Friday, April 29, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

It may come as a surprise that Terry Gilliam, surrealist animator and maker of various self-contained fantasies, has never touched drugs in his life. It therefore comes as an even bigger surprise that he would put one of the great drug odysseys ever written on the big screen. As a fellow teetotaler, even this writer can plainly see Gilliam's vision owes nothing to drug-induced hallucination.

However, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas succeeds in a far more important task: it successfully presents the sentimental cynicism of a cult hero's last-ditch effort to find the dwindling glimmer of hope of the American Dream. That this effort came so early in Hunter S. Thompson's career says something about the bleakness of the majority of his output. Gilliam succeeds by filming the story in emotional retrospect: his broad interpretations of Thompson's prose and Ralph Steadman's sketches contain less the hints of addled paranoia than the creeping horror of seeing the naked, reptilian face of America.

Gilliam films the Fear and Loathing in shallow focus, framing Johnny Depp's Thompson and Benicio del Toro's Dr. Gonzo in unflattering close-ups. When he pulls back, the deep focus places everything in warped subjectivity but also horrible clarity. Thompson's book detailed a wild, frenzied, hilarious tour of the Nevada desert, but Gilliam presents this journey as terrifying and self-destructive.

But I'm making this sound like a moralizing condescension to Thompson's work. On the contrary, Gilliam retains the journalist's caustic wit and eye for detail that always seemed to bypass facts on the way to truth. He also places his faith in Depp's performance, which seems more than mere imitation the more I return to this film. Depp gets Thompson's quirks and mannerisms down pat, his mumbles and darting glances and penchant for banshee fits of shrieking frenzy, but he also presents the yearning beneath Thompson's self-annihilating binge.

The movie is so disjointed in its twisted comic vignettes that even now, after at least nine or 10 viewings, I still watch whole chunks of the film as if for the first time. Gilliam makes high comic setpieces out of banal settings, such as the desert bike race that served as the impetus for Thompson's trip to Vegas: the director turns the event into a maelstrom of dust and pent-up aggression from white-trash shit-kickers shooting and driving their demons away in the middle of nowhere. Pathetic staggers through the funhouse world of the Vegas strip and its outlying provinces of even stranger attractions becoming miniature epics of endurance as the two careen and stumble around trying to find a safe zone for their thoughts.

Depp and del Toro hone in on the mad humor of it all: from the start, both are so consumed by suspicion and rum-soaked fits of rage that they justify their paranoia in their violent tendencies toward each other. Flashing blue strobe-lights pulse over numerous interior shots, as if the cops are always watching and pursuing our unlikely heroes. Yet when an officer finally catches up with ol' Raoul Duke, he proves as strange as the gonzo king himself.

Gilliam constantly contrasts the two leads with the regular people around Duke and Gonzo, not only emphasizing the eternal weirdness of button-down normalcy in society but also the horrible spiral of the main characters. One almost has to feel sympathy for the "villains" of the movie -- hotel staff, valets, unsuspecting tourists -- for Duke and Gonzo bring acid-sweating delirium into their tepid, calm lives. Once the initial shock of the regulars' quotidian, dull lifestyle abates, the roles reverse, and we see how two banshees screaming out of the desert wreak havoc on them.

Oscar and Hunter leave hotel rooms in states that would make Motlëy Crüe blanch. Everywhere they seems to be wet and demolished and on fire all at once, room service trays upheaved as the two make barriers against the forces they see outside their door. Whatever color these places once were, we see them in musty pinks, dirty light breaking up harsh red lights: they look like they live under a heat lamp in a fast food restaurant, and they probably feel the same way. Breaking up this damp pink are cakes of Stucco vomit and that ever-encroaching blue light, always pressing down on these fetid war zones.

Has a film ever been so anti-drug? At one point in the film, Gonzo and Duke find themselves in a bizarre convention that seems to mix the DEA with Scientology, where mad officials play a knock-off of Reefer Madness warning about the dangers of marijuana use. But its stern, histrionic proclamations both vastly overstate the evils and telltale signs of drug use and utterly fail to capture the full horror unfolding around these two characters. The despair in some of their actions digs into the heart of Thompson's work. He subtitled his book "A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream" for a reason, and Gilliam aims to extract that truth, not merely recreate the slow descent into hell that makes the book such an entertaining, fresh and perversely inspiring read nearly 40 years later.

Some might fault Gilliam for making a drug movie, having never been on one himself, but the true mark of authenticity in that respect would necessitate him not remembering his drug trips anyway, so even if he had lost a decade to heroin and mescaline he'd basically wind up in the same position. Gilliam pulls out all the stops to put altered states on the screen, using rear projection, canted angles, shifting focal lengths and more to make cinema of a thoroughly literary sojourn.

But the director's greatest moment might be the one in which he removes himself entirely from the film and places all focus on Thompson's great words. During one of the projects previous phases, Alex Cox intended to direct the film, but Thompson barred him from the film in a rage when the director proposed taking the central moment of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the "wave speech," and animating it in cheaply symbolic yet crudely literal fashion in a manner that would have sucked the beauty and power from the moment. Gilliam simply makes a montage of countercultural footage, the sociopolitical home-movie vibe meshing perfectly with Thompson's great elegy of the Love Generation.

In some ways, Terry Gilliam's interpretation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a harsh criticism of Thompson and his work. But I've never really bought the supposed iconoclasm in Hunter's best writing: I always saw a man looking desperately for the truth, even going so far as to invent new paths to it that would get any normal writer sued into oblivion. If I am stating this point for what seems the fifth time in this review, it is because I continue to marvel at how insightful Gilliam proved to be with the emotions and thoughts within one of the great works of culture criticism of the 20th century. This movie is funny, bizarre, unpleasant and haphazard, but it's almost mournful, an interpretation on the bitter hindsight of the '60s made even more dour by further aging.

Like Raoul Duke himself, Fear and Loathing caters to the whims of the zonked-out freaks out there with its hallucinogenic structure and kaleidoscopic whirlpool of color and sound, but it also holds up a mirror to those freaks to show how ragged and lonely they've become. Few authors can make me as sad while laughing as Thompson, and, after I got over the orgy of stylistic excess this film contains, it came to have the same effect on me.


  1. I'd never have guessed from this movie that Gilliam had never taken drugs.

    I suppose the film is a criticism of Thompson in a way, but I also sympathized with his character in the movie somewhat.

    Interesting article, anyway.

  2. Oh, I think it's got sympathy for Thompson too, and I tried to communicate that over Gilliam's framing of the wave speech. If Hunter was a hero like so many thought, he was a tragic one, and you can see the desperation in his actions here. Gilliam doesn't revel in the excess because he sees it for what it is: a means to obliterate a world Thompson couldn't stand and felt personally betrayed by. He could turn that pain into keen insight and hilarious comedy, but there was always a thread of deep, almost parental disappointment in his surveys of America.