Sunday, 15 July 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Dir. Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Craig Bierko, Christina Ricci 

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs started to take hold…” 

What a great opening line to a film. And it was, of course, the opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s most famous piece of writing: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a warped psychedelic trip through the sordid underbelly of Sin City. 

Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is a journalist. He is sent on assignment to Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. With him he takes his attorney, Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) and a car full of hard drugs (“As your attorney I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top. And you’ll need the cocaine…”). And the assignment is all but forgotten, passing in a mescaline kaleidoscope of images and perceptions, a nightmarish world where bats attack from the skies, casino patrons transmogrify into squamous reptilians and entire chapters of time are lost. It is the ultimate bad trip. It is the ultimate hangover. 

For someone determined to binge on mind and mood altering drugs Las Vegas must be the worst place in the world. The city is already so vivid and otherworldly that what you get is Madness2. The patrons are goyish and gross, the streetscapes are glittering neon in the darkness, while interiors are permalit dungeons where night and day have no meaning. Endless identical corridors lined with doors stretch away to the horizon and any desire no matter how warped can be catered for. It is a city of excess where nothing makes sense. The Bazooko Circus casino Duke and Gonzo visit whilst high on ether would be a terrifying assault on the senses at any time. The bar revolves, apes wear human clothing and an unearthly calliope plays (there are few sounds more laden with dread than that of a calliope).

And above all there is a feverish expectation about Las Vegas. Everyone believes they are just one card or roll of the dice away from the big time. They dream they can make it. It is the American Dream. They are, in Duke's words, “humping the American Dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”. The American Dream is that everyone can make themselves what they want to be: a president, a millionaire or a rockstar. And of course they can’t. But there is a curiously American optimism that contrasts with the weary cynicism of Old Europe. For Raoul (and for his creator Hunter S. Thompson) Las Vegas in 1971 represents the abrupt awakening from that dream. The ‘60s had passed under its spell, a dream of hope and love born of San Franciscan acid. A new generation was rising and they could change the world. Or so they thought. And then the trip went sour. The opening sequence, set to a warped nightmarish version of My Favourite Things sets the scene beautifully. Raoul states that they thought that their “energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” TV screens reflect the reality of 1971: Vietnam – bombs – Vietnam – Nixon – Vietnam – war. The boorish middle aged middle classes of Middle America won (typo alert: I just wrote ‘missile classes’; Thompson would be so impressed with my mind making the intuitive leap). The small-town morals of the “silent majority” snapped back and left Duke and Gonzo stranded on the other side. Something was fun and wonderful and affirming and now it had turned vicious and mean and nasty. The American Dream was replaced by one of reaction and hate. Fear and loathing. In drug terms they went up, and then they came down. 

And the drugs replicate exactly the same change upon Duke and Gonzo. From what we see drugs do not seem to be the greatest lifestyle choice. The world that Duke and Gonzo take with them seems to be sordid and unhygienic. It is as vicious and violent as those of the red-faced cops they encounter at the District Attorney’s conference. If they zonk out so much that they cannot remember their actions they cannot therefore be responsible for their actions. This makes them mean drunks. They are self-absorbed egomaniacs. They do not care for anyone. Raoul’s solution for what to do with Lucy (Christina Ricci) is to keep her perpetually sedated with acid and pimp her out for gang rape. Gonzo pulls a knife on a waitress. Frankly they are dangerous to be around.  

In his drug-addled and paranoid brain Jason
was convinced Kylie was stalking him...

Thankfully Depp is at his entertaining best. With his bow-legged waddle and balding crown he barks out his lines and voiceover as urgently as a reporter filing a dispatch from a war zone. The cast is further dotted with stars in supporting roles: Cameron Diaz as a reporter, The Cider House Rules’ Tobey Maguire unrecognisable as a hitchhiker, Christina Ricci, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, last seen in Fight Club, as a San Francisco hippy. Even Hunter S. Thompson himself is briefly glimpsed at a party. And they have to be entertaining. I would say that the film has a great concept and a well-executed surreal aesthetic. But it runs out of steam half way through. For the first section of the film I was carried along like andrenichrome coursing through a bloodstream, not knowing what was going to happen yet. Thereafter the film became somewhat predictable. I knew that there wasn’t going to be much of a plot, I knew that it would just be a chronicle of two men behaving badly. I knew there wouldn’t be much of a pay-off. I’d come up, and I knew there would be a come down to follow. Though to be honest I’m impressed with what director Gilliam put out there at all. As seems eternally to be the case with Terry Gilliam movies the production was a nightmare. Gilliam was brought in at a very late stage and had to write a new script in ten days. It bombed at the box office. But there remains something appealing about the fact that the film was even attempted at all. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas certainly deserves an A- for effort, even if the finished product warrants only a C. 

What have I learnt about Nevada?
Las Vegas is far from the glamorous destination we have all been led to believe it is. Sure, there are the celebrities and the glitter. But behind that is an over-the-top nightmare of decadence. Desperation drips from the walls, its denizens shuffle around like zombies. People can be brought to Vegas for other events, like the Mint 500 motorcycle race or the DAs’ conference, but no one really cares. Vegas is its own little isolated reality. Away from the Strip we have Downtown for those who cannot afford to live the dream. And beyond that is North Las Vegas, where even the rule of law is patchy at best. 

The state has – or, in 1971, certainly had – very strict anti-drug laws. Even possession could earn someone twenty years in gaol; dealing life. Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are all fine. It is almost like the good folk of Nevada have to protect themselves from the insidious hippyish Californians over their western border. 

Outside Vegas the terrain is desert all the way over to Barstow in California. We are talking very light soil, barren and empty. 

Can we go there?
In Vegas Duke starts off at the Mint Hotel to cover the Mint 400 desert race. The Mint no longer exists; interiors were shot at the Binions Horseshoe. The ‘Bazooko Circus’ casino is meant to be Circus-Circus (in his writing Thompson explicitly states that “Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war”). The management refused permission for the crew to film there, so it was recreated on a Warner Bros soundstage back in Hollywood (the Stardust casino, demolished in 2007, stood in for its exterior). Duke is then sent back to Vegas to stay at the Flamingo. Interiors were shot inside the Riviera. 

Out in the desert the Mint 400 was filmed at the Jean Dry Lake Bed south of Vegas. Other exteriors were shot in Red Rock Canyon. The airport at the end was actually that in Kingman, Arizona. 

Los Angeles is represented by the now demolished Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard (which is meant to be the Beverley Heights Hotel), and a fleeting appearance by the Bahooka Family Restaurant in Rosemead as a tiki bar Raoul and Gonzo visit. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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