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American Cinematographer Magazine

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1996)
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

The last stop on this month's tour of memorable movie settings is Sin City, Nevada, which Terry Gilliam transformed into a hallucinatory fever-dream for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his woefully unappreciated screen version of Hunter S. Thompson's notorious counterculture novel. Over the years, Gilliam's penchant for outlandish surrealism has alienated a good number of mainstream moviegoers (not to mention studio executives), but his ambitious renditions of fantastic worlds have also earned him a loyal cult following. Thankfully, Criterion has applauded the man's artistic grit with this definitive two-disc presentation of his most psychedelic effort.

Anyone who has read even a single chapter of Thompson's novel can see that the story defies an easy screen treatment. But like the equally fearless David Cronenberg, who delights in adapting "difficult" literary material (Crash and Naked Lunch), Gilliam tackled the challenge head-on, producing a singularly unhinged picture that's filled with moments of phantasmagorical lunacy. The director was aided immeasurably in his quest by a pair of lead actors who really got the book's existential subtext: Johnny Depp (whose uncanny impersonation of Thompson surely earned him an Oscar in some alternate universe) and Benicio Del Toro (who lives up to his Spanish surname with a bull-in-a-china-shop turn as Thompson's drug-addled attorney, Dr. Gonzo).

Admittedly, this particular head trip is not for everyone, and some may feel that the novel's wistful elegies to the Sixties are overwhelmed by the film's aggressive aura of debauchery. But for those who enjoy alternative cinema that pushes the limits of outrage, Fear provides a rollercoaster ride of Fellini-esque fun. (Indeed, Gilliam's appreciation of the Italian maestro's flamboyant aesthetic is acknowledged in a scene set within a circus-like casino, where a team of acrobats called the "Flying Fellinis" perform bizarre airborne stunts above the heads of indifferent gamblers).

Like Fellini, Gilliam began his career as a cartoonist, and with Fear he fully indulges his eye for visual exaggeration. Using the anarchic line drawings of Thompson sidekick Ralph Steadman as references, Gilliam renders the movie's "squares" as grotesque caricatures, while presenting Thompson and Gonzo as hip, swashbuckling rule-breakers standing tall before The Man. In a May 1998 interview with AC, the director also acknowledged his debt to painter Robert Yarber, whose fluorescent-hued canvasses led Gilliam and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini to use a wide array of colored gels on their lighting units. Pecorini also revealed a variety of the filmmakers' other tactics, such as their employment of extreme wide-angle or specialty lenses; the back-projection of period location footage from the 1970s television show Vegas; the clever use of mirrors to make a handful of hallucinatory lizard-people appear to fill a cocktail lounge; and the creation of specific looks that would emulate the effects of the many different drugs consumed by the lead characters.

This two-disc package offers fans of both the novel and the film plenty to digest. Disc one presents a vibrant digital transfer of the Super 35mm interpositive, complete with 24-bit 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks that were remastered from the original magnetic six-track masters. Audio commentaries are provided by Gilliam, Depp, Del Toro, Thompson and producer Laila Nabulsi. Disc two presents a smorgasbord of extras, including storyboards and production designs; a stills gallery; footage of Depp reading a series of letters he exchanged with Thompson prior to production; Hunter Goes to Hollywood, a brief documentary depicting Thompson's visit to the set; a collection of original artwork by Steadman; the original trailer and TV spots; and an excerpt from the 1996 Fear and Loathing audio CD.

Most intriguing, however, are materials about Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Latino civil-rights lawyer who served as the role model for Gonzo (and who apparently vanished without a trace aboard a sailboat at some point during the mid-Seventies), as well as a 1978 BBC documentary titled Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, which boasts some rare footage of Thompson in action. Although this documentary tends to meander a bit, Thompson does offer some telling insights into the limits of gonzo journalism, the first-person, larger-than-life perspective he honed while reporting for Rolling Stone and other publications: "I think I've taken that form as far as I can take it," the good doctor laments, adding, "I used to be able to stand in the back and observe stories and absorb them ... now, the minute I appear at a story, I become part of it."

Ultimately, the screen version of Fear and Loathing manages to capture both Thompson's tendency toward excess and his restless, reflective intellect, although the journey may prove a bit abstract for those who prefer more conventional cinematic structures and characters. As Gilliam advises in his audio commentary, however, "You've almost got to let yourself go and forget about narrative, forget about normal storytelling and do as [Thompson's alter ego] Duke says later: take the ride."

- Stephen Pizzello



© 2003 American Cinematographer.