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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon

(Fear and Loathing LLC, Rhino Films, Shark Productions, Summit Entertainment, Universal Pictures; US DVD: 26 Apr 2011)

Read straight thru, at high speed, from start to finish, in a large room full of speakers, amplifiers & other appropriate sound equipment. There should also be a large fire in the room, preferably in an open fireplace & raging almost out of control.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Instructions for Reading Gonzo Journalism


Gonzo journalism goes against everything “real” journalists attempt to practice. They are not supposed to become a part of the story, but instead remain completely neutral and merely comment on the events unfolding before them. They are not supposed to take any action whatsoever, only tell their audience what actions take place. Also, as professionals it goes without saying they should remain sober and alert while on the job in order to report their observations as accurately as possible.


Thankfully, film critics are tied to journalism only by their shared publishing medium. On one page there’s real news on the state of the world while on the next there’s a three-star review of Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. Though they’re still asked to remain impartial when weighing the pros and cons of a picture, their writing is opinion-based and thus open for interpretation, disagreement, and dispute.


I first watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an innocent, wide-eyed high school student, curious as to what made the Terry Gilliam picture such a hot-button issue. Was it as terrible a film as it was a wide-release investment idea for Universal Pictures? Or was it an attempt to replicate the artistic originality and intentionally unsettling nature of its leather bound predecessor?


At the time, I thought it was both. Sitting on the edge of my parents’ couch with no background on Hunter S. Thompson or his 1971 novel, I found the first half deeply engrossing and often funny before the film languished for its final hour and left me more confused than when I sat down to watch it.


I’ve since caught glimpses of it at parties or with friends (and once, inexplicably, on television), but have yet to revisit it fully. That is, until the new blu-ray Criterion edition landed at my front door. After I tore open the packaging and marveled at the cover illustrations, I sat down and read A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream and Instructions for Reading Gonzo Journalism, both by Hunter S. Thompson and both included with an essay by J. Hoberman in blu-ray’s case.


I couldn’t help but think I missed something, years ago, when I first watched this film. Then, I didn’t think it was possible to incorrectly view a movie unless you were talking all the way through it or unconscious. Now, I know that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas requires more of an investment than your time (more on this later). Thompson makes it clear in his writing you’re either with him or against him. He’s not as volatile with his writing as in person (from what I’ve seen in interviews and behind-the-scenes footage included on the disc), but his beliefs are strong and well argued.


If you find yourself on the outside looking in, then it’s not the film’s fault. It wants at least part of its audience to feel this way while simultaneously enthralling the rest. Taking part is key. While I refuse to inject a ten-inch hypo-needle full of rum into my navel or start popping mescaline, I did decide it best to follow the rules of Gonzo journalism at their most reasonable levels.


“The mind & body must be subjected to extreme stimulus by means of drugs & music.”
—Hunter S. Thompson, Instructions for Reading Gonzo Journalism


I took a few shots of vodka. I cracked open a cold beer. I popped a pill (OK, my daily multi-vitamin). Then I settled in, with an open mind and the slightly blurred vision a light buzz provides, for the experience of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Just as the novel was Thompson’s self-labeled failed experiment in Gonzo Journalism, the following reflects my own struggles with his version of reporting.


“Gonzo Journalism…is not so much ‘written’ as performed – and because of this, the end result must be experienced. Instead of merely “read”.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Instructions for Reading Gonzo Journalism


Though I strongly believe Terry Gilliam’s film is as nonconformist as they come, I do believe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an exercise in allegory. Under the combined influence of the film and the substances it depicts, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas creates an alternate universe difficult to come back from, even hours after its conclusion. It’s not an area you’re desperate to depart, or one you eagerly inhabit. It’s merely the world as it is, or was, for those 119 minutes.


It itself is an attempt to replicate the author’s mad science. It functions and is thus best viewed as a trip; an acid trip, a drug trip, a booze trip, a trip from your senses; a trip from logic; a trip from the present. It certainly doesn’t follow the formal rules of cinema, story structure, or conventional reason. There’s no true protagonist here. Johnny Depp’s Raoul Duke, the most thinly veiled version of a real self since Jenna Maroney’s portrayal of Jackie Jormp-Jomp (aka Janis Joplin) on 30 Rock, is only a slightly more moral man than Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo. He may not kidnap an artist obsessed with Barbara Streisand or accost a waitress at a diner, but he never abandons the actions of his friend or even apologizes for them. He’s an observer and a participant, as Thompson wanted.


The performance is as bold and manic as they come. Depp’s energy is infectious, his mentality acute. The audience questions Duke’s/Thompson’s actions as often as they support them, but he always finds a shred of innocence in a depraved, maniacal individual. Del Toro is an ideal foil. As Duke’s/Thompson’s lawyer, he has lost any sense of purity he may have once held. He is simultaneously a devout friend and serial threat to Duke/Thompson.


These sorts of contradictions are what Gilliam’s film thrives on throughout its loopy ride. Depp’s character carries around multiple American flags and spreads them proudly. Then there are shots of protesters demonstrating against the war in Vietnam and a scene of lawyers stupidly dissecting the mind of a dope fiend. He’s proud to be an American, but is aghast at its practices, feelings undoubtedly reflected to this day.


The cultural, radical, and racial attitudes of Fear and Loathing are as difficult to pin down as its overall point. About 45 minutes into the film, Thompson’s character asks himself, “What was I doing out here? What was the meaning of this trip? Was I just roaming around in a drug frenzy of some kind…?” It’s about the same time the viewer is thinking the very same question. This is not a coincidence. I believe, like with many of Gilliam’s pictures, the general concepts of Fear and Loathing are clear while their specific intentions are deliberately left up for interpretation. No doubt Thompson’s enthusiasts will find more to revel in than others, but the film leaves everyone with a distinct picture of an alternate mindset in which to contemplate their collective country.


Fear and Loathing may not have the faithful followers of The Big Lebwoski, but it has all of its brilliant scenes, memorable lines, and absurd characters. Yet it also has none of the accessibility. The only way to get in is to fully engross yourself; to embody the mentality of Gonzo Journalism completely; to become a part of the movie as no other film has asked you to do. It sounds abstract and pompous as I write it, but Gilliam has always forced his viewers to accept and embrace or reject and detest his work. Whether it was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Twelve Monkeys, or Brazil (another member of the Criterion collection), he is a director who challenges you and accepts either reaction, as long as its extreme.


The extras included on the Blu-ray Criterion are exactly the same as those found on the DVD edition from 2003, but they are a plenty. Three audio commentaries, one with Gilliam, one with Depp and Del Toro, and one with Hunter S. Thompson are definitely the highlights. Depp also appears for a specially filmed segment where he reads choice correspondence between himself and Thompson. There’s also a short documentary called Hunter Goes to Hollywood where the man himself visits the set during filming, deleted scenes, and much more. As per the Criterion standard, all bonus content is absolutely a bonus for anyone who enjoyed even parts of the film, even if there’s nothing new for this blu-ray offering.


I said earlier this was a failed attempt at Gonzo Journalism for two reasons. First, how could I succeed where the creator failed? Secondly, because I can still see what are normally considered flaws in the film itself. There is next to no character development or even an indication of how these few days were relevant to the characters’ lives. Scenes are redundant and uneven. The climax, if you can call it that, is forced. Yet, while I can see why some would complain endlessly about these formal frustrations, I would merely group them with those who didn’t invest in Thompson’s mania. Fear and Loathing is not a film to watch for two hours – it’s a mentality needing to be embraced. Like the invented medium responsible for its literary inception, Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing marks the most spectacular failure of modern moviemaking.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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