"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
That famous line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance shrewdly appraises our tendency to prefer the comforting simplicities of myth to the challenging complexities of reality. While it was—and remains—a great indictment of the press' habit of feeding rather than impeding popular fantasies, Ford's cynical injunction also, it seems to me, pricks a recent trend in documentary films that profile artists.
Put simply, when dealing with an important cultural figure, some filmmakers seem more eager to convey rather than to question the legend: i.e., the subject's carefully cultivated public persona. The result is a kind of soft-edged (if often sharply crafted) hagiography, more akin to celebrity puff pieces than to probing, tough-minded journalism.
Perhaps I'm noticing this more because I've encountered a number of examples of it lately. But after shrugging off the airbrushing tendencies of new films about composer Phillip Glass and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the one that really left me scratching my head was Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
No doubt, my reservations about the film have everything to do with the dissonance between Gibney's careful, respectful approach and his notoriously rambunctious and disrespectful subject. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and too few other works of real distinction, was a rough-edged, self-styled radical who delighted in outraging convention. Why should he sit still—even posthumously—for a cinematic portrait that dares not tiptoe an inch beyond convention? How is a master of irreverence honored by a documentary biopic that's so faultlessly reverent?
Granted, the primary audience for this movie consists of Thompson fans, and many of them may well find that it suits their needs just fine: It "prints the legend" of literary ambition and personal excess in a way that's colorful, capacious and entertaining. I may well be in the minority of Thompson admirers who feel the film could have been insightful as well as engaging if had been a bit more, well, Thompsonesque.
There are two primary reasons, though, why I believe Gonzo comes off as it does.
First, while exceptional films in this genre usually issue from directors with passion and a sharp point of view, Gonzo was the brainchild of producer Jason Kliot, who got backing from publishers Graydon Carter and Jann Wenner to launch the project. Director Gibney has proved himself a filmmaker of passionate perception in films including Taxi to the Dark Side, which won this year's Best Documentary Oscar. But on this film Gibney was a hired gun, and his lack of something penetrating to say about Thompson is inescapable.
Second, Kliot reportedly was motivated to make the film by Thompson's death, by suicide, in 2005. Not surprisingly, the result has a bit of a eulogistic feel to it and might well have been titled Homage to Hunter Thompson. Even if Gibney had been inclined to deconstruct the legend, respect for the recently departed—and the sponsorship of establishment partisans like Carter and Wenner—could have put the brakes on that.
The film's most commendable attribute, unquestionably, is indicated by the title's "Life and Work." While Thompson's life is easily and amusingly chronicled through an abundance of archival footage and the testimony of numerous colleagues and contemporaries, Gibney's efforts to convey the temper and salience of his writing—through the use of clips from the features Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Where the Buffalo Roam, plus lots of voiceover by Thompson acolyte and stand-in Johnny Depp—may not always be felicitous or fully effective, but they make an essential point: A writer achieves genuine renown not through his antics, but through his words.
Admittedly, with Thompson the two were sometimes hard to separate. I vividly recall being a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill when the Rolling Stone carrying the first installment of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—credited to "Raoul Duke" and bearing the hilariously scabrous illustrations of Ralph Steadman—arrived in the mailbox. I don't think I've ever laughed as hard at anything in written form, before or since. And Thompson's partly autobiographical, partly fanciful account of a drug-addled, havoc-riddled odyssey "to the heart of the American dream" was more than just a riotously funny literary tour de force: It also offered a devastating, endlessly provocative critique of the collapse of '60s countercultural idealism.
Gonzo puts this startling achievement in context. Thompson was raised in Louisville, Ky., middle class but branded a rebel from early on. Though the film elides his stint in the military and several years working as a journalist, sometimes in Latin America, it suggests his early literary ambition and catches his first success with Hell's Angels, for which Thompson lived with the motorcycle gang and eventually was beaten up by them. In the 1966 book, the writer was essentially practicing the "New Journalism" espoused by Tom Wolfe and others. It was with a 1970 article about his campaign to be elected sheriff of Aspen, Colo., and a subsequent piece about the Kentucky Derby (his first collaboration with Steadman), that he introduced the key ingredient of his own "gonzo journalism": chronicling his own crazed exploits and chemically exaggerated perspectives.
The technique served him through Las Vegas, his masterpiece, and the series of Rolling Stone reports on the 1972 presidential campaign that was published in book form as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson's foray into national political reportage proved brilliantly satiric and full of venomous fury at the defeat of antiwar idealist George McGovern by the Machiavellian incumbent, Richard M. Nixon. Gonzo provides ample testament to the importance and influence of this writing in the comments of McGovern, Jimmy Carter and at least one political antagonist, Patrick Buchanan.
After the period of Thompson's greatest success, though, the film's weaknesses begin to show. Rolling Stone publisher Wenner commissioned Thompson to cover the 1976 presidential campaign and the evacuation of Saigon but pulled the plug on both projects. The film doesn't mention this, nor does it probe Wenner about his tempestuous working relationship with Thompson. In fact, it doesn't ask any of its interview subjects really tough, discomfiting questions—the kind Thompson might have asked.
Ultimately, Gonzo wants us to believe that its protagonist's 30-year decline was the product of his fame: When Thompson was the center of attention in any room he entered, it became impossible to observe his ostensible subjects. But this is entirely too facile. It leaves untouched professional difficulties like his troubles with Wenner. Most of all, it declines to interrogate Thompson's own decisions and the ways he sabotaged his talent and most serious ambitions.
In a sense, Thompson was far less a prisoner of his fame than he was of America's favorite macho literary myth, in which outlandish penchants for drink, drugs, guns and adolescent acting out are somehow equated with artistic virility. For Thompson, drug use was perhaps the most destructive snare; though psychedelics may have fueled his most incandescent early writing, after a decade they left him looking and acting as burned-out as your stereotypical acid casualty.
Perhaps it's a generational thing. Epochal booze hounds like William Faulkner and Norman Mailer managed to swill fifth after fifth, decade after decade, yet still turn out tome after prestigious tome. Does the culture of LSD and mescaline offer any equivalent? It's certainly not Thompson, who reached his peak about the time Nixon was forced from office and 30 years later was playing court jester to Jimmy Buffett in the Florida Keys. Gonzo doesn't make you feel the sting of that, and it should.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson opens Friday at the Carolina Theatre of Durham.
Tom Kalin's Savage Grace, a plush but punishing melodrama about rich folks' dysfunction, could be most notable for being so ludicrously mistitled that it perhaps violates truth-in-advertising statutes.
Rather than "savage," the milieu the film depicts is consummately overcivilized and enervated. And the last time I looked, "grace" referred either to natural goodness or divine dispensation, neither of which is evident in a story where the characters seem locked in a death spiral of increasingly tawdry and destructive behavior—the kind that would have been shocking in a movie a half-century ago but today is mainly tedious.
Moving from New York in the '50s through moneyed haunts of Paris, Spain and London in the late '60s, the film dramatizes the glacially unedifying true story of plastics-fortune heir Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) and his porcelain-cheeked wife, Barbara (Julianne Moore), whose exceedingly long marital meltdown involved the sexual confusion of their effete son Tony (played as a young adult by Eddie Redmayne) and, eventually, sensationalistic dollops of incest and lethal mayhem.
With that kind of material, Savage Grace should be either psychologically revealing or socially astute, a modern Greek tragedy or a Douglas Sirk/ R.W. Fassbinder X-ray of our collective ills. Unfortunately, Kalin's film seems motivated only by vague and precious academic notions of "transgression." Aside from Moore's strong performance and an elegant, measured visual style, it amounts to little more than an exercise in vapid voyeurism, at once overdetermined and underrealized.
Savage Grace opens Friday in select theaters.