Vegas – Dan Tanna and his 1950s T-bird, the gambling joints, the dust, the weird laws…
All (except the first, for obvious reasons) are included in Terry Gilliam’s mind-blowing film of Hunter S Thompson’s book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Of course, one of the main threads of this “melancomedy” is the drugs aspect, but another is the illusory nature of the American Dream, as brought to light through Thompson’s references to Horatio Alger.
Ostensibly, Thompson, alias Raoul Duke (played magnificently by Johnny Depp), and his friend and attorney Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, alias Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), go to Las Vegas to report on the Mint 500, a once-upon-a-time prestigious race for dune buggies and motorbikes. They meet their photographer, Lacerda, whose puppy-dog enthusiasm soon palls on the guys, and they make their own, drug-fuelled, entertainment searching for “The American Dream”. Alger’s spiritual presence is a give-away, especially given that we are in the post ’60s world of Vietnam and the wreckage of the counter-culture movement: that his heroes usually attain The American Dream through sheer luck as opposed to hard work speaks volumes. And this is where the backbone of melancholy amongst the funny-bones of drug-fuelled wit, gives way to what Thompson describes as “the Wave speech”, where he pictures a Las Vegas hilltop where on a clear day, you can see the high-water mark where the wave of goodwill finally broke and rolled back. Stirring stuff, to be sure.
In biting satire, we see The American Dream as a circus – which “the whole hep world would be doing if the Nazis had won the war”. Because Thompson was, to a large extent, a product of the counter-culture movement – although, notably, both he and Acosta had passed out of USAF service with merit – the satire needs little explanation. Having said that, though, there are some elements which pass younger audiences by. Not everyone had heard of Horatio Alger (although it is not beyond the wit of man to google him), for instance; nor is voting for Hubert Humphrey being on a par with killing Jesus explained, except through background research. But these are jigsaw pieces that, on discovery, make for extra satisfaction when fitted in the context of the film. Incidentally, Hubert Humphrey – for those who don’t know – was the Democratic candidate in the 1968 presidential race against Richard Nixon, and probably the reason the latter became the Grand Fromage that year.
Naturally, there are those to whom this film is an abomination because they see it as glorifying the taking of drugs. People, perhaps, like the ubiquitous L Ron Bumquist, whose stirring if misinformed diatribe against drug users is a joy to behold. Of course, Terry Gilliam is on record as saying that the film isn’t a glorification of drugs, any more than a James Bond film glorifies sex and alcohol. But then, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies, he would say that, wouldn’t he?