I moved to the Bay Area in 1992 for grad school with the idea of becoming a professor, but instead I wandered down the wrong path with the criminal element on campus – petty thieves, small-time hustlers, gangbangers, and drug fiends – always on the verge of dropping out, on the same turf where Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters first dropped acid with the Grateful Dead.

My reading list became whatever would transport me from lecture-hall boredom: Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1968), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). For some reason, I gravitated toward ’60s New Journalism that put me in a world of dropouts and freaks, maybe because those were the only people I felt comfortable around on the campus that would soon welcome Chelsea Clinton.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas spoke to me most closely, since its characters (Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo) were not only chemically-fused maniacs but also socially committed products of ’60s failed hopes. They went to Las Vegas not to escape but to drive straight into the belly of the beast – the American nexus of all things ignorant and malicious – to push the boundaries of perceived freedom with a politics of confrontation they’d used in their activism.
It was 1971, and Vegas was the perfect oasis of greedy flash, whose excess and materialism went hand in hand with extreme drug laws based in countercultural fear. Where else could one see a bloated Elvis perform, before he went to D.C. and begged President Nixon to become a narcotics agent?
The Bay Area punk band The Dead Kennedys would pick up on this irony years later in their angry cover of “Viva Las Vegas.” And now, after 27 years of Thompson’s “Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” director Terry Gilliam brings the book to life.
Art Linson’s film Where the Buffalo Roam (1979) attempted a mesh of Thompson’s life and times, with Bill Murray as Thompson and Peter Boyle as the attorney. But this ended up a scattered, gag-dependent work, with Dr. Gonzo (based on Chicano Movement attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta) turning into a Hungarian drug lawyer named Lazlo. A Chicano actors’ group protested the film, by the way, since it completely missed the mark on Acosta.
But Gilliam seems the perfect choice for the expressionistic, visual romp that the new adaptation becomes. As well, his other films (Brazil, 12 Monkeys) tend to play out the same basic romanticism advanced by Fear and Loathing: that the only solution to the madness of an oppressive and malignant world is insanity.
By 1971, Thompson and Acosta both sensed a conservative backlash. Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison had proven the futility of living fast and dying young, while Manson’s peculiar take on flower power gave the establishment more ammunition, above and beyond the bullets used by the National Guard to kill four students at Kent State. The Pentagon Papers would soon unravel Nixon’s foreign and domestic misdeeds, and L.A. journalist Ruben Salazar had been murdered by police during a massive Chicano protest, proving that this, too, can happen in our country.
But their realization came from years of social commitment. Acosta got his legal training in the Bay Area birthplace of the Black Panthers, moving to East L.A. to defend Corky Gonzalez and other Chicano activists. Thompson was pushing where journalists should go, getting jumped by Hell’s Angels and Chicago police at the ’68 Democratic Convention.
All points led to Vegas in April 1971, and so the two loaded up a briefcase full of drugs, scammed a convertible, and drove off, with a sports magazine assignment to cover a desert road race. Thompson described their trip in his book as “a gross physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.”
The book was serialized in Rolling Stone months later, and Acosta felt that Thompson had ripped him off by transcribing their conversations. This claim was taken seriously by the publisher, who cut a deal with Actosta to publish his memoirs, The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), in return for waiving any possible legal action.
While the movie expertly merges biography and fantasy into a surreal, hellish vision, Gilliam depends on the two central actors’ interpretation of their real-life counterparts. Johnny Depp creates a manneristic composite of Thompson and Raoul Duke, much like Bill Lee is based on William Burroughs in David Cronenberg’s version of Naked Lunch. Depp picks up Thompson’s personal quirks and the more difficult task of the author’s frenetic thought process, this from having shaved his head and spent time with Thompson in Colorado.
Puerto Rico-born actor Benicio Del Toro gained 40 pounds to inhabit the explosive corpulence of Dr. Gonzo, and he exhaustively interprets the full-body freakout-deathwish mindset of Acosta, right down to his ulcerous vomiting and subtle markers of racial difference. Acosta’s son Marco also consulted on his father’s portrayal.
But without these characters’ context of political engagement, their nihilistic search for answers is drowned by the Vegas spectacle. The film relies on stock footage to imply history in much the same style as Oliver Stone’s chaotic newsreel panoramas.
Regardless, the era’s hopelessness and characters’ self-destructive salvation are epitomized in Gilliam’s grotesque, claustrophobic filming, especially when the two snort ether from Old Glory and stumble through a 35-foot devilishly horrific clown head into a coliseum of bizarre trapeze acts, apes in Klan hoods, and Nazi rednecks shooting at duck-targets in Viet Cong hats. There’s even an Apocalypse Now nod when they run into renegade dune-buggy warriors playing “The Flight of the Valkyries.”
Acosta disappeared without a trace in 1974, and Thompson has since shot his journalistic wad. But I’m reminded of an intoxicated conversation with a speed freak at grad school:
“We’re the fuck-ups of this community,” I said.
He answered: “We’re the leaders of tomorrow!”
—by Benjamin Ortiz
San Antonio Current 28 May 1998

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