Welcome to the freak show


Scene from The World According to Monsanto

Author and former Rolling Stone journalist Hunter S. Thompson is often remembered as the drug-binged character from the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, tripping crazily through post-sixties America. A new documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson now reminds us just how astute and politically engaged an observer he was, particularly before his literary output slowed in the later decades of his life (1937-2005).

In 1970, Thompson ran a strong campaign for the sheriff’s seat in Aspen under an early environmental, freak party manifesto that included installing a set of stocks on the courthouse lawn “to punish dishonest dope dealers in a proper, public fashion.” His acerbic reports as an election correspondent on the 1972 presidential trail provide an unfiltered view of the socio-political upheavals of the Nixon era. His take on Nixon – “our Barbie doll president...he speaks to the werewolf within us” – is searingly funny.

Director Alex Gibney, who made the excellent Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and recent Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side, captures the wild-at-heart, but caring, spirit of the man. Drawing on seemingly plentiful archival footage from personal and television sources, Gibney traces Thompson’s life all the way from childhood through to his ashes being fired from a rocket launcher.

Thompson’s wives and adult son Juan, along with his friends and colleagues, reveal a deep appreciation and surprising latitude for the writer’s excessiveness. Memorable interviewees include George McGovern –Thompson’s favourite for the 1972 presidential election – Jimmy Carter, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, artist Ralph Steadman and a surprise fan, Pat Buchanan. Add Johnny Depp narrating extracts of Thompson’s writings with a sixties soundtrack and you have an entertaining portrait of one of the most iconic characters of the flower power era.

In The World According to Monsanto (Vancity, August 1-7) French director Marie-Monique Robin digs into the world’s largest seed manufacturer. Framed as an investigative story, Robin peels away the layers of this multi-headed monster, delving into its history of environmental pollution and the suffering it has caused with its products, such as PCBs and dioxins in the defoliant Agent Orange.

Most disturbing is the company’s amazing success in getting the first GMO products to the marketplace in spite of widespread warnings from scientists working for national food regulatory bodies. “I have never seen a situation where one company could have so much overwhelming influence at the highest levels of regulatory decision making as the example of Monsanto with its GM food policy with the government,” says one insider.

This is borne out in accounts from scientists who found that, when they published critical reports of GMOs, their work was rubbished and they were fired from their jobs. There’s a telling piece of footage of former vice-president George Bush Sr. where on a tour of Monsanto’s labs he promises a smooth path past the regulators for the company’s brand new GMO products. “Call me. We’re in the de-reg business,” he says. The company comes off as thoroughly deceitful, bullying and money grabbing, yet very effective at pursuing its narrow interests.

Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is a surreal and very subjective documentary about his prairie home. Using his trademark, scratchy black-and-white film effects and image composites, the director has created a highly poetic and heartfelt rendering of his snowy, dreamy prairie home, populated by perpetually sleepwalking residents and his omniscient mother. Next to this, a travelogue looks like a dull, lifeless thing.

Also look out for James Marsh’s popular documentary Man on Wire about high-wire walker Phillipe Petit’s daredevil scheme to make an illegal walk across the twin towers in 1974 (from August 8).

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver-set bicycle documentary You Never Bike Alone, available on DVD at www.youneverbikealone.com