*. Samuel Johnson remarked that “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” This wasn’t an accurate prophecy, as Tristram Shandy has lasted, but, as always, Johnson did have a point, and since he provides the epigraph for this film I thought I’d start with his observation.
*. Johnson planted his own critical flag on a preference for observations of general human nature, and so had little time for more idiosyncratic works. He was less interested in the ways that people, and the times they live in, are quirky and unique. It would take a cultural revolution, Romanticism, to open this side of things up.
*. But I think of what Johnson said when considering works like Hunter S. Thompson’s/Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or William Burroughs’/David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Do these movies, reflecting very particular cultural and historical moments, have much to say to us today?
*. The drug culture in particular has changed so much. Today the madcap bohemianism of the ’60s is dead. A death that is, of course, part of what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about, with its long build-up to a poetic envoi for the children of Timothy Leary: a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, and freaks in the freak kingdom.
*. So can we say that this film has lasted? Yes and no.
*. Yes because the initial response to it was mostly negative (Roger Ebert: “a horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose — a one joke movie, if it had one joke”) but it has gone on to become a minor cult favourite, with these earlier takes dismissed as not being able to “get it.”
*. But no because the world that it elegizes, the drug culture of the ’60s, isn’t even a memory now, and not just because if you still remember it then you weren’t there. In the ’60s drugs were fun and liberating. Today they’re a tragedy. A movie made about the meth or opioid epidemic wouldn’t be quite so madcap.
*. Terry Gilliam took over directing duties from Alex Cox, which resulted in some extra levity. I could definitely see this as an Alex Cox movie but it would have been darker (and if Oliver Stone had made it, it would have been angrier, but he’d been here already in Salvador). I think Gilliam made a good fit though for the material. Or at least as good a fit as I can imagine. As with Naked Lunch it’s hard to imagine just what a faithful adaptation of the source would look like. I think this is probably as good as any. To the point where I’d rather re-watch these movies than re-read the books they were based on.
*. It’s a road picture, with Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a Samoan attorney who’s based on a real person (the activist Oscar Zeta Acosta) but who seems to be more of an imaginary friend in the film.
*. As a road trip it’s engaging and breezy. Depp gets to ham it up non-stop and he doesn’t hold anything back, though he starts to feel reduced to the level of his props: the hat, the sunglasses, the cigarette holder. The narration has a lot of rambling highlights. It’s visually inventive. But granting all of this I still find it kind of disappointing. David Thomson on Gilliam’s penchant for indulging art direction at the expense of any other values: “There are times when ‘visual imagination’ is a diversion from failures of content or sensibility.”
*. I don’t mind that it’s tacky and full of cameos. Vegas is tacky and full of cameos too. But how many of these cameos work? I was left shaking my head at Tobey Maguire and Gary Busey. Cameron Diaz and Christina Ricci are just faces. Ellen Barkin’s waitress I couldn’t figure out.
*. But more than this, it feels in need of greater weight. I mentioned how Alex Cox would have made it darker and Oliver Stone angrier. Those were different visions of the ’60s. So were Ralph Steadman’s drawings, which had plenty of darkness and anger too. Where Gilliam falls down, I think, is in making this version of the ’60s just seem silly. The paranoia, so big a theme in the thrillers of a previous generation, is now entirely self-induced, with our protagonists afraid of themselves and filled with self-loathing. Instead of taking aim at The Man, the system, or the government, Duke and Dr. Gonzo are entirely complicit in everything bad that’s happening, authors of their own destruction, and that for no larger purpose.
*. I wouldn’t deny it cult status though, because it’s certainly offbeat and not quite like anything else out there. But I’m not a fan of the book and it’s not a movie I come back to, mainly because I just don’t think there’s anything much here aside from the bats in the desert and the lizards in the bar.