When it comes right down to it, 1971 was mired in chaos. The Beatles had disbanded, the Kennedys were either dead or hip deep in career cleansing scandal, and the civil rights movement had been usurped by a basic human need among the minority classes simply to stay alive. America took weaponry against itself, as armed youths killed their “educated” alter egos at Kent State while the “silent majority” propagandized a steadfast “love it or leave it” mentality for all to conform to. The anti-war revolution had long gone Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with rebels as well known as their targets of distrust and frustration. There was still a belief that power in the people via politics could cure the country of its present ills, even as more vital men were sent off to meet their end in the rice fields and jungles of Asia.
Years later, Tinseltown just loves to explore the extremes of both sides of the peace sign path. Artists like Oliver Stone have made entire careers out of milking the militant juices from both philosophies for all their cinematic gold. But they never seem to spend time in the middle, in the eye of this ideological storm, preferring to skirt around the outside. Only one work dared to describe the psychic shift circa 1971, to try and condense the wounded spirit of a befouled generation into words and stories. Many thought it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The fact that, 36 years later, it is championed as a work of rare insight and power speaks for the willingness for self-examination that existed in the early ‘70s.
So it’s not surprising that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reverberates as strongly as it does, even some three and a half decades down the hash pipe. In its stream of altered consciousness exploration of the US landscape it defines the turbulent moment when conservative society, backed by a paranoid President, stood its ground and decided to take back the nation from the creative and the crazy, one radical or hippie life at a time. It’s the action verb linking the Summer of Love to the My Lai massacre. Like the last remnants of an emotional oil spill washing up on the tired and poor shores of a nation under siege, it’s the socio-political hangover that resulted when the last of the Weathermen went home to crash on their laurels. It’s when drugs stopped being recreational and began requiring rehabilitation. But mostly it’s about loss. The loss of innocence and the replacing of optimism with instant gratification. The loss of idealism for the sake of conformity. And the loss of hope, the hope that, one day, those far too confrontational principles of peace, love, and understanding would somehow be accepted as valid.
One can spend a lifetime trying to decipher the visual and literary imagery used by author Hunter S. Thompson, the swipes at flower power and the resignation of a movement undermined by its own excesses, but, frankly, there is nothing unusual or secretive about his symbols. It is not by accident that the first person Duke and Gonzo meet on their road trip to Hell is one of the great unwashed, a member of the youth movement so lost in his own personal space that mere words undo him. For Thompson, this generation represents the new reluctant enemy. They are the targets of his growing cynicism, placing him in the uncomfortable position of having to side with authority, the one true bane of his tormented existence. Fear and Loathing is about spiritual shift as a continental divide, of a planet removed from its wild gesturing and personal exploration and repositioned back before the Age of Aquarius, to a time when men wore tight shirts and stiff collars and ladies piled their hair like pillows of protection from the harmful rays of rationality pouring off the educated and the elite. From its obvious ridicule of law enforcement to the gradual realization that the healing power of narcotics may, indeed, be a back alley placebo, Fear and Loathing is about the discovery of the bitter man behind the curtain, even as the Great Oz speaks of cabbages and kings.
In Terry Gilliam’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal work of gonzo journalism, we find the road map for the future, the ground rules for Watergate mixed into the no holds barred ‘I double dare you’ attitude of our new century. Tackling one of the holy trinity of unfilmable books, like William Burrough’s Naked Lunch (of which David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version only captures the merest indirect inkling of) and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (its state of paper and ink opiate almost impossible to capture), Gilliam opts for an unusual cinematic technique. He, in essence, fails to create a film. What he does instead is ply his camera like a time machine, placing the events of the novel in some manner of linear format and then shooting the surrealism out of what results. The main narrative thread is easy to comprehend - Raoul Duke, famed journalist, is sent by a magazine to cover the Mint 400, a popular motorcycle race that occurs every year in Las Vegas. He invites his best friend, civil rights attorney Dr. Gonzo, along for the adventure. What happens beyond this set-up has formed the basis of a hundred literary myths, and has sparked the imaginations of a million wannabe writers.
But for Gilliam, this is first and foremost a journey of the eye (including the third). Characterization is initially all visual: Duke’s cigarette holder, Gonzo’s slovenly gut, the suitcase full of drugs, the pair’s demon eyes behind dark shades and furrowed brows. Only as the movie progresses do we learn true inner details. We hear the voices, the choice of vocabulary, the vomiting of philosophy like the purging of bad mescaline. Gilliam’s filmmaking is at once completely without direction and at the same time more controlled than other projects he has dominated. He allows some scenes to meander wildly out of control, while others are focused to maximum emotional effect. So this is really not a film. It’s more like a fraud foisted upon a recreation. Call it a con artist junkie’s last vision of the Promised Land. Call it a docudream. But it’s hardly a big bucket of popcorn fodder.
Obviously, one of the biggest challenges faced by Gilliam with bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is finding the right actors to populate Thompson’s larger than literary life personas. Like trying to cast Jesus or figuring out who would properly fill Ignatius J. Reilly’s sweaty sneakers, finding these uneasy riders, this angry Abbott and crazed Costello required a stroke of genius in combination with an equal onset of luck. Thankfully, the perfect cosmic casting occurred when Johnny Deep and “Oscar” winner Benicio Del Toro stepped in to essay the roles of Duke and Gonzo, respectively. Both were born to play the characters they literally inhabit, and yet both had to physically change themselves to take on the proper outer shell. Depp shaves his head for a perfect modern monk look while Del Toro piles on the pounds, De Niro style, to completely transform his lithe structure into the heft menace carried by Thompson friend Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Each actor uses his muse to infuse their depiction of drug use and abuse with wonderful, wired aplomb. Both turn broad, gross caricatures into real people and back again, creating and reshaping their personalities into that rarity in the pantheon of acting, the certifiable eccentric. Thanks to Depp, Thompson’s weird ways, the spastic mannerisms and his unbridled flash, become understandable manifestations of who he is. And in Del Toro, the famous Brown Buffalo finds a man capable of the passion, the rage, and the fire that caused this force of nature to burn so brightly that he eventually exploded, disappearing like a whisper off the ears of the planet. Both actors give amazing performances.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is also filled with details of delirious brilliance: The ether walk into Bazooka Circus, all silent comedy slapstick; Depp’s descent into Adrenalchrome, madness complete with babbling incoherence and Thompson’s trademark banshee wail; the opening rampage down the endless Western highways of folklore; the pop art pretense of old Vegas. But probably the best moment and one of the greatest scenes that Gilliam has put on screen for that matter, is the now infamous “wave” speech, the cornerstone message of Thompson’s messy manuscript. Set to the near lullaby strains of the Youngblood’s “Let’s Get Together” (with its subtle guitar signature like the distant cry of an ambulance) and consisting of Depp reacting to his own voice-over, this one piece of writing sums up the entire aftermath, the comet flameout that occurred once Bobby Kennedy died and the ‘60s were officially declared a no-win situation. From the innocent vibrations of Woodstock to the pool of blood at Altamonte, the “wave speech” is that official final word, the coroner’s inquest into that stillborn promise of peace and love. And like an actual wave, the scene hits and then retreats, dragging the melancholy back out to sea. It’s strange to have a story’s emotional climax so early in the tale—there is more than half of the movie still to go. But just like the decade itself, Fear and Loathing mocks convention and shoots its wad way too fast. We’ve had the epiphany. It’s time to pay the ferryman his evil penance.
There are other great sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, times where the cinematic flash calms down and the wicked wit of the novel unravels front and center. Anyone wondering where the ridiculous war on drugs got its twisted dogma needs look no further than in the puffy faces and closed off necks of the participants at the anti-narcotic District Attorney’s convention. Part cautionary note, mostly caustic character assassination, Gilliam and Thompson get to make their points loud and clear: drugs may be bad, but just look at the kind of man who’s keeping ‘em that way. It’s a shame that this point has not fallen on more willing ears. Fear and Loathing has to be one of the most unsuccessful cult movies of all time. When it was first released, it was met with a universal yawn. Over the years it is constantly referred to as Gilliam’s one true bomb, a grand misstep for the once great director. Many have chalked its failure up to the lack of character one can “like” or “root” for. Others find its mixed messages about the ‘60s and its values old fashioned or blasphemy. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Thompson’s own words, most of the audience was looking “with the wrong kind of eyes.” Only those who had lived through it first hand responded to it right from the start. Others had become too jaded or brainwashed.
But the truth is that now is the true time of fear and loathing. After a decade of prosperity, of global openness and a new sense of community (even if it is online), we seen the nation, again, divided. On one side are the same good old forces at work. Now is the corrosion toward conformity, fostered by horrendous acts of homeland terrorism and a multi-colored rating system of said to exaggerate the sense of terror to new, immobilizing heights. We no longer worry about the domino effect. We are more concerned with the sealing properties of duct tape. On the other side are the easily deluded, the ones who believe that a hit single or a television spot circumvents money to actually purchase happiness. They live for and through the medium of popular culture, lining up to shame themselves for the sake of a sound bite. So the question becomes, where are the truly free? Where are the thinkers and the radicals and those questing for tranquility? Well, inside our newfound quasi-socialism, they are silent. Theirs is the opinion of the discontented, of the traitorous and ungrateful. Their beliefs aid and comfort the enemy and spit readily on our fighting men and women overseas. Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is more than an obituary to the summer of love. It’s the death knell to the power of individualism and thought and a warning for the sinister shape of things to come.