The Great Crusader
Nobody's safe from man-with-a-camera Alex Gibney
Filmmaker Alex Gibney is mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore. Or, rather, he hopes you're mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Having won the Best Documentary Oscar for his Taxi to the Dark Side (which chronicled, in excruciating detail, the human rights abuses inflicted on prisoners at Bagram Air Force Base by U.S. servicemen and -women), he found his distributor, THINKFilm, unable to market the picture properly and, as of last week, filed suit for arbitration against them.
Recent bedevilments aside, Gibney is the sort of social muckraker Upton Sinclair would have appreciated. (It's a safe bet that the current administration views him as the early 20th century meatpacking industry viewed Sinclair.) His 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, remains one of the all-time highlights of South by Southwest, but for his recently released Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Gibney the filmmaker is not only documenting the infamous escapades and pith-perfect prose of the legendary journo-from-hell-via-Aspen but is also refracting a withering light on the mainstream media today.
The Chronicle spoke to Gibney by phone on the eve of his appearance at the upcoming Netroots Nation convention.
Austin Chronicle: Before we get into Gonzo, do you want to talk about your suit against THINKFilm?
Alex Gibney: I certainly can, sure. My investors and I were upset that THINKFilm didn't let us know that they no longer had the financial wherewithal to capitalize on [Taxi to the Dark Side's] Oscar win. A lot of the strategy for getting it out into the world and into theatres was to try to win awards and then capitalize on those awards. And when your website gets pulled off the Internet because your distributor doesn't have enough money to pay the bill to keep it on ... that's pretty bleak. This is not a subjective issue of, you know, could they have opened it in this city or that city – no, this is about having a great and wonderful moment when we captured the attention of millions of people by winning the Academy Award, and we couldn't capitalize on it because our distributor couldn't afford to do anything.
AC: How have they reacted to your filing suit against them?
AG: I would say their reaction was somewhat hostile.
AC: On to Gonzo, which simultaneously debunks a number of Hunter S. Thompson's self-mythologies while in no way diminishing his legend. What do you think he would have made of the film?
AG: I think, just like Gary Trudeau's [Doonesbury character Uncle Duke, which was based on Thompson], he probably would have been flattered by it, but at the same time, he probably would've chased me around the country with an automatic weapon.
AC: Thompson's life and times are not exactly undiscovered country. That said, was there anything you came across during production that came as a shock, any major revelation you'd been unaware of?
AG: I never really reckoned with the fact, which I learned from both of Hunter's wives, that he had such very high highs and such very low lows. You can almost feel that in his writing, and when he's running on all six cylinders, he uses even his darkest moments to great effect. Sometimes his most poignant writing is when he's wounded, and his funniest writing is when he's most angry. So that aspect of it was interesting to me, because it seemed that Hunter's personal character echoed the American character in the sense that we are also the very best and very worst.
AC: For better or worse, Hunter S. Thompson has become an icon to generations of would-be, no-longer-"new journalists" who equate drinky, druggy typewriting with edgy authorship ...
AG: Right, right, but I think at the end of the day, it's never the booze or the drugs that are talking; it's the writer. Some people have the capacity to write in that zone because it frees them up sometimes, but I think even Hunter found that over the long haul it affected him adversely. Certainly the speed helped him write on huge, long stretches to the point where it seemed like he was almost superhuman, a kind of writing action hero. But it's not to be imitated. If you take heroin, you won't play like Charlie Parker.
AC: Despite the best attempts of Hunter S. Thompson and his journalistic and societal contemporaries to point out that the emperor and his minions were sans couture, the cultural fear and loathing seem, if anything, to have grown by orders of magnitude since his heyday. Did Hunter believe he could change the world for the better, or was he tilting at windmills, so to speak?
AG: I think writers are in a funny position that way, in that writers provoke. Writers are kind of agent provocateurs – that's their function; that's their role. And sometimes, too, it's their function to uncover corruption. Sometimes writers can change the way people see the world, and that I think Hunter did, by writing both from the inside out, as he did with Hell's Angels, and also in that kind of hallucinatory exploration, that road trip that he did in Vegas. He gives people a sense of how the world has changed and you see the world differently after you read a book like that. But changing the world? That's a collective activity.
AC: I bring it up because it seems that sort of speaking truth to power, collectively or by oneself, has been greatly diminished in the past few decades.
AG: Well, there was a sense that there was a spirit inviolable in the land, that you could almost by willpower change the culture around you, and all the square, old, repressive conditions could just be blown away, almost by holding hands and getting high. But I think at the end of the day, while Hunter also talked about how that was noble and necessary, nevertheless, like the wave that he describes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, at some point that wave crashes up against reality and rolls back. So I think he was also realistic about the way those hopes sometimes shatter on the shoals of American fear and loathing.
AC: Do you see any echoes of Hunter S. Thompson's DIY, gonzo ethos in the rise of Internet journalism and the blogosphere, or is that just so much uncrafty chatter?
AG: Yeah, I do. I think that kind of unofficial journalism on the blogosphere is very much a riff off of stuff that Hunter was doing. You see a lot more opinion mixed with reporting, but there are not many who can pull off what Hunter had, which was that kind of journalist's sensibility mixed with a novelist's flair for the written word. He really was both journalist and novelist. I do think that, in people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, you see Hunter's ability to use humor to really go after the people in power and to undermine the kind of feeble conventions that they cling to.
AC: As a filmmaker who's crafted more than his share of incisive, headline-heavy – not to mention Oscar-winning – documentaries, what's your take on the fact that so many people, inadvertently or otherwise, are turning to the likes of Colbert and Stewart to uncover the real stories that the mainstream press seem to have abandoned?
AG: I think it's kind of understandable. People say, "How could anyone desert the news for this comedy and sort-of fictional characters?" But I think the news has become this kind of grand fiction. You have these sort of pompadoured anchors with these unbelievably deep voices on these fake stage sets giving you a kind of rundown on what's supposed to have happened that day. That's the fiction. Taken in that context, people will naturally trust more those people who are more coruscating and ironically critical of what's going on. They have a better sense of how the whole thing has become a kind of bad joke.
AC: You're going to be in Austin as part of the Netroots convention. What can people expect to see, for your part?
AG: I think I'm just going to give a little preview of a new film I've done. It's about Jack Abramoff, and it's called Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and it looks at the Abramoff scandal as a way to reckon with the pernicious influence that money has had in our political process.
Alex Gibney will appear at the Netroots Nation conference on Friday, July 18. See www.netrootsnation.org for more. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is in theatres now. See "Building the Netroots Nation," News, for more Chronicle coverage of the convention.