This is not a look at the book Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, nor an overview of the writings of Hunter S Thompson, both of which are covered in great detail all over the Internet. This is merely my own personal look at the phenomenon of Fear & Loathing, particularly Terry Gilliam's cinematic version of the book, and about it's effect and influence on my own life.
I first became aware of Fear & Loathing, and of Hunter S Thompson, back in 1987 after an NME writer mentioned both the book and the author in a caustic slagging of the then latest book by the American writer P.J O'Rourke. That weekend I bought Fear & Loathing but have to confess that on first read I simply didn't get it. I found the book had the same effect as being shouted at by a boorish drunk who insisted on telling you how good a time he had just had. I found parts of the book funny, but overall found it too garbled a narrative to enjoy fully, so put it away after the first read.
Jump five years to 1992 and I've just ended a relationship and find myself at a loose end. So I head in to the local Waterstones where a display of Hunter S Thompson's new writing collection, The Great Shark Hunt, attracts my attention. The Great Shark Hunt is a collection of Hunter's more political writings, especially from around the Watergate era. I find the book captivating, funny and fierce and it makes me want to read Fear & Loathing again. This time the book makes sense! Beneath all the drug induced psychobabble is a story of the search for the American Dream and how Las Vegas, (alleged) 'Fun' capital of the world is a festering pit of plastic smiles, easy sin and soulless inertia. It's also where Hunter, chronicler of the counter culture, realises that the great revolution of hope that started in the mid-60s has failed....that his generation failed to paint it black!
In 1998, Ray, myself and a few others went on holiday to Florida. We promised ourselves that we would go and see a film or two while we were there (this was back in the days when films were released in America a good few months before they opened in the UK). We had already decided upon the recent big budget remake of Godzilla, but I was even more surprised to see that Terry Gilliam's imagining of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas was opening that week too. I suggested to Ray that we check that film out as well, but he seemed confused (naturally) when I tried to explain what it was all about.
Catching Fear & Loathing on the big screen, in Florida, on holiday, is something that I am forever glad we did. It not only altered the viewing of the film, it changed our attitude to the rest of the holiday. For the rest of our time there we felt like we were Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo on a mad quest to dissect 'The World's Happiest Place' albeit without the mass drug consumption, although we pushed the alcohol boat out waaaay beyond it's usual mooring, culminating in a night of revelry in a bar called The Cattleman's which has gone down in local folklore, especially as we were continually asked if we were sure we could cover the bar tab!
Watching a cabaret band fronted by a weird Steve Wright/Timmy Mallet frontman massacre Smells Like Teen Spirit, or watching some overenthusiastic dance troupe pretend it was New Year's Eve (in the middle of May) while gyrating to Been Caught Stealing, driving all the way to Coco Beach only to sit in the RV because the air-con was salvation against the lunacy of the mid-day sun, being asked to remove my shades by a nervous storekeeper before he would sell me a six-pack of beer, suddenly having a moment of blissful inner tranquillity before I plummeted 200 feet on the Skydive in old town Kissimee, I could feel the spirit of Raoul Duke coarse through me as my cynicism-tinted spectacles practically melted on my face. Gilliam's interpretation of Thompson was a meeting of unnatural minds and we were wearing its influence like a layer of hypercritical sunscreen....
Plans had been underway since the mid-70s to bring Fear & Loathing to the big screen. The earliest treatment had seen Jack Nicholson become involved with the intention of playing Raoul Duke. Almost unbelievably, Marlon Brando was pencilled in to play Dr Gonzo! Of course none of this ever materialised. Later adaptations saw John Malkovich in line to play Duke, as well as Alex Cox being set to direct, even completing his own screenplay for his version. This allegedly fell apart when Cox found Thompson an unreliable and truculent presence in the project.
In 1980 a movie called 'Where The Buffalo Roam' was released to virtually complete indifference. The film starred Bill Murray in the role of Hunter S Thompson. Murray, like Jack Nicholson before him, was a friend of Thompson and it was his star power (huge at the time) that got the film made. The film covers the Fear & Loathing episode, but it is not the central tract of the movie. It's interesting to see a more straightforward, less visually flashy interpretation of the events in Las Vegas, and Where The Buffalo Roam is probably closer in reality to what happened, as opposed to the Fear & Loathing which pretty much happens in Raoul Duke's head.
Which brings us to Terry Gilliam's vision....
Hallucinatory, opulent, visceral and eye-popping on one hand; deranged, babbling, impenetrable and migraine-inducing on the other, Gilliam's version of Fear & Loathing is probably the greatest interpretation of an unfilmable book in Hollywood's history.
The film follows the narrative of the book down pat, dropping straight into a speeding convertible in the Nevada desert. We then work backwards, finding out who these people are, where they're going, what they're up to, and why they need such a gargantuan stash of drugs. Then we follow them into the dark heart of Las Vegas where Duke and his lawyer Dr Gonzo have been sent to report on the Mint 400 bike race. Instead of that, however, they go searching for the American Dream in the streets of Las Vegas, only to find that it doesn't exist.
Gilliam uses many curveballs to keep us on our toes and to create a fevered mindscape detached from reality. These include animation, animatronic puppets, optical morphing, and the fact that there is never a straight horizon in the whole film; the camera is always at a slight angle so the viewer is constantly aware that something is off-kilter. The film stars Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Dr Gonzo, and both Hollywood hunks 'ugly up' for their roles; Depp shaving his head to a bald pate, and Del Toro gaining 40 pounds in weight. It's interesting also to see the difference in acting styles clash; Del Toro's fearless method approach to Depp's mannered mimicry. The actors also insisted in playing the roles dead straight claiming any sense of insobriety would have rendered the performances impossible.
For the first hour the film plays almost at fever pitch until the scene where Gonzo begs Duke to kill him in the bathtub when the song White Rabbit peaks....at this point the film, like the book, has become so frantic it threatens to fall in on itself. This is where Thompson, Duke, Gilliam and Depp take a breather and we settle down to hear what has become known as 'the wave speech'. Here, Duke looking out from his hotel window over Las Vegas reminisces back to San Francisco in the mid-60s when it felt that that the youth and the counter culture were going to win; they were going to destroy the war-mongering conservatives with a sense of peace and togetherness. But they chose to believe Timothy Leary's acid preaching without for one second understanding the consequences of opening their minds so radically. And now, five years later, he looks out over Las Vegas and sees that it was all a hopeless pipe dream...
Anyone who finds the film unwatchable and a horrid mess, I would ask them to do one thing....try watching the film with the sound off! Once you remove the psychotic chatter and (deliberately) impenetrable dialogue and no longer try to follow the narrative the film will blossom into one of the most beautiful films ever committed to celluloid. I mean it! Bereft of the white noise skreeeeee, this is a breathtakingly gorgeous looking film. Even the scenes of utter carnage, like the morning after the Adrenachrome binge look like a collaboration between Bosch and Carravaggio. This is another of my favourite scenes even if it did mean I'd never be able to hear 'Tammy' by Debbie Reynolds in the same light again. 'Tammy' was one of a clump of singles that my parents had in the house when I was an infant, and this collection of Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochran and Neil Sedaka records shaped my early listening, and because of their drama and romanticism, led me on the path I still choose to walk. 'Tammy' is almost too melodic, too gushing, but it's combination of lush dynamism couple with the yearnings of a teenage girl for her first love have kept it at the forefront of my musical heart for my entire life. So its use to soundtrack the debauched squalor of Duke and Gonzo's hotel room cold have been fatal, but if anything adds an odd and surrealistic poignancy to what is up there on screen.
As usual, the studio heads didn't know what to do with Fear & Loathing and the film was dumped into a few cinemas and peppered with a few lousy reviews. Likewise when it opened a few months later in the UK, it was again shot down and hamstrung by reviewers who simply didn't get it...."No Fear, I Loathed It" screamed the Daily Record's film review of the time. But, as usual, the film has gone on to achieve cult adulation and is now regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood releases of the 1990s. In fact, it is now considered the most expensive Midnight Movie of all time.
It is now impossible for me to read Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas without thinking of Terry Gilliam's visuals; and it is also impossible for Ray and I to reminisce about that time in Florida without mentioning Fear & Loathing and how it shaped that holiday.
Even today, when writing these Blogs, I still feel a sense of 'what would Hunter do?' in my approach to them. Especially in the Blogs that cover the ~Streetlamp~'s days out, I still feel that touch on my shoulder....take the last one where we went to the Tramway; I finished by reporting that Griff set off through the backstreets of Glasgow while we headed back on to the motorway back to Stirling....this is a deliberate and direct mirroring of the end of Fear & Loathing where Dr Gonzo disappears off on the plane, and Duke heads back onto the highway...
"There he goes! One of God's own prototypes - a high powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live and too rare to die...."