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.

7 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

  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

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