Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing” is itself a title, a catchall phrase made under the influence of any number of drugs. In its frequency of use (it is used numerously in titles of Thompson’s works) the term implies that the American Dream is mythical and durably idealistic.
The phrase was made a textual icon in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the most known example of gonzo journalism — a tactic that gathers tape recordings and writings in a largely incoherent yet noticeably extensive journalistic recollection. It is an approach, here, accompanied by generous drug use, whereupon any tying cause becomes lost in a wealth of distractions. The intent of Thompson’s Las Vegas piece was to cover the Mint 400, a desert motorcycle race. The result is a loose pursuit of the American Dream — or so Thompson contends. It is a tremendously visual reading, due in no small part to the drawings of Ralph Steadman, so visual that its film incarnation would prove inevitable.
The Criterion Collection’s edition of Fear and Loathing is of Terry Gilliam’s success at making the film, yet the success itself follows two decades of unused scripts and fruitless preproduction. The financial failure of the film suggests the formidable task of the source fiction’s translation. The very idea of the film, even, poses inevitable shortcomings. This is tallied by the film’s inheritance of protagonist (Thompson alter-ego) Raoul Duke’s sight; his influence will cause the movement of a carpet pattern, and in the film the action is realistically manifested. These visions occur and, moreover, belong in Duke’s head. Their literal depiction in the film distracts — not evidences — the film’s literary objective.
The film honors the text with meticulous concentration (Johnny Depp, as Duke, is a match as identical as a film incarnation of a comic book super hero). There is a tremendous reliance upon voice over, and the text’s visual episodes are simply recreated. The filmic incarnation of the “Lizard Lounge” scene is told with prosthetics and careful staging — it is in effect contrary to the episode’s depiction in the text, as an orgiastic, celebratory and imagined display of the greed and excess of the American people.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is impeded by both familiarity with its source and esteem for its director. However, to the immense fortune of Criterion the DVD has a tremendous asset in the collaboration of Hunter Thompson, who appears repeatedly in the disc’s supplements. The booklet contains two of his writings: a jacket essay for the text, “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” and “Instructions for Reading Gonzo Journalism.” Two documentaries, made some twenty years apart, concern the interest in producing a film on Thompson’s cult text (the second, Hunter Goes to Hollywood, follows Thompson on set for Gilliam’s film).
A second disc contains a 1978 BBC documentary Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood. It is an ironic inclusion. The film details a trip taken by Steadman and Thompson from Colorado to Los Angeles, their destination given by a meeting with Universal pictures, the same parent distributor of Gilliam’s future version. In between the two revisit Las Vegas, despite its familiarity to the authors a land that only distantly resembles its depiction in the cult text.
The disc contains extensive material on Thompson prior to the making of this film, and he seems entirely reluctant to either participate or endorse the idea. (Road to Hollywood contains the fitting image of him hiding behind a car, reluctant to enter Mann’s Chinese Theater; Hollywood heightens his characteristic paranoia.) The significant feature of this set — the real coup — is Thompson’s commentary. His thoughts are characteristically stubborn and polemic, though his inclusion is an abstract endorsement. Thompson has stated his approval for Gilliam’s film (he admits to watching it monthly), and his presence legitimizes the making of the film. Despite its initial critical disdain, Thompson’s is the only endorsement Fear and Loathing requires.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is popularly unsuccessful, and this set does well to establish redemptive interest in the film. Criterion’s issue (complete with slipcase, the set boasts a keen similarity to their stellar edition of Brazil) is noteworthy for its breadth and variety of material, complete with no loose ends.