The dumbest guy in the room
GONZO (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008) — 6
Former work colleague Stacy and I went to see GONZO together last week, in part so he could review it for the American Spectator. I have long known that Stacy loves Hunter S. Thompson and had written several times for the newspaper on him, so I figured he’d get a kick about at least seeing GONZO.
But it made for an odd experience. Usually, when it comes to movies, I’m the Smartest Guy in the Room. Here, not so. Stacy knows far more about Thompson and his career than I do (most of what I know is filtered through the Doonesbury character Uncle Duke) and so he was uniquely equipped to write the kind of kick-ass review of GONZO that I never could.
The nub of Stacy’s complaint was that the film was too heavily focused on Thompson’s political involvement in “the Sixties,”¹ and thus skrimped heavily on large chunks of material, both from earlier and later.
Gibney … seems determined to force the square peg of Thompson idiosyncrasies into the round hole of contemporary liberal passions. It’s an awkward fit. At times, Gonzo seems more like a celebration of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign than of Thompson’s journalism career. …
These political choices might be more easily forgiven if they did not result in Gonzo giving short shrift to other aspects of Thompson’s career.
Ironically, Stacy’s reaction was unintentionally predicted by Dennis Hartley at the leftist blog “Hullaballoo by digby”:
A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff (!) of Aspen Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections. … Consequently, I think political junkies are going to dig this film a lot more than the fans who remain solely enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s more superficial, substance-fueled “rebel” persona.
Indeed, much of the AmSpec review (RTWT … really) repeats and fleshes out points Stacy made to me while sitting in some cafe-seating outside the theater right after the movie. My only substantive contribution was giving him the knowledge for a point that he makes more of at his personal site — that Gibney is an orange-ribbon wearer who is suing the distributor of Lefty War On Terror Doc #35712965 for not engineering a tens-of-millions megahit from such oh-so-promising-promising material.
As the closing credits rolled, I had liked the film more than Stacy had, but, as I was to learn, this is partly because I was fairly ignorant. As he put it, you can’t make a boring movie about Thompson. There’s not too much that can be called wrong or bad in what Gibney DOES give us (the reason my grade is still in the recommended-range “6”). It’s just that his emphasis is telling, and knowing the strength of it recodes the movie.
Indeed, I’d bet a Heineken-vs.-a-Corona that this sentence of Stacy’s was specifically inspired by me and my ignorance.
The filmgoer who knows nothing of Thompson’s earlier work (Nation editor Carey McWilliams was a fan of Thompson’s reporting in the Observer), is left to wonder why a leading liberal magazine would have picked him for the Hell’s Angels assignment.
The post-film discussion I had with Stacy knocked my grade down at least one, maybe two points. And it left me wondering … how much of what we respond to in documentaries depends on our ignorance and/or reflects our opinion of the subject matter, whether pre-existing or film-induced? Obviously the latter is not a bad thing, within reason — documentaries should, after all, serve some informational purpose and induce our interest in the subject matter. But that’s the difference between a great non-fiction movie and a passable informational doc. Indeed, one of the best films I’ve seen this year (and one of the best non-fiction films I’ve ever seen) is the Australian film FORBIDDEN LIE$, which is in significant part about that very subject — the manipulation of an ignorant audience by “objective” documentary — but which apparently remains little-seen outside Oz.
¹ “The Sixties,” BTW, does not refer to the calendar entity “1960-69,” but to the state of mind “Nov. 63-Aug. 74.”
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