Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. I’ve had my eye on a re-watch–an honest, clean, good re-watch–of a movie since 1999. Twelve and a half years is a long time to bide your time waiting for a re-watch. But the time finally came. And that movie is Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s era-defining novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The First Viewing
My first viewing of Fear and Loathing happened in 1999. Think of the first viewing as a theme party revolving around Fear and Loathing. I don’t think I need to elaborate further. Needless to say, the movie was nothing short of terrifying. Simply getting past the lizard scene, with the melting floors and crawling ivy carpet, was a chore. And bent as things were even without the film, the first viewing was… well, it was useless. It was fun but useless.
Since then, I’ve occasionally seen it on the various movie channels. I’d watch a few minutes here and there, always chuckling about the first viewing. “Oh, yeah!”, I’d think. “I remember that. That was scary as hell”, and then I’d laugh some more. The truth is I’ve probably seen every scene at least one or two times more since then, but only in bits and pieces. I know the scenes and the quotes backwards and forwards despite the fact that I haven’t actually sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish since 1999. As you can expect, my attitude changed a bit after the re-watch. Namely, I actually have an opinion about it now instead of it being a reminder of youthful chicanery.
Two things immediately came to mind as I was re-watching Fear and Loathing. First and foremost, this is the film that Terry Gilliam was born to direct. If you were a studio head and you wanted to adapt a book about hallucinogenic drug use, an iconic writer, and a whole lot of gibberish language and behavior, the first phone call you would make would be to Terry Gilliam. The second thing that I had to notice was all of the humor. If you relish highjinx, Fear and Loathing is the holy grail… whereas if you relish the work of Terry Gilliam, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the holy grail. I digress. Fear and Loathing is a hilarious movie. How can you not laugh at a world in which the following phrases are uttered?
Raoul Duke: [Narrating] Ah, devil ether. It makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel. Total loss of all basic motor skills. Blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. Which is interesting because you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it. You approach the turnstiles and know that when you get there, you have to give the man two dollars or he won’t let you inside. But when you get there, everything goes wrong. Some angry rotarian shoves you and you think “What’s happening here? What’s going on?” And you hear yourself mumbling…
Raoul Duke: Dogs fucked the Pope… no fault of mine.
Raoul Duke: She’s doing her Masters thesis on… well, Barbara Streisand.
Raoul Duke: When I came to, the general back-alley ambience of the suite was so rotten, so incredibly foul. How long had I been lying there? All these signs of violence. What had happened? There was evidence in this room of excessive consumption of almost every type of drug known to civilized man since 1544 AD. What kind of addict would need all these coconut husks and crushed honeydew rinds? Would the presence of junkies account for all these uneaten french fries? These puddles of glazed ketchup on the bureau? Maybe so. But then why all this booze? And these crude pornographic photos smeared with mustard that had dried to a hard yellow crust? These were not the hoofprints of your average God-fearing junky. It was too savage. Too aggressive.
Gilliam seemingly had two goals with this film. The first goal was right up his alley. He had to accurately recreate whatever illogical hell had happened in Hunter S. Thompson’s skull, as described in the novel. The second goal was to capture HST’s peek in the rearview mirror at the 1960s, at the summer of love, and the acid culture that was quickly dying underneath Nixon’s silent majority. Gilliam does a fantastic job achieving his first goal, clearly. But I think that in doing so, he orphans the second goal. Thompson’s gonzo wit regarding his own generation comes through, but only faintly and with nowhere near the panache it deserves.
All the same, the film was bold. It was ambitious. And even if it falters in the secondary goal, it’s completely unique. The special effects and some really subtle camera usage–capturing the dizzying lights of the Vegas strip, dropping yellow filters and washing out every desert scene–give the film more weight. What it all boils down to is that I’m not sure I could call it a great film. It’s good. Most importantly, it’s one hell of a cult film. For the uninitiated, you’re probably asking “Should I watch it?”. I’d say buy the ticket. Take the ride.