Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #175: Ter­ry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

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Amer­i­ca is the first coun­try to have gone from bar­barism to deca­dence with­out the usu­al inter­ven­ing peri­od of civ­i­liza­tion.
—Oscar Wilde

I’ve nev­er used any sort of ille­gal drug, so offer­ing an exam­i­na­tion of the verisimil­i­tude of Hunter S. Thompson’s and Ter­ry Gilliam’s por­tray­al of drug-induced behav­ior isn’t going to hap­pen. I also thought about writ­ing this review as HST him­self would have writ­ten it, but that would be [pos­si­bly] the worst thing I have ever writ­ten. Any­way. This film and book are about as Amer­i­can as they come. I’m not talk­ing about a mythol­o­gized Amer­i­ca, although that is present, or a nos­tal­gized Amer­i­ca [also present], but a sub­tle sim­u­lacrum of the actu­al Amer­i­can psy­che. I’m going to talk about the film and the book inter­change­ably, since Gilliam’s pre­sen­ta­tion is gen­er­al­ly spot on. They are about pur­su­ing the Amer­i­can Dream and get­ting lost along the way, some­thing that even­tu­al­ly hap­pens to all of us. In the film, the Amer­i­can flag, in the hyper­bol­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can city of Las Vegas, lit­er­al­ly lit­ters most scenes. It is tram­pled, blan­ket­ed, torn and ignored for vir­tu­al­ly the entire film, as the main char­ac­ters go on their vision quest for the real­i­ty behind the sym­bol. Fail­ing at that, they rev­el, albeit para­noical­ly, in their drug-induced haze until, abrupt­ly emerg­ing into the glare of the desert, they are left with a feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion, despite not know­ing how they’ve arrived at it. Count the com­mas.

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He who makes a beast of him­self
Gets rid of the pain
Of being a man.
—Dr. John­son

The drug-dri­ven self-reflec­tive atavism becomes a rhyth­mic coun­ter­point to the osten­si­bly noble pur­suit which Dr. Gonzo and Duke claim to be chas­ing. Yet even this itself is a very Amer­i­can sit­u­a­tion. The pen­du­lum between bar­barism and deca­dence. When the film swings to the ani­mal end it shows the more real­is­tic aspects of Amer­i­cana: vio­lence, sex, rage and pow­er. But here there are also moments of an almost primeval qui­et, the qui­et that Duke is con­stant­ly seek­ing and which seems to offer him con­tin­u­al epipha­nies. At the famous “wave speech” Duke real­izes that he’s not going to find/beat the Amer­i­can Dream though he is now far too com­mit­ted to sim­ply give up. Per­haps his man­ic glee at the end of the film is the result of his real­iza­tion that although he didn’t beat the Amer­i­can Dream, he at least fought it to a draw.

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And as seri­ous as this review has been, the fact that this film and this book are come­dies should not be neglect­ed. In fact, the com­e­dy is the icing on the cake in terms of the Amer­i­can-ness of the film. My mom would say that the film has a smart mouth, but the kind of lip it keeps giv­ing is salty for a rea­son. Gilliam and Thomp­son knew they out­come was futile, so true to Amer­i­can form they cloak the dead­ly earnest­ness with a dis­mis­sive atti­tude. At some lev­el we all feel that the truth lives with the bar­bar­ians and the ideals with the deca­dent; nev­er shall the twain meet. Fear and Loathing is more ethnog­ra­phy than acid trip.

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Cri­te­ri­on Essay by J. Hober­man.
Jack­et copy for the book by Hunter S. Thomp­son.
Fear Under The Micro­scope: A Com­par­i­son of the Ter­ry Gilliam/Tony Grisoni and Alex Cox/Tod Davies screen­plays for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Gilliam Grisoni Screen­play.
Tons of clips on YouTube.
• Lots of jour­nal­ism on the film from the Las Vegas Sun.