Gonzo is a predictable look at the life of Hunter S. Thompson, the libidinal and anarchistic journalist best known for the hallucinatory travelog, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If anyone already knows anything about Thompson’s work (and really, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, in itself, a summary of pretty much everything he was about) then this documentary brings nothing new to the field. If, for some reason, one decided to skip the ubiquitously available Fear and Loathing... in film or print and decided to watch this documentary instead, then its a decent introduction to the first few years of Thompson’s literary/journalism career, with plenty of interviews with his friends and family in addition to quotations from his works, and images of his literary subjects.
What interests me about Gonzo is how it operates as another contribution to the maintenance of 1960s America as *the* centre of all countercultural activity. In Gonzo, Thompson’s early life is glossed over and, with some brief references to F. Scott Fitzgerald, so are any mention of literary influences. His early novels, Prince Jellyfish (never published) and The Rum Diary (finally published in 1998) and the years of literary failure were not mentioned. Instead, the film moves right into his Hells Angels period and then dwells on the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s for almost the entire film. Once the discussion finally moves on from the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign (which Thomson covered for Rolling Stone magazine) there is a quick discussion of his contributions to the ‘76 Carter campaign and then nothing is said about anything after that until people start lamenting his 2005 suicide. His post-’72 career, 33 years of living and writing, is hardly discussed. It does not seem like its Hunter S Thompson’s biography being produced here but rather HST is used as another means of recreating the 1960s as an especially turbulent and fascinating time.
Of course, Gonzo, like almost all documentaries about the 1960s includes a standard montage of 1960s imagery. Vietnam napalm victims, US soldiers in various states of mind, anti-war and civil rights marchers, Nixon, hippies dancing, Timothy Leary doing something, John Lennon doing something. Maybe Gonzo merely has a variation on the images I’ve listed above, but some sequence containing most or all of what I just mentioned almost always appears at some moment where the narrator is talking about how the 1960s were “a different time” or some other cliched phrase used to refer to the era.
An endnote: this documentary isn’t that great (it works on a commemorative level), but its director, Alex Gibney, and his production company, Jigsaw Productions, have created many worthwhile documentaries such as Taxi to the Dark Side, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Other films in Gibney’s filmography such as, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, and Magic Trip (about Ken Kesey and the trips he took on his bus Further) will be mandatory viewing for my ContraTexts project.