Fear and loathing in SkyCity

Moac accompanied me to the Auckland Film Festival screening of the new doco about Hunter S. Thompson on the weekend. Things did not start well.

And to top it off, the film left me disappointed. Okay, before the howls of protest and angry replies start flooding in, let me explain.

I am a devoted fan of HST and all he stands for. Thompson is one of my journalistic heroes, alongside George Orwell and one or two others.

The disappointment stems from the fact that the doco covered the last 30 years of Hunter’s life in about 3 minutes and ignored many important things about him that deserve to be remembered and celebrated.

Thompson’s life did not end in 1974. But first the fear and loathing…

I don’t go to film festivals very often, here’s why.

Fear and loathing at the festival

What is it about film festival crowds that gives certain people license to be rude, pompous shits who think they have extra rights above mere mortals, just because they have a season ticket?

When we arrived at the SkyCity theatre, half-an-hour before scheduled start time, the foyer was packed and the tickets queue coiled around the small space like an out-of-control French pastry (le snail). Like many others in the line, Moac & I had pre-paid tickets; but we had to wait with everyone wanting to purchase tickets.

The Ticketek guys behind the counter were overwhelmed. Each transaction seemed to take about 10 minutes and at 11.15 (light’s out time) we were no closer to the front – it seemed. You could feel the tension rise and there were dark mutterings about a “Hunter-style” riot trembling up and down the antsy queue.

A rumour circulated that the movie wouldn’t start till we were all seated, but that turned out to be, well, a rumour.

Sensing undercurrents of a rumble in the bungle, the head dude from Ticketek organised a new line for pre-paid tickets to be collected. After a ruck-n-maul the ABs would be proud of, some semblance of order was restored. Moac secured the tickets and I queued (again) for some refreshments.

Given it was only 11.15 in the morning, I decided not to overdo it, so ordered only one G&T and one piccolo. We made our way upstairs and I had to decant my drinks into plastic cups. This took up precious seconds.

Moac was getting agitated – we could hear that, despite the rumours, the movie had started. We plunged into the darkened theatre and counted down the 21 steps to our seats.

Of course, we were seated at the end of the row, against the wall. !2 or so patrons had to rise to let us pass. I stood on several toes and apologised profusely. As I passed the last occupied seat – “Sorry, sorry, sorry-ing” all the way, the ensconced dribblejaws muttered “Not sorry for being late.”

That was the last straw. “For Christ-sake lady”, I screamed in my head. Out-loud I said (in a polite voice), “Not our fault, lady.”

Hadn’t this woman been in the foyer? Hadn’t she experienced the rising blood, the anxiety of the queue? Probably not. No doubt this well-heeled matron was a festival regular; a position of status that made her special.

No worries, we settled in to absorb Alex Gibney‘s take on the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson.

The early days

I loved the footage of Thompson that I hadn’t seen before. There’s plenty about this film to admire. The rich detail of those bits of Hunter’s life that were explored paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant, but tortured soul of the young Thompson.

Gonzo documents HST’s formative years well and then spends a huge amount of time (the movie’s  two minutes short of hours) on the productive years between Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

But then the movie seems to go into fast-forward and following a comment from Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner, that HST’s writing nose-dived after the 1972 US presidential campaign, it spirals towards Thompson’s death in 2005 like nothing good happened in the 1980s and the 90s.

This is a tragedy for Thompson fans and for those who are not familiar with him.

The last 10,000 days

The last 30 years produced some of Thompson’s best work. Thompson did not stop writing when he withdrew to Owl Farm. He did not stop thinking, drinking, fu**ing, swearing and being a pain the ass.

His earlier work, particularly his magazine writings, was collected and republished in the four volume Gonzo Papers. OK, so this is reliving past glories maybe. But Thompson also wrote new material that is every bit as insightful, biting, funny, bitter and sage-like.

Much of this work is collected too, and readily available. Here’s a selection of titles in which you’ll find out what Thompson thought of the Clintons, the Reagan years and both of the Bush presidencies.

Thompson also returned to an early love – sports writing. He was a regular contributor to the ESPN website where he had a column called “Hey Rube”. It combined HST’s three passions, politics, sport and gambling. This collection is also available and well worth reading. Then we shouldn’t forget his novels, The Rum Diary and Screwjack.

This is just a taste. The sub-title on Hey Rube is Blood sport, the Bush doctrine and the downward spiral of dumbness: Modern history from the sports desk. You see, HST didn’t lose his mind to sex, drugs ‘n rock and roll in 1974.

Another gap in the Gibney film is Thompson’s brushes with the law later in life. Gonzo mentions his early incarceration on drinking and fraudulent rape charges, but it doesn’t mention his later fights – in particular his defence of assault and battery charges which are really well captured in E. Jean Carroll’s gonzo-style biography (with a pulp novel wrapped in it), Hunter: The strange and savage life of Hunter S. Thompson.

If Gonzo, the life and work of Dr Hunter S Thompson has sparked your interest there are many excellent biographies of Thompson available. Check your local bookstore, or follow me to Amazon. I have my favourites, but love them all.

Thompson the human rights activist

Finally, I was very disappointed that Alex Gibney ignored Thompson’s last brave and lonely campaign for justice. This is a case that shows, beyond a shred of doubt, that Thompson’s heart was in the right place and that he was a lucid, clear and angry thinker to his final days.

Thompson took up the plight of a young woman whom he’d never met, Lisl Auman, and for four years campaigned for her release from jail. Hunter believed in this woman’s innocence and, for him, the case highlighted the very cancer at the heart of the American dream.

Auman had been convicted in a Colorado court as an accessory in a 1997 murder of a police officer, that she had nothing to do with. Auman was already under arrest and sitting handcuffed inside a police car when the killing occurred.

Thompson enrolled his rock and roll buddies, including Warren Zevon, in a high profile campaign to secure Auman’s release from jail.

Auman’s conviction was overturned on 28 March 2005, Thompson did not get to enjoy his one final triumph.

Supreme court reverses Lisl Auman’s convictions for felony murder and second degree burglary. In what is essentially a 4-1 decision (Justices Coats and Rice not participating), the court held that Auman’s arrest did not terminate her liability for felony murder and that whether a co-participant’s arrest terminates his or her immediate flight from the commission of a predicate felony while another participant remains in flight is a question for the jury to decide. But the court concluded that an error in the jury instruction for theft (part of the elements for burglary, the predicate felony for the felony murder) required reversal of the burglary conviction and therefore the felony murder conviction. The majority held that the theft instruction omitted the requirement that the defendant acted knowingly without authorization in taking the other person’s property. (The People agreed that the instruction was erroneous.) The supreme court held that the error was plain error requiring reversal. Chief Justice Mullarkey dissented on that point, concluding that the error was not plain error and therefore reversal was not required. Auman v. People

[Lisa Auman’s conviction reveresed]

In April 2006 Lisl Auman regained her freedom. Her long journey – from prison cell to a new life, began with a letter to Thompson after she’d read some of his work in jail. Thompson believed in Auman and devoted his own energies and resources to the campaign to have her released.

[Lisl Auman tribute page]

In many ways this is a fitting monument to his monumental life. It’s a shame that Gibney didn’t get a better editor, or heed advice from colleagues and friends to cut back on the ancient history and tell us more about Thompson’s last 10,000 days.

I’m no film critic so you can discount my opinions, but I’m not alone in my views.

YET WHILE THOMPSON’S later work never matched the acclaim he’d won for Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or his ’72 campaign coverage, Gibney’s film almost completely ignores the last two decades of the writer’s life.

Gonzo cuts directly from Thompson’s years in the late ’70s hanging out with Jimmy Buffet in Key West to his 2005 suicide at his cabin near Aspen. In doing so, Gibney skips over Thompson’s coverage of the 1982 Roxanne Pulitzer divorce trial, his years as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, his final gig as a columnist for ESPN.com, and his long legal crusade to free Lisa Auman, who’d been sentenced to life in prison as an accessory to a 1997 murder.

Gibney’s shortchanging of Thompson’s later career reflects the narrative of the biography (also entitled Gonzo) that Rolling Stone publisher Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour published last fall. Wenner’s portrayal of Thompson’s final years as a “humiliating” afterthought angered his widow, Anita, who married him in 2003 after three years as his editorial assistant.

Despite its flaws, Gibney’s film still fascinates, if only because Thompson’s larger-than-life personality was so inherently fascinating. A boring documentary about Thompson would be impossible, and as long as Gonzo remains focused on its subject — rather than indulging in romanticized ’60s nostalgia — it compels attention, even without a brain full of mescaline.

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party. He blogs at The Other McCain.

Last, but not least I agree with the comments made by Thompson’s first wife and mother of their son, Juan, that it is a great shame that Thompson died when he did. I have no issue with his suicide and I know he was in terrible physical pain from back injuries. He probably had many other illnesses too (diagnosed and self-inflicted), but as you can see in Hey Rube, his take on the Bush regime, the war in Iraq and the war against the American people by their own corrupt government is sharp, funny and spot-on.

I will always regret that I was not able to read Thompson’s views about the 2008 presidential election. I believe he would have backed Barrack Obama with the same passion he displayed in endorsing George McGovern in 2002. That would have been a story that I’m sure Thompson would have covered. Jann Wenner would have been begging Thompson to go back on the campaign trail for Rolling Stone, to experience the fear and the loathing one more time.

Vale Hunter, gone, but not forgotten.

Last Post: If you’re interested in the word “gonzo”, I have done some research into its etymology, which is published online. It’s a story with a vague beginning, not much of an end, but an interesting middle.

What is gonzo? The etymology of an urban legend [Hirst 2004]

PS (again): Gonzo may get a cinema release, or be available on DVD shortly. In the meantime if you need a fix of Hunter and can’t wait, I recommend Buy the ticket, take the ride.

4 Responses to Fear and loathing in SkyCity

  1. Lita says:

    Oh no, what a disappointment and the festival experience sounds like I expect it to be, which is why I often really wanna go and mostly never get to go.

    Thanks for the links, I hadn’t heard of the Lisl story, now I’m trying to work out why. I’m adding ‘strange and savage life of’ to my wishlist.

  2. A wishlist, I’m thinking along similar lines. “No more socks, Auntie!”
    Instead follow this link to Amazon.com and choose any of these titles.
    The HST publishing bandwagon is rollin’rollin’rollin.

    What I really want is one of those groovy pins – like the one Mr Wenner has.
    “Solid gold, diamond trim? What do you mean expensive? Oh Auntie, please.”

  3. Ron Mexico says:

    Fantastic Post man and I agree 100% with what you have to say. Why not drop by Totally Gonzo, I think you will like what you find!


  4. Tom Willis says:

    Really enjoyed the post, ’tis a shame that HST didn’t hang around long enough to cover this historic election of 2008- we need someone to filter out all the shit that gets mixed up in politics and give us something to really chew on. John Mc Cain should be thanking his lucky stars. Lets hope the Obama campaign does a better job than Mc Govern’s guys when it comes to vetting his VP!!

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