The other night I sat in an audience mostly made of people who are
half my age watching a movie version of a book that has survived as a definitive
classic of my own generation, and I was bored. Oddly, the enthusiasm of these
youngsters for all of this rehashed nostalgia was unbounded. I had to ask some
deep questions about where I stand and what has brought me here.
I am nearly 50. My formative years were those depicted in Hunter S.
Thompson's over the top masterpiece, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. I
have experimented with, at one time or another, most of the substances mentioned
in the book, and taken part in a good deal of 'over-the-top' close-to-the-edge
drug influenced behavior (I confess I've never sampled the joys of an 'ether
binge' or the wild abandon of an 'adrenochrome' high). I even made it to
Woodstock. I've read several times and thoroughly enjoyed Thompson's novel, and
in fact have read almost every word the author has published. For me Hunter S.
Thompson remains in some sense the clearest echo of the wild aspirations and
incredible sense of possibility that characterized those times and events.
So, what's the deal? Terry Gilliam's movie follows the novel
faithfully, even slavishly, with almost no distortion or revision. Johnny Depp
goes all out in his stylistic depiction of the Thompson character. The
production is visually interesting, and seems intent on capturing the insane
manic energy of Thompson's prose. Why did I find the movie so depressingly dull?
Partially it's the difficulty of translating prose to film. For me the
genius of Fear & Loathing is less in the story than in the prose.
Although the film is liberally dosed with voice over passages from the book, the
transposition of Thompson's inspired language into pre-cut images inevitably
diminishes the author's ability to trigger an imaginative response in the
audience. A key to Thompson's mastery of persuasive language is his ability to
get you into the head of even his most extreme characters. Visual media, being
about surfaces, tends to distance us from a subject, putting us 'outside,'
making us 'viewers' rather than participants. Most 'literal' translations of
prose works by moviemakers who either lack imagination or are afraid to add
elements of their own vision tend to leave us with little more than a plot. In
the best writing plot is a framework on which the author displays the brilliance
of language. Reduced only to plot we end up with only a thin surface on the
outside of events with very little of what makes a work worth reading. In the
film, Fear and Loathing, the few engaging moments are when directors and
actors take a bit of dramatic license and step outside of the written narrative.
In the Duke's encounter with a gay cop played by Gary Busey, we meet the only
character in the movie with even a hint of personality. The unpleasant run-in
with Ellen Barkin's Hispanic waitress brings the whole film to a chilling stop
for a moment, after she is thoroughly terrorized by Dr. Gonzo, and it is perhaps
the only authentic moment in the movie.
We are repeatedly reminded that this is a tale about things which
happened long ago. It is all about nostalgia. The film makes little or no effort
to place events in any kind of context that is relevant to the present. Hunter
S. Thompson's own cameo as a pickled patron of a 60s bar contributes to the
general sense of nostalgia as do repeated shots of television screens filled
with images of bombings and demonstrations. No attempt is made to integrate
these images with anything else we encounter in the film. Thompson, above all
else, is a political writer whose every paragraph is a conscious attempt to
assault the enduring complacency of the middle American status quo. His prose is
as alive and urgent in the present as it was when it was originally written.
This film turns his work into little more than an updated version of Animal
House; a not so cute comedic parody of the charming and anarchistic
irresponsibility of times gone by.
If I were Thompson and were still lucid I would absolutely detest this
Back in 1980, Where The Buffalo Roam made a much more
successful attempt to dramatize the Thompson canon. Rather than using a single
work as a virtual shooting script, the movie incorporates narrative bits from a
couple of Thompson's books, preserving not only the humor and anarchy but giving
us a full glimpse of the political context out of which the works emerged.
Thompson's prose is used as a framework, but the film makes its own creative
statements about these lives and times. Of course, that film was made almost
twenty years closer to the actual events, and both filmmakers and actors
obviously shared Thompson's experience and political sensibilities. Performances
by Bill Murray as the Thompson character and Peter Boyle as Laszlo (Dr. Gonzo),
the anarchist attorney are both effective and endearing, dramatizing the complex
balance of aggression, idealism and innocence that were all important features
of the time. In the current film the characters are stripped of every quality
but mindless aggression. Johnny Depp's performance, although at times
entertaining, never comes across as more than a stylized cartoon, and Benicio
del Toro as Dr. Gonzo conveys nothing beyond brutal thuggery, mostly directed
toward women. Instead of offering us characters, the film tries to fill in the
missing contexts with narrative overlays that seem to come totally out of
nowhere. We would have been better served by an imaginative and original script.
For a brief moment in the sixties, the children of the middle class
identified with other, less privileged people in the world, got a clear whiff of
the ominous shadow of the Big Machine, and took collective action against what
was seen as the forces of evil. The events of that time were seen as part of an
all or nothing struggle which didn't emerge out of nothing and didn't end when
the decade was over. The drugs and anarchy and excess were only one aspect of an
explosion of events and catalysts. They brought to full expression a need to
break out of the straight jacket world of post-world war two imperialist
suburban mentality. They were never, ultimately, the point.
Even in a story like Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, so
thoroughly steeped in drugs and alcohol and noxious behavior, Hunter S. Thompson
shows us that the struggle has continuity with the past and the future. In many
ways, with all of it's hilarity, the book is an expression of the numbing
anguish and disappointment many of us felt when we realized that what we
experienced as a moment of incredible magic and unbounded expression had finally
come to an end. The story is like a good-bye binge for a world of innocence and
expectation that was quickly passing, but is never an acknowledgment that the
struggle had come to an end. I think of the famous photograph of a lone
demonstrator in Chicago, facing a horde of heavily armed policemen, shirt off,
hair flying, throwing his finger up in a gesture of absolute defiance. Thompson
himself never surrenders to the utter nihilism and self destructive despair that
constantly threatens in these times to get the upper hand, as can be seen if one
reads anything he has written since. In the context of the present, Fear
& Loathing In Las Vegas, the movie, comes off as just another
fashionable attempt to recreate and trivialize a past that never actually
existed; the expression of a strange nostalgia for a world that never really
Future paleontologists from this or other planets, encountering the
ruins of Las Vegas, Nevada will conclude that the huge pattern of squares in the
desert was some kind of religious shrine; in fact, the central religious
precincts of an entire civilization. If somehow these explorers find a way to
travel through time and can land in the middle of the present desert their
assumptions will be confirmed.
Repeating a classical pattern as old as civilization, the temple
complex is built a ways off from the real cities. A desolate and majestic desert
wasteland provides backdrop for an enormous artificial garden housing a blinding
array of temples filled with prayer wheels and felt tables on which sacred
rituals are enacted before the gods of chance and profit. An entire reservoir is
dedicated to maintaining the power and water necessary to support such a divine
spectacle. Here is a place where the rules of the outside world do not apply. No
restraint is put on excess; the laws governing excess stop at the boundaries.
All is permitted and all has a price. This is a place for pilgrimmage. One comes
to make sacrifice and perhaps to leave richer or poorer, having navigated the
strip and spun our way through the capricious gears of fate. However, when we go
away we will carry the memory of a time and a place where every fantasy is
sacred and may play itself out beneath the lights and shadows of a desert dream.
In the last days of the Millennium the religious delirium bred and
nurtured within this sacred precinct has spread far beyond its' borders. As if
the gods of Las Vegas stretched out their arms in a grand magnanimous gesture of
benediction upon the entire land. At last we who are lost in the cul-de-sac of
post-capitalist culture can look up and behold in all of their splendour the
spirits who are the undisputed lords of all. Every boundary has been crossed,
and the spectacle which drives Wall Street and Hong Kong and the wheels and
tables of Las Vegas finally reveals itself in splendid and overeaching
Playing the numbers was once an arcane and underground ritual led by
outlaw priests who moved furtively through the precincts of the poor. Now it has
been made open and public and adopted as a cash cow by the state. During one
historic week in May the national Powerball Lotto accumulates the largest
jackpot ever. All across the country people line up in record numbers at fast
food stores and gas stations and grocery stores as the frenzy of ticket buying
builds to its crescendo. The gathered spiritual force of a hundred million
prayerful transactions in which people hand over their dollars with silent hope
in their hearts is tapped when the ceremony reaches its' inevitable conclusion.
Mass conversions take place in a mood almost of hysteria as millions of new
converts are drawn to the sacred rites. Millions of
dollars...$125...$150...$175... to those who pick the correct set of sacred
random numbers. They will then ascend into the holy temple of wealth and fame
and be reshaped into new creatures, a new investment in the total perpetuation
of the game itself. Like the Aztec masses gathered at the base of a sacrificial
pyramid the players await the sacrifice, when someone will be chosen to open
their heart to the sun. The gift of the sun is wealth beyond our dreams.
In the halls of Las Vegas the prayer wheels spin, the fake volcano
erupts, the pirate ships sink in the fake lagoon, the pretty fake Roman citizens
pose for another hour at the end of the moving sidewalks, the laser beams shoot
toward the sky and the fake New York and fake pyramids and fake castles all
glitter and gleam in the dark. The waters of Lake Mead evaporate in the desert
air and the silent mountains all around wait for the rustle of life in this
unnatural setting to finally grow quiet and blow away on the winds.
Religion is a ritual fueled by hope. The only hope the spectacle
offers is that the winner can escape the game, in some transcendent gnostic
financial rapture. We've got an eighty-million-to-one chance to get away from it
all; out of the church; away from the arena; to some imagined place where
everything is taken care of by the angels of financial fortune. There's an
eighty-million-to-one chance that we'll be saved. We are like the little fuzzy
aliens in Toy Story, waiting to be lifted out of our container by the giant
mechanical claws of God.
Ralph Melcher is a freelance editor and essayist living in Santa Fe,
© CTheory. All Rights Reserved