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Tucson Weekly Recreational Habit

Terry Gilliam's "Fear and Loathing" doesn't push any limits, but it's sorta fun.

By Stacey Richter

JUNE 1, 1998:  THERE SHOULD BE a name for that poignant emotion that overtakes people who reminisce about drugs they used to take but take no longer do. Let's call it drugstalgia. Were the drugs really better in 1971? We'll never know; drugstalgia has clouded the data, but according to Terry Gilliam--who has finally made a movie out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson's acid-soaked saga of a lost weekend--the drugs were pretty fucking fine. They will probably never be so fine again.

So what we have here is a sort of love-poem to getting wasted (past-tense), an endeavor that nearly all cultures at all times have regarded as a worthwhile pursuit. Gilliam, fond of creating alternate realities since his days making animation with Monty Python's Flying Circus, has done his best to bring Thompson's lusciously described acid trips to life on film. Yes, the carpeting turns to blood, the bar patrons become reptilian, etc. Special effects are used. Raoul Duke's (or Johnny Depp's) face stretches out like Silly Putty when he's on "sunshine acid"--a dark-hearted drug if ever there was one. Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (played with relentless menace by Benicio Del Toro) travel the weird streets of Las Vegas, examining the warped remnants of the American dream with the stoned remnants of their minds. They're armed.

This movie is kind of funny and not at all bad, I have to say. The question I keep returning to, though, is why? Why make a movie out of a book that's famous for the style in which it is written, and has no plot anyway? I think Hunter S. Thompson achieved exactly what he set out to achieve when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He made the rest of us feel left out of the party. After I read the book I bought all the drugs I could pony up the cash for and drove across the U.S. (Sorry Mom, it was a long time ago.) I don't think I was the only one, either. That's power literature.

It seems that such a book could only suffer by being brought to the big screen, hammered into a neat form complete with plot and recognizable stars. Gilliam gives it go by trying to emulate the format Altman liked for Nashville--a looping story with recurring characters, and a lot of cameos by well-known actors. It's sort of cute but not very satisfying. When reading Fear and Loathing I sometimes got the feeling that Thompson had never been to Las Vegas and Dr. Gonzo, rather than existing, was one of his alternate personalities--such was the level of shifting reality and hallucination. Like James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe, Thompson was writing about states of consciousness. But you can't exactly shoehorn the inside of somebody's brain onto film. Gilliam makes due with voice-overs by Duke, which are often very funny. Still, we see it all from the outside. There's a sense that all this mayhem is happening to over there, to a goofy guy who likes to chew a cigarette holder and doesn't seem very real. It seems that Thompson's biggest fear--that Fear and Loathing would be made into a cartoon--has been partially realized.

There are definitely some bright spots in this movie. Gilliam does a great job of bringing the carpet to life (I only wished it had crawled around longer). There are some genuinely funny sequences, especially when Dr. Gonzo and Duke find themselves lodged in a hotel hosting a police convention, a square bunch of lock-jawed lugs who don't seem to notice the drug fiends in the midst.

Yet Fear and Loathing (the movie) suffers from a rampant drugstalgia, which, believe it or not, takes on a vaguely moral tone. "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man," Dr. Samuel Johnson tells us in the epigram before the opening credits. You see, Dr. Gonzo and Duke aren't just taking drugs to up their fun, they're taking them because America is Screwed Up!!! Vietnam, Altamount, the Pentagon Papers, Nixon. Plus Jimi was dead, and Janis, and that guy who wore leather pants. Once (we are told this by Duke during one embarrassing sequence), there was a Summer of Love and it was grand, but all that innocent stuff got corrupted. Now Duke, under the advice of his attorney, is assiduously ingesting drugs as an expression of grief.

And you losers in 1998 just want to get high for no reason?


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