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Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson


Hunter S. Thompson cut swathes through social commentary and rock ‘n’ roll writing, stylistically destroying rules as he went. He lived a disgustingly debauched adult life, but managed to chronicle the most important events in a world he seemed equally perplexed by and enamoured with. To document his life would naturally be something of an illustrated history of the American Dream (and nightmare), and Alex Gibney’s exhaustive film unsurprisingly suffers at some points because of the sheer magnitude of its task.

Gonzo begins, oddly, with Thompson’s 2005 suicide. He is introduced as a weary recluse, penning occasional rubbish from his Colorado cabin. By showing us his slightly depressing outcome, we’re already anticipating whatever bright sparks highlighted in the early, vim-heavy writings to fade. Though many will be familiar with Thompson’s demise, it might not have been the most satisfying narrative bent for Gonzo to take. All the brightness and creativity (albeit produced under sometimes frightening mental conditions) that spewed from his brain and fingers is taken with the assumption that it will come to an unfortunate end, and Thompson won’t have changed the world as much as he would have liked.

That said, when Thompson infiltrates a Hell’s Angels gang, or embarks upon the psychedelic, nightmarish road trip that resulted in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the sheer audacity of his exploits carries the film ably. The faithful regurgitations of source material by Johnny Depp add class and depth to the legendary tales, immersing the viewer in the terrifying world Thompson both described and perpetuated with his sheer hedonism. Most revealing, though, are the sections of footage that show our antihero at his angriest. His wives’ continual frustration at his possible bi-polarity seems to be something of a sticking point for Gibney, and provides some of the most intense exchanges between Thompson and his opposites.

Were it not for the gravity the film’s opening lends, we might take the more light-hearted episodes with more humour. When his travelling partner for the Fear And Loathing… escapade arrives, the bald, preppily dressed Thompson greets him simply and wanders off into a field, bemused and high. In one of his more politically active times, Thompson decrees that, should he become mayor of Aspen, Colorado, it be renamed ‘Fat City’, and have stocks reserved for public mocking of dishonest pot dealers. Lightness was hard to come by in this life, and the moments where it prevails are by no means cherished here.

Ultimately, this kind of documentary succeeds or fails on the strength of its subject matter, and Hunter S. Thompson’s life was one that reaps many more rewards than is possible to squeeze into one two-hour movie. Continually confrontational, oddly comforting and never less than bewilderingly, wildly entertaining, Gonzo makes the confusing most of Thompson’s bright time on this earth.

Read this review here too.


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Christmas On Mars London Premiere

The London premiere of The Flaming Lips‘ long-awaited festive psychobilly hellride from heaven movie Christmas On Mars fell on Friday night, and PM was there to take in some first impressions and listen to an interesting Q&A with the director and one of the stars, Wayne Coyne.

Wayne Coyne answering questions, all of them correctly

The narrative is simple enough, but typically skewed: It’s Christmas, we’re in a space station on the Martian surface, and Stephen Drozd is consistently depressed, worried and pacing. A baby is being genetically manufactured on board, and forms a kind of moral centre for the whole film. At many points Drozd says that he feels the successful birth of the child will provide everyone with a new reason to live, and assurance that the universe isn’t doomed after all. However, until that happens, all the inmates (probably the best term) are very messed up. One of them commits suicide by running out of an airlock in a Santa suit, others are generally staring at walls and swearing an awful lot. Vital parts of the space station are falling to pieces (not just a symptom of the defiantly home-made sets), and everyone’s having nightmares of varying graphicness. Cue the entry of Wayne Coyne as a mute alien with green horns who basically wanders around making things an awful lot better, until the end when the baby is finally born and snow falls.

Charming and simple though the plot is, it’s the details and motifs of the film that impress and make it seem most cohesive. There’s an immediate claustrophobia to the whole affair that lasts right from the very opening until we’re treated to the welcome strains of Silent Night about ten minutes from the end. It informs the majority of the aesthetics; we rarely see anything more than dark corridors and white rooms. When we do see something else, it’s often strikingly interjected biological imagery – bloodied babies, strongly vaginal-looking orifices and general psychedelic meanderings. Motifs come in the shape of several sequences where the music’s beats echo footsteps, lights being turned on and off, and other physical actions. When it does happen, the mind is naturally drawn to consider the implications of these synchronisations. Even if they have no real effect on the narrative or the characters, it aids the construction of distinct atmospheric conditions.

The music occasionally deals in leitmotifs, with certain themes seemingly attached to certain ambiences or locales rather than particular characters. For the most part, it finds the Lips indulging their more disjointed and avant-garde tendencies rather than the stadium-sized emotional microcosms of recent years. It’s an able accompaniment to the drama, as we might expect from such talents as these.

The strong contrasts in aesthetic are bludgeoningly simple, so the middle ground for emotional contact has to come only from the characters. Stephen Drozd makes a surprisingly naturalistic actor, and elicits genuine sympathy in the audience more often than not. Other amateur actors also seem to be reasonably competent in their roles, particularly the foul-mouthed captain who provides uneasy humour in all but one of his scenes. Adam Goldberg, the only recognisable non-Lips face, is quite alarming as a therapist describing the dreams of his fellow crew members, resulting in the film’s most striking sequence where a marching band of vaginal-headed musicians trample a baby to death. Neat!

In the final sequence, Drozd has organised a Christmas sing-along with only two attendees – Coyne dressed as Santa and another crew member with a lovely singing voice. As the chorus on Silent Night, the baby is born and a tear of blood is shed. After so much bleak, violent imagery and unsettling humorous touches, this is a tremendous reward and, almost, a step back towards reality. If it seems like there are a lot of holes in this account, it’s because there are. It’s difficult to go into more detail, but suffice is to say that the film succeeds where it really shouldn’t. The brainchild of rock’s most whimsical auteur, Christmas On Mars is a real surprise. Shouldn’t we all be distracted by the fact that – ooh! Wayne Coyne is GREEN! Or – ooh! That bit of music sounds like it’s from YOSHIMI! – and a million other links back to reality? Maybe we should, but it’s even easier to forget those links and accept the film on its own terms.

Also, look at this picture of PM and Wayne Coyne taken after the screening. He was lovely, and more than willing to have a chat. As it happens, we spoke about crackheads in Oklahoma. Always meet your idols kids, but only if they’re Wayne Coyne. Visit the Lips at their website, it’s terrific.

I don't know the guy in the background. He looks like he's having fun, though. Probably 'cos he'd just seen an ace film and met a hero. I know that'd make me smile. In fact, there's evidence enough in the foreground to conclude that.

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