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Fear and Loathing in Movie Critics

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I couldn't really explain why I liked that movie. I thought about it, and the mood to write came over me. On the surface it is pure nonsense, a faithful adaptation of the book and Rolling Stone articles.

Fear and Loathing is one of those stories that lingers around like a stain in a white shirt after you read it. What was I reading? What was this confusing mess? Then it hit me: holy shit, this was a work of journalism! Exaggerated, interlaced with fiction, and then put to narration. Parts of the book were made up. But a seemingly pointless and macabe detail like the mention of a car accident up the road - that was probably inspired by a real person who died that day.

I felt compelled to do some research. Reviews in the papers at the time were mixed. I noted that one critic, writing for the San Francisco Examiner, seemed to want Duke to transform into some sort of hero, and save the day. The review is 25 years old now, but - good God, is this what we've devolved into as critics?

In the view of a 1998 opinion leader Raoul Duke is a wholly unsympathetic character, not an observer, just a degenerate loon. Roger Ebert had trouble understanding his half-mumbled dialouge. His strange mannerisms shurley must have been a joke on the part of the filmmakers, not an earnest attempt to play a then-living person.

Yet on closer examination, the reality of the man was just as strange as the fiction.

At the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, Del Toro commented on Depp's strange performance in an interview - "Johnny was doing this character and they were all going like, 'He's doing this character really weird.' The day Hunter showed up, it was like, 'Oh my God! Hunter's doing Johnny Depp!'" In the same interview Depp described Thompson - "His thoughts and his emotions manifest into these physical movements. You can see him thinking his movements."

Thompson's nostalgia too, became misinterpreted. "How dare he idealize the 60's counterculture, turning a blind eye to the problems it led to."

Whether nostalgic passages like the "wave speech" were written with an intentional purpose or a subconscious one originally, they were emphasized in the film. In these scenes the camera slows down, the music is quiet. Duke sits and types, or listens to his tape recorder while narrating over his life as if it were a noir story. Real footage of the '60s counterculture is shown - the film is obviously trying to say something, beyond the surface level spectacle of watching men in the grip of an acid trip.

In one scene Benicio del Toro begins waving a knife and babbling madly. This sort of moment would have been obscured by the book's prose. Watching it on a screen is something different. It seemed somehow too real, atavistic feelings of self-preservation were stirred inside me. His performance felt genuine enough that for a whole year people in Hollywood thought he had a real drug problem.

I wonder why a film should provoke that thought in me, while a contemporary reviewer saw nothing in the scene but an attempt at drug humor.

"It has so-and-so actor in it. You might like it. Who am I to tell you what to do? My editor is breathing down my neck. This goddamn place is a production line. Good movie, bad movie, good movie..."

More than just a wild drug trip, I saw an unglamorous portrayal of the harrowing side of human experience. The savagery lurking under the surface. Many of those scenes involved Dr. Gonzo. Or a desperate part of town where the Dream ends. Then there's also that scene where Duke is in the middle a ignorant cackling mob - this is sounding too familiar. People complain writers these days have less experience than the ones from the '70s, but this film is almost as distant to us now as the original book was to it, and I'm in no position to judge anybody for a thing like that anyway.

In Thompson's other book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, (much of his writing used a variation of that title) one can see his style at work without all the debasement of Vegas. The total first-person subjectiveness, an openness uncommon in journalism. The whole 1972 campaign, peeled open and exposed for Rolling Stone readers to experience in more intimate detail than anyone could have gotten just watching it on the news.

The interesting thing in all this isn't Thompson's encyclopedic knowledge of narcotics, his habit of speeding, or the time he waved a gun around at lizards while suffering from a wave of paranoid madness.

Las Vegas isn't a fiction. Anyone could go there, searching for the American Dream, and come back with a notebook full of regret, nostalgia, and bad experiences. The Doctor had the good sense to write his all down. One day historians would write about the '60s, drugs, Nixon, Vietnam - for watered-down school textbooks. But damn them, he was right there in the vortex of it all. A bona fide primary source, loathsome perhaps, but nevertheless...