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.

Comments and conversations on this post

  1. I love your article – very well written with great pictures and nice presntation! I was wondering if you could guest write this on my blog (just duplicate your artice with credits and link back to you). This is a legitimate request. Please let me know, I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a long time, but now that you’ve done it better than I could ever hope to, I would be honored for you to guest write this on my blog!

  2. Hey Mike! Thanks for the compliments. I hope people like your Vegas site. Feel free to take your favorite excerpt from the post and repost and link to it from your weblog. I’m not comfortable having you duplicate the whole shebang, but otherwise, feel free to go nuts.

    Oh yeah, please don’t hotlink any pictures. Thanks again for stopping by.

  3. Adam,

    Of course, I respect your wishes and may excerpt in a future blog. Thanks for replying and I’ll be checking on your blog entries via bloglines.

    Mike

  4. Shalom Adam,

    I also loved this movie. I have a long history with the work of HST. (It was a passage in his Hell’s Angels that convinced me to be a writer.

    Having said that, I think that Bill Murray’s Where The Buffalo Roam remains the superior examination of HST’s life.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  5. […] 0752 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 0739 “Laundry Day” Filed under: […]

  6. I haven’t seen that, but I’ll add it to my [never-ending] list of films to see.

  7. […] The screencaps are crummy in this review because the library sent me the Full Screen version instead of the Criterion Collection version. I had to grab screencaps from elsewhere. Dazed and Confused is a movie a bit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its attempt to recapture the cultural aroma of the 1970s. F&L has an advantage, it is based on primary source material, so its nostalgia is less removed from the decade and despite its rambunctiousness, it comes across as a bit more authentic than Dazed and Confused, perhaps because of the sense of doom that is present throughout the film. D&C on the other hand, is nostalgic for a time that, to me, seems impossible to have ever existed. […]