Criterion Cuts: “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie actually comes from my DVD collection. It is the mythical ‘First Criterion I Owned,’ though in truth I saw it many years ago around the turn of the millennium where it blew my young mind. I consider it one of my formative films, movies that expanded my horizons and drew me to watching and thinking about movies more seriously. Which is why it’s taken me so long to finally get around to writing it. Even now, I’m not entirely sure I can do this movie any sort of justice. But the attempt is why I try!

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

A giant Cadillac tears down the desert, carrying two monsters steadily towards Las Vegas. One of them is Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), a maybe-samoan maybe-mexican lawyer. The other is Raoul Duke, long-time nom de plume of journalist/anarchist Hunter S. Thompson (Johnny Depp). With them, a case full of every drug imaginable and a few that most people probably wouldn’t even think of, including a pint of raw ether. Duke narrates the film, excerpts from the book the movie is based on. When we meet them, Duke is in the grips of a hallucination, swatting at imaginary bats as he speeds down the desert road.

With a spot-on imitation of the rapid-fire and deeply cynical cadence Thompson was noted for, Duke spools out the story of how they ended up in the desert. Duke has been assigned to travel to Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a giant desert race. But, Duke being Duke, he decided this would also be a great opportunity to gather a collection of drugs and his friend/lawyer and use the road trip as a half-cocked excuse to pursue “The American Dream.”

If this sounds vaguely like the plot of Easy Rider that’s because it is. Terry Gilliam’s epic of American grotesqueries rides on Thompson’s text, which reads like a reflective response to the generation-defining film. It’s a decade later now, and the counterculture has dissolved into a drug haze brought on by too much free love, too many fizzled out protests, and the onset of early middle age. This is Nixon’s America, now, and the hippies who survived are just visiting like they come from another planet entirely.

And that’s how much of the opening of the movie plays out. Duke and Gonzo show up to Vegas in the middle of a bad trip, with Duke walking across a carpet of swimming patterns, only to discover that the check in clerk has become an eel, that the patrons of the lounge have all become giant lizards. Duke as played by Depp is a marvel, a portrayal of a legendarily strange man (who Depp remained friends with up to Thompson’s death). It’s all strange tics and long cigar-holder and ridiculous bald head, slinking and stumbling through the world like a drunk sailor fresh on land. But for all of the affectations, he captures instantly Thompson’s wit and intelligence, and seeing him react and recoil to the horrors his trips present is inherently, incredibly comedic. Not only are the floundering physical states of our heroes ripe for slapstick, but Duke is the perfect straight man to react to the world around him which has gone decidedly, irrevocably mad.

The fun and games, such as they are, invariably head downhill fast. There’s only so much fun to be had out of a drug bender before it turns in the other direction, and after the raucous first third the movie settles into a much more insular place. Retreating into a slowly disintegrating hotel room, Duke and Gonzo begin to trade periods of catastrophic trips that render them in turns howling with some inexpressible emotion or catatonic in their own heads. Duke talks Gonzo out of an acid-fueled suicide attempt that is as funny as it is crushingly sad to watch. Duke wakes up to Gonzo gone, skipping out on a giant hotel bill only to register at another one further down the strip.

Our heroes, champions of American culture, literary nightmares come to life.

What’s most interesting about this movie is how readily it is willing to savage the culture its borne out of. This is undoubtedly a part of Thompson’s work, as he was seemingly never satisfied with how the 60s turned out for his generation. In one of the great passages from all of his writing and the best scenes of the book, a relatively lucid Duke works on writing what will undoubtedly become the book this movie is based on, a soliloquy eulogizing a movement that he saw crystallize and then shatter, only to be sold back to us for the past fifty years again and again in popular culture, gobbled up by the baby boomer set.

And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. 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.

Duke rolls into the next hotel and discovers that its holding a drug enforcment convention. Caught in the grips of a paranoia-inducing high, he walks right through the gaggle of cops and registers. He even sits in on a drug seminar, where a particularly weasely looking professor explains to hundreds of bored, brutish, good ol’ boy cops the intricacies of drug culture like it was a foreign language. This was the legacy a decade of social revolution wrought, the militarization of the establishment, a thousand bored cops who were given all the powers of an army to keep the drugged out hippies too busy hiding their habits to stray out of line again.

There he meets Dr. Gonzo, who again has managed to set up shop, this time with a young woman (Christina Ricci) who is nearly unresponsive but obsessively paints pictures of Barbara Streisand. Duke recoils in horror and quickly gets rid of the girl before they bring even bigger troubles upon themselves, which Gonzo reacts to with seeming placidity until Duke overdoses on adrenochrome and goes on a wild trip that Gonzo mockingly talks him through. Duke blacks out, only to awaken in a suite that has devolved into utter chaos, the room full of bizarre objects and the floor covered with water so it has become some prehistoric swamp. In that moment, Duke even has been turned into a primal lizard, stomping around in galoshes with a giant lizard tail strapped onto him. Uncertain what happened, he discovers a giant recorder with his exploits taped upon it, and slowly sobering up in bed he plays the last unknown gap of misadventures, triggering memories of a bender that ultimately went dangerously bad before Duke sent Gonzo packing on a plane.

The existential aftermath of escalating benders forms much of the latter half of the film.

I haven’t mentioned del Toro here but he’s as good as Depp with a much harder job to do. Gonzo is a caricature, an obscured version of Thompson’s real friend and lawyer to keep him from being identified and disbarred. del Toro, having packed on weight, appears here as a great monster addict, a man of unlimited appetites for excess and a penchant for volatile mood swings and violent outbursts. He’s absolutely terrifying in this movie, at times, a bear of a man with a wild-eyed stare, a man for whom the party never stops and anyone who tries should be attacked for their trouble. There’s an amazing, horrific scene near the end of the movie with him interacting with a burnt out Vegas waitress that is the rock bottom of this adventure. After all their attempts to have fun and discover something true, all they get is the engulfing sense of futility and waste that they’ve brought upon themselves.

In some ways this seems like a strange departure for Gilliam, who’s mostly known for comedies and whimsical adventure fare. But in reality I can’t imagine who else could tackle this movie, as Gilliam represents the cinematic equivalent of long-time Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman, who rendered Thompson’s sharp prose with the kind of exaggerated excess that turned the mundane into the monstrous and the subjectivity of a drug-addled mind into something that could be visually parsed by the rest of us, peering in with the curiosity of zoo attendees watching the lions (or the monkeys). And Gilliam takes to it with a similar verve, rendering Duke’s bender in wild close-ups, cantering dutch angels, and an array of low and high shots that distort the Duke and those he encounters, turning normal faces into monsters and people into wildly disparate shapes and sizes. The effect is unique to Gilliam’s filmography, but bears his fantastical stamp as much as it does Thompson’s work. I couldn’t imagine a director who might better capture the dual senses of glee and horror this world exhibits.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a hard film to take in, especially as someone who didn’t live through the decades depicted and discussed by the film. It is one of the most curious mixes of comedy and commentary I’ve ever seen, a movie that is as horrible as it is funny, often at the same time. But like the people it depicts, the attitudes it tries to capture, the difficulty is part of the journey. If it was easy it wouldn’t require such unique talents to capture, wouldn’t be so affecting in its strangeness. For that’s what Thompson and Fear and Loathing is, unique and strange, best summed up in the film’s own description of a fleeing Dr. Gonzo:

There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

Nothing more to be said, really. The end.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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