THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! Terry Gilliam Helms the Ultimate Cinematic Trip With ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’

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Despite the ups and downs of his directing career, Terry Gilliam had maintained the respect of the critical establishment. Films like Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Fisher King were all well reviewed, despite their fluctuating box office draws. Following the success of 12 Monkeys, Gilliam would take the helm of a long-planned adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s signature novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A critical and commercial dud, Fear and Loathing has lived on as a seminal cult classic. Yet Gilliam’s career has stalled since then. None of his works since have been well received by critics or audiences. After a month on VOD, his latest film, The Zero Theorem, opened in theaters in limited release – I’ve yet to see it as it hasn’t opened near me. In honor of a new Gilliam film, let’s explore why what is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of a book to the screen was received so tepidly.

Gilliam wasn’t the initial choice to helm Fear and Loathing. He was a last minute replacement for Alex Cox, writer-director of Sid and Nancy, Straight to Hell, and Repo Man. Cox was fired from the project, the ever-present creative difference offered as the cause. As seen in the documentary Breakfast with Hunter, Cox envisioned an animated sequence for the Wave Speech. This enraged Thompson who didn’t want to see what he considered his finest piece of writing turned into “a fucking Mickey Mouse cartoon.” With the scheduled shoot quickly approaching, Gilliam enlisted the help of Tony Grisoni to write the shooting script, which they did in a matter of days. This resulted in a dispute with the Writers Guild of America – Cox and Tod Davies would be the solely credited writers despite the fact that none of their work was being used. After much back and forth, Gilliam and Grisoni were credited, though they had to share a credit with Cox and Davies. If that had not happened, there’d have been a short clip before the film informing the audience of the actual writers. This short is available on the Criterion blu-ray of the film.

fear-loathing-1Grisoni and Gilliam’s script is as close to a faithful adaptation of a work of literature that I’ve ever encountered. Thompson’s novel with its illustrations by Ralph Steadman are brought to life vivid accuracy, no doubt aided by the fact that Gilliam was once a cartoonist. Balancing the dialogue with the narration of Thompson’s Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), the film only leaves out, as far as I can recall, one scene from book – an encounter at a taco stand where the Duke and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) ask the workers for directions to the American Dream. As good as Gilliam is at translating the words, he’s even more adept at transcribing the sensations of the various drugs – psychedelic or otherwise. Exaggerated angles, lenses, and movements are constantly distorting the images, shifting towards extreme close-ups as the drug-addled dementia takes further hold.

Drug-fueled tales of American excess are often divisive, Pain & Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street are recent examples, using the excess as an indictment on American society, Fear and Loathing carries with it a dual indictment. In one broad stroke, the film and the novel use Las Vegas as the mecca of American excess and the drug-addled behavior of its leads as an indictment upon the failed realization of the attempts at social change of the ‘60s. While there are numerous moments where the excess of Duke and Gonzo are hilarious, they reach a point where they go beyond the pale into unforgivable territory, namely the dinner scene. During the Wave Speech, Thompson mournfully acknowledges the failings of the ‘60s, something that would carry on beyond this work, culminating with landslide reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972. Though he can lament about, “All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit,” he’s not much better as he consumes acid, coke, ether, and everything under the sun in his own savage journey into the heart of the American Dream.

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Fear and Loathing marked a turning point in the career of Johnny Depp. Always a respected oddball in the Hollywood world, Depp would soon turn away from these bizarre, challenging roles and settle into a habit of forced eccentricities. Like Orson Welles with his varied prosthetics, Depp would start using odd hats and an almost always Thompson-like mannerism as his trademark. Though Depp’s recent work has become less than stellar, he did start a lasting friendship with Thompson that would last until the author’s death in 2005. Thompson shaved Depp’s head, lent him clothes from his personal wardrobe, and even provided Depp with his car that would be used in the film. Depp would wind up paying for Hunter’s funeral, a lavish affair with a massive two-thumbed fist and the author’s ashes fired off within the fireworks at the festivities – these plans were made in the late ‘70s and are in a BBC documentary that is also on the Criterion Collection blu-ray of the film (it’s really an excellent release). Over a decade later, Depp would play another Thompson creation in The Rum Diary, directed Bruce Robinson, who was offered Fear and Loathing and declined. But Depp wasn’t the only actor to ever play Thompson and strike up a lasting friendship. Bill Murray played Thompson in the vastly inferior Where the Buffalo Roam, and the two remained friends until the author’s death, his final published column was entitled Shotgun Golf with Bill Murray.

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I think there are a few parallels between the careers of Thompson and Gilliam. Thompson was a unique writer whose odd voice and excess was praised at first but after a while became criticized for being derivative, some saying bordering on self-parody. Gilliam was praised for his own unique excess, though his recent work has been derided, and some rightfully so. Sometimes there’s this expectation that artists should be themselves except when we don’t want them to. Despite each of their faults, they remained true to themselves. The prophetic indignation of Thompson’s work was there right to the very end – read his post-9/11 piece and tell me he wasn’t right. On the other hand, Gilliam has fought to bring his large visions to the screen, sometimes bringing him to the brink of his own sanity. The two are responsible for great works of American art. For that one sweet moment, their manic visions collided into a one-of-a-kind film, a fun, grotesque journey into a bygone era and its failed dreams and potential.

 

 

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