Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Dir: Terry Gilliam
Original Release Date: 22 May 1998
In a literary and journalistic sense, Hunter S. Thompson was nothing short of remarkable. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, his brutally honest, savage appraisal of mid-century American social and political society was as genius as it was bizarre. Not since the fucked up poets of old has a writer been so detached from, yet so in-tune with reality; a reality that haunted him, but in which he survived and thrived beyond the means and reasoning of a normal person. When he shot himself ten years ago on 20 February 2005, I was unaware of him. If his death was on the news, it passed without thought or comment on my part. A year or so later, a friend at college showed me a poster. It was for a film that he just wouldn’t stop raving about, starring Jonny Depp and Benico del Toro. That film was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and, like most of his fans currently under the age of thirty, it ignited my fascination for the life, times and gonzo journalism of one Hunter S.
Almost a decade on, a lot wiser, less serious and rather better read, in no small part thanks to the man himself, I still come back to Fear and Loathing every now and again. To pay homage perhaps. Standing alone, it’s not what you would call a great film per se, more an amusing mish-mash. A drug-fuelled middle finger to the hopeless venture of American idealism lost within its own reality, featuring a classic hippy verses classic Vegas inspired soundtrack as the backdrop, and sparked by two downright funny and sometimes frightening performances by Depp and del Toro – playing the alter-egos of Thompson and his long-time legal friend and political activist, Oscar Zeta Acosta – Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo respectively. Traditionally it’s not that an accessible film either; with many I’ve known switching it off half way through. To be honest it’s difficult to blame them as, out of context, Terry Gilliam’s frantic pacing of a tale of deeper than what can be displayed visually – a distorted, bitter view of contemporary American consciousness and concurrent outlook – is hard to even catch up with, let alone make sense of.
One reason it’s worth trying however, at least once, is the mighty nature of the underlying source material. Although frequently misplaced amongst the onscreen clutter, on occasion it rears its head to reveal Thompson’s unique, powerful portrayal of the peak of the west coast hippy zeitgeist, and its subsequent rapid deterioration into the never-ending, middle-class hypocritical circle-jerk that is the American Dream, incarnate in its very own mecca, Sin City itself: Las Vegas.
The principal example is the “wave speech”, a key passage in the original text and a rare moment of poignant downtime in the film. Gilliam wisely puts the breaks on and allows Depp to basically recite an edited version, supplemented only by relevant anti-war/pro-peace images of the time and the calming melodic twangs of The Youngbloods. In an era of progressive network television-based breaking news and maverick, feet on the ground journalism – with the power of raw footage more influential than ever before in the face of the Vietnam War and developing government corruption – the birth of mid-60s West Coast hippy radicalism and peaceful protest was as influential and epic as it was short lived. As Thompson put it, he and his own “were riding the crest, of a high and beautiful wave…”, only to peak, break, and roll back amongst the majority, as America gradually surrendered to decadence, excessive consumerism, and narrow-minded patriotism beneath its government’s continued persistence at playing God.
Such a speech requires a solid onscreen depiction. For all the dreadful films and suspect performances Depp has contributed over the years, thankfully he makes up for it here with a performance etched with determination reserved for his undying devotion to discussing and promoting Thompson’s work. To my generation the actor is essentially Thompson’s mouthpiece, with many of us who take up his pages forever hearing Depp’s voice in our heads as we read. Whilst The Rum Diary was a fairly pointless labour of love on Depp’s part, on Fear and Loathing he successfully channelled Thompson’s tendency to outrageous excess and frank, paranoid assessment of the establishment. Much like Thompson’s literature however, Depp managed to do this in a strangely relatable fashion, thus producing a real enough depiction of his hero’s gonzo-style views and methods.
Arguably the picture’s highlight, it’s a lovely moment of reflection – a simple representation of a complicated, volatile era, perfectly summed up in less than two minutes. When it comes to the transference of important literature to the silver screen, the temptation to overdo it always appears to be lurking constantly. Fear and Loathing was based on, and is itself such a dark, twisted tale hidden deep in the heart of the brightest place on earth, that making a Hollywood movie out of it was always going to be a sacrificial task. Comforting however is the well-handled survival of the “wave speech”, which in turn has graduated to cult YouTube clip, shared by young freaks and geeks forevermore. As a result it will likely remain a significant entry point into the unrelenting, unforgiving literary produce and outright eccentric outlook of Hunter S. Thompson. In modern context the work of such a man has never been more important – a reminder that before the internet, during the last age of the typewriter, it was possible to operate far away from the norms of social, political and journalistic life, but to exist so much closer to reality that the subsequent conveyance of any story inevitably shaped commentary that was of a far rarer and more intriguing a nature than any mainstream media representation. Long may such practices be preserved, if only by the minority.
The “wave speech” (original text)
Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…