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Night of the Hunter

Gonzo explores the life and legacy of Hunter S. ThompsonIn the wake of the wailing that followed the death of Tim Russert, the consummate Washington insider and neocon enabler, it's instructive to read Hunter S. Thompson, who saw through the phoniness of the Washington press corps way back in '73. From the introduction to his scabrously brilliant Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72:

"The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists … When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in."

Even in later years, with his best writing behind him, Thompson was amazingly prescient. Days after 9/11, while the mainstream media marched in lockstep to Bush's drumbeat, Thompson wrote, "We are At War now - with somebody - and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides … We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once."

Thompson was an astute thinker, but he became in some ways a slave to the myth he created. The substance of his keen observations tends to be ignored in favor of his tough, anarchic persona and his style - the freewheeling, hallucinogen-fueled participatory journalism that was christened "gonzo" after the publication of "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" and brilliantly deployed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the aforementioned Campaign Trail.

Late in his life - which ended in 2005 as he had vowed it would, with a Hemingwayesque shotgun to the head - Thompson admitted it was hard to know who he was supposed to be. Was he Hunter Thompson or Raoul Duke, the gun-waving persona to whom Garry Trudeau paid tribute in Doonesbury? He was a man constantly at war with himself. His first wife and his widow describe him as a man of extremes - loving and generous, vicious and cruel. People who try to write about him have a tendency to try to "out-gonzo" Thompson, lapsing into mimetic gonzo prose while trying to characterize Thompson, who consistently evades their grasp. Who was this man who captivated so many readers and aspiring journalists, who tried, but always failed, to channel his sui generis style?

Alex Gibney's new documentary, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, succumbs to the same temptation, using hallucinatory sequences, psychedelic music and dramatic readings from Thompson's books by Johnny Depp, who played him in the poorly received adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney directed Taxi to the Darkside, the important Oscar-winning documentary about U.S. torture policies. Thompson proves a far more elusive subject, one who has defeated many before him.

The film recognizes that Thompson's life is entwined with the history of the 1960s, so it tries to embrace everything: the Chicago riots, the San Francisco hippie scene, Vietnam, Kent State and so on, alongside a biographical portrait of Thompson. We have seen this '60s footage ad infinitum, so the most illuminating portions of the movie are biographical. Strangely, though Gonzo covers a lot of ground, it doesn't reveal that much about the man behind the gonzo. One of its most interesting archival items is Thompson' appearance on the TV quiz show "To Tell the Truth" after the publication of his first book, Hell's Angels, for which he infiltrated the outlaw motorcycle gang. "Will the real Hunter Thompson please stand up?" the announcer intones, and the tall, lanky young man rises to his feet. Though it tries earnestly, Gonzo never quite discovers who the real Thompson was. As with all good writers, he is best understood not by reveling in his personality, but by reading his work. - Pamela Zoslov

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 6:45 p.m. Sunday, September 21

Constantine's Sword

In all the ghastly rampages of messianic religion, you've got to say this for Catholics: Eventually they feel terrible about their crimes - even if it takes several centuries. I can't imagine most Protestants and Muslims doing that, especially the current holy-roller breed. In the transfixing new documentary Constantine's Sword, author James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, dons the proverbial hair shirt over the roots of anti-Semitism. He investigates sacred sites around Europe, "trying to find out where it all went wrong between Christians and Jews."

Carroll's jumping-off point is The Passion of the Christ and the ascendancy of Ted Haggard's megachurch and the National Association of Evangelicals, in bed with the Bush administration and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Carroll finds a Jewish Air Force cadet fed up with anti-Semitic slurs among his military, and base pressure to see the Mel Gibson bloodbath.

Carroll probes legends of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, of the third century A.D., a convert who ordained the crucifix the official Christian symbol (sweeping aside the fish, the lamb and the leopard; maybe a new marketing survey is called for). Constantine - who had some pretty Caligula-like aspects - might have been sincerely devout or he might have been a ruthless despot who used Christianity as a weapon to consolidate his power. He sure wasn't the last in that respect. A number of Catholic myths and relics can be attributed to Constantine (and his mother St. Helena) - including the alleged robe worn by Christ, for which Roman soldiers cast lots, almost certainly a fiction but one which was - surprise - cemented as Cinemascope fact in the Bible epic The Robe.

Also at the feet of Constantine can be lain Christianity's militant-warrior face, which came out during the Crusades and for which the Arab world has yet to forgive the West (as everyone learned after 9/11). Carroll reveals that, as a warm-up on their way to fight Muslims for Jerusalem, Crusaders massacred villages of Jews along the Rhine River. The Church gave sanctuary only to the Jews who converted. Carroll's narrative (based on his own book), in the manner of an excellent literary essay, hops across time lines, making profound connections (the Crusaders with the mega-church evangelicals, the Spanish Inquisition with the Final Solution) and skillfully weaving in his own story about growing up steeped in Catholicism. - Charles Cassady Jr.

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, September 20

The Unknown Woman

Oh, how the mighty have tumbled. Last summer, UNICEF poster boy Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission) helmed the odious torture porn flick Captivity. Now Cinema Paradiso humanist goombah Giuseppe Tornatore joins the anything-for-a-buck brigade with The Unknown Woman, an only slightly less disreputable exploitation film. The result is akin to Antonioni segueing from L'Avventura to Mondo Cane back in the early '60s. Is it that tough for a down-on-his-luck director to find work in today's Darwinian movie industry? I know that Hollywood is a tough town, but Italy? Has the birthplace of Rossellini, Fellini and Bertolucci succumbed to Tinseltown's bottom-line-at-all-costs mentality too?

I'm not sure whether to be outraged or merely depressed. The fact that Tornatore tries disguising his movie's inherent sleaziness with a sociopolitical agenda - something to do with the mistreatment of Eastern-European immigrants in Northern Italy - only makes it seem that much more cynical. Former Ukrainian prostitute Irena (Xenia Rappoport) somehow manages to finagle her way into a nanny/housekeeper position with an Italian yuppie couple whose little girl (Clara Dossena) has a mysterious malady that prevents her from standing up after falling down. (Irena caused the near death of the couple's former maid to help secure the job.) Once ensconced in the family's luxurious apartment, Irena begins snooping around in places where she doesn't belong. Tornatore keeps us in the dark for much of the film about what Irena's searching for. When we finally learn her deep, dark secret, it's a tad anti-climactic.

To help pass the time, Tornatore incorporates a series of gruesome flashbacks in which Irena and other Ukrainian hookers are brutally raped and tortured by Mold (former matinee idol Michele Placido). Meanwhile, Irena tries helping her young charge overcome her disability through a tough-love boot camp that mostly consists of repeatedly knocking the tyke down and forcing her to defend herself. These scenes are even more disturbing to watch than the rape flashbacks. Veteran film composer Ennio Morricone does his best to class up the low-rent proceedings with a Bernard Herrmann-esque score. But The Unknown Woman isn't Vertigo, and Tornatore ain't Hitchcock. - Milan Paurich

Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 9:45 p.m. Saturday, September 20 and 3:45 p.m. Sunday, September 21

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