Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it”). Plus, his output was incredibly patchy, by any yardstick.
Most probably too, the likes of Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese would have been too much for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the former most definitely – see U-Turn (1997) and Natural Born Killers (1995) – and the latter only a good fit if operating in After Hours (1985) mode). Mainly because Thompson’s peculiarly palatable prose does not equal an appealing motion pictures (and sometimes – Where the Buffalo Roam (1982) – simply may result in simply anodyne ones). Gilliam eschews a Ralph Steadman pose – that too would have been ultimately too queasy – but his preference for wide-angle cartoonishness accentuates his characters’ absurd alt-states in mostly complementary ways. Yes, there are times when Duke and Gonzo’s antics become exhausting and the descent into depravity an endurance test. But that’s as it should be, and it’s never to the degree of Darren Aronofsky and his “Why would you ever watch this again, assuming you even got through it the once?” Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Duke: Terrible things were happening, all around us.
Gilliam, as a relative abstinent, is not enamoured by wanton abandon (in stark contrast his lead actor), which probably gives him a perspective none of those other touted names would have been able to claim (as for the idea that he needed to have experienced what he was showing, well the movie is evidence enough of that falsity: “This is a guy who understands acid trips without ever having taken acid”). He said of Cox’s screenplay that it started very well, but then Duke and Gonzo became “two rather boorish people senselessly crashing around the place, with no depth”.
Crucially too, Gilliam may have been in awe of Depp – trying to get him for any picture must have put the star off eventually. Too eager and insufficiently lucrative; much better sticking to increasingly fatuous collaborations with Tim Burton, culminating in that point-of-no-return Willy Wonka performance – but he is not in awe of Thompson. Hence the undercutting of Duke with Gary Busey’s – hilarious – lonely highway patrolman asking for a little kiss (“I felt raped”). You can hear how displeased Thompson was – he generally applauded the picture and later said he found it quite funny – on the Criterion commentary. Cox didn’t even get that far with the prickly writer (‘He went up to Hunter’s house and completely alienated Hunter in one fell swoop” claims Gilliam).
Duke: This is not a good town for psychedelic drugs.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set post the collapse in 60s ideals more emotively embodied in Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1986) (Robinson would, of course, adapt Thompson for Depp in The Rum Diary (2011), leading to a fateful meeting that would prove the death knell for the star’s mega-streak). Robinson had turned down Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as he couldn’t see “how you could get that one on screen”. Duke’s journalistic assignments (the Mint 400, a narcotics convention) are at best a demented backdrop to the duo’s demented shenanigans, Vegas capturing the antithesis of what is, curiously, an unapologetically nostalgic punctuation of reminiscences of counterculture only half a decade thence (when the American Dream, in a form, was still alive; Duke is unable to find it again). Duke might have written off the whole thing, pointed to Timothy Leary as no more than a CIA stooge, but instead, he embraces the perceived naïve genuineness of that era. We all have our blind spots (and I’m not talking adrenochrome. Yet).
Simply on the antics side, though, there’s much absurdity to enjoy here, and much of it is very funny or disorientating or a combination of the two. The opening encounter with Tobey Maguire’s balding hitchhiker (“How about some ether?”) gives way to the arrival at the Vegas strip hotel, replete with moving carpet. Gilliam’s expansive visual flourish in the desert and contrasting claustrophobic grip in the hotel is palpable; this and 12 Monkeys (1995) may be the films where his environments are most tangible, for all the distortions and distractions. When Duke eventually escapes the city, back out on to the desert road, it’s an enormous relief… until it isn’t. The opening credits montage to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things was surely an inspiration to Zach Snyder with Watchmen (2009), although Snyder inevitably lost all the irony. The Mint 400 is shot like a madcap battlefield report (“One of the ideas we were playing with was the idea that he didn’t go to Vietnam, that he’s a journalist but he didn’t cover the war…”). The narcotics convention, as Duke and Gonzo struggle to maintain straight faces, is a hoot.
Gonzo: Do you see what God just did to us, man?
But it’s the stepping back and reframing of their indulgence that carries the weight. Del Toro’s Gonzo is never endearing enough that it’s a surprise when the terrifying animal side is unleashed – and Gilliam noted this at the time – but these moments are nevertheless a punctuation of how Duke is playing with fire; the lift scene with Cameron Diaz, in which Gonzo threatens Lacerda (Craig Bierko, on the cusp on not real stardom in the following year’s The Thirteenth Floor); the extended encounter with Christina Ricci’s Lucy (“Lucy paints portraits of Barbra Streisand”), in which it is revealed that Gonzo has fed her acid and Duke persuades him he is likely to get “nailed for child molesting” (the scene in the corridor, as Duke winds him up, is hilarious in its gleeful, almost Derek & Clive crudity); the closing, crucial encounter where Gonzo threatens Ellen Barkin’s waitress, the capper that makes crystal clear this, whatever it is, has all gone horribly wrong.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wouldn’t work without prized performances, of course. Everyone on the side lines is terrific, including Michael Jeter’s Doctor Blumquist at the narcotic conference and Christopher Meloni as Sven, the bristling, put-upon clerk at the Flamingo. Depp is phenomenal, an instance where his talent for mugging/schtick/impersonation is perfectly channelled. All skinny legs, bald pate and forensic detachment from reality – until he isn’t, detached – his Duke is definitive. By all evidence, Depp’s friendship with and admiration for Thompson was too much, man, too much, too much, as his subsequent two decades have seen him peak and then trough in a seemingly irreversible manner.
Of course, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’s currency of late has been focussed almost entirely on its flippant approach to one particular Duke and Gonzo drug of choice. The elite/adrenochrome conspiracy theory has exploded over the last couple of years, flourishing where once it was no more than a vague reference in SF novels or a drug of unknown and potential mythic effects (like “a pint of raw ether”). It has been suggested, on the not entirely irrefutable but also heavily inferred grounds of Thompson allusive remarks from the 80s and allegations of proclivities – that he might have had particular unwholesome involvement in such alleged acts, but Gilliam for one believed it was a made-up drug (per being approached by someone after a test screening who claimed to have sampled it).
For all Gilliam’s protestations, the narrative of what adrenochrome is (“the adrenaline gland from a living human body”) from someone trying to sell him human blood (who “said it would make me higher than I’ve ever been in my life”), and references to “a fresh adrenal gland to chew on” tend to fit the overall bill. On the other hand, no one is going about suggesting an actual trade in pineal glands, and the picture mentions their consumption in this fashion a couple of times (a murder victim “They were after the pineal gland, I think” and Gonzo saying “Man, I’ll try about anything, but I’ll never touch a pineal gland”). Whatever the truth of its use by the elite and their celeb stooges – seemingly all talk of which has been snuffed out with the apparent victory of Creepy Joe, suggestive of a psyop – I find it difficult to believe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was consciously laying it out there. But who knows.
Duke: You want me to throw this in the tub when White Rabbit peaks?
What we can say is that Gilliam made Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas work as a movie where few others could have. Certainly not nearly as well. “The minute Terry Gilliam came into the picture, it turned from being a Cessna plane to a 747” said Del Toro of the production. Gilliam took a very responsible view of imposing himself on others’ material: “I think what they wrote is like music. They wrote the symphony, and I’m the conductor now with a new group and I actually change the arrangement”. He also said “I didn’t want to like the film; I didn’t want to love it” in order to maintain distance on what he was creating; that said, there are still the requisite dwarves and merry go rounds.
The picture was booed at Cannes, but the cantankerous Thompson came around to it, dubbing it an “Eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield”. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set fifty years ago, but the essentially inescapable dilemma on the modern age it presents – one can only escape its horror show through artificial means and never in a truly, transcendently satisfying way – has never held truer. Gilliam’s American trilogy brings the inveterate fantasist back down to Earth with a bump. No escape from reality (even through lobotomy) is countenanced. His protagonists must now forsake their illusions; to the extent that this may even enable a genuinely happy ending. Duke doesn’t get that; instead, he keeps on baring the teeth of unconquerable attitude, because it’s the only armour left in the face of a savage world.