Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Still the Tourist: FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)


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.--Hunter S.
Poor Terry Gilliam, a high brother from across the pond (though born in the states, which just goes to show ya) - he's always made the mistake of going bigger when smaller would serve, and Hunter S. Thompson has always been a difficult figure to capture either small or largely. WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM was a small mess, and Hunter himself has few kind words for Gary Trudeau who's satirized him for decades in Doonesbury, and then Gilliam hits the story with an elephant gun.

The mighty Thompson has been Hard Rock calcified as the trustafarian's badboy,  the party animal supremis for Bob Marley's LEGEND-owning frat guys who want to be "edgy" before they're swallowed up by dad's law firm. Mixing acid and testosterone is a bad idea even in the sunniest of locales, and bad ideas are what Hunter S. Thompson seems to run on, but it's an easy mixture to misinterpret, and Gilliam's film is so busy being beautiful and full of time capsule relevance and hot color intensity that it forgets its primary job, to be a goddamned movie about a goddamned guy in Vegas screwed up on goddamned drugs. Mike Figgis, where is thy stinger?

Gilliam does the classic original book a disservice by this glossing of every dingbat realization of our addled narrator until it shines with Hard Rock petrification. You can imagine dopey kids soaking their car floor covers with ether and then crashing their car and the suing Thompson for making it cool. It's not his fault but Hunter's been consumed by the consumer culture vultures and when he screams in pain the vultures imitate him like it's the hot new song on the charts. They did the same thing with Kurt Cobain and it drove both these poor besotted poets to the shotgun. The vultures know no better way than this; the tourists shall inherit the earth and bring back postcards with God's genuine imitation autograph. And that, I think, is the handle. If you go to a high hill in Woodstock, NY or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you see that the beautiful wave never really broke and rolled away at all. It just learned to hide its foam from Hunter. As long as Hunter doesn't know, the vultures don't either, and the wave can quietly roll on.


We see glimpses of how great LOATHING could be early on, as when his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, stealing the show) guides a flipping on too much acid Hunter through the casino bar: "We'll get you some peanuts, they're good for you, man," he says--capturing exactly the right way to talk to a person peaking on acid, like it's their birthday and wherever you're taking them is going to be safe and full of peanuts and all the demons and distorted elderly faces leering in hushed church hostility will be gone -- to which Hunter screams "Peanuts?" way too loudly, jumping like a coiled slinky as he tries to walk. It's true and funny and clearly Depp has 'been there' and the red checkered carpeting pulses just right in the hotel lobby. But considering the amount of digital altering effects at his disposal, Gilliam's visuals end up remarkably disengaged. After the carpet design breathing, there's nothing in the way of hallucinations for the rest of the film, other than light effects and puppetry. Why not have the whole room swim in overlaying imagery, elaborate twirls and swirls of movement traces? Gilliam's been there--that's clear enough--so why didn't he bring back some ruby slippers?


For some ungodly reason, Gilliam prefers to keep it 'realistic' --even while ole Raoul Duke is flipping out on adrenochrome in the hotel suite the best Gilliam can do is blaze some intense pink lighting. One longs to see some CGI artist who's "gone the distance" really add some trails and vortexes, the glimmers of alternate realities that create shadowed 'near' events overlaid over current ones. But after awhile it seems that no one involved in the production has gone the distance after all... maybe not even Thompson. Compare the scene where he asks "how much for the ape?" to scenes of James Fox trying to buy Mick's coffee table in PERFORMANCE and you realize Duke's a tourist! He's no boundary-busting free spirit at all, just a political journalist with an expense account and a masochistic yen for bad acid and violence. I know because I've embodied that persona myself, a John Wayne framed in the closing door of THE SEARCHERS, deciding to stay behind as the kids all go back to the garden without you. But unlike Raoul Duke and the Whale, the real Duke and I know the reason you stay behind isn't heroism or sacrifice, it's so you can scream oaths into the wind along with the dying old guard rather than have to act like you dig garlicky vegan stir-fry and patchouli-soaked girls with hairy legs and no make-up, and man, I don't blame you.

I blame it on the budget, which is way too large. Never send a white elephant to do a termite job. There's an extra on disc two of the Criterion edition wherein we see Hunter in his dressing room, being led to the set where they're filming a hallucinatory courtroom scene and they end up sitting in the back row of a huge throng of seats on set, while far up ahead, barely visible, is this ridiculously lavish court set, all for this one small scene. You can hear the money just leaking in buckets down the drain. Like Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick, or Tim Burton, Gilliam has some deep-seated artistic insecurity wherein he has to keep tinkering with seemingly every scene until: a) his producers are brought to the brink of bankruptcy, b) it his personal stamp on it and c) it's completely sapped of momentum and useless as a connection to the next scene and overall story arc.

Inevitably, this strategy means that the film begins to hang together more as a string of exotic, beautifully crafted but empty scenes rather than as a coherent narrative; one longs for the giddy, ballsy high wire flow of Thompson's prose to find a match in the images, but Gilliam's still setting up the high wire to reflect the green gel spotlight just right, no a little to the left... and by the time he's ready to shoot the sun is going down, the drugs are already wearing off and people are beginning to slip out the door... What makes LSD such a good experience (when it's good) is that it helps you escape the kind of situations Gilliam seems addicted to, the ones where you're expected to voluntarily sit in someone else's ego prison.

Now as an old 'head, I don't want to knock this film as bad as I already have; perhaps it will become more relevant with the passage of time. Then again, maybe not. A film like EASY RIDER or PSYCH-OUT makes you feel like the psychedelic lifestyle choice is within easy reach of anyone with guts enough to stick out their tongue, FEAR AND LOATHING makes it seems like the best you can hope for is to touch the hem of Johnny Depp's loud Hawaiian shirt as it hangs over your booth at Planet Hollywood. The physical effects of dry mouth and nervous anticipation that accompanies the best acid cinema is replaced by mere idolatry. Instead of trying to ride the waves you just buy an autograph from some old junky surfer.

My anti-idolatry rant aside, FEAR does have great moments such as the orange in the tub scene; the mind-fuck with the hotel maid; the carpet swirls as mentioned, and all the scenes where Del Toro's character is presented as an unlikable but powerfully magnetic, lysergic monster, challenging our impetus to love him the way Bogart did as the violent screenwriter from IN A LONELY PLACE. Del Toro is the best part of the whole film because he alone magnificently captures the tortured feeling one can have riding in an elevator with some gorgeous tan creature like Cameron Diaz; how while peaking on acid one can seem to absorb a woman's beauty at such a deep, aching sensory level that the rest of your trip becomes tortured by her imprint; how your whole mission in life id compromised in a warm fuzzy second h and the deep animal longing that goes beyond sex--beyond even cannibalism--into the tortured realm of pure sensual feedback.

Depp is fine, as usual, though clearly treading on eggshells between wanting to be unhinged and yet also portray his friend Hunter in a favorable light. When he likens del Toro's Dr. Gonzo to the last of the buffalo--a unique one of a kind original--at the end of the film, you finally begin to understand the relevance of what you have just seen. From thence forth drugs will have to be done on the sly, indoors, at shows or other safe havens. The days of giant monster men carving their carnivorous hallucinations large into the flesh of the mainstream are over. The gonzo method, apparently, includes leaving no bridge unburned, only strings of draconian laws made to ensure no one pulls the same shit you just got away with.

Only Hunter's angry, wistful original book is left as a possible escape plan. Read it, of course, as many times as you can, but then use it as inspiration for your own mad dream or else face the consequences of being just another spectator, just another dupe in line at the corporate-owned 'High and Beautiful Wave' ride at Disneyland. One of Hunter's big catch phrases was "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." The tragedy of Gilliam's film is that he reverses it. He's a pro who tries so hard to be weird that he ends up missing the turn altogether. 

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Wow, what a great essay! This is one of the best I've ever read on the film, which does not really work for me.

    Granted, I have no acid experience to compare it with, but I do have some vague glimmer of the dreamlike transcendence of shifted consciousness, and Fear & Loathing doesn't seem to tap into that at all. Gilliam, like Ken Russell, seems to be too attached to surface flash to get that deeper sense of dislocation which someone like Lynch flows in effortlessly. The only moment in Fear & Loathing which seems to access that ever-fascinating hard-to-put-your-finger-on Sixties mystery is...the actual, fleeting footage of the 60s spliced in halfway through.

    Also, you name-drop my hometown which is kind of weird. Granted, Portsmouth has its hippieish elements, but I'm surprised to see it ranks alongside Woodstock...

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  3. Very well put about Russell sharing Gilliam's mistaking of surface flash for genuine dream state dislocation. I'm gearing up to write about ALTERED STATES and may quote you.

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  4. P.S. Portsmouth and Woodstock are just two of the most instantly familiar hippie towns I know, plenty of others along the way, but I didn't want to get too specific. I dated a girl long distance who lived up there, she played bass for Kittywinder, don't say you don't remember them. Couldn't stand the way everyone keeps their houses so ice cold in the winter to conserve heat. Say hello to the Friendly Toast for me!

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  5. Yes, Altered States was definitely the film I had in mind (and it is, well, surprising that Chayefsky would pen a piece of pyschedelia, but apparently this was a pet project, no less...). However, Tommy fits the bill too, even more so when you consider all the bloated Planet Hollywood/Rolling Stone analogies you drew here. Sad to see the freshest, rudest rock band of Mod England reduced to tired, aging New Age 70s rock gods.

    I actually know someone who got a French toast with a handprint in it at the Friendly Toast, though I've always enjoyed it, for the decor if nothing else...

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  6. that's the hands-on friendly touch.

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  7. I know I am kind of late to the party, but I have to weigh in and say that this is the absolute best expressed, most spot on review of this movie I have read. The only part of the movie that really connected for me - Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam nailed - was the "sucking on a woolen sweater" scene. That moment of narrating the rewriting of the rules while delivering explicit evidence of such was the only true HST moment in the movie. I read, and loved, the book when Where The Buffalo Roam came out; I was a sophomore in high school and had never eaten acid. I read it post acid, mushrooms, mescaline, and loved it as much, but got it more post trip. Which made the movie feel really dumb, too literal and proud of itself for being so. Johnny Depp wasn't as good as Bill Murray. This is such a great site.

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