Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Project A-Z: Scenes #8: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: The Crest Of A High And Beautiful Wave

The moment I picked Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas as part of Project A-Z I knew I had to do it as a "Scenes." There's no choice really, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is really nothing but a bunch of high powered vignettes thrown together. I could have pressed the fast forward button, closed my eyes, stopped it at random and would have in all probability a great scene to dissect.

This is exactly the thing that makes the film so maddening to its detractors. It just does not stop. Relentless doesn't cover it. Ebert famously quipped that "If you encountered these characters like this on an elevator, you'd push the button and get off at the next floor. Here the elevator is trapped between floors for 128 minutes." and in his recent review for The AV Club Scott Tobias seemed somewhat undone by the film (He also suggests that Enter The Void's relentless slog of human ugliness is somehow more appealing then Gilliam's KER-azy psychedelia. Suggesting he comes from Rand McNally. As an aside Mr. Tobias is actually responsible for the name of this blog. Though that is another story...)

But the thing that the detractor's miss is that just because it is unpleasant doesn't make it inaccurate. In the case of Fear And Loathing what is on the screen is what is on the page. You don't go see an adaptation of Moby Dick and then bitch that the whale is white.

And it's what on the page that made me finally decide to write up this particular scene in Fear And Loathing. But we'll get to that later...

We join the doctor as he lights up a bit of some unknown substance, at the end of a crazed chaotic binge. Now before you judge the doctor too harshly keep in mind that this...

Is what he was dealing with mere moments ago. I don't care who you are that'll make any man reach for the pipe.

Or er... Lightbulb... I've always thought that that is such a Gilliam touch. A little "Hey wait a minute." detail. The off kilter in the off kilter.

There are two things that are notoriously uncinematic, drugs and writing, and this scene fits in both.

And yet for all the tricks and stuff that have been used in the past nothing quite captures the powerful dislocative feeling of drugs as well as this simple shot. It's not just the couch moving. The foreground, background are all on different planes and as soon as Duke hit's whatever the hell that is they all become unattached from one another.

How Gilliam is that?

Contempt for worship of the sixties seems to have hit an all time high as boomer idealism continues to curdle at an exponential rate. Even I, who has a markedly higher tolerance for hippies then most of my generation could barely make it through a few of the solemner passages documenting the flower children, in Doctrow's Homer And Langley without laughing my ass off.

And yet, the feeling In Fear And Loathing seems earned. Maybe it's simply because Gilliam himself is a full fledged Hippie and this sequence set at "The Matrix" is as much his nostalgia trip as Thompson's.

Ah and there's the ghost of Christmas future himself. It's hard to look at Thompson now in the wake of his suicide. Hard for me to read him after he himself decided he had no answers. Thompson gave up, and though I know it isn't fair it's hard to not feel especially all these years later, that he didn't have the right. The carnival is running, still as crazy as ever and we need our barker. We need him and he is not here. It is just that simple and just that sad.

The fish eye lens and Terry Gilliam were made for each other.

The jump cuts that Gilliam uses to document Thompson's first encounter with LSD are a bit more standard then what he was using in the hotel room. This little vignette inside a vignette is just further proof of what a delightfully digressive (for me) movie Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is.

... And that is one hell of a punchline.

Like I said, writing is almost as hard to film as drug use. And yet the words on the Voice over now are perhaps the most important in Thompson's career. Certainly the most important to himself. If there is any doubt just watch him rip Alex Cox a new asshole in Gonzo for having the temerity to suggest animating it.

These clips aren't presented in the usual congratulatory montage way the sixties are usually summed up in. But edited with the ferocity of the drug trips.

Slowing down only for a sly nod at both the beginnings of Thompson's career and the end of sixties.

The fact that we can look at that image without immediately laughing are a testament to Thompson's work.

In the closing moments with Thompson's words echoing through our ears it dawns on us. This isn't really about the sixties this is Thompson's version of the sixties. The reason it resonates isn't because of what happened it's because what it did to Thompson. He's telling his own version of the Garden Of Eden and it ends with him cast out and left alone with a head full of acid and a two hundred and fifty pound Samoan with a hunting knife. Worst of all he can still see the Eden, though it's forever out of his reach.

It's all there in that moment as much for Thompson as for us. That high cresting beautiful wave that crests and breaks just outside our grasp and then recedes, leaving us to chase it for the rest of our lives.


Charles said...

I love this movie

"Mother of God, there I am! Holy f*ck..."

Rob said...

I resisted this one for a long time (because I'd heard it didn't make any sense)but the bf insisted about a year ago and I thought it was amazing (it probably didn't hurt that we were geeked off our asses). Thanks for making me think about it again, very well done!
Any thoughts on Where The Buffalo Roam? Haven't seen that, but I guess it's based on the same story. Sounds like it might be interesting

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Charles: There's a great moment on the making of where they show an alternative take where Thompson lunges forward and slaps Depp.

@ Rob: Is there any other way to watch it?

I've never seen Roam though I've meant to. I always figured Murray and Thompson would go together like Peanut Butter and Pickles.

Paul said...

Wow, you picked out my absolute favorite scene in the movie. The best part, for me at least is seeing those hippies dance in slow-motion but still in time with "Somebody to Love". It's hypnotic and makes you want to be there at that club at that time.

I think Raoul is free-basing cocaine out of the lightbulb...but I'm not 100% sure.

Stay away from Where the Buffalo Roam! Not a good film...too meandering and it's a crazy mashup of Thompson's life and his books.

Erich Kuersten said...

Nice job picking certain scenes and slowing them down for a close reading. I wrote about FEAR a few years back for my acid movies series, and you pointed out stuff I surely missed, like the 'planes' and the hippie stock footage.

I was a huge hippie, of sorts, in the late 1980s at Syracuse, where, at least at the time, there was a thriving scene known unofficially as 'the Westcott Nation' (Westcott being the main street with the pizza shops and new age bookstore) and I definitely felt my own wave peak, and had my own bathroom experience with dilated pupils and strange Christ visions, but something about Gilliam's movie reminds me of, well, Charlie Sheen's recent druggy rants.

Don't forget that Thompson was a conservative and eternal outsider, drawn to the counterculture for the drugs more than the love... then again, I was like that too. The insidious nature of a drug culture is it will always 'break' because love is in such short reply that when it's 'free' the starving morlocks rush the bin and trash the store. Now who's being a conservative?? Me? Ah Hell. Anyway, I'm glad you like it, and who knows, maybe one day I will too. it's my own fault if I look at it and think it's wrong just because, like most of Gilliam's work, it's white elephant dressed in termite clothing. Manny!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Paul: Thanks for the advice. I love Somebody To Love. Though I think A Serious Man now wins for best use of the song.

Shame to hear about Buffallo. Though I am very much looking forward to The Rum Diaries (whenever the hell they decide to release it.) if only because I'm giddy knowing there's another Bruce Robinson movie out there.

@ Erich: Thanks for the post. I don't know if you can call Thompson a traditional conservative, based at least on Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail, and that infamous "fox" essay published in Generation Of Swine. At the very least he was a libertarian. Otherwise you're dead on.

Gilliam's film might be a white elephant? But it's a white elephant that still scares the shit out of a lot of people. So is it a white elephant?

I think I discovered a new zen koan...

Elephant or Termite it's still the only film I know of that even tries to capture the spirit of Thompson's work and for that I commend it.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Great write up man for what is undoubtedly one of my favorite Gilliam movies!

That scene you put above, with flea looking up and saying "Whats the trou-bul" ALWAYS CRACKS ME UP!

By the way, speaking about Thompsons suicide, Im a huge fan of his work, and love reading his novels (anxiously awaiting The Rum Diaries by the way!) but I kind of saw his departure as kind of fitting.

I can see him getting old and thinking "this fucking blows!" and then deciding to depart this world on his own terms. Yeah, I'll miss him and his work, we all will, but I guess in the end, he left a great legacy. And not one but two films about him! Even seen "Where the Buffalo Roam?" Not as awesome as Fear and Loathing, but it certainly has a lot of Thompsons personality infused into it.

J.D. said...

Nice scene to pick and it certainly is what I would cite as an example of the film's substance against criticism that it is all merely debauched style over substance. I think that Gilliam really understood HST's novel and with Depp's involvement they really nailed the spirit of it and wisely just grated huge chunks of text from the novel into the film.

As for WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAMS, it's an interesting failure. The direction is flat and completely uninteresting. I love Peter Boyle but he was horribly miscast as Dr. Gonzo but the saving grace is Bill Murray who really channels HST and you can still see vestiges of that performance in later roles. I would say it is worth watching if you're a big fan of HST - the scene where Murray recreates the Superbowl in his hotel room is the film's highlight, IMO.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ FC: Flea NAILS, that scene.

@ JD: Very much agreed. And Thanks for the advice. I've always figured I will see it one day, I just haven't been in a huge hurry.

You're right though the casting of Boyle does seem odd "Joe" shouldn't play Dr. Gonzo!

Biba Pickles said...

I only pick up hitchhikers that look like Toby McGuire.

Anonymous said...

Best. Article. Ever.

Seriously, great write up. The movie is maddening, but in a good way. I was heartbroken and disillusioned when HST killed himself. He was the last of my idols, and in his wake I realized that I was, so to speak, left with only ghosts.


Anonymous said...

You know something else that doesn't suck? I enjoyed this article so much that I chose it as one of my favorites of March and included a link to it in the latest "issue" of SPATTER ANALYSIS.

Check it out!


Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks Johnny. I'm touched. I've really enjoyed what you guys have been doing with SPLATTER ANALYSIS thus far, it's been a great experiment and I hope it continues. I'm proud to be a part of it.