Beyond Bat Country: Madness in Every Direction

Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?

We can't stop here. This is bat country.

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”

The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman

That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.

"Let's get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?"

“Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?”

All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.

the reptile zoo

the reptile zoo

Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.

Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Where the Buffalo Roam

Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.

Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in RangoFear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.

Get in.

Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.

2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.

3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.

4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.

5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!

6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.

7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.

8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.

9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.

10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011

Trilogy Gilliam

"It's..."

“It’s…”

Terry Gilliam is a highly imaginative man with a background as a cartoonist and animator. He has a famous history with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he makes extremely high-concept yet personal fantasy films that usually have a dark sense of humor and a wonderfully skewed (but not far off) view of the world. Here is responsible for such wonderful films as Twelve Monkeys (1995) (best Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt performances!) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (best Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro performances!). And his Python stuff is amazing! Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Terry Gilliam has been a unique and fascinating voice in the world of film.

Metropolis meets Dali

Metropolis meets Dali

I was meh on Jabberwocky (1977); mixed on The Fisher King (1991); disappointed by The Brothers Grimm (2005): a little iffy on Tideland (2005); and not quite sold on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), but he is still one of my favorite filmmakers. Gilliam always offers tantalizingly askew visuals blended with humorous surrealism. I don’t have to think hard to come to the conclusion that my all-time favorite movies from Mr. Gilliam are from his unofficial “Dreamer Trilogy”: Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three feature protagonists who are stuck in a bureaucratic/materialistic world and must deal with the unapologetic clash of fantasy and reality. In these worlds dreams are the only escape.

"Hello. I'm Hood."

“Hello. I’m Hood.”

Time Bandits features the dreamer character as a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock). Kevin’s parents are tedious TV-heads who seem aloof at best. Kevin prefers reading about history and magic and amazing battles rather than watch nauseating game shows with his parents. When a group of time-traveling dwarfs (played by Jack Purvis, David Rappaport, Malcolm Dixon, Kenny Baker, Mike Edmonds, Tiny Ross: former Ewoks, Oompa Loompas, elves, and aliens from other science fiction and fantasy films—Kenny Baker was R2-D2!) show up in Kevin’s room on the lam from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson), Kevin winds up on the adventure of a lifetime.

"Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence."

“Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.”

The Time Bandits travel through time with the only map of all the holes in the universe (the fabric of which is evidently far from perfect). They burgle people throughout history. The ragtag band meet up with an insecure Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), a prissy Robin Hood (John Cleese), noble King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and many other fun characters (played by Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Katherine Helmond, Jim Broadbent, etc.) all whilst being pursued by the Supreme Being who wants his map back. Then there’s Evil (in a delightfully wicked performance from David Warner). Evil wants the map for himself so he can rule the world. The film is a nonstop delight of eccentricities and oddities. Warner, Cleese, and Palin steal some of the best lines.

How decisions are made.

How decisions are made.

Brazil follows the daydreams of an adult man named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in a not-too-distant future nightmare that blends the styles of the 1940s with archaic projections of the space age alongside Gilliamesque flights of fancy. The look of this film is amazing and the story is a sort of amalgam of James Thurber, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka.

It's only a state of mind.

It’s only a state of mind.

Sam is a spineless cog in the creaking wheel of bureaucratic progress (although progress is pretty static in Gilliam’s take on the world). His mother (Katherine Helmond) keeps getting plastic surgery; his apartment is being trashed by disgruntled electrical technicians (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor); terrorists—or maybe it’s the government?—keep bombing places; Sam’s best friend (Michael Palin) happens to torture people for the state; and a strange underground vigilante/heating engineer (Robert DeNiro) seems to be the only one who makes any sense in this cock-eyed reality. Other members of the cast include Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughan, Jack Purvis, and Charles McKeown. While Sam is hard at work in the relentless machine, he dreams he is a winged superhero battling samurai, rescuing the girl, and fighting obstacles that vaguely mirror the problems in his waking life. When Sam discovers that his dream girl (Kim Griest) really exists he will attempt to take on the system to save her life and save the day, because when the real world is as bleak as it is in Brazil sometimes dreams are the only things worth fighting for.

"Brazil, where hearts were entertaining june. We stood beneath an amber moon And softly murmured 'someday soon.'"

“Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June. We stood beneath an amber moon. And softly murmured ‘someday soon.'”

The humor is dark, the hallucinations deliriously captivating, the tone gritty and gray, and the solutions elusive and thought provoking. The scary message still rings true today. I still feel Brazil to be one of Gilliam’s absolute best and most significant films.

"A eunuch's life is hard."

“A eunuch’s life is hard.”

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen based on Rudolph Raspe’s novel, puts us in the seat of aging fantasist, Heironymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen (John Neville). The Baron seems out of place in the Age of Reason, but seeks to set the record straight about who he is in a bombed out theater in a battered town under siege by the Turk. Everyone has been treating the Baron’s stories as fiction until young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) believes him and the two go on a fantastic adventure to find the Baron’s extraordinary friends who can help save the town. They travel to the moon in a balloon to rescue the Baron’s amazingly fast companion, Berthold (Eric Idle), but the King and Queen of the Moon (Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese) have other plans.

"He's not going to get far on hot air and fantasy."

“He’s not going to get far on hot air and fantasy.”

They then descend into the center of the earth via the volcano of Mt. Etna where they meet the short-tempered god, Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and lovely goddess, Venus (Uma Thurman). There they also discover the Baron’s super strong friend, Albrecht (Winston Dennis). After they pass through the center of the earth and emerge on the other side they’re swallowed up by a giant sea monster and inside they find several broken ships and two more of the Baron’s disassembled band: the hawk-eyed sharpshooter, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), and the dwarf with a mighty wind for breath, Gustavus (Jack Purvis). It’s up to Sally to believe in the Baron whenever he gets discouraged and to chase away the Grim Reaper whenever he tries to collect the Baron’s soul. Once they reunite with the Baron’s trusty steed, Bucephalus, Sally and the band of geriatric heroes return to the town to battle the Turk and silence the fantasy-hating Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). Thus the old dreamer conquers all through the power of fantasy.

"The body is dead. Long live the head."

“The body is dead. Long live the head.”

You will notice many recurring actors in Gilliam films as well as an apparent affinity for tattered, complex garments and incessant use of extreme wide-angle and deep focus lenses. He gets compared to Tim Burton sometimes because they both have very strong visual styles that dictate a unique tone, but they are very different filmmakers indeed. Burton’s aesthetics originate from silent German Expressionist cinema. Gilliam seems more inspired by Heironymous Bosch. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gilliam should have directed Alice in Wonderland! Terry Gilliam is a talented dream-weaver and when he is at his best, it’s sits uneasily with you. When he’s at his most off, it is still fascinating to observe. Gilliam celebrates the wonders and the horrors of the untamed imagination. I admire and am in awe of where Gilliam seeks to take us and I hope you too will take the tour.

Enter if you dare...

Enter if you dare…

Originally published for the “Alternative Chronicle” December 10, 2009.