Monday, January 09, 2012

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #16--Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." Samuel Johnson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas really is a savage journey. Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) takes his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) to Las Vegas for three days. Officially on assignment to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race, they instead end up on a psychedelic search for the American Dream, which they see slowly disappearing at the start of the 1970s. Based on Hunter S. Thompson's classic book and directed by Terry Gilliam, this movie is one crazy, hard-to-describe trip. Really, you just have to follow Hunter Thompson's mantra: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

"Get in."
Hunter Thompson is credited with inventing gonzo journalism, for which reporters become part of the stories they're writing. Fear and Loathing is based on two of those experiences, which Hunter shared with his attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta. The manuscript originally appeared in Rolling Stone magazine but was later published as a book, which many, many people love--including Johnny and lots of other celebrities. "The thing that's interesting about Fear and Loathing is that it's one of the great American books and, luckily, some of the fans of that had risen to positions of power in Hollywood," Terry Gilliam said. "So, they were the first victims of this project." 

I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I didn't become a cult follower. In fact, I don't remember much about it. Full disclaimer: I don't remember any books much after I read them. But, I do remember that the writing was fantastic--descriptive, vivid, and exciting--so I understood why people would fall in love with it. I think I just didn't relate to all the extracurricular activities. 
Don't see this movie with your parents. 
My parents hated this movie. I can't blame them; the movie is shocking when you first see it (or maybe every time you see it). I felt pretty sick afterward myself. This film polarized people when it was released: Some loved it and some despised it. It was killed at the Cannes Film Festival, but it now enjoys a prolific life on DVD, even becoming a quick member of the Criterion Collection (Awesome!).

The people who hated this movie, mainly saw it as two drugged-out idiots on a joy ride to Las Vegas and claimed that it somehow glorified drug use. While I don't usually let bad reviews bother me, reviews that took this viewpoint really made me angry. (Do you hear me, Roger Ebert?) After seeing this movie, the last thing I wanted to do was drugs. By the end, the state of things--their trashed hotel room, their attitudes toward each other and others--gets disgusting and dangerous.

Terry Gilliam showed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to people in recovery from substance use. While they got into it quickly, laughing during the first half of the film, they got quieter as it went on. By the end, they were all ashen and white-faced. (I've never had an addiction, but this, basically, was my exact experience with the film when I first saw it. What's that mean?) "There was one particular actor I knew who wouldn't comment. He just had to leave at the end," Terry Gilliam said. "He called back a couple hours later, having escaped, and said, 'No one will ever have to make a drug movie ever again.'"

Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo aren't heroes, and this movie isn't about taking drugs. I always saw it as a period piece, marking the end of the '60s, the decade of love and peace. These two guys are still in that era and wondering what new darkness--the assassinations of the John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon's corruption--is surrounding them. It's about hypocrisy and something lost. "These characters were pretty angry about the system, about how the system had failed them," Benicio Del Toro said. "The '60s had blown up in their faces--their ideals." 

"Never trust anyone in the depths of an ether binge." 
There are a lot of drugs in this movie. It's constant, and you can't help but feel it. But that's what Terry Gilliam was going for: "It was very important to show that the drugs, right from the beginning, were in their brains, that the world itself was what it was, but the way they saw it was completely altered by whatever it was they stuffed into their bodies. The point was to try to disorient the audience as quickly as possible." By the end of it, you feel nauseated and wonder how Hunter Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta survived that long weekend. For a long time afterward, Johnny and Benicio Del Toro were asked how they managed to film Fear and Loathing while being under the influence the whole time. (For the record, they both have repeatedly confirmed that no drugs were ever taken. Simply put, Johnny said, "You couldn't do it.")  

Listening to the DVD commentaries helped me understand and appreciate the film better. After listening to all the passion and thought everyone--director, cast, and crew--put into it, you realize that blood, sweat, tears, heart, soul, and guts are in this movie. Terry Gilliam describes the film as a journey through Hell: At first, it's not that bad, then it's horrible, and then you make it to the other side. Others have described the first half as the fear and the second half as the loathing. I see both really clearly!

So what's to love about Fear and Loathing?

Hunter shaved Johnny's head in The Kitchen on Owl Farm.
  • Johnny's performance: Genius! If you've ever seen Hunter Thompson in action, Johnny captured it. It's practically uncanny. He spent months with the author, living in his basement, stealing his clothes, voice, mannerisms, and whatever else he could. "He was creepy, always hanging around, mimicking everything I was doing," Hunter Thompson said. "He would do it with other people around!" In that time, they became dear friends and comrades until the author's death in 2005. By the time Johnny got on set, being Hunter was second nature, and I'm pretty sure Hunter Thompson's under his skin now and forever. I'd sing the same praises for Benicio Del Toro, but his performance scares me! (I think that means he did an equally excellent job.)
  • Terry Gilliam: I was ridiculously excited when I heard Johnny was to work with Terry Gilliam, whom I grew up watching as part of Monty Python Flying Circus. (If you haven't seen Monty Python, why not? Aside from his parts in the sketches, Terry Gilliam did all the animation on the show.) He also directed one of my favorite movies ever, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. I couldn't imagine a better director for this movie. Funnily, the producers were concerned when he confessed to them that he'd never taken acid before. "We worried that he wouldn't know how to do Fear and Loathing," said producer Laila Nabulski. "But what we realized quickly was that Terry's a very different kind of guy and doesn't need to take acid, and hopefully will never take acid because God knows what would happen then!"
  • Hunter Thompson: You wouldn't have this movie without the author. What I find interesting about this film is that it's based on a true story. The names aren't the same, but Hunter Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta went through it. They were real people, who were highly respected,  and had real jobs. Oscar Zeta Acosta was an important lawyer who became an activist for the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles. Hunter Thompson met him in 1967 while writing an article for Rolling Stone about the injustices in the East L.A. barrios and the trial for the murder of Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar. It was during that first meeting that they made their first trip to Las Vegas that led to the writing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After seeing this film adaptation, Hunter Thompson said,"It was like an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield." Johnny was pleased.    
No catnip was used during the creation of this drawing.
Like Terry Gilliam's friends in recovery, I enjoy the first half of this movie most. You can't beat the film's opening sequence with Duke and Dr. Gonzo zooming down the highway on their way to Vegas. My favorite part is when the bats appear: You get your first taste of the visual genius Terry Gilliam's got in store. You're in for the ride--like it or not.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp--Film #16--Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997) [October 14, 2011]

Meanwhile, Johnny revisits William Blake.
 In addition to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny filmed a pretty substantial cameo in another movie in 1998 called L.A. Without a Map. I just saw this film recently. While it was released internationally in 1999, it wasn't available in the United States until years later. Who decides these things?

In this movie, a British writer named Richard (David Tennant) falls in love with a visiting aspiring actress (Vinessa Shaw). In a grand romantic gesture, he follows her to Los Angeles to win her heart and start life anew. Throughout the movie, Richard asks advice from Johnny, addressing a Dead Man poster he has displayed on his apartment wall. It's a the head shot of Johnny as William Blake, aiming his gun. While Johnny doesn't speak from the poster or the other film billboards that Richard sees from his L.A. apartment, he shrugs or gestures what he's thinking. I loved the creativity of this kind of cameo. Later on, Johnny does speak, showing up as himself in a couple of scenes with Richard.

William Blake lives!
This is a cute little movie. I assume Johnny was asked to participate in it, since he's sort of an essential character in the story. I suppose they could have picked any actor to be Richard's idol, but maybe Johnny's name came up because he is friends with some people in the cast (including Vincent Gallo, his costar in Arizona Dream). Or, maybe he was eager to work with the director (Mika Kaurismaki). Or, maybe he was excited to share a scene with Anouk Aimee. I'm not sure, but there are my theories. I think he did it as a favor, since he's uncredited and didn't get paid. He's like that. If you can't find this movie, you can see clips of Johnny's cameo on YouTube.

What's Next?
Johnny is invaded in The Astronaut's Wife!

(Image credits: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas images © Universal Pictures; photo of Hunter and Johnny from Rolling Stone magazine; L.A. Without a Map images © Dan Films, Euro American Films, and Marianna Films; Illustration © Melissa Connolly.) 

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