What should we make of Hunter S. Thompson today? Only a hardened contrarian could downplay his importance as a chronicler of the collapse of sixties-style utopianism in America. Few readers could forget — or refrain from committing to memory — the famous passage of Thompson’s journalistic and psychedelic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) that looks back on the ruins of hippiedom from within the hangover of the early seventies. With unmatched clarity, he traces how “the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash,” the “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil,” the feeling of “riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave,” and how, “less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
In the seventies, Thompson counted among his friends San Francisco pornographers the Mitchell brothers, best known for producing Behind the Green Door, which hit the zeitgeist the year after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In 1988, the Mitchell brothers grabbed their cameras and followed Thompson around on a lecture tour, to places like the University of Kansas and Portland, Oregon’s First Congregational Church, collecting material for what would become the half-hour documentary The Crazy Never Die. It follows from the title that, since the news of Thompson’s having removed himself from this mortal coil broke seven years ago last week, he either did not die, or was not crazy. Though the latter possibility seems more plausible on its face, those familiar with the trappings of Thompson’s public persona — the “fortified compound,” the rounds unloaded into the typewriter, the peacocks — may find the former easier to swallow. Just look at the footage cut between the lecture segments: Thompson spraying a makeshift aerosol flamethrower, Thompson lighting a cannon, Thompson viciously attacking the camera with a Mexican restaurant-napkin — all rigidly in line with his man-out-of-control image.
Witness to the end of the Age of Aquarius, drug-fueled bon viveur, sociopolitical critic, flailing maniac: Thompson contained multitudes. His Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of the most incisive texts I’ve read on the Democratic party — more so than anything political science classes assigned me — but over the following decades his political positions curdled into a sad sort of paranoia. The Crazy Never Die captures Thompson in full gadfly mode, packing houses and easily entertaining them, whether on time or (more commonly) not. But the content of these talks, assuming you can follow it, seems altogether less relevant to the man’s enduring appeal than the life and sensibility that produced it. He takes the usual crowd-pleasing swipes at Nixon and Reagan, but then delves haphazardly into elaborate theses involving Oliver North, George H.W. Bush, and Iran. (1988, recall.) He takes particular exception to Ed Meese, a name I imagine very few of Thompson’s younger fans recognize. But when the name of Meese and whatever crimes may or may not be pinned upon it has long faded from living memory — and surely that time is upon us — the name of Thompson will keep on resonating and fascinating.
(NSFW warning: Staying true to form, the Mitchell brothers saw fit to include a few flashes of nudity throughout this documentary.)
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.