Our reviews of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (Blu-Ray) (published February 2nd, 2010) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published April 25th, 2011) are also available.
There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. Some kind of high-powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die…
"You wake up in the middle of the night, your sheets are wet
Perhaps it's time to take stock of just where the American Dream is at, now that it is the year 2003.The 1950s told us that patriotism and land ownership were all one needed to foster notions of prosperity and personal happiness. At the dawn of the '60s, family and freedom were added to the mix. By the mid-'70s, a dull sense of entitlement took over, positioning us between the gas line and the Detroit guzzler, hoping we'd reject, outright, the Japanese ideal of economizing and compactness. Leave it to the mean-spirited streak of avarice that the '80s ushered in to eat a nation from the inside out, like termites in an old log cabin. When the '90s finally took hold, the dream had turned depressing with naïve nihilism a seemingly acceptable substitute for personal ethics. There was this unclean desire toward celebrity and media that still rages within us like the shakes in an alcoholic. The year 2000 brought created reality into the living rooms of people who'd become so disconnected from life that they couldn't even recognize its tedious trappings when it was presented as entertainment on their television lifelines. Indeed, the current atmosphere in the United States is one of dread, dread, and disdain. It's 1971 all over again. So there's no better time than now to revisit Hunter S. Thompson's testament to the death of the American ideal, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As envisioned by cinematic genius Terry Gilliam for his woefully under appreciated 1998 film adaptation, this clarion call to the suicide of the '60s stands as a fitting eulogy to the 20th century. And as presented in a superb package by the Criterion Collection, it's a chance for those who ignored it the first time to sit up and take heed.
Facts of the Case
Raoul Duke, famed journalist, is sent by a magazine to cover the Mint 400, a popular motorcycle race that occurs every year in Las Vegas. He invites his best friend, civil rights attorney Dr. Gonzo, along for the adventure. They trade Duke's broken down jalopy for a rented fire apple red Cadillac convertible, load the back with drugs and alcohol, and scream down the highway toward a debaucherous lost weekend. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, who they torment. They arrive at the Mint hotel on the famed strip, high on acid. While at the bar, Duke sees Vegas for what it really is: a cesspool of liquored up lounge lizards. Once in their room, Duke and Gonzo begin the fine art of trashing it, one destructive movement at a time. They order obscene amounts of room service and scrawl anti-government graffiti all over the walls. Eventually, they try to take in a Debbie Reynolds show on the strip. They are kicked out. They inhale ether and enter a family friendly circus themed casino. The place possesses Duke and Gonzo, sending them into opposite mental states. Duke wants to work on his article (he attended the 400 but purposefully missed most of it) while Gonzo wants to commit suicide during the final note sung by Grace Slick on White Rabbit. The evening becomes a blur and when Duke wakes up the next morning, Gonzo is gone. He is left with a barely begun article and a huge hotel bill to skip out on.
Back on the road to California, Duke encounters a police officer that proceeds to emasculate him, in a purely figurative sense. Duke calls Gonzo, who recommends another hotel stay in Las Vegas. Returning to Sin City, Duke discovers that the new rooming assignment is smack dab in the middle of an anti-drug convention of the Nation's District Attorneys. In his suite, Duke finds Gonzo shacked up with a scared, barely coherent underage girl named Lucy who is obsessed with Barbra Streisand. Seeing the potential danger in entertaining jailbait, Duke convinces Gonzo to give her up and they abandon the poor child in a city cab. After an unbelievably bizarre conference on the evils of drug use, Gonzo and Duke return to their now newly trashed room. Lucy calls, sending them both into a guilty conscious frenzy. While Gonzo tries to talk his way out of the situation, Duke gets incredibly unhinged on a drug supposedly taken from the pure essence of the human adrenal gland. He passes out. When he wakes, he has his tape recorder bound to his body, microphone near mouth. As he views the massive destruction in the room, he rewinds the tape and listens to the past few hours to recap what has occurred. They have both committed all manner of atrocities. Eventually, Duke and Gonzo end up in a ratty diner on the outskirts of Vegas. Gonzo harasses and threatens a tough, troubled waitress. Duke feels shame. The next day they skip out on yet another hotel bill. Duke delivers Dr. Gonzo to the airport and an awaiting plane. He then heads back down the highway to LA.
When it comes right down to it, 1971 was mired in chaos. The Beatles had disbanded, the Kennedys were either dead or hip deep in career cleansing scandal, and the civil rights movement had been usurped by a basic human need of the minority classes simply to stay alive. America took weaponry against itself, as armed youths killed their "educated" alter egos at Kent State while the "silent majority" propagandized a steadfast "love it or leave it" mentality for all to conform to. The anti-war revolution had long gone Madison Avenue and Hollywood, with rebels as well known as their targets of distrusts and frustration. There was still a belief that power in the people via politics could cure the country of its present ills, even as more vital men were sent off to meet their end in the rice fields and jungles of Asia. Years later, Tinseltown just loves to explore the extremes of both sides of the peace sign path. Artists like Oliver Stone have made entire careers out of milking the militant juices from both philosophies for all their cinematic gold. But they never seem to spend time in the middle, in the eye of this ideological storm, preferring to skirt around the outside. Only one work dared to describe the psychic shift circa 1971, to try and condense the wounded spirit of a befouled generation into words and stories. Many thought it an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The fact that, thirty years later, it is championed as a work of rare insight and power speaks for the willingness for self-examination that existed in the early '70s.
So it's not surprising that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reverberates as strongly as it does, even some 30 plus years down the hash pipe. In its stream of altered consciousness exploration of the US landscape, defining the turbulent moment when conservative society, backed by a paranoid President, stood its ground and decided to take back the nation from the creative and the crazy, one radical or hippie life at a time. It's the action verb linking the summer of love to the My Lai massacre. Like the last remnants of an emotional oil spill washing up on the tired and poor shores of a nation under siege, it's the socio-political hangover that resulted when the last of the Weathermen went home to crash on their laurels. It's when drugs stopped being recreational or creative and began requiring rehabilitation. But mostly it's about loss. The loss of innocence and the replacing of optimism with instant gratification. The loss of idealism for the sake of conformity. And the loss of hope, the hope that, one day, those far too militant principles of peace love and understanding would somehow be accepted as valid.
One can spend a lifetime trying to decipher the visual and literary imagery used by Thompson, the swipes at flower power and the resignation of a movement undermined by its own excesses, but, frankly, there is nothing unusual or secretive about his symbols. It is not by accident that the first person Duke and Gonzo meet on their road trip to hell is one of the great unwashed, a member of the youth movement so lost in his own personal space that mere words undo him. For Thompson, this generation represents the new reluctant enemy. They are the targets of his growing cynicism, placing him in the uncomfortable position of having to side with authority, the one true bane of his tormented existence. Fear and Loathing is about spiritual shift as a continental divide, of a planet removed from its wild gesturing and personal exploration and repositioned back before the Age of Aquarius, to a time when men wore tight shirts and stiff collars and ladies piled their hair like pillows of protection from the harmful rays of rationality pouring off the educated and the elite. From its obvious ridicule of law enforcement to the gradual realization that the healing power of drugs may, indeed, be a back alley placebo, Fear and Loathing is about the discovery of the bitter man behind the curtain, even as the Great Oz speaks of cabbages and kings.
In Terry Gilliam's surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's seminal work of gonzo journalism, we find the road map for the future, the ground rules for Watergate mixed into the no holds barred I double dare you attitude of our new century. Tackling one of the holy trinity of unfilmable books, like William Burrough's Naked Lunch (of which David Cronenberg's 1991 film version only captures the merest indirect inkling of) and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (which will frankly never capture what one gets off the page—it's like a paper and ink opiate), Gilliam opts for an unusual cinematic technique. He, in essence, fails to create a film. What he does instead is ply his camera like a time machine, placing the events of the novel in some manner of linear format and then shooting the surrealism out of what results. Characterization is, at first, all visual: the cigarette holder, the slovenly gut, the suitcase full of drugs, the demon's eyes behind dark shades and furrowed brows. Only as the movie progresses do we learn true inner details. We hear the voices, the choice of vocabulary, the vomiting of philosophy like the purging of bad mescaline. Gilliam's filmmaking is at once completely without direction and at the same time more controlled than other projects he has dominated. He allows some scenes to meander wildly out of control, while others are focused to maximum emotional effect. So this is really not a film. It's more like a fraud foisted upon a recreation. Call it a con artist junkie's last vision of the promised land. Call it a docudream. But it's hardly big bucket of popcorn fodder.
Obviously, one of the biggest challenges faced by Gilliam with bringing Fear and Loathing to the screen is finding the right actors to populate Thompson's larger than literary life personas. Like trying to cast Jesus or figuring out who would properly fill Ignatius J. Reilly's sweaty sneakers, finding these uneasy riders, this angry Abbott and crazed Costello required a stroke of genius in combination with an equal onset of luck. Thankfully, the perfect cosmic casting occurred when Johnny Deep and "Oscar" winner Benicio Del Toro stepped in to essay the roles of Duke and Gonzo, respectively. Both were born to play the characters they literally inhabit, and yet both had to physically change themselves to take on the proper outer shell. Depp shaves his head for a perfect modern monk look while Del Toro piles on the pounds, De Niro style to completely transform his lithe structure into the heft menace carried by Thompson friend Oscar Zeta Acosta. Each actor uses his muse to infuse their depiction of drug use and abuse with wonderful, wired aplomb. Both turn broad, gross caricatures into real people and back again, creating and reshaping their personalities into that rarity in the pantheon of acting, the certifiable eccentric. Thanks to Depp, Thompson's weird ways, the spastic mannerisms and his unbridled flash, become understandable manifestations of who he is. And in Del Toro, the famous Brown Buffalo finds a man capable of the passion, the rage, and the fire that caused this force of nature to burn so brightly that he eventually exploded, disappearing like a whisper off the ears of the planet. Both actors give amazing performances.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is filled with details of delirious brilliance: The ether walk into Bazooka Circus, all silent comedy slapstick; Depp's descent into Adrenalchrome, madness complete with babbling incoherence and Thompson's trademark banshee wail; the opening rampage down the endless Western highway of mythology; the pop art pretense of old Vegas. But probably the best moment and one of the greatest scenes that Gilliam has put on screen for that matter, is the now infamous "wave" speech, the cornerstone message of Thompson's messy manuscript. Set to the near lullaby strains of the Youngblood's "Let's Get Together" (with its subtle guitar signature like the distant cry of an ambulance) and consisting of Depp reacting to his own voice-over, this one piece of writing sums up the entire aftermath, the comet flameout that occurred once Bobby Kennedy died and the '60s were officially declared a no-win situation. From the innocent vibrations of Woodstock to the pool of blood at Altamonte, the "wave speech" is that official final word, the coroner's inquest into that stillborn promise of peace and love. And like an actual wave, the scene hits and then retreats, dragging the melancholy back out to sea. It's strange to have a story's emotional climax so early in the tale—there is more than half of the movie to go. But just like the decade itself, Fear and Loathing mocks convention and shoots its wad way too fast. We've had the epiphany. It's time to pay the ferryman his evil penance.
There are other great sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, times where the cinematic flash calms down and the wicked wit of the novel unravels front and center. Anyone wondering where the ridiculous war on drugs got its twisted dogma needs look no further than in the puffy faces and closed off necks of the participants in the anti-narcotic District Attorney's convention. Part cautionary note, mostly caustic character assassination, Gilliam and Thompson get to make their points loud and clear: drugs may be bad, but just look at the kind of man who's keeping 'em that way. It's a shame that this message has not fallen on more willing ears. Fear and Loathing has to be one of the most unsuccessful cult movies of all time. When it was first released (up against the updated, Clodzilla for Christ's sake), it was met with a universal yawn. Over the years it is constantly referred to as Gilliam's one true bomb, a grand misstep for the once great director. Many have chalked its failure up to the lack of character one can "like" or "root" for. Others find its mixed messages about the '60s and its values old fashioned or blasphemy. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Thompson's own words, most of the audience was looking "with the wrong kind of eyes." Only those who had lived through it first hand responded to it right from the start. Others had become too jaded or brainwashed.
But the truth is that now, 2003, is the true time of fear and loathing. After a decade of prosperity, of global openness and a new sense of community (even if it is online), we seen the nation, again, divided. On one side are the same good old forces at work. Now is the corrosion toward conformity, fostered by horrendous acts of homeland terrorism and a multi-colored rating system of said to exaggerate the sense of terror to new, immobilizing heights. We no longer worry about the domino effect. We are more concerned with the sealing properties of duct tape. On the other side are the easily deluded, the ones who believe that a hit single or a television spot circumvents money to actually purchase happiness. They live for and through the medium of popular culture, lining up to shame themselves for the sake of a sound bite. So the question becomes, where are the truly free? Where are the thinkers and the radicals and those questing for tranquility? Well, inside our newfound quasi-socialism, they are silent. Theirs is the opinion of the discontented, of the traitorous and ungrateful. Their beliefs aid and comfort the enemy and spit readily on our fighting men and women overseas. Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is more than an obituary to the summer of love. It's the death knell to the power of individualism and thought and a warning for the sinister shape of things to come.
Like the classic combinations from the golden age of cinema (Tracey and Hepburn, Hitchcock and Stewart, Scorsese and De Niro), the pairing of Terry Gilliam and The Criterion Collection guarantees one thing: an absolutely stellar DVD package. Here's hoping that the release of Fear and Loathing spurs the digital handcrafter to tackle two of Columbia's "lost" Gilliam titles, The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. One look at the work put into Fear and Loathing should have the torch bearing movie company running to the vaults to unload the goodies. Divided into a two-disc presentation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is given a royal treatment in sound, in vision, and in extras. Visually, Gilliam is a stunning composer of shots and a mad hatter at set and scenic design. The film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is preserved and electrified like a hot tab of acid directly into the cerebellum by Criterion's digital mastery. The image is startling, from the lonely golden deserts carved by a seemingly endless blacktop trail to the neon nightmare of classic Vegas itself, gloriously tacky in its clash of colors. It's a testament to both Gilliam's skill as a director and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini's camera work that the insane meshing of primary hues and mind blowing pattern prints don't bleed into each other and across the screen like an interior designer with Ebola. And thanks to the wonderful transfer by Criterion, the psychedelic surrealism is captured in all its intensity.
Sound is also very important to Fear and Loathing, and Criterion again delivers a superior performance. Offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 (DTS was unavailable to the reviewer), one can experience the movie in either a totally immersive 3-D descent into madness (thanks to the multi-channel chaos of 5.1) or in a more easily digestible, dialogue friendly 2.0. In reality, it's one of the few times that a soundtrack mix can substantially change one's perceptions of a film. In 5.1, Fear and Loathing is all sensory overload: diving noises, blasts of specific channel anarchy, multi-movement voices spewing Thompson's fascinating words in a "catch my meaning if you can" mentality. In 2.0, however, the movie calms down, turning into what we expect from a film: dialogue up front, ambient mess behind us. It allows us to wallow in Thompson (and Gilliam's) world without getting engulfed by it. As with the vibrant retina reverberating color scheme precisely preserved on the DVD, the sonic wonderland that these two acid Alices experience is offered for our potential enjoyment, like a pair of cartoon headphones with a tiny tag attached to the side. And on said note, like an invitation to a journey to the center of your mind, are two simple words: "hear me." Thanks to Criterions treatment of Fear and Loathing, you will very much be able to indulge that message.
But aside from perfect sound and sight, Criterion is all about context, something constantly championed by DVD critics as a glorious benefit of the digital medium. Most studios ignore the mandate, wanting instead to treat the format like a CD extension of VHS—just give them some product and hope they shut the hell up. But not Criterion. Whenever possible, they preserve the history and the making of a film, feeling that as a document to future film fans and lovers, this is vital information for inclusion. And they do not disappoint on Fear and Loathing. Disc One contains three deleted scenes (offered without bonus commentary on the previous Universal release of the title), which are wonderful. Especially good is the "DA from GA" sequence, dropped from the film for time and tempo reasons. It's too bad, really. Del Toro and Depp tone down the dementia to torment a backwoods lawman about the coming wave of deranged drug addicts that will soon swoop from the decadent shores of California and into his sleepy backyard. It is one of the few times where Gilliam lets the camera relax, letting the overall physical presence of the actors and the dense, brilliant writing control the film. The original ending of the film is also preserved (or better yet, the original penultimate ending), as are a couple of minutes of Mint 400 meandering that rounds out the forgotten footage. All except the sinister scare tactics of the good old boy deserved to be left on the cutting room floor.
Disc Two is where the bonus content, like Frampton, really comes alive. Divided into movie materials and source materials, we are given an overview of how Fear and Loathing came into being, how English artist Ralph Steadman set the overall tone for work with his wonderfully depraved chicken scratch drawings (enclosed in an extensive page-through gallery), and the truth behind the real Dr. Gonzo, Oscar Zeta Acosta. The entire Acosta section is a revelation. We get a pictorial biography of the man, including rare pictures of him. We also get a small essay by Acosta's son, hoping to put his father's legacy in perspective as it relates to the public perception of his dad as a drug-addled maniac. But leave it to the man himself to speak louder and longer in his defense than anyone else could. Those who've watched Del Toro's work here (or Peter Boyle's assignation of the same role in Where the Buffalo Roam) will be taken aback by the real life visage and persona of this Chicano civil rights lawyer. Bulky and passionate, reading from his book The Revolt of the Cockroach People on an enclosed Public Television segment about the author (and the festival he was at), no actor could have accurately captured what Acosta delivers in this 25-minute reading. He is frightening yet fragile, corrupt yet commendable. As able a writer as Thompson is, this material is as powerful as Acosta's awesome presence, and as mysterious as his untimely death.
Some of the other "documentary" material is less effective. A snippet from Wayne Ewing's long form film about Thompson suffers from a low access, mass distraction lack of focus. It really feels like you've walked into the middle of a piece of performance art that everybody is in tune with but you. While any footage of the real Duke in his full out regal "worship me" mode is priceless, we get nothing of real substance here. Also a little disappointing is the reading of correspondence between Johnny Depp and Thompson by "The Colonel" (AKA Depp himself). What at first feels like it will be a delicious bit of eavesdropping soon turns static. Depp adores Thompson in a rather non-confrontational fashion, and without a target to attack, Thompson's own verse becomes didactic. We are all set for a war of witty words. What we get, however, seems to be the warm up event. Yet again, this is welcome bonus material, since it does give us a sense of how involved both men were in the creation of Depp's performance and the film itself. Still, a BBC segment in 1978 about Thompson, Steadman, and Hollywood seems out of place. It plays like one big joke that our war weary '60s icons just aren't in on.
But the best material comes later. Especially good is the audio clip explaining the hideously sad, but frightfully hilarious, fight between Terry Gilliam, his co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni, and the Writers Guild of America over the script credit for Fear and Loathing. Like a Gilliam commentary (with some background added by producer Laila Nabulsi), this is an engrossing dissection of how the Hollywood movie machine fails to work. In essence, Alex Cox and Tod Davies, the previous scriptwriters on the film, got sole credit for a movie that Gilliam and Grisoni wrote alone. As with most material focusing on battles Terry has faced, it almost makes for better drama than the project he is working on. Equally interesting are the galleries of storyboards, production designs, and publicity stills from the film. We are also treated to a clip from a CD presentation of Fear and Loathing that offers filmmaker Jim Jarmusch as Duke, Maury Chaykin as Gonzo, and good old reliable Harry Dean Stanton as the Thompson/narrator character. While it's a pleasant enough experience, Criterion should have presented the entire audio CD with the package. It would have added one more item to the already stacked presentation of this classic literary work.
But when it comes to extras, what most DVD lovers want is commentary. And what we are given here is three times the fun. Of the three tracks offered, the best is (per usual) the one by Gilliam solo. The gifted filmmaker just has a way of seeing his own films anew, like he wasn't involved in making them or is witnessing his mise-en-scène mutate before his very eyes into something completely different. His narrative is fresh, exciting, and wonderfully effective. Though he seems to have had very little input at the front end of the film, Fear and Loathing is definitely a Terry Gilliam production. It resonates with the kind of personal in-joking and symbolism that he loves to explore and exploit. Therefore, the best thing about Gilliam's commentaries is that he is not afraid to point out exactly what he is doing, what he thinks it means, and what the audience should get out of it, no matter how arcane the reference or buried the meaning. Unlike David Lynch, who treats all his visions as personal demons to be faced (and figured out) by him, alone, Terry Gilliam is more than happy to wallow in his fever dreams and get you intoxicated right along. That's what makes his narratives so enjoyable.
The second commentary, hosted by producer Laila Nabulsi and featuring input (obviously recorded individually) from actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro is also very entertaining, but it is somewhat inconsequential. Whenever Depp steps up to the mic, we as an audience are destined to get some silly quip about how he can't believe he "got away with" the performance he is giving. True, Depp offers valuable nuggets about interacting with Hunter Thompson over details from the time and telling of Fear and Loathing, but there's not a lot here about his approach to acting. Better is Del Toro, able to step back from the mayhem on screen to marvel at Gilliam's work, the words of Thompson (via the script), and the difficulty in getting a job, post production. But the one driving force behind both the film and this commentary is Nabulsi. From the opening barrage on how this movie was her professional goal, to her private life with Thompson, to finally why she thought the film was not more popular, her comments makes sure the listener never forgets that, without her drive, chutzpah, and determination, Fear and Loathing would have remained an unfilmable pet project. It comes off a little self-serving at times, but when presented with the artistic accomplishment that the film is, one has to stand back and give a big hand to the little lady.
The final commentary, again featuring Nabulsi and the author's personal assistant, is a wild, disturbing trek into the mind of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist and free thinker. A man whom political correctness has avoided like a case of particularly nasty crabs, Thompson offers what has to be one of the most deliciously incoherent, borderline slanderous and overall insightful DVD narratives ever. If you want to learn what he thinks about the movie and its performances…well, you can take your pick of the several backwards plaudits he offers. During the two hour running time of the film he rants, he raves, he screams like a desert bat and discusses the nutritional value of the Japanese radish. But the best bits come toward the end. He makes a couple of crazy crank calls to Depp and Del Toro, hoping to rip into them for soiling his literary vision. And then he starts in on Timothy Leary (with prompting from Nabulsi), which is either so jarringly truthful that it becomes a revelation about the supposed LSD guru, or so utterly false that is stands as a testament to Hunter's desire to bury his enemies with words. Whatever the case, like a caged animal confronting the tamers who wish to civilize him, Thompson's alternative track presence brings Fear and Loathing to life in the new millennium, if only to suggest that the raging spirit who concocted this insane road trip is still sitting out there, waiting to take another.
The capper to this already overflowing DVD presentation is the enclosed 26 page booklet which ties the entire Fear and Loathing story up in one outrageous bit of film analysis and gonzo journalism. Critic J. Hoberman of the Village Voice offers a familiar primer on the importance of Thompson's work and the power of Gilliam's film. Even better is the original introduction to the novel, a long preface piece about the idea behind and the writing of this important literary work by Raoul Duke himself, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Spilling out over several pages like weird memories of a life half experienced, all the background material one craved from Thompson's stream of unconsciousness commentary track is here in riveting black and white. For those unfamiliar with his work as a writer, this is a glorious introduction to his style and substance. His mastery of literary minimalism, of getting maximum effect from a smattering of carefully chosen words, is awe-inspiring.
Just like his prose, the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may be all surface strum und drang, but buried in the core is a simple, sentimental ideal. For a brief, shimmering moment in the latter part of the 20th century, people rose up onto their ideals and felt confident they could change the world. They had faith in their convictions and empowerment in their hope. But just as quickly as it started, the house reshuffled the cards and when the final hands were dealt, it was the establishment that won back the nation. Fear and Loathing is the epitaph to the people and places that had hoped to change the world. All they received in return was cynicism and stock options.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many people complain that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a film that champions drug use and said substances' power to distort the main characters rather felonious reality into a rollicking frolic around Sin City. Unfortunately, these are also the same kind of people who would accuse Mighty Mouse of snorting cocaine before saving the day in Ralph Bakshi's imaginative retelling to the crime fighting rodent's cartoon legacy (in reality, he sniffed pollen from magic flowers) or request the Beatles later album work be banned from the airwaves since "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" can and will send a unprepared generation into orgies of acid experimentation. Sorry to say it, but Fear and Loathing fails to even properly champion narcotics. So ingrained in the PC Hollywood "just say no" mindset it sidesteps historical reality to sell a simple song, namely that drugs are only catalysts for catastrophe. Never once are drugs seen as an escape in the movie. Instead, they seem to call the number of the Beast each time, bringing untold misery and destruction to persons and property. Sure, it's funny to see Del Toro and Depp stumbling like a couple of inebriated jellyfish while in the throes of an ether high, but where are the moments when dope calms the nerves, removes the edge, and regains that free love hippie dippy dogma a whole generation had grooved on? Like a song by the Grateful Dead, this movie's depiction of drug use is one long, irritating jam session. Those who find Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a love letter to recreational pharmaceuticals need to get the prescription on their mental reading glasses readjusted. Each and every buzz here is severely harshed.
Years from now, when the scholars exploring the 20th and 21st centuries crack open their data on the 1960s, it's a safe bet that nary a reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will be made. Well, perhaps a footnote, or as part of an extended Ibid, there will be some link to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's work, but as we move further away from the light and the power of that decade, it seems to have less relevance with the very nation it almost changed. The signs of forgetfulness are ever present. The Rolling Stones stop being the greatest rock and roll band in the world and start becoming a really lame Alzheimer's joke. The Chicago Seven becomes the album where Peter Cetera first sang "Wishing You Were Here." We no longer land on the moon, since the first time out was just a NASA/Hollywood conspiracy. And Las Vegas is now a family friendly pit of despair, a place where you can still surrender your mortgage payments, but receive the added luxury of being able to change your newborn's diapers all at the same time. Gone is the rotten cesspool of human misery, covered over like a reclaimed landfill and piled high with showmanship and shrimp cocktails, cheap perfume, and the hope of prosperity to remove the stink of corruption. It's still not the American Dream, but in 2003 nothing much else is. But thanks to the Criterion Collection and the bravery of writers like Thompson and filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, the resolution to Thompson's quest is preserved for the future. And come to think of it, the answer seems really simple, once you think about it…
…because ideas are the dreams of America.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, and actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are all free to go. The Criterion Collection is again commended for the stellar job it does with this DVD presentation.
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• Two Disc Set in Special Art Case with Designs by Ralph Steadman
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