HeadStuff is currently publishing a series of weekly articles on how the journalistic process is depicted on film – the intense research involved in the practice, the time it takes to articulate a story, and the false intimacies that come with the interview process. In this entry, Andrew Carroll looks at how Hunter S. Thompson’s style of gonzo journalism translates to screen. Previous entries in the series can be read here, here, and here.
Ask a lot of people what Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about and they’ll say: “Uh… Drugs? Hippies? Isn’t there something about racing involved as well?” All three answers are correct to a degree. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about drugs, hippies, car racing and the ugly death of the sixties. It’s a document written by acclaimed writer and journalist Hunter S. Thompson and put to screen by Gilliam. It’s a film about how the journalistic process, and therefore the journalist, must go so far into their story that fact becomes fiction and eventually comes full circle into fact again. How did Thompson do this? Simple: Drugs. Lots of drugs.
“The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.”
In the original story, Thompson puts himself into the role of an alter-ego of sorts: Raoul Duke. He is accompanied by his attorney and fellow drug fiend Dr. Gonzo. The film is essentially a copy of the original article, which can be found on Rolling Stone’s official website or in all good bookstores/meth labs. Minus a few minor scenes and some changed dialogue, Terry Gilliam’s film is a direct cinematic translation of Thompson’s original sad, mind-bending, and apocalyptic article.
The film begins normally enough with Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) on their way to Vegas in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 race for Rolling Stone. Except they’re being chased by bats. Except they’re not it’s just the LSD. They pick up a hitchhiker, a balding Tobey Maguire, and scare him off by describing all of their illegal activities in the last twenty-four hours. Their hotel is hosting a police conference on narcotics. They kidnap a girl called Lucy (Cristina Ricci) and hallucinate being brought up on charges more despicable than Charles Manson was before dumping her at an Elvis chapel. They do make it to the raceway, but only spend about ten minutes there before it all goes to hell. The film follows the book and it too becomes an agitated, shaking, sweating meditation on where the summer of love went and how the feeling of a post-modern hangover replaced it. It raises the question of whether it’s better to face reality or pop the next tab of acid before the last one wears off.
Needless to say, Thompson chose the drugs over reality, and who can blame him? He became a journalist and thrived in that decade of free love, freer drugs, and giddy abandon. As the 1960s ended so, too, did that world. Richard Nixon was on the cusp of being elected and Ronald Reagan wasn’t far behind. With them came the war on drugs, international terrorism, the AIDs crisis, and numerous political scandals. The latter was something Thompson tore viciously into both men for. His Nixon obituary is worth reading just for how cutting it is. Gilliam reflects all this in the cinematic language of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Daytime is glaringly bright and reality presses in on our drugged-out anti-heroes throughout. Everything threatens to break through their impressively thick LSD haze, and both Duke and Gonzo are in constant terror of the Vegas landscape and the so-called Nazis (cops) that inhabit it. Evening is a sun-soaked, orange blanket representing the drugs that are about to wear off but for Duke and Gonzo the pills, ether and booze never wear off because there’s always more. In the desert city of Las Vegas evening slips quickly and chaotically into night and that is where hell truly is. The camera lens is red and the ordinary human gluttons and reprobates of daytime Vegas become the lizard people, devils, and fallen angels of the night. Everyone is afraid of everything and they loathe what they fear. Gilliam represents this with the skewed camera angles made famous by Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a soundtrack populated by the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane and with terrifying costume and set design. As a journalist, Hunter S. Thompson did his best to document the 1971 Mint 400 but came away with something far more terrifying.
Thompson followed the white rabbit and that’s not a joke or a reference. He took his writing to a place where fact and fiction blur and then crossed that threshold. With the help of a whole lot of mescaline, barbiturates and copious amounts of alcohol, Thompson came out the other side with something resembling an article. Hunter Thompson single-handedly invented what would become known as gonzo journalism. That is, writing a blurry factual and fictional account of a real world invent in order to find a greater truth. Thompson probed and found a truth far scarier than he probably ever intended.
After following the rabbit down the hole Thompson found the bloated, rotten corpse of the American Dream. A dream he had shared in throughout the sixties and one he saw die as Nixon napalm bombed south-east Asia, as America began to fund guerrillas and radical Islamists. And as the world burned Hunter S. Thompson took to his typewriter and fought back the only way he knew how. Gilliam took up Thompson’s cause and fought with his camera. Past the drugs, the depravity and the grotesque imagery, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is both radical journalism and radical cinema.
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Hunter S. Thompson carried on his fight up until his suicide in 2005. He sought to expose the truth behind a great deal of things from the Hell’s Angels to the failure of the counter-culture movement and the reality of modern day living. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is many things: a highpoint in Johnny Depp’s career, a rabid critique, and an introspective look at a crucial point in history. Thompson compares the sixties to riding a huge, momentous wave but, like big waves do, it crashed and left devastation in its wake. I’ll leave you with his own reflection on that wave.
“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.”