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Friday, Dec. 17, 1999


What a long, strange trip it was

Well, it's only a couple of decades over-due, but I'm pleased to report that gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" has finally made it to the big screen, in a remarkably faithful adaptation by director Terry Gilliam.

Much of Hunter's savage prose has made it to the film verbatim, and Gilliam -- one of cinema's true visionaries -- has given us the mind-popping visions to match.

I suppose to get into the proper spirit of things I should probably drop some acid right now, but rather than make you read gibberish like "heinousgurble/ pineal-lizard/drippingcarpet-plasticland" for the next 600 words I'll just have to suffice with the flashbacks induced by Gilliam's monstrously warped little gem of a film.

"Fear and Loathing" is such a classic "novel" that it seems pointless to recount its "plot" here, but basically, it involves then-Rolling Stone correspondent Raoul Duke (Thompson's alter-ego, played with uncanny accuracy by Johnny Depp) being sent to cover a desert car race in Nevada in 1971. He quickly gives up on it, and decides to look for the "real story," which involves loading up a red convertible with every mind-altering substance known to man, and zooming down the highway (dodging imaginary bats along the way) with his Samoan attorney, "Dr. Gonzo" (Benicio Del Toro).

Their destination is Las Vegas, the sick and twisted heart of the American dream. There the duo engage in an addled rampage, dodging one crisis after another: public freak-outs and paranoia, a Trump Tower-size room service bill, a piece of disturbed jailbait (Christina Ricci) and a convention hall's worth of cops.

As Duke wanders through the overstimulated environs of the casinos -- with beckoning monkey doormen, flying trapeze artists and dogs overhead, a lounge full of lizards, beefy hollow-eyed tourists and Debbie Reynolds crooning "Sgt. Pepper's" -- he can barely resist the urge to flee.

"A drug user can get used to things like your dead grandmother crawling up your knee with a knife," muses Duke, "but this was too much. This is what it would be like if the Nazis had won the war."

Many films have tried to capture the artificial nature of this neon city of vice, this fun house-mirror reflection of the American Dream, a giant kitsch theme park devoted to relieving fools of their money, while all the time holding out the apocryphal promise of instant riches. While "Casino," "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Mars Attacks!" all have their merits, for my money, "Fear and Loathing" is the mother of all Vegas films -- Vegas is nothing if not over the top, and any critique needs to be more so. Gilliam's distorted, woozy camera-work and deliberate eye for the weird (remember those Monty Python animations?) serve him well here.

Ultimately, the film is neither pro- nor anti-drug. Just like Hunter's writing, it's often hilarious in its depiction of excess. Duke and Gonzo's ether binge, culminating in a rubber-legged and near-futile attempt to traverse 10 meters from their parked car to a casino entrance, is testament to the ability of drugs to make the mundane more, well, entertaining.

But Gilliam is also quite frank in facing the fact that this behavior isn't always as fun when you're on the receiving end: The scene where the duo terrorize a hapless waitress (Ellen Barkin) is disturbing in the extreme.

As in the book, Duke/Thompson finds moments of utter clarity, but just as often is lost in a haze of insanity, vomit and impending violence. If anything, actually seeing the sordid reality of two guys freaking out in a hotel room is a very different experience from sharing Thompson's viewpoint in the book.

Though the project didn't originate with Gilliam -- he replaced director Alex Cox ("Sid & Nancy"), who managed to alienate just about everybody involved -- Raoul Duke is a classic Gilliam protagonist. Like Jonathan Pryce in "Brazil" or Robin Williams in "The Fisher King," Duke seeks an emergency exit from reality. Yet where earlier Gilliam protagonists sought escape through dreams and fantasy, Duke takes a pharmacological approach. But, much to his dismay, he finds the drugs only amplify the nightmarish grotesqueness of the reality he's stuck with: Vietnam and Charles Manson on the TV news, while tourists "looking like used-car dealers from Dallas" gamble away their life savings at 4:30 on a Sunday morning.

"What is the meaning of this trip?" is the question that gnaws at Thompson, but make no mistake, "Fear and Loathing" is the epitaph for '60s idealism, that moment between Altamont and Kent State when the counterculture realized the gig was up.

"We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave," ponders Duke, in a rare moment of sentimentality. "You can almost see the high-water mark, that place where it broke and rolled back." It's rolled back so far that perhaps many viewers won't see the point in re-exploring the drug culture at this late date. Gilliam himself sees the tale as a modern-day retelling of Dante's "Inferno," and through that rather astute lens, "Fear and Loathing" takes on the almost mythical level it deserves.

For those who can't get enough of psychedelia (as if the streets of Shibuya are not surreal enough these days), allow me to point out that a new print of the Beatles' animated film "Yellow Submarine" is playing as a late show, appropriately enough at "one after 9:09." Where "Fear and Loathing" is a trawl through the misanthropic, paranoid depths of a bad trip, "Yellow Sub" is its apogee, a floaty, fluffy high, reveling in the exuberance and innocence of flower power, a world where all you need is love to free Pepperland from the evil Blue Meanies.

Peter Max's animation has definitely stood the test of time as one of the defining moments of Pop Art, and if the film's fablelike story seems childish, it's worth remembering that it was cleverly playing with new concepts of reality -- the relativity of time and space, multiple dimensions -- that were being abstractly proven by quantum physics, and physically experienced through psychedelics.

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" starts tomorrow at Cine Switch Ginza and Kannai Academy Gekijo in Yokohama. "Yellow Submarine" is the late show at Shibuya Cine Palace until Dec. 23.

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