We're drastically reworking Gonzo in the coming months. I'm actually pretty excited about the system changes we're going to be going with, though it's going to end up putting the whole endeavor on the back burner for a few reasons I won't go into (nothing bad; just coordination and other projects and such).
As it is, there's an awful lot of Gonzo already written. One of the bits is a long essay that I penned on Gonzo journalism, exploitation cinema, the history of both, and why they fit together. Bret helped out with some of the genre write ups in the movie discussion.
This may never make it to the final Gonzo cut. I think it's good, but there's also something self-indulgent about it. You probably don't need ANY of this to play what will be a rules-lite game. But I wrote it, all 10k words of it (minus quotes), and it kind of kills me to think that 10k words could just disappear into the ether. So, here... maybe it'll be a good read, get you stoked about the eventual Gonzo release, or otherwise prove interesting.
Gonzo journalism arose as an offshoot of New Journalism, a term which didn't come into being until 1973 but which referred to interpretive and literary, rather than traditionally dispassionate, reporting. The idea behind New Journalism, as typified by people like Tom Wolfe, was to create a novel out of facts, blurring the stylistic line between fiction and nonfiction. The end result was ideally a nonfiction book which read like a novel.
Where gonzo differed from Wolfe's New Journalism was primarily in scale. Gonzo journalists ventured into caricature, a way of setting themselves apart from the status quo in the most obvious ways which they could: drinking heavily, using hard drugs, swearing like sailors. Sex, drugs, and rock n roll. This seems, on its surface, rather passe to 21st century eyes. Drugs? Drink? Sex? All in a normal college weekend. But this was a different time. Smoking marijuana, softest of the illegal drugs, in the middle decades of the 20th century was a political statement on the part of a generation, a blanket fuck you to their parents, with their 50s morals, segregation, and Vietnam.
It was edgy and intense. Yes, it could be (and usually was!) wacky, but the modern usage (particularly used by gamers) of gonzo as over the top, cartoon action and zany situations isn't what is meant in this case. Gonzo journalism was, underneath the drugs and outlandish humor, deathly serious. It was political. It was a way of examining very real things in very real ways, satirical or roundabout though they might be.
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson, the creator of gonzo journalism and one of the giants of 20th century American writing, took this to an extreme level. The idea was to insert yourself into the story, becoming both character and narrator, and to drop all pretense of objectivity. To paraphrase Thompson, sometimes you have to stop being objective in order to figure out what the truth is. This "reporter as actor" motif was taken further by Thompson's massive drug use. By using drugs so openly and often, the line between truth and fiction which New Journalism exploited was further smudged. The reader was left to figure out whether a given stunt or situation was real, a soberly concocted lie, or a drug-induced hallucination neither true or false.
Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was Thompson's first foray into what he would eventually call gonzo. Thompson was approached by The Nation to write about the archetypal motorcycle gang. There was increasing overlap between the gangs and the nascent hippie culture; the public was paying attention and wanted to know what to make of biker culture. Thompson inserted himself into the Hell's Angels, befriending several members, including the gang's notorious founder, Sonny Barger, in the course of his writing. While veering closer to traditional (though not remotely objective) journalism, the book's warm critical reception bought Thompson just enough cache to veer into truly uncharted territory. He would do this with an article about the Kentucy Derby for Scanlon's Monthly, a short-lived magazine based in San Francisco.
In The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, Thompson and his good friend (the two didn't know each other before the Derby article), artist Ralph Steadman, did a report on the Kentucky Derby as spectacle, concentrating on the people in the stands rather than the race. He wrote it drunk and exhausted, ripping the pages from his notebook and mailing them off as he finished. What emerged was a bizarre, taut examination of American class politics, with upper-class hedonism ruling in the stands. The piece was packed with subjectivity and outright falsehoods about the crowd's behavior, both of which aimed to offer up symbolic truth over objective reality; this theme comes up again and again with Thompson, specifically, and gonzo journalism, generally.
Armed with good reviews, Thompson jumped to what are inarguably his two finest works: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. The former would become widely regarded as one of the best novels of the second half of the 20th century; the latter one of the most important pieces of political literature.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was Thompson at the height of his literary genius. Ostensibly a loosely organized work about two buddies doing drugs on the way to cover a law enforcement convention, the narrative served as a means for Thompson to grapple with the slow demise of the counter-culture. You can see a profound disappointment with how things turned out; while it's never quite stated openly, there's a constant wondering if the only thing that people took away from the 60s was a love of drugs. You can also see the disdain for the culture of his parents' generation, expressed (paradoxically) in the wanton drug use of his alter ego, Raoul Duke. It was an in your face way of showing disregard for prevailing cultural norms, which then looped right back into the wondering about the role drugs played in the fall of the counter-culture. The city of Las Vegas became a grotesque stand-in for America as a whole, with Duke and his companion wandering it in a haze, strangers in a strange land, outsiders to what everyone else considered good and worthwhile.
By the time of Las Vegas' publication in 1971, that counter-culture, so near and dear to Thompson's heart, was in full retreat. The "real" hippies of San Francisco had fled to the counties, leaving a mess of drug addicts wandering Haight Street. Nixon had won and looked poised to win again. Vietnam still dragged on but the fury against it was largely spent. For the most part, even the most ardent had exhausted themselves into near surrender. For Thompson, there was a terrible wistfulness for his generation's glory days, only recently in the past. The most famous passage from Las Vegas illustrates this. Referred to as the wave speech, it captures all of Thompson's sad nostalgia for the recent past:
"Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, 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."
Hot on the heels of Las Vegas came Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a campaign journal done for Rolling Stone. It was, for the time, a remarkably hi-tech venture; Rolling Stone gave Thompson access to a new-fangled device called a fax machine, which he lugged around with him in order to just barely meet his deadlines for each dispatch.
Since Nixon was obviously going to win the Republican nomination, Thompson followed around the Democratic contenders almost exclusively. No event was too small, no nuance too subtle for Thompson to skip over. He revealed himself as a remarkably astute observer of the political process in '72, realizing that George McGovern (a dark horse candidate and eventual Democratic nominee) was likely to win well before anyone else did.
'72 has Thompson savaging the traditional Democratic establishment as personified by Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, the two men most likely to be nominated when the campaign kicked off. He reserved special ire for Muskie, famously accusing him of doing hallucinogenic drugs before his speeches in order to counteract his soporific manner of engaging the crowds. Humphrey, who, it should be noted, was the man who eloquently demanded a civil rights plank in the party platform in 1948, is portrayed as indistinguishable from Nixon. In 1972, Vietnam still trumped everything for the New Left and Humphrey was still too hawkish compared to McGovern.
The book is, like most of Thompson's works, at least as much about the author as it is the subject. Here we can watch Thompson start out skeptical of the whole sordid process, only to see him become enthused by McGovern (they became lifelong friends) almost despite himself, before ending with the despair at McGovern's landslide defeat, leaving him exhausted and demoralized. Thompson serves as a familiar figure on the American left: the man who is almost pathologically disappointed in both the process and his fellow citizens but keeps tilting at windmills to offer something, whether policy or political awakening, which might change what he feels is the country's disastrous course. He never does, the despair is compounded, and yet he keeps going, alternately cynical and hopeful.
McGovern's defeat was a terrible blow to what remained of Thompson's optimism. The disappointment in his generation and refusal to accept the world of the squares on display in Las Vegas gives way, after '72, to bitterness. He also simply aged. Drugs and drinking take a toll and it gets worse as you age. He was accused of not evolving, of descending into self-parody, of playing the role of media gadfly instead of driving things forward.
Thompson almost never calls out his generational fellows out directly. There's always a Nixon or a Reagan or a Bush to deflect the blame, to keep him from truly giving up hope. Instead, what you see is a hardened cynicism and constant reminders that how things ended up weren't set in stone. That paradox, the man who fights and the man who wants to sit back and laugh at all the jerks out there, remains unresolved throughout his career, driving his later writing. There were flashes of brilliance, to be sure, and he was always prolific enough that the dedicated Thompson fan could find plenty to be happy with. But there was never the killer book, never another Las Vegas or '72. There's a grand irony that Thompson arguably peaked and declined in precisely the same fashion that his generation did.
Gonzo and Deeper Meaning
One of the things gonzo journalism does is play with the nature of reality. Through hyperbole or outright lying about events, the best gonzo journalists show truth by getting beneath the veneer of square society erected to cover the truth up. It comes up again and again, sometimes very subtly.
Thompson was a master of this, largely owing to his superior writing skills. The entire Kentucky Derby article, through his use of hyperbole and outright falsehood, served as an examination of the behavior and motivations of the largely upper middle class crowd. They were revealed as drunks, perverts, and brawlers, as at the mercy of their base natures as any poor prole on the outside, if not more. The absurdity of covering the Derby while the newspaper headlines screamed about Vietnam escalation and dead soldiers was also a feature. By the end, Thompson and Steadman realize that they, in their drunken rampage through their hotel and in the stands, were every bit as bad as their subjects. There was truth there in some of the personal events, but Thompson mangled and twisted them in order to tell a tale of human nature and what's truly important.
The most infamous example of Thompson's toying with the distinction between reality and truth was in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. Thompson hated Edmund Muskie, Senator from Maine and early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, finding him everything wrong with the New Deal Democrats. He was stuffy, awkward, painfully square, a war hawk, and weirdly uncomfortable around minorities. He was, after Nixon, the ultimate Dad candidate, the worst blandness of the War Generation rolled up in a neatly wrapped package. Indeed, for the remaining true believers of the New Left, the differences between Muskie and Nixon (and Humphrey, for that matter) were completely negligible.
Thompson mentioned in one of the dispatches that Muskie was addicted to ibogaine, an obscure hallucinogen from West Africa. In the article, he writes:
"I immediately recognized The Ibogaine Effect — from Muskie's tearful breakdown on the flatbed truck in New Hampshire, the delusions and altered thinking that characterized his campaign in Florida, and finally the condition of "total rage" that gripped him in Wisconsin.
There was no doubt about it: The Man from Maine had turned to massive doses of Ibogaine as a last resort. The only remaining question was "when did he start?" But nobody could answer this one, and I was not able to press the candidate himself for an answer because I was permanently barred from the Muskie campaign after that incident on the "Sunshine Special" in Florida … and that scene makes far more sense now than it did at the time. Muskie has always taken pride in his ability to deal with hecklers; he has frequently challenged them, calling them up to the stage in front of big crowds and then forcing the poor bastards to debate with him in a blaze of TV lights.
But there was none of that in Florida. When the Boohoo began grabbing at his legs and screaming for more gin, Big Ed went all to pieces … which gave rise to speculation. among reporters familiar with his campaign style in '68 and '70, that Muskie was not himself. It was noted, among other things, that he had developed a tendency to roll his eyes wildly during TV interviews, that his thought patterns had become strangely fragmented, and that not even his closest advisors could predict when he might suddenly spiral off into babbling rages, or neocomatose funks.
In restrospect, however, it is easy to see why Muskie fell apart on that caboose platform in the Miami train station. There he was — far gone in a bad Ibogaine frenzy — suddenly shoved out in a rainstorm to face a sullen crowd and some kind of snarling lunatic going for his legs while he tried to explain why he was "the only Democrat who can beat Nixon."
It is entirely conceivable — given the known effects of Ibogaine — that Muskie's brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at that crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people, and that his mind snapped completely when he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs. We can only speculate on this, because those in a position to know have flatly refused to comment on rumors concerning the Senator's disastrous experiments with Ibogaine. I tried to find the Brazilian doctor on election Bight in Milwaukee, but by the time the polls closed he was long gone. One of the hired bimbos in Milwaukee's Holiday Inn headquarters said a man with fresh welts on his head had been dragged out the side door and put on a bus to Chicago, but we were never able to confirm this… .
This was patently absurd. Muskie had probably never sniffed a joint, much less pounded psychotropic drugs. The media missed the absurdity, with some outlets picking it up and running with it. Muskie was enraged, complaining to the mainstream press. The senator was revealed as peevish and overly sensitive; the media as obsessed with a scoop and unable to discern fiction from non-fiction. The notorious ibogaine story wasn't real; what it revealed about the press and, especially, Muskie was true. To prove the truth, Muskie would withdraw after (probably) crying on television about a Nixon planted story that he had referred to French-Canadians as Canucks, an admittedly dirty trick but certainly small potatoes for a man who aimed to have control of the Button."
Thompson's reply, made years later? "I never said he was (taking ibogaine), I said there was a rumor in Milwaukeee that he was. Which was true, and I started the rumor in Milwaukee. If you read that carefully, I’m a very accurate journalist."
This reality versus truth motif should ideally play a significant role in a game of Gonzo. Between the drug usage by the characters inherent in the setting and the bad movie villains, there's ample space to distort reality in order to reveal a Thompson style truth. Keep it subtle; the game shouldn't be a political polemic, by any means, but toy with what's real and what's not in order to let the cynicism and the political views of the time seep through.
A good example is our playtest scenario, in which the characters are tasked with following the local mayor to a national mayor's convention. If the mayor has an image of a squeaky clean family man when he leaves and the game ends up showing that he's a coke fiend in league with virgin sacrificing cultists, then all the right buttons have been hit. The real (nice guy mayor) versus the true (drug-addicted politician murderer) has been set out in the game and it's all weird enough that, were it published in Rolling Stone, a reader would end up scratching his head.
While nobody did it like Thompson, gonzo journalism didn't stop with him. The self-insertion of author into story waned, as did the worst drug use, but the use of language, hyperbole, and style came to permeate independent journalism. This accelerated with the advent of the internet, as bloggers and citizen journalists struck out on their own without corporate restrictions and a copy editor lurking with every submitted story. Gonzo journalism, as imagined in the early 70s, morphed into a general style guide: swearing, cynicism, muckracking, drug references, sex. If the initial approach, as pioneered by Thompson, has all but disappeared in the 21st century as corporate media has closed off most avenues to political access, it's become so pervasive in the general tone of independent journalism that it can't be considered anything but a massive victory for Thompson and his lesser co-stars. Even the squares are swearing lividly at their representatives on Facebook these days.
The new style arguably reached its apex with The Exile (subsequently The Exiled, once Vladimir Putin booted them out of the country), an online magazine formed by a group of ex-pat gonzo journalists for the primary purpose of examining Boris Yeltsin's decadent, crazy, after the fall Russia. Led by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, they did as many drugs and hit as many whorehouses as they possibly could. Not everything was a hit (particularly, they flirted with borderline grotesque levels of misogyny on occasion) but, at their best, they rivaled Thompson's palpable contempt for those in power. They went on for years until they finally began to burn out; Ames still plugs along at The Exiled, with several other modern gonzo luminaries like Yasha Levine, while Matt Taibbi writes for Rolling Stone and has become downright respectable. These guys all do more straight muckracking journalism with a heavy dose of the transgressive, rather than Thompson's more literary style, but they're direct descendants of the master of the form.
Even the author as character still crops up every now and again. In 2011, Ian Murphy of The Buffalo Beast infamously posed as billionaire David Koch in a call to Scott Walker, the union busting governor of Wisconsin. Hilariously, Walker couldn't tell it wasn't the real David Koch, despite Murphy dropping any number of clues. The reality? David Koch wasn't really calling. The truth? Walker was revealed as a groveling, none too bright worshiper of the sort of money and power Koch could supply. Of all the gonzo journalism practiced from the Reagan administration on, including that of Thompson, nothing else has come as close to matching the brilliance of the Fear and Loathing era master as this one stunt did.
Late night television, networks like Comedy Central, blogs, news story comments… gonzo style is everywhere. More than being ubiquitous, it's practically become the default style of expressive writing for going on two generations of Americans. In that sense, Thompson is the most influential American writer in a century, with gonzo journalism the most influential genre. The genie, made of raw cynicism and impolitic language, can never be put back in the bottle.
Ask most anyone and the 1970s will be pointed to as one of the best decades, if not the best, for quality film making in history. The Godfather and The Godfather II, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Patton, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Jaws… Scorsese, Coppola, Allen, Forman, Kubrick, Fellini… it would take up an entire book of its own to list the legendary actors who either got their starts or hit their peaks in this decade.
But there was another genre of filmmaking which was in the shadows of this fertile period of global filmmaking, particularly in America. This was called grindhouse cinema, after the seedy, low rent cinemas which played host to the style. While not strictly the same thing as exploitation cinema, the two became mostly synonymous; Gonzo uses the two terms interchangeably.
Grindhouse was a sort of carnival barker style of filmmaking, with directors and screenwriters playing up lurid sex and graphic violence to sell tickets to a curious public. It was the spirit of the freak show which animated the small studios churning out grindhouse films and the men hawking tickets outside the dingy theaters on 42nd Street. Whatever the outer limit of what could be shown in a licensed theater, grindhouse theater was there. The films weren't always devoid of artistic merit, just most of the time.
More interesting than whether a given film was worthwhile or not (and there actually were worthwhile films) was what these movies said about the culture around them. Paraphrasing John Landis in the great documentary, American Grindhouse, movies are always reactionary, reflective of what's going on in the wider culture, and never a catalyst for change on their own. With grindhouse by definition being shocking or prurient, an observer can trace the specific fixations and anxieties going on in a culture by examining the subject matter and techniques of the films.
While drawing spiritually from the long legacy of the American carnival, the direct forerunner of exploitation cinema was mainstream Hollywood of the late 1920s to mid 1930s. These years fall between the invention of the talky and the imposition of the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code. The Code was a long list of guidelines regarding sex, violence, swearing, and religion which was aimed at quashing Hollywood's reputation as a lawless den of vice.
Known as Pre-Code Hollywood, those years between 1928 and 1934 were anything goes when it came to making movies. The calculus was simple: sex and violence sold tickets, sold tickets meant more money, so movies had sex and violence. Outright pornography was still taboo, and prevailing social norms were still staid enough to prevent too much gore, but the movies of the Pre-Code era were rife with innuendo and edgy situations. Once those situations began to spill into real life, with a rash of early deaths and scandals, the big studios decided to impose their own guidelines on what could be portrayed in their product.
Once the Code was implemented, high profile movies became squeaky clean and safe. The desire to see things you weren't supposed to on the big screen didn't go anywhere, however. It migrated to the grindhouse. To get around the regulations, grindhouse theaters began to show movies which were marketed as educational. Films about sex education and live birth became popular, with the film roll outs become events in their own right, featuring live speakers before the films.
The Code was loosened considerably in the mid-50s and big budget movies started dealing with previously taboo subjects. Grindhouse theaters increasingly began to rely on burlesque shows to make ends meet and, in the late 1950s, a huge boom in nudist movies after non-sexual nudity was ruled by the courts to be legally depictable. The nudist movies were all very mundane and boring, showing naked people hanging out at camps or playing sports, but they brought paying customers in to see the bare flesh on display.
The 1950s also saw low budget exploitation flicks go mainstream. Monster movies became huge business, with aliens and giant animals stomping across the screen. Movies centering on teenagers, newly affluent and self-possessing, became even more popular than monster movies. The teenager movies revolved around things like cars, local gangs, conflict with the older generation, dating… when the two genres were combined, studios like American International Pictures (giants of the B-movie and exploitation sets) made good, fast money. Drive-in theaters catered to the young crowd and the seedy grindhouse theaters took another big hit.
Things reached an equilibrium, with the low-budget fare devoured by teenagers crowding out earlier, more adult exploitation cinema, until the mid-1960s. The theater owners dealing in verboten topics were left floundering after the advent of drive-ins and the mainstreaming of exploitation cinema. They catered to ever smaller crowds and an increasingly narrow range of topics, the two problems feeding on and exacerbating the other. Two things would happen in rapid succession which would drastically change the fortunes of grindhouse cinema.
The first was the ending of the Motion Picture Production Code. By the late 50s, very well-regarded directors like Otto Preminger were openly flaunting it. It had become increasingly difficult to enforce and the morals of mainstream moviegoers had relaxed just enough that a bare breast or the sight of Frank Sinatra shooting heroin wasn't going to cause fainting spells. It was officially ended in 1966 but had ceased being relevant several years prior.
The second was the popularization of gore films. Gore films went well over the top in their depiction of violence, concentrating on showing the grotesque aftereffects of violence. Combined with outright torture or sex, the gore genre was too much for the drive-ins or the tastes of decent people; the grindhouses had their big draw once again. Led by a young director named Herschell Gordon Lewis, films such as Blood Feast and The Wizard of Gore went all in on spectacle, bringing back the carny days of shock and titillation for those brave enough to go to the bad part of town in order to see them. Lewis also pioneered the shock trailer, showing just enough of the gore to entice you to come in while an announcer gravely intoned how terribly shocking it was in the actual theater. The trailer for Blood Feast was the first to repeat the chanted voiceover, "It's only a film… it's only a film…" That chant would become a staple of grindhouse films from then on.
Teenager movies would also morph into something far edgier and even sinister. Once hippies and bikers were on the scene, the old teenager flicks, terribly hokey in retrospect, became about overt rebellion against society's elders and drug use. It was a new breed of film, a rebellion against Vietnam and the New Deal, a libertarian ethos made manifest by people who just wanted to get high, get laid, and be left alone. Actors like Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper got their starts in this genre, even crossing over with a mainstream (and legendary) version of the hippie/biker movie, Easy Rider.
The hippie and biker films overlapped a lot with drug movies, both those which cautioned against drugs and those which slyly advocated for their use. Eventually, the three genres became practically indistinguishable. As Vietnam wore on and the 60s gave way to the 70s, these movies began to take on a sinister tone, most clearly seen in the much more mainstream Easy Rider. If the government could kill you in a war, if people could shoot two Kennedys and a King, then humans were the enemy. The monsters of the 50s and early 60s in the movies gave way to humanity as the antagonist. It was a startling loss of innocence in a short amount of time.
A golden age of exploitation cinema dawned with the 1970s. The Code had fully fallen away, replaced with a close approximation of today's movie ratings. This opened the flood gates to any topic imaginable. America was going through an extended nervous breakdown after the turmoil of the 60s and the interminable war in Vietnam. People wanted cheap entertainment, they didn't want restrictions on what they could see, and they wanted it now. The country was changing, drastically and quickly, and the exploitation films of the era give insight into what the moviegoing public thought of those changes. As the famed film theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, said, "The films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than other artistic media." The neuroses of the nation were on full display in the 1970s grindhouse.
This isn't properly a genre of film at all. Rather, it's a motif which links a lot of the 1970s films Gonzo incorporates.
By the dawn of the 70s, the unease over the government was well on the rise. As government began to take a more proactive role in things such as civil rights and women's rights, while simultaneously refusing to budge on Vietnam and flirting with losing control of the economy at any moment, the portrayal of government and government officials began to change drastically from the generally positive portrayal which had dominated previous decades.
Never was the government good at its job, only meddlesome. Time after time, the government would arrive to fight the monster, to rescue the lost hikers, to quarantine the city, only to have it bungled by vast bureaucracy and base incompetence. This extended even to the way the armed forces were depicted; it's a shocking 180 from the modern American veneration of the troops to see solders regularly shown to be greedy, stupid, or hyperviolent. The message was simply that government was not going to help you, only make things worse.
The Crazies was the apex of this portrayal. Ostensibly a zombie movie (by George Romero, no less), it's a plodding, really quite bad movie. As it turns out, though, the "zombies" aren't the important part; the way the government behaves is. The army comes in, quarantines the city (badly), rushes around taking over houses and squatting when the quarantine goes wrong, kills innocents, and can't even keep the lead scientist working on a cure from being thrown into a room full of the zombies in their own headquarters.
This is a big theme to work into Gonzo, one which overlaps perfectly with the stuff gonzo journalists deal in.
The biker film got off to a roaring start with Marlon Brando and 1953's The Wild One. The film ensconced the outlaw biker as an early hero of the counter-culture. With cowboys looked at as hokey heroes to the masses, the biker represented an alternative, free of square mainstream morals, with the open road as the only thing he followed.
Unsurprisingly, the hippie movement latched onto the biker flick and its largely anarchist or libertarian messaging. The two began to merge by the late 60s, with movies like The Hellcats and The Wild Angels providing overt links between hippies and bikers with their shared love of free love, easy drugs, and flaunting social norms. The latter film, in particular, shares a direct link with the mainstream biker epic, Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda the star of both films.
By the beginning of the 70s, that inextricable linking of the two movements caused the biker film to begin to fade from prominence. The hippies were a spent force, increasingly objects of ridicule, and bikers simply weren't cool anti-heroes anymore after the murder at Altamont. Grindhouse directors, always ones to wring every last penny from a genre, went more and more over the top, adding horror elements, more nudity, and wanton violence before the genre well and truly petered out at the end of the decade.
Examples: Hell's Belles, The Hard Ride, Werewolves On Wheels
Themes: Freedom, Freaking the Norms, On the Run
With the civil rights movement simultaneously successful and with a long ways to go, African-Americans began to assert their creative rights as actors, filmmakers, theater owners, and moviegoers. What emerged was Blaxploitation, a term referring to the particular strain of low budget film which reflected black heroes fighting against oppressive mainstream society. Sometimes the fight was figurative, with the heroes being anti-social types like pimps or portraying a black power ethos in stark contrast to mainstream society. Often, it was literal, a raging gun battle between the black protagonists and the scourges of the black community: drug dealers, racists, politicians, crooked preachers… The Man.
Unlike most of the exploitation subgenres which were made for primarily white audiences, Blaxploitation flicks were aspirational in nature. Most exploitation cinema was there for quick shock value more than anything else; any artistic merit or meaning was only realized by accident. Blaxploitation was different; the endings were usually upbeat and the entire enterprise was about making movies by the black community, for the black community. While the producers were often still white, the partnerships were more even in nature, and there was no shortage of African-American actors and directors who made their names in the 70s Blaxploitation scene.
The genre found its beginnings with the 1971 releases of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft, both claiming the mantle of first real Blaxploitation film. The subgenre continued drawing right up until the end of the decade (a pattern which will be repeated; the 80s and Reagan's election brought a bizarrely abrupt end to most of the popular subgenres of grindhouse). Periodic homages are produced once every few years, but they're played almost exclusively for laughs, the butterfly collars and pimp shoes stealing the shoe from what was, 40 years ago, immensely edgy social commentary.
Examples: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Foxy Brown
Themes: Violence, Freedom, Fighting Oppression
With the word cannibal in the title, audience members knew what they were coming to the theater to see and the directors knew exactly what they had to do to deliver on that promise. Cannibal films revolved around white, Western adventurers journeying into the jungles of the world and encountering pre-industrial tribes with customs shocking to the audience's sensibilities. Graphic dismemberment, orgies, drug use, and any other thing that could conceivably make the audience gasp would get crammed in. The primitive tribes would be depicted as completely lacking in the shared morals of the West, little more than animals in loin cloths. The racism and cultural superiority running through all the films is impossible not to comment on, but is a central theme of the films. The deeper you get into the wilderness, the more savage, amoral, or feral the humans you will find there are - reflection of the dangers of the wilderness and the degeneration of man absent law and (Christian) religion.
In addition to the encounters with the cannibals themselves, the adventurers would also run into other perils on their way through the jungle, though fatalities would often be absorbed first by their dusky native guides. Booby traps, poisonous or man eating animals, and falls from great heights would whittle down the cast. As time went on, each new cannibal movie would try to outdo its predecessors with deaths that were gorier, more graphic, and more torturous, though there was always a subtext that the adventurers brought it on themselves by exploiting or abusing the natives or the jungle.
The transgression of cannibalism appears in many of the other subgenres of grindhouse, so there is often overlap even if the jungle setting and barbarous indigenous peoples are left behind. Redneck, Satanic cult and zombie films all take advantage of revulsion over the consumption of human flesh, making it not just a subgenre but a grindhouse trope.
Examples: The Man from the Deep River, Last Cannibal World, The Mountain of the Cannibal God
Themes: Transgression, Violence, Humans Versus Nature
Also called eco-terror or natural horror films, the scary/deadly/dangerous/giant animal movie has been a staple of exploitation films since the very earliest days. The 1950s saw their biggest flowering, as nuclear paranoia received an outlet in a parade of movies involving animals made giants by nuclear accidents or experimentation destroying cities and eating upstanding Americans. The subtext was clear: animals are a force of nature, barely controllable, and so is nuclear energy. Each symbolized the feeling that some things are best left alone by mankind. Combine the two and trouble happens.
The deadly animal movies just kept going, never waning in quality (they were already pretty bad so there wasn't much room to get worse) or quantity. By the 1970s, the nuclear scare had given way to a distrust of pollution and the big corporations which did the polluting. The concerns affected practical change with the setting up of of the Environmental Protection Agency by Richard Nixon in 1970. They never abated, however, and the deadly animals were mutated by pollution rather than nuclear testing.
The genre morphed again after the release of Jaws. Jaws was an absolutely massive blockbuster, the sort of movie which had people lining up around the block to see. Exploitation producers smelled an easy cash grab and began making knockoffs of Spielberg's big hit. Predatory aquatic gribblies became the big draw, with derivative stuff like Piranha (with Roger Corman producing a semi-parody of his old monster movies as well as ofJaws) packing the low-budget movie houses. The post-Jaws eco-terror movies also mark a subtle shift in the way the animal antagonists were portrayed. While they didn't disappear entirely, giant size and mutations became less of a theme, replaced by mostly normal animals who were just mean for no reason than the natural world can be mean. Parts of the increasingly urban American population had finally decided that there was no rhyme or reason to the depredations of nature, just as the shark in Jaws was a random killer. Killer animals simply were.
Examples: Night of the Lepus, Day of the Animals, Piranha
Themes: Humans Versus Nature, Corporate Malfeasance, Getting Lost
Of all the movie subjects which 1970s exploitation portrays, the movies about Nazis are probably the least worthwhile. Most of the films aren't actually about Nazis in any sort of meaningful sense. Instead, the figure of the Nazi is used as a vessel to tell stories about violence, sex, and the intersection of the two. In this way, Nazis provide an easy out to the filmmaker wanting to make an indelible mark on the scene, a sort of taboo which goes beyond the imaginary horrors of demonic possession and giant monsters. They were, particularly when far more veterans of World War II and even a few architects of the German war effort were still alive, global villains of a still raw immediacy. If it was easy to use Nazis as antagonists, it was also effective. Curiously, Italy was a huge producer and consumer of the Nazi films, particularly Nazi sexploitation.
While almost entirely devoid of artistic merit, the Nazi movies (and there aren't a lot of them) are worth mentioning in the context of Gonzo because they provide an equally easy out for a group looking for antagonists. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using Nazis in this way (they make great, iconic bad guys), though the attached subject matter from the Nazi films may be too much for most groups. GMs are urged to be cautious here.
Examples: Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, SS Girls, Salon Kitty
Themes: Sadism, Violence, Oppression
The idea of the rural hick being an object of ridicule or revulsion is a long-accepted trope of American literature. The redneck, Southern or otherwise, is illiterate, stupid, uncultured, smells, has a funny accent, is lazy, etc. Not just common, the stereotype has been a downright respectable go-to move for generations of authors and screenwriters.
The 70s took the well-worn redneck character and turned it up to 11. With America moving ever more rapidly to a primarily urban way of life, the redneck/hick/hillbilly/Southerner became almost a symbol of the increasingly distant wild. In terms of what the redneck represented, there was a lot in common with some of the eco-terror movies. He was angry when intruders penetrated his way of life or came through town. Farms and small towns became foreign, weird places to the increasingly removed city-dweller. That it was so easy and effective to make the rural man (and it was almost always a man) the villain speaks to this gulf. For the folks in Manhattan or Los Angeles, he may as well have been an Amazonian tribesman.
The genre overlapped a lot with others. There were movies with redneck Satanists, redneck cannibals, redneck gore films, and redneck slashers. The apex of the genre was Deliverance, a relatively low-budget film which gained a lot of respectability at both the box office and critics' columns. It was undeniably an exploitation film, despite the mainstream cred and top-notch cast. Perhaps weirdly, given the sort of easy out which rednecks provided, a lot of the redneck movies have held up better than the other genres. The Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the latter at least as much a slasher film) are classics of 70s horror.
Examples: Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Eaten Alive
Themes: Humans versus Nature, Violence, Stranger in a Strange Land
Perhaps no subgenre of exploitation cinema was as fertile as movies involving Satanism and cults. There's also a tremendous amount of overlap with the other classifications of grindhouse film, with Satanism's tendrils stretching into everything conceivable, from bikers to cannibals to hippies to Nazis. But the pure, distilled Satanic cult movie has a heritage all its own and they were everywhere in the 70s.
The genre was spurred by a few pop culture phenomenons. The first were the trials of the Manson Family. While the murders weren't inspired by Satanism, they did have a cult oriented vibe to them. Combined with the suddenness of the violence, it drove home that the peace and love ethos of the 60s was over, that murder could happen out of the blue. The strange behavior of the Family members in the widely publicized trials after the Family was rounded up captivated the public. The cult was now in modern consciousness like never before.
The second was the mainstream success of The Exorcist. Just as with Jaws two years later, a subject traditionally reserved for the grindhouse audience broke through to the mainstream. What Rosemary's Baby made okay to watch openly, The Exorcist made big business. The Exorcist was a massive critical and financial success, even by today's standards. It was the first horror movie nominated for Best Picture, garnering a total of ten nominations, and is still the biggest grossing rated R movie of all time, when adjusted for inflation. Once again, like a snake eating its own tail, exploitation and mainstream fed on each other, this time with the grindhouse producers going into high gear to cash in on the craze around the movie.
Finally, the rise of the Church of Satan in the public's consciousness, particularly its head, Anton LaVey, brought the legitimately edgy (for the time) practices of the Church out into the open. More properly atheistic, the Church of Satan purported to reject Christian norms of behavior, extolling virtues of selfishness and hedonism. The Satanic Bible, a ponderous book which takes the obvious route by mostly advocating the exact opposite of Christian theology, was written by LaVey, himself. Satanism was also an inversion of the New Age beliefs which some of the hippies flirted with in the late 60s. In this way, it served as a perfect example of the sort of dark things the GI Generation figured their kids were doing all along, with its openness a sure harbinger of society's accelerating decay.
LaVey was a master showman, adept at harnessing the media as a platform for personal gain. Soon enough, hanging out with LaVey and getting real Satanists on your movie projects became marks of counter-cultural cache. Sammy Davis Jr. was at least a friend of LaVey's and was rumored to be a full member of the Church. The producers of the film The Devil's Rain made sure that the picture had plenty of authenticity by having LaVey consult on the set; he even has an extended cameo in the movie. He hit talk shows, radio, movies, print… to say he was a major celebrity would be untrue but he definitely became one of the most high profile counter-culture figures remaining as the 70s wore on.
A perfect storm was created of media visibility and public fascination with the Satanic side of the occult. Some films were legitimately good by any measure, such as the aforementioned The Exorcist or The Omen. Most, however, went into the vast, middling-to-terrible exploitation library of the decade. Curiously, big time celebrities were particularly okay with appearing in these sorts of films; The Devil's Rain featured Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerritt, William Shatner, Eddie Adams, and a young John Travolta. Whether it was actors trying to regenerate a lost edge or legitimate fascination with the subject matter is hard to gauge and mostly reliant on the observer's unironic belief in the occult.
Unlike most of the subgenres of exploitation theater, movies about Satanism and ritual cults never faded. The 80s were a fertile ground for the so-called "Satanic Panic", with borderline hysteria over mostly trumped up charges of outright murder on the part of Satanists keeping the momentum going. Also, unlike most of the subgenres we discuss in this chapter, the Satanism craze was truly global, with Italy and Spain, in particular, supplying some truly memorable movies of the type; some of the foreign films also flirt with outright respectability in terms of cinematography and pacing, though the subject matter veers far more quickly into the overtly offensive than their American counterparts.
Examples: The Devil's Rain, Race With the Devil, I Drink Your Blood
Themes: Paranoia, Religion, Conspiracy
If you are alive, you have probably seen a slasher film. One of the more enduring and mainstream grindhouse subgenres, slasher films prey on the fear of human-on-human violence. The fear that in that alley there could be a killer with a knife who doesn't even know you but wants you dead. Every unsolved murder story in the newspaper fills us with an anxiety that slasher films exploit.
While this type of story had been told before, slasher films really came into their own in the 70s and to become box office hits. Halloween came out in 1978 to such success that it spawned numerous sequels and imitators, and while movies such as Black Christmas carved out the subgenre with its mysterious killer and murdered co-eds, Halloween established the masked killer who is relentless and unstoppable.
Meanwhile, in Italy, the slasher subgenre was spinning in a different direction. Named giallo, the movies featured high body counts and gory, explicit murders. Giallo was stylish and mysterious, and was known for its strange and upsetting scores and jarring camera angles.
Examples: Black Christmas, Halloween, Suspiria
Themes: Violence, Vulnerability, Mystery.
Truckers and Racing
Carsploitation and truxploitation are closely related genres of exploitation film centering around motor vehicles. Capitalizing on the good old American love affair with anything having four wheels, the genres reached their artistic and commercial heights in the 70s. The line between exploitation and main stream is perhaps most blurred here, with car movies being churned out by big and small studios, alike.
These films always centered around car chases and car crashes, with the plots (such as they were) being almost entirely negligible. Whether it was a road race, running cargo, or fugitives on the run, the whole thing was just an excuse for the action, with plot points conspicuously only showing up only at the beginning and very end.
The trucker movies were fewer in number, not really enough to constitute a distinct genre, but are worth mentioning in light of their contribution to one of the truly odd pieces of 70s pop culture: the trucker as hero. With the decline of both Westerns and biker movies, Americans started scrounging around for a new hero of the open spaces, a man who was his own master. They settled on the trucker, who became a mix of cowboy and good-hearted outlaw. By the mid-70s, there were songs and television shows with truckers all over the place. Trucker lingo was all over the place. If the movies centering on truckers weren't huge business, television was where they lived and breathed, with single episodes and short story arcs dedicated to truckers in all sorts of programs across genre. The fascination only lasted a few years but it burned brightly in that sliver of time.
You only have to look as far as The Fast and the Furious to see that the car movies haven't gone anywhere and probably never will. The genre sometimes lays dormant for awhile, but always comes back with audiences eager to take part in the slightly goofy spectacle that is a carsploitation movie.
Examples: Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds, White Line Fever
Themes: Freedom, The Open Road, Truth
Rising crime rates were a serious problem in the 1970s. Everyone in every decade thinks that crime is a big problem, but in this case, it's 100% true. Between 1960 and 1974, robberies more than tripled, while rape and murder rates more than doubled. In the biggest cities, the middle class simply packed up and left for the suburbs, exacerbating the problem by leaving inner-cities to the criminal element. The spike in crime was accompanied by crippling inflation and other economic shocks, plus a healthy dose of racial mistrust between whites and blacks.
At the movies, the anxiety about crime led to a small but steady parade of movies about vigilantes or rogue cops taking the law into their own hands. They were often hyper-violent, a sort of wish fulfillment primarily targeted at white men who just wanted to feel as though they could protect their families. This shouldn't be taken to mean that the films were always about white protagonists; there's a strong vein of the vigilante as hero in blaxploitation, while films like Billy Jack featured Native American or Hispanic protagonists. The fear of crime crossed racial and class lines in the 70s.
They tend toward the formulaic: the cops look the other way while a crime occurs, usually affecting the protagonist or his family. This forces the protagonist to take matters into his own hands, breaking the law in order to save the peace.
Examples: Death Wish, Walking Tall, Billy Jack
Themes: Corruption, Violence, Family
In 2012, it's hard to imagine a world in which zombies are still vital and fresh. They've become so ubiquitous, especially as a part of geek culture, that the saturation point has been reached; a zombie joke now marks you as terminally unhip and uncreative. But this wasn't always the case.
While a feature of horror movies going back to the 1930s, zombies only really entered the public's consciousness with George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. The film had its pulse on the zeitgeist, with its portrayal of civilization breaking down in microcosm, and it became a huge cultural touchstone. Romero went on to make several more zombie movies, while other directors picked up on the genre.
The great thing about zombies is that they offer a broad canvas on which to paint. They've been used to tell everything from allegories for the dangers of consumerism to comedies to straight gore flicks without anything deeper going on than blood soaked spectacle. For this reason, they make great features in a game of Gonzo, though they shouldn't be overused lest they become trite.
Examples: Return of the Blind Dead, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Dawn of the Dead
Themes: Conformity, Civilization's Collapse, Fear and Dread
Playing at the Intersection of the Two
So what's with all the words and quasi-intellectual examination for a game which is about taking drugs and replaying bad movies?
The 1970s were an incredibly fucked up decade that saw America going through a lot of changes, not all of them good. They weren't usually as immediately explosive as the 1960s but they were no less stressful. Thompson saw this clearly in his work and addressed it, repeatedly and pointedly, throughout his writing in the decade. He was, in a word, terrified of what was going on in 1970s America. The pessimistic terror he felt and the rot he saw were covered in layers of scathing humor and insane drug use, but they were certainly underpinnings. He saw the rise of Nixon, the cracks in the New Deal, the bipartisan consensus on Vietnam, and the demise of the counter-culture as emblematic of a terrible retreat from critical thinking by the American populace.
Just as Thompson was terrified, so was the public, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons Thompson was. The public did what they always do when they want a distraction: they went to the movies. The thing about B-movies (all B-movies, not just the grindhouse stuff we're dealing with) is that they tend to have sub-par writing, in addition to the sub-par acting and directing. A bad writer doesn't hide his inner motivations on the page very well. If he's scared of something, it's there on the page. If he's horny or angry or happy or paranoid, it's there, naked for all to see if they pay attention.
So what we have when we put the two together is the collision of a very good writer trying to make sense of a world he saw going mad and a lot of very bad writers and directors trying to interpret their
audience's fears. It's this collision of the two, the rare blend of cynicism and idealism of the gonzo journalist and the raw neurosis of the contemporary American public, which makes Gonzo tick.
How do you do that? First, forget everything you just read. Don't make any of this conscious. A game of Gonzo shouldn't take itself any more seriously than a movie like Night of the Lepus takes itself. Hell, most people reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas come away from it thinking it's only about drugs and partying. That's more than okay; it's expected.
Any symbolic stuff going on in the game should be completely unintentional and organic. The aftermath of the session, when the story's being written and everyone reflects on what's transpired, is the time to retroactively look for themes which emerged in play. Without putting in strenuous effort or too much time, that's the part where everyone should examine the events of the wrapped-up assignment and see what sorts of political commentary and symbolism crept into actual play.
Playtesting revealed that players did just the right thing with no prompting. An assignment to report on a mayoral convention ended up with the mayors snorting coke on a yacht before being attacked by giant alligators. You get your heavy-handed (we like heavy-handed!) social commentary with the coke and hooker binge that the ruling classes went on while also getting a good dose of weirdness with the giant alligators. It was bonkers and weird, with just a little seriousness peeking over the margins when viewed in retrospect… just like Thompson's work. Everyone consistently went home happy.
We elaborate on this in the chapter dedicated to the game's play structure, but games of Gonzo have a defined progression of events, which we'll discuss briefly here. We call this progression of events the Nutgraf, after a particular type of narrative oriented opening paragraph used in some newspaper stories.
The first stage is the Lead. This is fairly mundane and straightforward: cover the mayor's convention, interview Mick Jagger, etc. It's a normal old magazine story assignment.
The second is the Weird. This element occurs in the middle of the session. It should be very personalized and surreal, usually related to the PCs' drug use. We recommend things and people which figure prominently in 70s pop culture, both because it tends to be funny and make things more grounded in the era. It should also leave doubt as to whether it happened at all. Maybe David Cassidy offered to smoke weed with the group on the plane, maybe he didn't. It's all hazy because everyone was so hammered before they even met him. And did you guys really abandon him in the airport after stealing his underwear? That's the sort of thing to shoot for.
The last is the Grind. This is the insertion of a monster, character, or other plot device from exploitation cinema. Pick a genre and run with it. Hell, rip off your favorite flick, entirely. Just as with the Freak Out, toy with reality. Our assumption as Gonzo's authors is that any giant killer chipmunks or satanic bikers which show up in your games are both real and true; you don't have to agree and it may prove more interesting to have the whole thing be one gigantic shared hallucination. Just be coy about it, if you're the GM.
The game fiction included in Gonzo follows this structure. You have the Lead (check out Bohemian Grove), the Weird (ritual sacrifice led by famous people), and the Grind (murderous cultists coming to kill the Narrator and Diego). The specifics are, of course, highly mutable. Richard Nixon didn't need to be a cultist. Henry Kissinger certainly didn't need to be leading them in ritual human sacrifice. Those bits are the things you can change, though aim big, weird, and even silly. Insert famous people, make things explode, kill people and bring them back… grindhouse cinema isn't subtle and Gonzo shouldn't be, either.