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 film.
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 was.
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 splendour.
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.