Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Since I wasn't able to find a theater near here showing it when it had its run, I only just now got around to seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the post-humus documentary on the man whose writing has served as a touchstone and inspiration to my own career and outlook.

The film is, like a lot of documentaries, an amalgam of stock photos and archival video footage, focusing mainly on the events in Thompson's life that shaped his admittedly bent approach to journalism. The directors also staged a few dramatic recreations to highlight moments of the film -- the opening credits roll to a Hunter Thompson stand-in riding a BSA motorcycle at breakneck speed down the California oceanside highway, set to a raucous soundtrack and Johnny Depp's voice, reading Thompson's sequence on "an honest run."

It's a moving picture that does a rather good job of attempting to explain Thompson the man -- as distinct from the "Gonzo" character he created for himself (exploited some years later, and during Thompson's lifetime, by Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" character in "Doonesbury"). It's not altogether flattering -- Thompson's reputation had equal parts of revolutionary writer and legendary substance abuser mixed in, and there were points where the latter outweighed the former.

The interviews come from many of the people who knew him in different aspects of his life and career -- his first wife, Sandy, decries his 2005 suicide, and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner tears up and has to halt the interview when it comes time to discuss his old sometimes-friend and sometimes-enemy's demise. But we also hear from contemporary "New Journalist" Tom Wolfe (whose Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, drew from audio tapes Thompson had made while covering the Hell's Angels for his own first book), and then-Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, who, surprisingly, had many warm (if sometimes alarming) memories of the writer. Former Sen. George McGovern (whose disastrous campaign against the incumbent Nixon Thompson followed and turned into a book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, '72) and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who took Thompson in after his first wife asked for a divorce, also contribute. 

The end of the film features footage from Thompson's funeral at his Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado interspersed with a younger Thompson walking the grounds of the expansive rural property and explaining how he'd like to be sent off -- he wanted his ashes fired out of a gigantic cannon, shaped like his trademark double-thumbed fist, over the place he'd called home since his move to Aspen at the end of the 1960s. This wish he was granted -- Johnny  Depp, who spent three months with the "Good Doctor" prior to playing him in Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reportedly financed a large portion of  the funeral.

It's a good watch. There could perhaps have been more time spent on the substance of Thompson's work, but perhaps a more personal look at him as a human being is exactly what we were missing in the catalog of Thompson-related memorabilia. As an avid Thompson fan, I have to say I was moved nearly to tears by the end. I felt, once again, remorseful, that there is no more Dr. Thompson to look to for that strange mix of hilarity, rage, and madness that somehow helped at least some of us better understand the crazy world we live in.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pirates!? reports that pirates have hijacked a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- A hijacked supertanker carrying up to $100 million worth of crude oil -- the largest vessel seized to date in an escalating regional piracy crisis -- was believed to have anchored off Somalia Tuesday, its operator said.

The Sirius Star's crew of 25, including British, Croatian, Polish, Filipino and Saudi nationals, are reported to be safe, according to Dubai-based Vela International Marine.

"Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of the crew," said Vela President Salah Kaaki. "We are in communication with their families and are working toward their safe and speedy return."

The Saudi-owned vessel was seized on Saturday more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya in what Saudi Arabia's foreign minister called "an outrageous act."

An outrageous act? Yeah, you might say that. Seriously, this is the kind of thing that seems pulled out of a summer action flick.

For a long time, it seemed to me, the term "pirate" was increasingly being shifted to people sharing music and software illegally over the Internet. Cheers to these entrepreneurial types for taking the word back!

Actually, this is pretty scary, and I'm sure the families of the crew (who are all reportedly "safe," although I think that's a bit of a stretch for the term) wouldn't appreciate me making jokes about it.

What this actually reminded me of was a conversation I had a year or so ago with my brother Zach. We'd been sitting outside talking about the world and our lives and what we were eventually going to do with ourselves, and he brought up the concept of the Merchant Marine.

"These guys actually go and fight pirates off the horn of Africa," he said.
"Wow... can you imagine how cool a job that would be?"

We decided that it would probably be extremely dangerous, but it would be a great response for when you get asked about your line of work at a bar. Further, we figured that if everything goes pear-shaped for us, we'll just have to sign up with the Merchant Marine. Fighting pirates isn't a bad fall-back plan.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Am I dreaming?

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.
-- Barack Obama, Chicago, Nov. 4, 2008

There's no easily-referenced historical anecdote to bring up right now, no comparison I could make that I think could actually sum up what I just watched happen. Barack Obama has been elected the next president of the United States.

I have this cerebral knowledge that I just watched history happen, but I'm still having a hard time getting my mind around it. Maybe I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, though. There are plenty of other places to read run-downs of why what happened really happened, and I certainly don't need to contribute to the pile -- what I can tell you is how I wound up where I am, a "blue-gummed" liberal as an Army pal from Alabama recently referred to me, stunned that my country has actually done the right thing. I hope I may be granted the indulgence of making this "all about me" for a post.

I grew up observing passionately conservative values, which I equated -- as my parents still do -- with the Republican party. I knew God was watching me in everything I did, and as I grew older, I realized that society would be better the more it fell in line with the Catholic ideology I'd learned.

I graduated in 2002 with marginally decent grades and a degree in journalism from a stridently Catholic school, still espousing those same religously-grounded notions of right and wrong, and still equating those with the Republican party -- which had led me to vote in 2000, in Ohio, for George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative."

Still feeling some nascent nationalist rage over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, I joined the Army a few months after graduating college. I had been utterly unsuccessful in my half-hearted attempts to find a job as a reporter, and I shipped off for basic with a contract to become a "public affairs specialist" on August 25, 2002.

Basic training was at Fort Benning, Georgia, and when I arrived, my coddled, comfortable world was taken away from me, and I learned what it was like to be afraid. I suppose that's the key to military training -- showing you constant fear and teaching you to operate even in the face of it.

Most of basic is a blur, now. But there's an image that has stuck with me: in late September, I was outside my company's barracks, trimming hedged with a pair of rusty shears on a Sunday afternoon. My battalion was located near the edge of the basic training area, and a set of railroad tracks ran past it. While I was out trying to appear busy while enjoying the suddenly pleasant weather, a long train passed by -- several locomotives towing a seemingly-endless chain of flatbed cars loaded with Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, all painted desert tan.

Our drill sergeants had told us since the beginning that we'd all be going to war within the next few months. They told us that we better listen, because if we didn't, we'd wind up being hamburger on the side of some Iraqi road (they all took it as a foregone conclusion that that was where we were headed).

Months later, in March of 2003, I crowded into my new company dayroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, to watch the beginning of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (which was later retroactively dubbed "OIF 1") -- U.S. tanks rolled into and across Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and we saw brief video of sporadic firefights interspersed with breathless after-action commentary from battalion commanders on the ground, whose men had fought valiantly against a foe all too eager to surrender.

It took a tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division and a subsequent reassignment to Fort Konx for me to finally realize what a horrible mess we were in -- war in Afghanistan had started before I'd joined, and the Iraq war was ramping up deployments of my more combat-oriented friends at an alarming pace. And our leaders were dissembling -- we'd gone in to Iraq on the assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons hadn't materialized. Worse, the team sent in to oversee things had hideously botched matters. All this I had been willing to forgive -- after all, I remained a loyal soldier, true to the oath I'd sworn in the Syracuse federal building some years before...

I, Ian Boudreau, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
But it eventually occured to me that the officers appointed over me, and to a much greater extent, the president of the United States -- one George W. Bush, who we've heard precious little of in the last three months -- weren't all they were cracked up to be. And the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was Bush's failed nomination of Harriet Myers to the United States Supreme Court.

There's not much to dig up here on how I felt when it happened -- it actually seems to have stimulated a long period of inactivity (which never seems to have entirely gone away, actually). But it was a chink in the armor of what I'd up till then held as unassailable beliefs -- in American exceptionalism, in the inherent goodness of capitalism, and in our right to do pretty much whatever we wanted because of those things.

Today, I watched a country -- a people -- tell the rest of the world that we're sorry for telling it to go fuck itself whenever it doesn't get along with what our leaders want to do. Today I saw that Americans, by a large margin, are upset that we've lost standing in world opinion, that we want to get along, and that we don't want to be seen as the rednecks of the globe.

The last thing I want to do here is to take anything away from Obama, who has accomplished something that couldn't even have been conceived of 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama. He has been accused of the most fatuous group of lies ever concocted about an American presidential candidate (early on, he was suspected of being the antichrist), and Americans spoke and said "We want him anyway."

As much as it is a validation of Senator Obama's platform, it's a vote of disgust and no-confidence for the ideals the Republican party has come to espouse over the past decade. We want forgiveness from the rest of the world, because we're interested in being a helpful and benign part of it, not an opportunistic, vendetta-oriented warmonger looking to depose and hang inconveniently popular rulers in areas we have economic interests in. We care about the way our soldiers behave, and we care about whether the prisoners we take are tortured. We care about social justice, we care about the poor, we care about veterans, and we're angry that getting sick in America means going broke for most people.

And the operative phrase there is, "We Care." Maybe I'm a short-timer compared to some of the life-long protestors out there, but god!

Barack Obama is going to be our president in January, and no other explanation makes sense other than, Americans really do care.

It's late now. This could have done better justice both to Obama's win and my own history. Maybe I'll write more down tomorrow. It was an interesting night.