Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

                  Today marks the start of a new kind of post: the *Hollywood Hardbacks*. The first Wednesday of every month, I will review a book that has been made into a film, commenting on the substance of both the writing and the movie. Am I qualified to give my informed opinion on a major motion picture? Ummm obviously… I took one course on detectives in film in college. You can have it on good authority that I am fully prepared to provide you the multilayer review you’ve been waiting for.

                  The first book in my Hollywood Hardbacks series is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I went to Vegas in August and I’ve been legitimately terrified of it ever since. Flashbacks of wading in large pools with hundreds of other assholes listening to loud music and drinking $50 drinks. Woof. Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous book perfectly encapsulates the vileness of this derelict desert. The setting is pretty straightforward. Thompson, in real life, roams on a drug-induced binge through Sin City with his attorney/friend in a search for the “American Dream”. The text draws from a notebook that Thompson kept during two trips to the city commissioned by magazines. Thompson found that it wasn’t exactly a stroll down the strip to complete his reporting duties considering he was on a combination of LSD, mescaline, ether, amyl nitrite (is this a thing?), coke, marijuana, and alcohol at all times. I’m honestly impressed that his beer belly physique was capable of withstanding it all. Hard body.

                  The actions and dialogue are purposefully outrageous throughout. Chapter titles include things like “A terrible experience with extremely dangerous drugs”, “Paranoid terror and the awful specter of sodomy…a flashing of knives and green water”, etc. Per usual Thompson flair (see my old review on The Rum Diary), he aggressively plunges into the depths of human despair as a way to exemplify America’s lusts and consumerist obsessions. He wants to push the envelope as far as it would go because he felt that his generation’s counterculture ethos had failed as a guide towards life’s answers or as a coping mechanism for life’s problems. Specifically, he calls out Timothy Leary’s psychedelic advocacy, stating that the movement did not satisfy society’s vicious search for happiness.

                  Thompson says we’re all just “humping the American Dream” (lol), but what exactly is this so-called vision (Thompson, 57)? Americans love a self-made man—someone who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself. To portray the ridiculousness of that ideal—the endless search for more, more, more—Thompson took more and more and more drugs and spent more and more and more money in a city that thrives on excessive expenditure. Like, he took all of the drugs. As an aside, I believe the British dream involves crumpets in a pub and being pompously polite.

                  In book form, Thompson never fails to titillate. He’s an extremely intelligent and talented hedonist who will frankly prostrate himself in the pursuit of journalistic integrity. Hunter S. Thompson: the gonzo journalist sacrifice! He is a good writer, even if the extreme drug use rubs you the wrong way. Thompson is telling a story and if you judge him, that’s no skin off his back. At the same time, as entertaining as it was, I wouldn’t say that it’s brilliant literature. I had similar feelings towards The Rum Diary—I like it and I like Thompson, but I can only give it 3 out of 5 camel humps because I don’t find it absolutely groundbreaking. And I don’t think it’s intended to be.

                  Truthfully, the book did more for me than the movie. I was impressed that the film was virtually a verbatim account of Thompson’s text. He practically wrote a screenplay. Cartoonist Ralph Stedman did a remarkable job illustrating the novel, so I had high expectations for the film’s visual interpretations and it delivered. Aesthetically, I enjoyed certain scenes like Thompson losing his shit when he thinks the people around him are transforming into reptiles or when he takes too much of the mysterious adenochrome drug.  In terms of character portrayal, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro were spot on. Depp romps around like a certified lunatic and Benicio dons this menacing drawl that renders his character simultaneously absurd and believable. Still, some magic was lost in the making of the motion picture. I think that if you watched the film without the context of the book, it would seem incomprehensible or at least disorienting; I’m not sure that the movie could stand alone well. When your storyline centers so exclusively on drugs, I can imagine it’s difficult to honor the message behind Thompson’s vulgarity while depicting the vulgarity itself. Sure, you can show some trippy acid scenes and have it be compelling, but does that really get to the heart of Thompson’s assertion that our gratuitous ways are unfulfilling like the written word can? Once again, we have the classic case of *the book is better than the movie*. So, I give the movie 2 out of 5 camel humps, not because it didn’t amuse, but because it paled in comparison.

*Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.

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