Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008)
Until Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), which won best documentary Oscar this year, I'd not noticed the name Alex Gibney, though I saw and liked his earlier Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). Knowing nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, but intrigued by the aura that surrounds the mention of his name, I thought the defacto long weekend that Cup Day brings was a good opportunity to see this new documentary.
Regular attendees would know that ACMI often has single screenings of films, with sometimes disappointing attendances. Gonzo has no less than 21 screenings programmed, three on the day I attended. Expecting maybe 40 or so, I was a little surprised to see the smaller Cinema 1 (capacity about 190) almost full, and I'm told there's been at least one sell-out session. The crowd was mostly young (20s and 30s), and I'm wondering why so many of this age group know enough about Thompson to come and see this, but not to the plethora of other worthy films at ACMI. Thompson clearly has a big reputation among a certain fringe demographic.
I'm no expert on documentary as a film genre per se - I certainly don't go to many at the cinema - but it seems to me there's a number of factors that combine to make one good or not. The starting point is a good subject. Anna Broinowski's Forbidden Lie$ (2007) is compelling, not so much because it is well-made, but because of its compelling subject. Gonzo has both. Thompson is so fascinating - his life story, his writing and his social impact are each a worthy subject. It's Gibney's putting together what must have been a mountain of source material into a coherent two hour digest that makes the film. I found it educational, entertaining and thoroughly absorbing.
Gibney picked a cracker with Thompson. The guy was a real live wire, an eccentric, a man on the edge. Substance abuse was a constant in his life since at least his late teens, while still at high school. Combined with an undying anger and a brutal frankness, he lived his life as if there were no tomorrow. Alcoholism is, after all, a form of suicide, though it was the self-administration in 2005 of a bullet from one of his many firearms that ended Thompson's life. While that may be seen to be tragic - and everyone that knew Thompson well during his last twenty years seemed to know that that was how he was going to die - the real tragedy was his addictions, the destructive power they had over him and how that affected both his work and his relationships.
The film's screening in the build-up to the US elections is quite ironic. Thompson was very depressed about the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, a fact that must have contributed to his decision to depart this world. In this respect, I could really relate to Thompson. Like the US, we had our own brand of neo-fascism, championed by a weasel in the form of John Howard. Many times I felt despondent over his political success. What was most depressing was not that one person or one political party could implement such nasty and self-interested policies, but that those people who were most disadvantaged by them rewarded him at successive elections. It's for that reason that, in spite of the Rudd government's shortcomings, I welcome them regardless.
Fortunately, the US puts a time-limit on their despots, though nothing would have saved Bush from today's election. His war-mongering and his leading the country - indeed the world - to the edge of the economic abyss would have sufficed to have him evicted from the White House regardless. Hopefully the next twenty-four hours or so will see the ushering in of a new era with Barack Obama at the helm.
There was something primal or savage about Thompson. "You can't handle the truth", shouts Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men. And that pretty much sums up society. Paul Keating and Mark Latham were both castigated for their brutal honesty. The former has hit the news again this week for just that - daring to challenge the myth of the birth of the Australian character at Gallipoli. It's certainly a charming myth, but a lie nonetheless.
Thompson didn't care whether we could handle the truth or not. He proclaimed it anyway, or at least he proclaimed it as he saw it. Perhaps the drugs and alcohol gave him the swagger to not give a shit. He was smart enough to know bullshit when he saw it, and truth be told, the bullshit is everywhere and no-one has the guts to say it. Thompson did.
One of the most memorable lines in the film was when his writing on politics was described as the most accurate but least factual. I find the concept both amusing and inspirational. I'm no Gonzo, but I might try shooting a bit more from the hip like Thompson. If you get the chance, see the film. Great stuff.
[EDIT: this film has a theatrical release, screening at the Nova. It opened today, 6 November]
By the way...
Ironically, just before I saw Gonzo, I turned up for the viral "Frozen at Flinders St. Station". I stumbled upon this online some time ago and planned to attend to film the event. I remembered seeing this once before on the evening news, with hundreds of people freezing at the same time, then going back to normal after five minutes, as if nothing had happened.
It was strangely surreal with actual commuters quietly making their way through the maze of human statues in silence. Police patrolled bemused, confused.
I was blown away by how many people who also attended; they were by far the majority of those at Flinder's St. Station. My guess is that there was well over a thousand people participating. I appear in the below video for 12 seconds, from 3:25 - I'm in the background, to the left of the ticket box, in black and grey motorcycle gear. When the clock hit 7:00pm, I spontaneously decided to participate rather than document, though I'd like to film it next time around.