To get accepted into your dream university, what would you do? Scratch that: what would you do to get accepted into your dream university if you were an ambitious seventeen-year-old? Maybe you would study hard, but that’s boring. Maybe you would decide to spice it up; maybe you would be like Eddie “Gonzalo” Gilman (Erza Miller) and start an underground newspaper giving a voice to the voiceless? Maybe you would start a revolution?
Okay. “Revolution” is too strong a term but that is the idea driving director Bryan Goluboff’s 2010 film Beware the Gonzo. After all, how else is our stalwart protagonist going to reach that sweet spot at Columbia University as a Journalism major? His first day of senior year sees him kicked off his prep school’s Journalism Club by the insidious jock bully Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney). Gonzo’s options are limited. If he wants to attend Columbia, then he needs an ace in the hole, something which will grab the attention of the Dean of Admissions and put him on the fast track to success. And if he can get back at Reilly while he is at it, then all the better.
Story wise, Beware the Gonzo is a standard high school romantic-drama-comedy. You have assorted underdogs (nerds, geeks, racial minorities, etc.), sex and relationships, bullying and gossip; everything is classic over-the-top melodrama befitting the hormonal crockpot locale. The film’s ending completes this circle of convention with its unsurprising heteronormativity: guy gets the girl. The end. But what attracts me to this film isn’t so much the story, but the youth radicalism adorning the narrative.
Watching Beware the Gonzo often reminded me of The Trotsky. Much like that other film on youth radicalism, we see here a protagonist yearning for social justice. He fights against the odds, rallies his peers, and manages to effect some change. Moreover, much like how Leon Bronstein ultimately brought about his own downfall—forcing his expulsion from school thanks to his activism—we see a similar tract here. Gonzo, after all, both starts and ends the movie filming a public apology, staring deadpan into his webcam. But what did Gonzo do to bring this about? The short answer, of course, is “betray his friends to get revenge on Reilly”. Gonzo, like Leon, is a narcissist, but this is only half the story, because Gonzo’s real sin goes deeper and concerns the heart of the film’s ideology and how it relates to activism and community organizing.
Beware the Gonzo is an upper-middle class activist film; it is what I call “Conservative Radicalism”. This is partly why it reminded me so much of The Trotsky. It is a text written and produced to give legitimacy to that fictional class— “middle” —which is always anxious with its own existence vis-a-vie social change. Gonzo, like Bronstein, sees injustice and attempts to rectify it but it is a rectification conducted against the backdrop of privilege. Moreover, it is a rectification conducted for privileged, selfish ends. Gonzo, after all, only starts his underground newspaper because he wants to get into a good university. Not only is the newspaper initiated for individualist ends, but it’s bankrolling comes about through petty-bourgeois (“small business”) means: Gonzo’s first advertiser is diner-owner Errol (Jerry Grayson), and Gonzo repays this kindness by having all newspaper related social events hosted at the diner, where every student is required by Gonzo to buy something. To say that Gonzo divests from the masses is an understatement, because he does not simply reject the populist route of funding his operations through his peers’ help, but actively abuses the masses by exploiting them in his struggle with Reilly. This brings us to where the story really begins.
At the peak of the narrative, we learn that Reilly and one of Gonzo’s friends, Scott Schneeman (Edward Gelbionovich), made a deal. In exchange for a year free of bullying, Scott would give Reilly his paper—“The History of Torture Tactics and Psychological Warfare”—thus enabling Reilly to follow in his brothers footsteps, win a highly sought after prize, and attend Stanford. Gonzo, of course, blabs about what happened, along with numerous other secrets entrusted to him by his friends, and has his world torn apart by the consequences of his betrayal. But, Gonzo’s action in this moment is a microcosm of the wider modus operandi of the film.
The name of Schneeman’s paper is meant to represent the tit-for-tat between Reilly and Gonzo; it is a war. Each side escalates the conflict once the other tries a power-move; Schneeman’s bullying is indicative of this ‘history of torture’ while the mental games enacted by Gonzo attest to the ‘psychological warfare’. Gonzo fights based on his own will and ego and so as he wages war on Reilly he also wages war on himself, his authoritarian tactics pushing him further away from both his cause and friends. The issue, then, is that the film takes this metaphor to the extreme and re-signifies it to mean war on the emancipatory struggle itself.
Though Gonzo’s objective is selfish, the film nevertheless manages to understand that many revolutionaries have, in fact, come from privileged households (Marx, Trotsky, Che, others). This is why the film takes place in a prep school… it is an exploration of the privileged radical. The problem, then, is that the film mistakes this conservative-nested radicalism for non-conservative radicalism (revolutionary anti-capitalism). Through this misjudging, its proletarian politics are de-legitimated.
The underground newspaper acts as a beacon for the downtrodden youth. It attracts everyone from Queer Liberationists to upstart graphic novelists. The paper eventually gathers the talent needed to stage a coup de grace: Gonzo and company enter the cafeteria and record assorted vermin feasting on the food poisoning the student body. Thanks to the base of support Gonzo and company have garnered up to this point, the school administration is forced to act on the unsanitary conditions and signs a new contract with a different service provider. Because of this action, Gonzo can legitimately claim to have helped better the deplorable conditions of his fellow students. This action connects Gonzo, however tenuously, to the privileged radical tradition.
After this action, though, the revolutionary possibility of the newspaper is quashed; its demise located within the very epistemology of the paper’s political power.
If we define the paper as Gonzo’s weaponized psychology, then we are forced to conclude that it is ill equipped to handle Reilly’s misinformation campaign. When Reilly asserts that Gonzo’s video was staged, Gonzo’s poor counter-attack laying bare of all his friends’ secrets as a salvo against Reilly, merely serves to illuminate the paper’s weaknesses. Reilly, after all, by publishing to Gonzo’s own website the sex tape of him sexually assaulting Gonzo’s girlfriend, uses Gonzo’s decentralized resistance against itself. From this, we can conclude that Gonzo’s manifested psychology cannot compete with Reilly’s history of patriarchal torture. Considering that these events developed because Gonzo rejected his friends’ advice to leave Reilly be before things got out of hand, we gleam the desperate nature of Gonzo’s weaponized psychology and the ultimate failure of the underground paper as a tool of resistance. This weak psychology shows that Gonzo’s defeat was never in doubt, that by subverting the purpose of the newspaper’s website, its pro-victim position, the site becomes de-legitimated as a space where the downtrodden can congregate. Gonzo, therefore, loses the base of support that legitimated the newspaper as a tool of the bullied. The fact that this transpires indicates the limited applicability of Gonzo and company’s radicalism; because the newspaper/website lacked a mobilizing politics conducive to emancipatory politics, one crafty attack was all it took to topple Gonzo’s alleged progressive agenda. In a sense, Gonzo’s selfish idealism sabotaged his own values. Had Gonzo reined in his contradictory duality—authoritarian control over the administration of the paper’s contents but halfhearted control over the online component— then Gonzo’s radicalism, however tapered it may have been due to the middle-class setting, could have survived the counterrevolutionary onslaught adopted by Reilly. It could have blossomed into an actual mass-organization serving the student body. But, as the film shows, this is not what happened, and Gonzo’s incorrect practice led to his own destruction.
The aforementioned can easily be seen as an allegory for class conflict. Gonzo’s small business-oriented model of resistance collapsed against the onslaught of the popular elite. Due to improper preparation and a lack of diversity of tactics, Gonzo’s insipid revolutionary impulse is swept away by the forces of the status quo, that fascistic thug-violence so well embodied by Reilly’s cliched jock circle. Whether Gonzo truly could have changed his school is a matter for debate, although we can hypothesize about the possibilities.
True or not, the radical potential elicited by Gonzo was real; its downfall can be attributed to misapplication and poor direction. Part of Gonzo’s mistake was in his narcissism and inability to give administrative control over to people other than himself. Of course, mistakes run deeper than this and if the class angle is to be believed, then Gonzo’s effort was in jeopardy from the beginning. But that potential was real and a viewer could easily see how the newspaper might have been utilized toward more efficient ends had someone other than Gonzo been the leader.
The good news is that Gonzo does grow as a character. Apart from his much-hyped apology, the end of the film also brings the end of the newspaper as it exists under Gonzo’s regime. He hands the paper over to two freshman interns, giving that caveat to not take the newspaper too far. Thus, a final sign of Gonzo’s dubious adherence to revolutionary theory and connection to opportunism is laid bare: Gonzo has effectively repudiated his attempted actions to serve the student body. Still, the torch has been passed: can these two Freshman re-ignite that underdog spark? Impossible to say. Ultimately, though, this is to be the contradiction of the newspaper: in Gonzo’s hands it over-accelerates and combusts into a heap, setting fire to the proverbial prairie. In other peoples’ hands, though, it may not even be able to form a spark.
It is fair to say that Beware the Gonzo displays conservative radicalism. But that doesn’t get us very far. Digging deeper, we discover that this bourgeois radicalism is connected to an elaborate allegory of youth, reform, and desperation, that the reformist and small-business oriented mindset must garb itself in Leftist veneer to validate itself. Such a move is expected of the vacillating middle class. So, does it take any radical routes as told by Gonzo? No, not really. At the end of the day, Gonzo’s edgy defiance against the status quo of the school is simple self-aggrandizing. Had Gonzo started the paper earlier in his academic career and not as a last-ditch effort to enter an elite academic institution, then there would have been much more to say of his radicalism. As it stands, Gonzo’s energies, though engaging, remain standard fare for a standard class.