I was given a paperback copy of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas some years ago. My friend informed me that this particular, beaten-up edition had passed through many hands, and I was given clear instructions as to how to proceed - read it, presumably be floored by it, and then spread the word, as it were, by giving it to another unfortunate soul as yet unacquainted with the works of Thompson and his peculiar brand of "Gonzo" journalism. Alternately befuddled and intrigued by this seemingly cryptic initiation rite, I read the book in a single sitting and immediately became an ardent admirer of the man and his method. More on that particular book later.*
Thompson first burst onto the literary scene with the publication of Hell's Angels in 1966, which offered an unblinking, witty, and analytical first person account of life with the outlaw biker gang. While not exactly an apologia, the work was remarkable in that Thompson demonstrated enormous understanding of (if not downright empathy for) the group - its culture, its mores, and its conscious disenfranchisement from greater society. He was also unafraid to actively participate in many of the group's more derided activities and to exert influence by participating in events as they were unfolding (including, quite horrifically toward the end of the tale, being pummeled by the very men he was writing about). By eschewing any pretense of "objectivity" in his reporting - and by enthusiastically detailing his own debauched behavior in the process - Thompson liberated his particular brand of "journalism" from the staid confines of the mainstream and rapidly became something of a cultural icon and hero to the counterculture. The advent of "Gonzo" journalism was apparent, and Thompson was dragging it to the cultural fore, kicking and screaming.Subtitled "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was, at first glance, another matter altogether. Begun as a 250-word assignment to cover a desert race involving motorcycles and dune buggies called the Mint 400, it quickly turned into a novel-length piece of "reporting" unsuitable for use by the well known American sports magazine that commissioned it. (The novel was ultimately printed in part by Rolling Stone Magazine, where Thompson found a home and friend in publisher Jann Wenner for years to come.) Fear and Loathing unsparingly details the exploits of Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke and his "Samoan" attorney Dr. Gonzo (based on activist attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta) while on an aggressive bender fueled by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol in a surreal and soulless Las Vegas. The novel was an instant success, cementing Thompson's burgeoning reputation as both an important cultural commentator and as a clown prince of sorts to the "drug" culture of the day. The more shrewd observers, however, noted the discipline in Thompson's writing and surmised what the work truly was: a fevered, angry, and rueful tome bemoaning the death of an epoch, an ideal, and a movement. The "Sixties" were officially over, and the zeitgeist was rapidly changing - the cynical, self-interested Seventies had now begun with a vengeance. In his supposed inebriation, it was readily apparent that Thompson was entirely sober in his judgment.
So how to transpose this gargantuan ode to excess and hallucinatory endeavor to the medium of film? Hollywood tried once before (sort of) with Art Linson's Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) - unsuccessful in my estimation, although that film certainly has its vocal supporters - starring Bill Murray as Duke/Thompson and Peter Boyle as Gonzo. While Murray certainly had elements of Thompson down, his performance (and the overall tone of the picture) was based more on buffoonery and caricature than true passion and social commentary. Seemingly in constant development throughout the eighties and into the nineties, a new production of Fear and Loathing proper was officially begun in the mid-nineties with Terry Gilliam at the helm (after British director Alex Cox could not hash out "artistic" and "creative" differences with producer Laila Nabulsi). This choice was met with decidedly mixed impressions. Gilliam, as evidenced by earlier works from Monty Python to Brazil to the Fisher King, certainly had an eye for the absurd, but his none-too-subtle grasp on satire (and admitted lack of experience with drugs, including hallucinogens) left many Thompson fans, myself included, wondering if he could pull it off.
Moreover, the casting of Johnny Depp as Thompson and Del Toro as his Samoan sidekick caused only further speculation to the now somewhat "mainstream" endeavor as a whole. Undaunted, Gilliam, et al., produced a film incredibly faithful to Thompson's prose while remaining true to Gilliam's own incredibly imaginative cinematic grammar. I suspect Gilliam realized that the "American Dream" was indeed the figurative grail that Thompson was seeking - and Gilliam himself certainly knows something about the elusive nature of "grails" and the obsessive nature required for such a chase.
By turns absurd, violently witty, deeply twisted and somewhat menacing, I can think of no film that quite captures the "Gonzo" spirit so vibrant in Thompson's writings as well as the extreme paranoia inherent in unbridled drug and alcohol usage. The film's plot - such as it is - is primarily concerned with Duke and Gonzo attempting to navigate their alcohol and drug-fueled way through an already surreal landscape, and then escaping it unscathed (and un-incarcerated) after wreaking havoc upon hotel rooms, casino floors, and a handful of people during a few strange days. Although freewheeling and lighthearted for the first half or so, the film adopts an altogether darker and disconcerting tone in the second, which is dictated by the novel and appropriate thematically. In many ways, Thompson's seminal work is both a rowdy celebration and a dirge, and he certainly is not going quietly into that good night. All parties involved (particularly Depp and Del Toro, both excellent) seem cognizant of this, and the filmed realization bears it out wonderfully. Even the essentially cameo appearances by such familiar faces as Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Harry Dean Stanton, Mark Harmon, Chris Meloni, Gary Busey, and Ellen Barkin especially in a pivotal scene towards then end of the film, are used to great effect and add to the general tone of disorientation. The overall result, almost universally panned by critics upon its release, is one of those films that practically screams for reevaluation.
Enter the Criterion Collection.
Gilliam has long had the support and admiration of Criterion. On DVD, they have put together one of the most impressive packages ever assembled in Brazil, and also featured the Fisher King, the Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Brazil, and Time Bandits (also available on DVD by Criterion) in their laserdisc collection. Their release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, quite simply, a cause for celebration for fans of Gilliam, Thompson, and the DVD format as a whole.
Video: Shot in loving, expansive, and evocative 2.35:1 scope, and presumably in excellent shape since it was a recent major studio production, Criterion's anamorphic digital transfer - approved and supervised by Gilliam - is nothing short of spectacular. Color saturation is spot on, blacks are rich and deep, and the source print shows a few pieces of slight damage that I recall. As staged by Gilliam, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, and production designer Alex McDowell, Thompson's hallucinatory tone is brought to garish, neon-lit life. The extreme decadence attendant to Las Vegas practically oozes from the screen and the sheer outrageousness of the characters and their skewed worldview is almost perfectly rendered.
Audio: Criterion presents Fear and Loathing in both Dolby 2.0. , Dolby 5.1, and DTS 5.1 mixes, remastered at 24-bit from the original magnetic 6-track masters. I decided to partake in the DTS mix, and it's a doozy. I noticed excellent utilization of all speakers, and the audio accompaniment to the swirling and off-kilter camera work (not to mention the bats) renders the protagonists' subjective perception of noise phenomenal. Some have complained of difficulty in hearing the dialogue in the more extreme sequences, but in my experience that was more the result of the filmmaker's mixing than problems with the track – however, I willingly admit that I may be mistaken. Bass tones are deep and loud, although not bombastic, and the musical soundtrack (utilizing some great sixties standards) is overall extremely impressive.
** NOTE: It should be noted, however, that flaws in both the DTS and DD 5.1 tracks have been discovered, as brief audio dropout (certainly not intended) of certain elements is apparent – however, the DD 2.0 track (the original track) does not have these problems. Criterion is aware of this, and has responded to the criticism by stating that the DD 5.1 and DTS tracks were provided by Universal and that the changes apparent in the tracks could not be reversed. Although noticeable (and regrettable) in a few instances, the aforementioned tracks are otherwise impressive. Purists may want to stick with the DD 2.0 track if this of major concern.
Extras: As is the case with many Criterion Collection "Special Editions" of true merit (and there are many), this two-disc set is replete with valuable extras that any Thompson aficionado will gleefully embrace. Beginning with an excellent essay by Jim Hoberman of the Village Voice and an excerpt from Thompson's collection The Great Shark Hunt, the dense, informative booklet works well as both a primer for Thompson to the uninitiated and just plain catnip for fans. It is also liberally sprinkled with arresting, surreal artwork by frequent Thompson collaborator and partner-in-crime Ralph Steadman (Steadman's artwork also graces the cover, as was the case with Criterion's release of Withnail and I.)
On hand are also three commentary tracks: one featuring Gilliam, one with stars Depp and Del Toro, and - lo and behold - one featuring Thompson himself. Gilliam strikes me as an amiable, wry sort of fellow, and his commentary is both chatty and enthusiastic. Depp and Del Toro also seem at ease, and their conversational tone takes a few amusing turns (such as when Tobey Maguire enters the film as an unsuspecting hitchhiker). The Thompson track, however, is the one that I was most concerned with (and looking forward to), as he is given to almost incoherent mumbling at times and obtuse verbal declarations. I was not disappointed. With the prodding of producer Nabulsi, Thompson freely whoops, hollers, slings mud, reflects, and generally proves a raucous, entertaining host - everything that I expected and hoped for.
Also found is Hunter Goes to Hollywood, a short documentary concerning Thompson's trips to the sets and involvement with the picture by Wayne Ewing, who is currently working on a larger documentary piece on Thompson. The substantially longer (50 minutes) Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, a 1978 documentary by the BBC, features Thompson and Steadman traveling to the left coast and features many typically frank comments by Thompson concerning his persona, drug use, and take on American culture and politics. There is also a subsection of materials on Oscar Zeta Acosta, the inspiration for "Dr. Gonzo," which is both surprising and welcome, as scarce information is available on the enigmatic activist who subsequently disappeared without explanation. Criterion also includes an excerpt from the audio CD treatment of Fear and Loathing with actors Harry Dean Stanton (who also appears briefly in the film), Maury Chaykin (of Dances with Wolves and Atom Egoyan fame) and director Jim Jarmusch. Further included are a stills gallery, a handful of deleted scenes, a collection of storyboards and production design, and the original film trailer and television ads.
All aspiring screenwriters should take special note of the Not the Screenplay feature detailing Gilliam and fellow writer Tony Grisoni's troubles regarding credit for their treatment of the novel courtesy of the Byzantine "reasoning" and regulations of the Writers Guild of America. Lastly, there is an extended piece of Depp reading correspondence between himself and Thompson that I greatly enjoyed. It becomes quite clear as the conversation progresses that the two developed a great deal of respect for each other - hashed out through some trying moments - and that Depp's wit, pride, and compassion are indeed forces to be reckoned with.
Final Thoughts: Certainly not for all tastes, Gilliam's films can be as polarizing and frustrating as Thompson's texts. This is by no means surprising, as both possess well-earned reputations as idiosyncratic mavericks in their respective fields. However, this is one of those rare instances wherein a director's vision has met a writer's intent and spirit with glorious results.
Extra kudos must once again be afforded to Criterion, not only for the selection of this particular film but for the love and obvious care employed in their exceptional DVD release. The embarrassment of riches provided - and generosity of detail - extends from their entertaining menu selections to even the slipcase and packaging. By celebrating Thompson as much as the accomplishment of Gilliam, et al., they have created yet another Special Edition worthy of any collection – most highly recommended.
* As a final note, I never did give that beaten-up copy of the book to another unfortunate soul. I actually had the good fortune of meeting both Thompson and Wenner shortly after reading it, and the Good Doctor was kind enough to autograph it. He inscribed the following: "To Jason: Beware – they are after you." Strange days, indeed.