovery.

The common condition of all addicts and alcoholics is a deep, underlying, generalized fear and a sense of isolation and disconnection from family, friends and society; the places where most people find their sense of identity and security. Driven by anxiety, the addict/alcoholic may develop precocious intellectual skills as a desperate attempt to cope and may also learn dysfunctional social strategies, such as manipulating, people pleasing, and masking feelings. At whatever age the alcoholic/addict discovers that alcohol or drugs relieve anxiety and produce a temporary sense of well being, self esteem and social confidence, the user stops developing emotionally and remains frozen for the rest of their addicted life at an emotional level whose immaturity deepens as the alcoholic/addict grows older.

The emotional retardation leads to further, compensatory over-development of the intellect and an "I can think my way through everything and feel nothing" orientation to life. The result may be powerful intellectual or artistic achievements and a life devoted to the construction of a persona rooted in outward signs of success, control and achievement, while the inner person remains undeveloped, chaotic, fear driven, and emotionally incapable of dealing with life's most difficult challenges: aging and the approach of death. However the outer specifics of Hunter Thompson's life shaped his addiction, the inner pattern of the alcoholic/addict's experience is universal. The common truth of this experience relieves addicts of the pain of their "terminal uniqueness" and unites them in a shared experience with their fellow sufferers. Unfortunately Hunter never experienced that relief.

Hunter Thompson's tragedy may prove to be his inability to remove the mask that he created so indelibly in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That youthful character and his drug addled adventures marked the high point of Thompson's career, and that peak may have been hard to let go of, hard to forsake for the humble pie of rehab and recovery. Hunter continued to play the wild man, continued to pose with his trademark cigarette holder and ever-present cocktail, continued to wear the mask, as the man behind it grew older and more desperate. Long after old friends and fellow carousers like Warren Zevon got off the bus, Hunter stayed on, hanging on to the diminishing returns of long-term addiction, playing a part he could only outgrow by abandoning the identity that made him famous. At 67, that role may have finally become too confining for Hunter's spirit. Let us celebrate the noble, angry truths that Hunter told and rejoice that he is free at last from all fear and loathing. The vultures are gathering, but we can't hurt him now.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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