Fear of Loving It: a Twenty Year retrospective on the cinematic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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No one knew drugs were bad in quite the same way that Hunter S. Thompson did. And yet through most of his 67-year lifespan, he couldn’t stop taking them. He managed to be such a captivatingly wild yet oddly morose figure in both writing and journalism all the same. He created a new genre, Gonzo, which is more about the subjective stream of consciousness of the writer relating his/her events to the reader than it is about objectively relating the story, opinion possibly intertwined. How much of what really happened or how exact the recollection is up to you. Who knows? Perhaps one of the stranger moments not clearly the result of an acid trip on Raoul Duke’s( Hunter Thompson’s literary avatar) dark journey into Las Vegas circa 1971 was fairly historic and some more banal going ons in the book/movie is completely made up. Perhaps the drugs addled Thompson up so much he himself couldn’t tell or care about the difference.

Terry Gilliam, the American member of Monty Python, directed the now two-decade old adaptation of Thompson’s early seventies’ eulogy for the counter-cultural sixties. Johnny Depp, a real life friend of Thompson who would go on to portray Thompson’s other persona Paul Kemp in the less well regarded The Rum Diary (2010) as well as attend his 2005 funeral following his tragic suicide. Depp completely loses himself in portraying Thompson’s Duke, to the point where I actually believed I was looking at a younger, somewhat more handsome Thompson. Thompson himself proclaimed that no other actor could have done the role. In a sense and I could be wrong, not having seen that much of Depp’s early works, but this is the film which started the actor’s eccentrically committed style. What I mean is if you look at Jack Sparrow from POTC, Tonto from The Lone Ranger, Willy Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc, you’ll see that same strange style which we are familiar with Depp for portraying and in recent years, have gotten sort of sick of.  I wonder if in some way, Depp returns to the style of Raoul Duke to play roles which are so different and not just tonally. If not the actual style, but that manic energy or laid back weirdness.

To the uninitiated,  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is what a drug trip looks like from a perspective hardly sober, all with a philosophical slant. Thompson’s Duke and Dr. Gonzo( Benicio Del Toro), the former’s attorney and nominal best friend, head to Sin City to cover the Mint 400, an annual dirt-bike/dune buggy race. Eventually, due to both the drugs and other glaring distractions of Vegas, the duo begins to lose focus and stumble, drive, drink, inhale, and eat their way through a town that takes decadance to an existential level. Despite his best efforts to actually show some journalistic integrity, such as also ironically attending a D.A. convention on prevention of drug use, Duke becomes too all enraptured in the vice of the drugs. He never stoops to the down right scary excesses of his attorney Gonzo, and at times Depp’s take on Duke is almost adorable if it weren’t so sad at the same time. The drugs not only give Duke a unique yet bleak perspective on America after the Counter-Culture died off, it also is perhaps a way for him to cope with what the American Dream has become: a glitzy, frazzled, obscene shadow of what once or perhaps never fully was.

Critics in 1998 complained of the disjointed pace, sequencing of events, and how there seemed to be no real direction to the quest of Duke and Gonzo. How right they were. Tell me, would a drug addled adventure to Las Vegas be orderly, sequential and coherent? It might not be pleasant either, but by Jove it is a brutally honest experience. It’s not so much the accuracy of the real life trip the novel/film is honest about, it never tried to be. It’s the emotion and perception, the earnestness of Duke’s oddly consistent framing of what he makes of Las Vegas. It’s a bad place, full of people trying to screw other people. Of people in law enforcement not knowing a whit about their junkie enemy. Of a place willing to forgive so much law breaking so long as it doesn’t interfere with the money making process. The hypocrisy and the agony are keenly seen by a man who is no angel, who hangs out with a man who should by all accounts be in prison rather than in the legal system.

The most “ahem”, addicting aspect of Fear and Loathing in Vegas, both as literature and as a motion picture experience is the sheer creativity of Duke’s speech patterns. His quotable sensibilities and accent are bizarre yet seem just right for the sort of story that Fear and Loathing is.

If you can stomach the subject matter and have just an inkling of what to expect, then Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remains one of the premiere fever dreams, from out of Hollywood or otherwise. Maybe you will get something out of it like I did, maybe you won’t as was the consensus of 98′. You’ll have a hard time forgetting about it and you will suddenly find Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” on your iTunes library. Like an acid trip, you won’t remember the full picture but a part of you will always sense it, deep down.

Originally posted 2018-09-04 19:22:01.

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