Sunday, July 27, 2008

gonzo documentary

at age 20 i first began reading seriously on my own and for myself. naturally throughout my education i read, and even growing up i read very intently in very specific areas of interest (stamp collecting, peanuts cartoons). but at age 20 i started reading outside of curricular contexts, specifically in what might be considered european modernism and american counterculture. i think the motivation was partly a broad dissatisfaction with my academic curriculum (international affairs) and a desire to seek out confirmations or validations of my lived experience. there was music -- i was led to camus by the cure's song "killing an arab," bauhaus had a song called "antonin artaud," the doors got their name from aldous huxley quoting william blake, and so all these required investigating. and there were also the beats challenging their experience: the trilogy of cut-up novels by william burroughs, which i remember friends picking up, reading a few sentences and shaking their heads in dismay; kerouac's on the road i read that summer -- vicariously, in a basement bedroom sublet.

very much a part of this context was fear and loathing in las vegas by hunter s. thompson, the subject of a new documentary by alex gibney. i remember liking the book a fair bit but not being overwhelmed by it or wanting to rush out and read more of thompson's work. (as any indication, it's one of the pocket paperbacks from that era no longer in my possession, though it's quite possible i gave it away, left it somewhere or otherwise lost it.) and so i went to see Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson last night to see if there was anything new i could learn about his life and work and come to any kind of judgement about his puported liberal, libertarian or anarchist politics.

but i plowed through his wikipedia entry first: eldest son of an insurance adjuster and a reference librarian from an old louisville neighborhood. the film played up his "middle class" background, his rich high school friends getting bailed out while he had to spend the night in jail after some high school pranks. still i'm a bit dubious of how "middle class" this really is. (dual income white-collar household in the 1940s and 1950s?) in any case, dad died while he was a teenager, upon which mother suposedly took to drink. decent athlete at a prestigious public high school, a few years in the air force, and a number of years doing piecework journalism before his hell's angels book (written while having infiltrated the group) made his name. this was 1966: two years before, he and his wife and newborn son had moved to san francisco, right on the cusp of hippie culture's full flowering. it's subsequent hyping and spectacularization, followed by the events of 1968: the rfk & mlk assassinations, and the riots at the chicago democratic convention especially, disillusioned and demoralized thompson greatly.

by this time the thompson family had relocated to a hamlet in woody creek, not 10 miles outside aspen, colorado.
In 1970 Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as part of a group of citizens running for local offices on the "Freak Power" ticket. The platform included promoting the decriminalization of drugs (for personal use only, not trafficking, as he disapproved of profiteering), tearing up the streets and turning them into grassy pedestrian malls, banning any building so tall as to obscure the view of the mountains, and renaming Aspen "Fat City" to deter investors. Thompson, having shaved his head, referred to his opponent as "my long-haired opponent", as the Republican candidate had a crew cut. (wikipedia)
this is indeed, as a number of the commentators in the movie state, a kind of highwater mark in a hunter s. thompson politics: an utterly idealistic, completely impractical program at the local level that came everso close to actually working. as if for a moment the plain truth in all its apparent bizarreness could finally and successfully subvert the politics-as-usual routine of the truly bizarre hyperreal. this dynamic plays itself out at the national level on the campaign trail of 1972, which thompson of course covered, putting his stock in a likewise improbably mcgovern who also could have actually succeeded. this is probably the thompson book to which i will return, a little more knowledgeable about 1970s politics than i was at age 20 though still with much to learn.

thompson was doubtless a complicated individual. and i'll leave it to others to judge the literary merit of his work. i think his mark on journalism is indisputable, and for those occasions in which he saw and described the grand stupidity of this country with all his outrage, irony and humor, thompson is to be given full credit. ultimately tho, and perhaps from that moment in late 1974 when he went to zaire to cover the ali-foreman "rumble in the jungle," spent the whole fight drinking at poolside and came back with no story at all, the work became less important than the myth of himself he helped create. he saw the wave of rollback coming but could not keep up the fight, instead tacitly renouncing the public good by retreating into the romantic and individual solace of personal rights (for guns and drugs mostly) and self-mythologization.

1 comment:

mark wallace said...

You might think it's odd, but Fear and Loathing is always closely connected in my mind with the child's fantasy adventure The Phantom Toolbooth. Absurdist surreal adventures centered around a young man in a car. Never mind that in one book the young man is ten and the other maybe thirty, or that Fear and Loathing requires drugs for its tripped out adventures or that it's sort of an extension/critique of the American dream. But there's something similarly cartoonish and broad about both of them.