“We had all the momentum. We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark, that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” —Raoul Duke, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
Let us marvel, for a moment, over the existence of Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Movie buffs like to swoon—and rightly so—over the American Renaissance of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the auteur inmates ran the studio asylum, and the likes of MGM and Columbia Pictures were rubber-stamping left-field projects like Brewster McCloud and Easy Rider. When the indulgences of Heaven’s Gate brought United Artists to the precipice, the party had more or less ended, at least symbolically, and Hollywood had taken firmer control of its commercial destiny. Yet there are still those glorious anomalies, when the system breaks down and the walls that are supposed to keep the barbarians at bay are mysteriously obliterated. The result: The public gets confronted by something new, shocking, and generally unpalatable, cultists have something weird to treasure, and there’s a feeling that the filmmakers have gotten away with something.
I can think of three possible reasons Universal gave the green light to Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which was released in the summer of 1998: 1. Gilliam delivered them a bona fide hit three years earlier with 12 Monkeys, and the studio bosses didn’t have memories long enough to remember what happened with Brazil the decade before. 2. Johnny Depp was (and remains) a big star. 3. The amount of money being gambled was not terribly large, so long as the production avoided being plagued by sandstorms or a chlamydia outbreak or the other Biblical curses that tend to sabotage a Gilliam film. On the other side of the ledger, I can think of many more reasons why Universal might have balked: a Hunter S. Thompson classic of “gonzo journalism” that’s 95 percent gonzo, 5 percent journalism—plotless, sidewinding, almost inexpressibly surreal, and uniquely resistant to adaptation; a director whose famously frenetic style stood to extend, rather than bridge, the distance between the audience and the material; themes and events so strongly evocative of a particular place and time (the counterculture hangover of the early ’70s; the birth of Nixonland; the death of a dream, et al.) that their immediacy might be lost 27 years later; and a co-star, Benicio Del Toro, who seemed committed to playing an unintelligible blob of sweat-and-vomit-encrusted flesh. And really, that’s just for starters.
But the movie version of Fear And Loathing exists, and it’d be tempting to call it one of the most subversive studio films of the ’90s—assuming Universal didn’t understand what it was paying for. What’s perverse about Fear And Loathing is that it’s exactly what you’d expect a Gilliam/Thompson union to look like: Crazed, hallucinogenic, rudderless, darkly funny, unrelentingly ugly and distasteful, and shot as if lensed through a fishbowl or a funhouse mirror. It’s the rare film that demands repeat viewings while resisting them just as forcefully, an acid-streaked lump of nearly indigestible ideas and images. (Hence my waiting nearly three years into writing this column to get around to it.) Unlike the candy-colored trip of future New Cult Canon title Enter The Void—another movie about drugs that simulates being under their influence—there’s nothing inviting about Gilliam’s vision. And that’s part of the point: The drugs in the film are not helping. They intensify without clarifying, and demand a hell of a reckoning when the fog clears.
Many directors set their sights on Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas over the years—including counterculture types like Ralph Bakshi and Oliver Stone, and Repo Man’s Alex Cox, who got himself a writing credit and the basis for a lawsuit—but Gilliam seems like the right man for the job, if the job was even worth doing. From the start, Gilliam smartly frames Fear And Loathing like a road movie, a genre that’s the most forgiving of loosely structured, episodic, roundabout visions like this one. After a montage of iconic ’60s images like Agent Orange dustings and Civil Rights protests—thankfully, not set to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—Gilliam throws the previous decade in the rearview as his heroes blast down a Nevada highway in a gleaming red 1971 Chevy Impala convertible. Journalist Raoul Duke (Depp) is heading to Las Vegas on a magazine assignment and he’s brought along a demented Sancho Panza in Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro), as well as a trunkload of essential supplies.
Ostensibly there to cover the Mint 400—an annual off-road motorcycle race that “in some circles, [is] a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby all rolled into one”—Raoul and Gonzo instead hole up in a free hotel suite, blow their allotment on excesses of every stripe, and peel off before the bill comes due. In his defense, the event proves impossible to cover, since the bikes simply disappear into the desert, but not before leaving great plumes of symbolic dust in their wake. (The other journalists look defeated before the thing even starts, gathering in the press tent to nap or play cards.) After the bender is over and they split town, Raoul and Gonzo come back to a different hotel for another event: the District Attorneys’ Conference On Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs, in which they rightfully worry about being too conspicuous. In between and around these two gatherings, they take drugs. And stuff happens. The end.
Okay, the thing about the stuff happening sounds a little glib, but Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is supposed to work like a stream of addled consciousness, with occasional moments of clarity and insight tailing a grand experiential muddle. There are many scenes and whole characters in the film that feel untethered from the rest of the narrative: Tobey Maguire swoops in and out as a freaked-out, stringy-haired hitchhiker, Christina Ricci stops by as a young painter whom Gonzo pumps full of LSD before he and Duke panic over her age, an unseen Debbie Reynolds has such a mythic presence that a shrine is erected in her honor. If you get too caught up on how individual scenes figure into the larger picture in Fear And Loathing, your focus can get misdirected. It’s better to take a step back and consider the overall flow of the film, which is essentially about two men who take drugs to escape a nightmare, but get drawn deeper and deeper into it. Only at absolute bottom do we arrive at a point.
Lifted directly from Thompson’s book, the narration above so perfectly summarizes the hollow excesses of the counterculture that it hits like a ball peen hammer to the temple. There are suggestions toward the end of the film that the symbolic dust is starting to clear—specifically a terrifying and then surprisingly touching scene in which Gonzo attacks a diner waitress (Ellen Barkin)—but Duke’s speech about the “old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture” needs the muddle and muck that preceded it to register fully. Fear And Loathing is a film of endless sensual displeasures—a circus-themed casino with angry dwarf waiters, a dog on the flying trapeze, and Penn Jillette, among other horrors; hotel rooms filled with dirty standing water and rotting room service; a major character whose ratty facial hair is perpetually knotted by dried vomit—and Gilliam rubs the audience’s face in them with his usual battery of distorted lenses, odd angles, and swooping camera moves. (To borrow one of my favorite Noel Murray quotes: It has “more Dutch tilts than a poorly hung Vermeer exhibit.”) We need to go through this awful trip before finding wisdom on the other side.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is an Altamont movie, so named after the infamous Rolling Stones concert, chronicled in Gimme Shelter, where bad acid and the Hell’s Angels proved a toxic and ultimately deadly combination. (Is it a coincidence that Fear And Loathing’s terrific soundtrack ends with a Stones song? Probably, but still.) As such, it would make a nice companion to The Ice Storm, a gentler but no less rueful film about the ’70s fallout that chased the ’60s bacchanal. The film would have had a greater impact had it been produced at the time, when Brewster McCloud proved that anything was possible, but short of a time machine, Gilliam does what he can to bring the era back to life. His success is unqualified; just please don’t make me sit through it again.
March 10: Enter The Void (director’s cut)
March 24: Highlander
April 7: Birdemic: Shock And Terror