The American Dream. We’ve all heard of it. Politicians love to talk about it. People come from distant shores seeking it. All sorts of products promise to give it to you for three easy payments of $99.95 plus shipping and handling. But what is it, really? Has anyone really achieved it? And where do you go looking for it? Los Angeles, maybe? Las Vegas? A motocross race? The bottom of one’s navel?
Hunter S. Thompson looked for it in all those places and more. His journey was prompted by the gradual deflation of the stronger hippie movements of the mid-60s in the United States. By the time 1970 rolled around it was clear to him that his peers and former fellow luminaries of peaceful enlightenment and conscientious objection were bound for a gradual and inevitable burnout. And then, in 1971, Thompson and his lawyer friend went to Las Vegas to cover a motocross race because, hey, it’s Vegas, baby.
Being the sort of schizophrenic, drug-addled and absolutely brilliant journalist that liked to drop his pants in the face of convention right after burrito night, Thompson framed his journey in what the French would call roman à clef, and instead of Hunter S. Thompson, it was
Spider Jerusalem Raoul Duke renting fast cars, wrecking hotel rooms and wielding deadly flyswatters in his journey across the desert towards the City of Sin and all that waited there for him. His lawyer friend was called Dr. Gonzo, not with any intent of invoking the presence of a particular Muppet but after his preferred form of journalism. After all, why would one go to all this trouble to set up this interesting little framing device and leave the fourth wall unpainted? That’d just be gouache.
The man himself. Sort of.
So within the pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream we have Duke and Gonzo delving into various forms of drug binges, thankfully not often at the same time. After all, when you’re going on a serious acid trip or an ill-advised ether bender, it’s good to have a sober buddy to keep you from electrocuting yourself or trying to find a machine gun to deal with the fascist Doberman Pinchers dressed as Mitt Romney trying to eat your scrotum. And if you’ve never been on anything approaching the aforementioned experiences, don’t worry. Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam has graciously gone out of his way to capture the surreal nature of such moments for you.
Yeah, they made this novel into a movie in 1998 with Johnny Depp as Duke and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, and if nothing else the casting is absolutely brilliant. If you thought Depp was good, funny and wacky as Captain Jack Sparrow, hold on to your goddamn hat. He apparently captures the drug-infused rapid-fire lifestyle of Thompson so completely and accurately that the Doctor of Jounalism disrupted the premiere of the film by jumping up and down on his seats yelling about bats in the throes of a potent acid flashback. I’d like to think Depp and Gilliam took that as a compliment. I happen to think del Toro is a little underrated as an actor, as he is every bit as chameleon-like as Depp if not moreso. As you watch the film, the actual plot tends to wax and wane in importance as the focus clearly becomes the unique and occasionally batshit experiences of these two individuals. They really come to life on the screen.
They’re good friends.
There’s an undercurrent of ennui and restlessness to the whole piece. Thompson is a thoroughly unhappy and cynical man, longing for a time of innocence and free thought that has passed him (and us) by. His famous ‘wave speech’ is captured more or less in the film, discussing how tides of independence and intellectual righteousness never seem to last as long as they should. What we have here, then, is less a linear progression of a narrative and more a snapshot of a man, a time and an idea. The man is utterly unique and completely irreplaceable. The time echoes into our modern age with all its restlessness, discontent and escapism. The idea is that the American Dream, whatever it actually may be, is ever elusive and never truly obtainable. It’s the white stag of the modern age. Even the people who douse themselves in wealth and laugh at the vast majority of the less fortunate can’t be said to be truly happy. How can they be, when all they want is more?
Okay. Here we are, almost 800 words later. If you hung on this long and are digging on what I’m saying, Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas is definitely something you should see, since it’s kind of like this review only a thousand times more bizzare. The people who tuned out when I started rambling can go back to waiting for that new Three Stooges abomination to hit theatres for all I care. Fear and Loathing may not be the most coherent, cleanly-shot or easily-accessible film you’ll ever see, but it definitely has something to say and it doesn’t seem to give a damn if you understand it at the time or not. It rambles, it wanders, it screams and cries and laughs and freaks the fuck out. You’re going to remember it. Provided you don’t black out.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.