Tuesday, July 15, 2008

RWFG on 'Gonzo'

Victor Morton, the Right-Wing Film Geek, reviews Gonzo:
Former work colleague Stacy and I went to see GONZO together last week, in part so he could review it for the American Spectator. I have long known that Stacy loves Hunter S. Thompson and had written several times for the newspaper on him, so I figured he’d get a kick about at least seeing GONZO. . . .
The nub of Stacy's complaint was that the film was too heavily focused on Thompson's political involvement in "the Sixties," and thus skrimped heavily on large chunks of material, both from earlier and later.
My review in The American Spectator was a bit harsh, because Alex Gibney's film to a large degree reflects the narrative that Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner has spun since Thompson's death, that the only really important work of HST's career was what he wrote for Rolling Stone. Wenner especially discounts Thompson's later writing, including his columns for ESPN.com.

This notion of the great Gonzo in his final years as irrelevant was personally hurtful to Thompson's widow, Anita, who worked with Hunter on the ESPN columns. As she told the New York Daily News, Hunter "wrote more in the final five years of his life than he did in the previous 15 years of his life."

Gibney makes one major concession to Thompson's post-Rolling Stone career, by beginning the film with a re-enactment of HST writing his post-9/11 column for ESPN:
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. . . .
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.
Very good -- the column is read by Johnny Depp, who functions as the voice of Thompson's writing for much of the film. But Gibney obviously chooses this column for the opening scene because it fits his own Bush-hating, anti-war worldview. Thompson matters, Gibney is saying, because Thompson was a man of the Left.

No, Thompson matters because he was a brilliant writer, one of the most creative writers of the 20th century, the inventor of a style that has been often imitated but never equalled. He is admired by so many journalists -- not all of them on the Left -- because, more than any other writer, Thompson conveyed the sense of journalism as fun.

Every reporter who has ever given that spontaneous air-punch of triumph -- yes! -- after hanging up the phone with a source that just gave him the quote that cinched the big story knows the Thompsonesque thrill of journalism as a rollicking good-time adventure. When I first met his widow last fall, she explained one common misconception about Thompson:
"A lot of young people are under the assumption that if you do a lot of cocaine and drink a lot of Wild Turkey, you, too, can write like Hunter S. Thompson."
You don't have to gobble mescaline and guzzle whiskey to be gonzo, you just need to conceive of journalism as a grand sport, a competitive excursion in search of the Big Story. (Ask Philip Klein about how I scooped him with his own notes while he lounged in the hot tub in Santa Barbara.)

Go back and re-read Hell's Angels, as I recently did, and you'll see that Thompson repeatedly excoriates other reporters (from Time, the Associated Press and the rest of the same MSM outlets that we all still hate today) for publishing stories filled with inaccuracies, hype and "official bulls--t," stories that failed to accurately describe who the Angels were, what they did, and why they did it.

Thompson's account went deeper, told a bigger and more interesting truth, and debunked the press hysteria that depicted the Angels -- a relative handful of Harley-riding hoodlums in California -- as a ubiquitous Menace to Society who might, at any moment, swoop down on your Middle American town and gang-rape your daughter.

Thompson got the Real Story, in other words, and thereby exposed as gullible chumps the big-shot Professional Journalists with their precious "objectivity" and "ethics." One can almost hear Hunter shouting: "Objectivity, my ass! How about some facts for a change?" That was the brilliance of Thompson as a journalist, and it is admirable without regard for the narrow lens of left-wing politics through which Gibney insists on telling Thompson's story.

Victor fairly well enjoyed the Gibney film (rating it a 6 on his 10-point scale) and points out that my own deep familiarity with the gonzo syllabus probably accounts for most of my dissatisfaction with the film. I didn't mean to tell anyone not to go see the film, which certainly delivers enough fun in two hours to justify the cost of a $9 ticket and a box of popcorn. I just didn't want anyone to go see it without the caveats.

If you want to know Hunter S. Thompson, read his books. But I guess it's the old story -- if you've read the book, you'll always be somewhat disappointed with the movie version.

At any rate, I owe Victor for a couple of beers and a plate of quesadillas. But considering that I introduced Victor to Ann Coulter, the balance sheet's probably still in my favor.

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