Saturday, May 30, 2009

Gonzo: The LIfe and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson: A Goggle-Eyed and Sleep-Deprived Appreciation

I spend a lot of nights staying up way too late, way too long, attempting to find my muse.

The computer screen is often a pupil-less eye that stares at me more mercilessly than any God, Devil, or jackbooted authoritarian figure, and often its cold unflinching blankness will leach the motivation, the desire, the sheer heart-bursting joy of creating that writing gives from me. I allow the simple mundane reality of daily life to become, in its own beige way, a lazily-lethal beast that sucks my soul like a hyena extracting marrow from a zebra's scarlet-caked rib bone.

I've recently discovered that the best thing to do, especially if you can't set the ego aside and just roll your eyes back in your head and create, is to set the ego aside and to look outward for inspiration. So having just finished viewing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson feels like a massive adrenaline shot to my insides, despite (because of?) the fact that it's 4:30 in the AM and I'm running on too damned little sleep in the first place.

Thompson, in case you're too young or too culturally unconcerned to know/care, was a journalist, usually writing for Rolling Stone magazine. He was (in)famous for leading a life full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as he covered social, political, and personal events that transpired during some of America's most tumultous times. His life followed the pattern of many an artist in the 20th/early 21st centuries: Years of incredible productivity and artistic genius, punctuated by living as far on the edge as his muse took him; that distinctively modern-day affliction of his immense talent and success breeding a notoriety that hobbled/subsumed his identity and productivity; and his own very deliberate, literal (suicide) self-destruction.

But the great thing about Gonzo isn't that it covers Thompson's life and excess. It's that it gives solid consideration and emphasis to the man as a reporter and writer. It places his literary output squarely front and center, and it also provides a fascinating glimpse of American history through the eyes of one of its most cauterizingly eloquent observers.

Yes, Thompson ingested more chemicals than any thousand normal human beings. Yes, he allowed the celebrity generated by his talent to ultimately denegrate, even steal away outright, his great gifts towards the end. And no, he wasn't always a nice guy. But he was an incredibly vivid reporter and storyteller; a man who saw and related in passionate detail such earthshaking events as the pivotal presidential elections of 1968 and '72, the civil rights movement, the clear-eyed optimism that spurred the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and the death of the American Dream when excess and the stone wheels of establishment politics/thinking crushed that idealism.

As a film, Gonzo's a tight and focused documentary, giving a simple and direct chronology of Thompson's life and work through the eyes of loved ones, friends, politicians, and admirers. In the end, though, the thing that utterly galvanized me was hearing the author's words (read with loving directness by Thompson portrayer Johnny Depp), whether it was Thompson's rough-edged, beat-tinged reportage of the hard-living Hell's Angels, his evolution from court jester to socially-aware firebrand as he made a seemingly insane run for the Colorado sheriff's seat, or the stirring and wrenching fears wrested from his typewriter over President Richard Nixon. Go figure that his words about the latter snake-oil peddler could (and do) easily apply to the cowboy-booted jackass who served as a key architect for this country's current economic abatoir.

I learned a lot about American history from Gonzo. I got a more complete picture of a misunderstood artist and sage from Gonzo. And despite the ostensible sadness of Hunter S. Thompson's ending (God, could we use his voice in these times), Gonzo--and the man's words--fill me with a lot of happiness at the prospect of being alive. Consider the muse stoked.

No comments: