Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

"Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson has been the source of so many writings attesting to his nearly mythological standing in American culture that I've often wondered what he was really like. When you're an icon of such stature, where does the true self end and the myth begin, or vice versa? There is always the danger of believing your own press. Thompson probably bought into and dismissed it simultaneously. Who else would have the chutzpah to appear in a photograph holding a gun to a typewriter?

"Gonzo" journalism is described as a style of reporting where the reporter is so involved in what he/she is covering that they become part of the action. I picture director Terry Gilliam as a "gonzo" type himself, maybe not literally doing the stuntwork he asks of his professionals but nonetheless being extremely hands on. What a perfect auteur to realize Thompson's legendary 1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas! Or so I thought.

As with other entries in "The Great Overrated" series, I acknowledge that Gilliam's 1998 adaptation may well be a worthwhile film (recently given the white glove treatment by Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray), but perhaps I'm too busy holding my nose to appreciate it. I've tried with this one. Really tried. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is what I rather informally and broadly call "punk rock cinema", a near complete abandon of the usual rules of the medium. Films that create their own cinematic language. Sometimes, it works: LIQUID SKY, MEMENTO, WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, Pi, Kubrick films, many Lynch films, early Wim Wenders. Other times, it does not: 200 MOTELS, TIMECODE, this movie.

I can see the attempt, even not having read Thompson's book in full. Gilliam was trying to capture that perpetual jaggedness of substance abuse. How events would play under the influence of mescaline, acid, diethyl ether, and probably every other controlled susbtance ever derived. Having never experienced such fear and loathing myself, perhaps I'm not qualified to properly review Gilliam's film. Just how interesting could it be to watch someone else's drug trip? Ever been the designated driver amongst a bunch of drunks?

Some folks use the term "write drunk, edit sober". For this film it seems to be: "Write drunk, edit stoned". Yes, it suits the material. As Thompson, er, Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) stumble through and destroy hotel suites throughout Sin City in the early 70s, the viewer is treated to camerawork that will most certainly be a workout for the vestibular system. Duke is in town to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, and does, but his drug fueled paranoia does not allow clear analysis. Imagining that there are swarms of non-existent bats and hotel staff morphing into lizards does not promote concise writing. But we're talking about Hunter Thompson.

Duke and Gonzo leave and return to town, do drugs, meet a lost girl (Christina Ricci), do more drugs, sit in bathtubs fully clothed, begging for the other to drop a radio in so it can be heard better, and so on. Describing the film's events is pointless and tedious, for me to type, and, I imagine, for you to read. For me, also to watch. To say a little of FEAR AND LOATHING goes a long way is patently obvious. As with many of the films in this "Overrated" series, a point is made and then painfully belabored for far longer than necessary. Filmmaker: you can smash cut and fill the frame with vomit for a little while, but some sort of transition keeps your masterpiece from being a didactic bore. I do have to hand out kudos for the amazing art direction on this movie, however. That must be noted.

Man, did I want to like this movie. It has a very loyal fandom who will defend it to the end and call its detractors uncool and ignorant. I had a near lynch mob upon me after I derided the film one night after it was first released on DVD. Hey, I do the same for other "difficult" movies (ERASERHEAD, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, BREWSTER MCLOUD, etc.). People rave about this film the way they do about another troubling "classic", the Coen Brothers' THE BIG LEBOWSKI, though that is a film I can appreciate and enjoy, despite its faults. FEAR AND LOATHING, after several viewings (as I said, I've tried my darndest) remains a cinematic migraine, a real test for my nausea receptors. If you're old enough to remember all those hysterical movie ads from the 1970s, the ones that warn that the movie may make you faint or get ill due to its intensity (and actually, THE EXORCIST really did do those things to many viewers during its original run), you might wonder why FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS did not have similiar disclaimers. They would be appropriate.

But, to be fair, Depp is game as Thompson, his take on the maverick is more successful than Bill Murray's attempt in the subpar 1980 WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (in fact, Thompson hated Murray's performance so much, he threatened to "rip his throat out" if the two ever crossed paths). I'm not sure what sort of research Depp did to prepare, but he manages to navigate a very treacherous course as best as can be expected, allowing for the only moment in the film I really liked, a quiet voiceover where the journalist assesses the wreckage of it all. Just undiluted honesty, nothing sentimental. It is a moment of clarity and sanity not to be found in the rest of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.

Part XI, The Great Overrated
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