PLOT: A successful, hedonistic screenwriter lost in the indulgences and vacuity of Hollywood searches for love and meaning.
WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: While Malick’s approach to cinema remains characteristically unconventional, despite the philosophical narration and existential questions, the film still charts as a fairly standard dramatic narrative.
COMMENTS: “To be a philistine or not to be a philistine?” That is the question that troubles reviewers when approaching the films of Terrence Malick. When a film maker is consciously addressing questions such as the meaning of life –a question in which every person on this planet has a stake—if the reviewer’s response isn’t positive, they can find themselves asking the questions: did the film not speak to me because it was poorlyexecuted, or because the message was over my head? Is it a load of pretentious rubbish, or did I simply not get it?
All questions of framing, scripting and pacing aside, the answer––particularly when it comes to films that address existential concerns like those of Malick, Andrzej Zulawski or Federico Fellini—is always subjective. The film either meant something to you, or it didn’t. (I am thinking of this site’s controversial review for Possession, a film I personally loved but which the reviewer hated). Where I saw a visceral film with an impassioned performance from Isabelle Adjani and unsettling, demonic imagery depicting a relationship imploding, the reviewer saw a pretentious, vapid stream of hollow images. Technique aside—which thankfully isn’t so subjective and can be argued—the film either spoke to you, or didn’t.
Did Knight of Cups speak to me? To perfectly honest, no. Does this mean I simply didn’t “get it”? Possibly, but again, considering how subjective a film experience is, not to mention how subjective and open-ended Malick’s images are, does it matter? Every filmgoer brings their own meanings to a film based on their own experiences, very often bringing associations that are far removed from the filmmaker’s original intent, if they’re even prepared to talk about that (and we all know how Malick has addressed this question: radio silence). Is Cups a load of pretentious rubbish? Again, the question of meaning-making is entirely dependent on the viewer. I was able to find meanings and recurring messages in the film, even if I didn’t particularly respond to the actual film experience.
So what is Cups about? On the surface, this is a straightforward tale of a successful screenwriter Rick (who doesn’t do a lick of actual writing in the film, mind you), who experiences inertia and nihilism among various mansion parties and trappings of Hollywood. He has relationships with six women, including his ex-wife (Cate Continue reading CAPSULE: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)→
PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.
COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.
To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”
Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.
Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.
PLOT: Four college girls head to Fort Lauderdale for a week of binge drinking, drugs and sex and wind up teaming up with a local gangster for a crime spree.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It isn’t in the same league of weirdness as the other two Korine movies that have already made the List, although in many ways the deliriously debauched Spring Breakers is this director’s best film.
COMMENTS: Making an arthouse movie that critiques American trash culture starring a cast of gun-toting barely legal starlets in bikinis is a tall order. With Spring Breakers, Harmont Korine is shooting for something like a topless La Dolce Vita for the rave set, but it ends up more along the lines of “Girls Gone Wild” on acid. Not that that’s a bad thing; far from it. Spring Breakers isn’t profound as satire or anything—you mean these blunt-huffing sluts aren’t good role models for today’s suburban youth?—and the plot’s about as substantial as a string bikini, but the glitzy neon visuals and impressionistic narrative style synergize to create a uniquely American nightmare of trippy titillation and regret. Unannounced flashbacks, narrated montages and drug-trip sequences (there’s a nice pixelation effect where the image shifts unpredictably as Selena Gomez smokes a joint) disorient the casual viewer looking for nothing more than T&A. Add in a grungy gonzo performance by James Franco as Alien, an arrogant small-time dope and gun seller with pretensions of rap greatness, and you have an entertaining, if messy, trip through the dark side of contemporary collegiate consciousness. In Trash Humpers, Korine manifested the nihilism of the humpers’ lives through their horrid wrinkly rubber masks and glitchy low-tech videography, but here he focuses his camera on the improbably gorgeous; it’s all bikini crotch shots with arty lighting and Dutch angles. Despite all the beautiful bodies, the director’s trademark amateur grotesques also show up, in the form of a pair of scabby-looking thug brothers (the real-life “Atlanta twins,” inexplicable local mini-celebrities). With his trash tattoos (pot leaf on the back of his hand, dollar sign on his neck), grill of gold teeth, and cornrows, Franco’s scummy Alien looks like a typical Korine creation, too. You can almost smell the mix of b.o., reefer smoke and cheap cologne rising off him. Alien gets the best lines; his speech about how he’s living the American dream encompasses the film’s entire social agenda (plus he has Scarface running on an endless loop in his bedroom). The film’s maddest moment occurs as Alien sits at his beachside grand piano surrounded by the bikinied breakers in pink ski masks and croons a Britney Spears ballad that segues into a crime spree music video. Potty-mouthed hotties, psychologically sadistic threesomes, a vast variety of bongs (including one shaped like a baby), a magical bikini massacre and reams of general debauchery round out the shock action. Korine has previously worked almost entirely in anecdotes, and it’s nice to see him challenge himself with an attempt at a semi-coherent full-length narrative, even if he doesn’t quite have a grasp on how to tell a story (or, to be fair, much interest in telling one). The action is nonsensical; character development is nonexistent. The bad girls start and end the movie as bad girls, the good girls start and end as good girls. Really, Spring Breakers is a portrait of a mindset—the idolatry of ecstasy-popping suburban white kids towards the ideal of amoral freedom embodied by the hip hop gangster—but the drift towards more conventional storytelling suits the director. For all its faults, the movie works because Harmony Korine finally embraces the fact that he is at heart an exploitation movie director working with an arthouse movie toolkit, not the other way around.
In promoting the film, Korine conducted a bizarre, typo-laden “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on Reddit. Among his pithy gems was this response to the question “is Harmony short for Harmonica?”: “yo mommaica.” BTW, Spring Breakers perv scorecard goes like this: Gomez keeps her swimsuit on, Hudgens and Benson are briefly seen nude underwater, and the director’s wife goes all out, appearing in a shower scene and having cocaine snorted off her torso. Extras provide plenty of boob flashage to fill out the sleaze quotient.
“If there’s something you don’t like, don’t keep to the rules – break them. I’m an enemy of stupidity and simple-mindedness in both men and women and I have rid my living space of these traits.”–Vera Chytilová in a 2000 interview with The Guardian
FEATURING: Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová, Jan Klusák
PLOT: Two doll-like young women in bikinis theorize that because the entire world is becoming spoiled, they will be spoiled too. They set off on a series of anarchic adventures, many of which involve them permitting old men to take them to expensive dinners. Their surreal, sexy excursions are interrupted by Dadaist collages and sudden changes of film stock, and climax in a slapstick pie fight.
Although Daisies is frequently interpreted as a feminist statement, director Vera Chytilová denied that was her intent and preferred to describe the movie as “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce.”
Writer Ester Krumbachová co-scripted the screenplays for both Daisies and Report and also designed the sets and costumes for Daisies.
The Czechoslovakian censors banned Daisies in 1967 (at the same meeting in which they banned Jan Nemec’s overtly political A Report on the Party and Guests). Chytilová made one more feature in 1969, the equally surreal We Eat the Fruit of the Trees of Paradise, after which she was forbidden to make any more films for six years until she successfully appealed the government ban on her work.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Marie II (I think; the blond one with the circlet of wildflowers) modestly trying to hide her nudity behind her suitor’s butterfly cases is an image that’s so highly charged it graces every DVD cover. The picture perfectly encapsulates Daisies‘ knowingly naughty innocence.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching the bright colors and bratty joie de vivre of Marie I and II as
Short clip from Daisies
they slash and burn their way through square society, cutting up phallic symbols and the film stock itself with scissors, it’s hard to believe that Daisies wasn’t produced under the influence of drugs. Made a year before and half a world away from San Francisco’s Summer of Love, this proto-flower power film nonetheless captures the anarchic spirit of Sixties psychedelia; it’s a relic from an alternate universe populated by sexy Czech hippy chicks with serious cases of the munchies. Alternately described as a feminist manifesto, a consumerist satire, and a Dadaist collage, it seems that no one—possibly including the director herself—is quite clear on what Daisies is supposed to be about. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t.
“…to eliminate the borderline between dream and imagination; to invent everything and then to objectify the fantasy; to get some distance from it in order to explore it as something all of a piece and unknowable.”–Federico Fellini on his motives for adapting Petronius’ Satyricon
FEATURING: Martin Potter, Max Born, Hiram Keller, Mario Romagnoli
PLOT: Two students, Encolpio and Ascilto, argue over their dual ownership of the handsome slave boy Giton, whom Encolpio loves and Ascilto has sold. Encolpio seeks Giton through a series of adventures that take him across the ancient Roman world, encountering a pompous actor, a wealthy merchant who holds nightly orgies and fancies himself a poet, unscrupulous slavers, and other long dead satirical targets. Eventually Encolpio becomes involved in a plot to kidnap an albino hermaphrodite demigod, is cursed with impotence, and seeks the services of a witch.
Petronius wrote the rambling, erotic, and highly literary “Satyricon” during the reign of Emperor Nero, 1st Century A.D. It is sometimes considered the world’s oldest surviving novel.
The original Roman satire survives only in fragments, which explains the often incoherent nature of the story in Fellini’s movie. Fellini invented a few small details (and one major one, in the hermaphrodite character who replaces the penis-god Priapus’ role in the story) to bridge gaps or help the story flow in the direction he wanted to. The director refers to the fragmentary nature of the source narrative by allowing the story to jump forward in time, and even ends a scene in mid-sentence (as Petronius’ surviving work ends in the middle of a sentence).
Fellini’s name appears in the title not out of vanity, but to distinguish the movie from a competing adaptation directed by Gian Luigi Polidoro which was also released in 1969. Polidoro registered the title Satyricon first. United Artists purchased the international distribution rights to both films and sat on Polidoro’s movie while they promoted Fellini’s more marketable name.
Fellini used international actors for the main parts (joking that he did so because there were no Italian homosexuals). The director saw that dubbing into Italian was deliberately made slightly out of sync with the actors’ lip movements to create an additional feeling of strangeness.
Boris Karloff was offered the small but important role of Trimalchio, but was too ill to accept it (Karloff died in February of 1969).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent Satyricon is like trying to single out one scene that captures the essence of a sprawling carnival. The film is a nonstop parade of extreme imagery, grotesque tableaux and freakish costuming. No one scene sticks out as more bizarre than another, and nothing is supposed to; everything inside the borders of the known world of Satyricon is as weird as everything else, from the whorehouse at the center of the empire to the blank spot at the edge of the map where monsters be. Forced to select something, we went with the image appearing five minutes into the film of the actor Vernaccio, dressed in a porcine pink helmet with a fin on top, carefully placing a tiny pill-like object on his outstretched tongue. It’s Fellini’s signal to the Summer of Love crowd that the movie is dosing itself right now—strap yourselves in for the trip to come.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fellini seizes upon the fragmentary nature of his classical source material as an excuse to fly off on flights of phantasmagorical fancy; he sets his camera to observe these imaginary denizens of gluttonous old Rome as if they were alien lifeforms. Satyricon is the work of a master filmmaker at his most self-indulgent—but when tremendous talent
indulges itself, the results are typically spectacular.
PLOT: Four middle-aged, upper middle-class men (a judge, a TV personality, a pilot and a chef) hole up at a country villa to feast; it is gradually and casually revealed that they plan on eating themselves to death. They gorge themselves constantly, but the pilot can’t stand to go even for a day without sex, so prostitutes are invited to join them—along with a schoolteacher who attaches herself to the group willingly. As the gluttonous orgy continues the whores flee in disgust, but the teacher joins in the bacchanalia with gusto.
All of the main actors use their real names. All four of the male stars were well-established (Mastroianni, of course, was an international star and sex symbol). Except for Noiret, each had worked with director Ferreri before. Each had also had prominent roles in weird films from other European directors (Mastrioanni, most famously, in Federico Fellini films, but Noiret appeared in Zazie dans le Metro for Louis Malle, Piccoli was a mainstay in Buñuel movies, and Tognazzi had small roles in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella and Fellini’s Satyricon). The quartet would reunite with the director the next year for a surrealist rendering of Custer’s last stand called Don’t Touch the White Woman (starring alongside another weird favorite, Catherine Deneuve).
The scatological content of the film scandalized some viewers at Cannes, but the film nonetheless won a FIPRESCI prize for Ferreri.
At its British showings La Grande Bouffe was protested by infamous decency crusader Mary Whitehouse; her attempts to have the movie banned ironically led to modification of the Obscene Publications Act to exempt films with artistic merit.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The visions that will probably stick with you when you think back on La Grande Bouffe are scenes of four great European actors stuffing their faces with turkey legs, a castle made out of pâtés, and a pair of matching cakes shaped like breasts. Michel Piccoli dancing with a pig’s head is another strong candidate, as are the numerous gross scatological moments. But, the strangest and most lingering image may be the final one: sides of meat scattered around the villa lawn—a slab of beef wedged in the crook of a tree—and a pack of dogs sitting and looking attentively at the carcasses, making no move to eat.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: La Grande Bouffe takes an absurd premise—four men decide to eat
Brief scene from La Grande Bouffe
themselves to death—and plays it out with illogical realism, proffering no explanations or motives for what happens. It’s an unnatural but straight-faced parable that suggests nothing about how we’re supposed to take it. It’s a grotesque spectacle, but a strangely engrossing one, with a fascination that comes largely thanks to a dream cast of 1970s Euroweirdos.
PLOT: Oscar is a drug-dealer living in Tokyo with his stripper sister. One day he is shot and killed during a deal inside a bar called “The Void.” He spends the rest of the movie as a silent ghost, floating around Tokyo and observing his sister and friends, while simultaneously hallucinating and remembering the details of his life.
Noé wrote preliminary scripts for Enter the Void as early as 1994; the screenplay was consider to expensive to produce until the director’s 2002 success with Irréversible made it appear commercially viable.
Star Nathaniel Brown, a non-actor, was chosen because of his physical resemblance to lead Paz de la Huerta and because he was interested in directing. As someone with no acting ambitions, Noé presumed Brown would not be upset by the fact that his face is only seen once in the film, briefly in a mirror.
Visual perfectionist Marc Caro supervised the set designs.
The 100 page script indicated the action and described the visual effects, but very little dialogue was scripted; the actors improvised most of their lines.
The paintings Alex is shown working on in the film were actually painted by Luis Felipe Noé, the director’s father.
The original run time of the film at its Cannes debut was 163 minutes. Post production and editing continued after this debut, and, as completed in 2010, the final run time of the film (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2010) as screened in the U.S. is about 140 minutes. There is a longer version of the film, however, including a 17 minute sequence where Oscar believes he has woken up in the morgue; this segment occupies reel 7 of 9 reels, and for American screenings the film was simply shown with reel 7 omitted. The extended cut is available on French DVD releases.
Noe instructed theaters that the film should be run at 25 frames per second rather than the usual 24 frames (this fact accounts for some of the discrepancies in listed running times).
At the Cannes premier there were no opening or closing credits. The film began on a closeup of the none sign reading “enter” and ended with the words “the void.”
Noé got the idea for the film form watching Robert Montgomery’s noir The Lady in the Lake while on a magic mushroom trip. Like Enter the Void, Lady in the Lake is filmed entirely from a first-person point of view (actually, in Void the POV is usually from about a foot behind Oscar’s head, though at other times we see events through his eyes).
Tokyo was chosen as the location of the film partly because Japan’s strong ant-drug laws would make the actions of the police more believable, partly because Noé believed the city, with its abundance of neon, had a “druggy mood.”
Pioneering acid guru Timothy Leary used to read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to voyagers undergoing LSD trips in an attempt to steer the experience in a spiritual direction.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening DMT trip, with it’s multicolored mandalas, floating planetoids, and neon tentacles seems hard to top, but it merely sets the mood. It’s the pornographic “Love Hotel” scene, with its parade of rutting couples with mystically glowing genitalia, that really impresses itself on the mind’s eye.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As the most impressive and eye-splintering acid trip movie of the decade (by a wide margin), Enter the Void gets an automatic pass onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. The fact that the protagonist is dead throughout most of the movie doesn’t hurt its chances one bit. But the clincher, the sure sign that the movie is weird, is the walkouts. Less than halfway through the screening I saw, the sexagenarian couple who had stumbled into the film by accident (probably thanks to ad copy suggesting the movie was a sentimental ghost story about brotherly love that transcends death) walked out of the theater, leaving me alone with two same-sex couples with facial piercings and hair that glowed in the dark.
PLOT: Chas, a sadistic associate gangster who terrorizes local businesses for London crime kingpin Harry Flowers, is forced to go into hiding when he kills one of his boss’ allies. He rents a basement from Turner, a former rock icon caught in creative doldrums, now living as a hermit in a luxurious town house with two beautiful live-in girlfriends and a never-ending supply of dope. Turner initially wants to get rid of Chas but gradually grows fascinated by him, sensing that the thug’s energy might help him break out of his artistic slump, and he begins to make over Chas in his own image.
Donald Cammell, a former painter turned screenwriter, wrote the script and directed the actors. Nicolas Roeg, already a sought after cinematographer for his work on films such as The Masque of the Red Death and Fahrenheit 451, supervised the film’s visuals. It was the first directing credit for either.
Donald Cammell took his own life in 1996 with a bullet to the head.
Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the movie solely because rock star Mick Jagger was attached to the project.
The role of Chas was written with Marlon Brando in mind. Depending on whom you ask, Brando either declined the role, or the producers decided he could not play a convincing lower-class Brit. James Fox, a rising young actor known for his posh upper-class persona, studied actual London gangsters to get down the Cockney accent and criminal mannerisms.
Fox, in his acting prime at the time of Performance, suffered a nervous breakdown after filming (reportedly brought about by a the combination of his father’s death and smoking the powerful hallucinogen DMT with Jagger) and did not act again for 8 years after completing the movie.
Tuesday Weld and Marianne Faithfull were the original choices to play Pherber, but Pallenberg, a model and Rolling Stones groupie (then Keith Richards’ girlfriend), was brought in after Weld was injured and Faithfull became pregnant.
Nicolas Roeg recalls seeing members of the film development lab destroying “intimate” scenes of the film “with a fire axe,” apparently believing they had mistakenly been sent illegal hardcore pornography to develop.
Jack Nitzsche composed much of the score on the ninth Moog synthesizer ever built (the Moog probably belonged to Jagger: the Rolling Stones had been
one of the first rock groups to include a synthesizer on their 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”).
The movie was completed in 1968, but shelved for two years after a disastrous test screening at which audiences yelled at the screen and walked out of the theater. A studio executive’s wife reportedly vomited from viewing the graphic violence, and audiences were offered their money back. The movie’s eventual release was delayed for two years while the film was re-edited; much of the violence was trimmed, and Mick Jagger’s first appearance was moved forward in the film to appease Warner Brother executives. Roeg has already left for Australia to make Walkabout and was not involved in the final cut.
In order to compress the beginning of the film, partly so that Jagger would appear onscreen earlier, editor Frank Mazzola created the fast crosscutting montage that begins the film. “I knew I’d have to slide things back and forth or extend something to make it hit on a note or a frame,” the editor recalls. “I could do three or four or five of those cuts and bang!, it was perfect, like a beat… You could do anything to that film and it would work, because of the way it was happening. It was
poetry, it was organic…”
Among the cuts later demanded by the British censors was a scene of Fox being flogged, intercut with a scene of him making love to a woman digging her fingernails into his back.
Performance was savaged by critics on its initial release, but its reputation has improved over the years. In 2009 Mick Jagger’s Turner ranked number one in Film Comment’s poll of top film performances by a musician.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Turner is dancing around with a large fluorescent tube before a stoned Chas when he suddenly howl and thrusts the glowing cylinder at the mobster’s ear; a tracking shot through his auditory canal reveals Chas’ mob boss imprinted on the tympanic membrane. The camera plunges past this barrier and suddenly Jagger replaces the crimelord in the scene; he launches into an taunting song aimed at Chas and assembled gang lieutenants.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before Anita Pallenberg feeds James Fox hallucinogenic
Original trailer for Performance (trailer contains brief nudity and sexuality)
amanita mushrooms on the sly near the climax, the crazed editing of the first half, which cuts back and forth across time and space without warning while setting up the tale of Chas’ fall from gangster grace, is so trippy that it’s almost completely disoriented us. Performance is almost exactly what you would expect to see if you matched a couple of smart, artsy, experimental directors to an eccentric half-amateur cast of drug addicts in 1968 and the set’s caterers fed the crew a diet of nothing but hash brownies and magic mushrooms for the entire shoot.
PLOT: Journalist Raoul Duke heads to Las Vegas with his attorney (“Dr. Gonzo”) and a suitcase full of exotic drugs to cover a motorcycle race. Somewhere around Barstow, the drugs start to take hold. The mission changes into a quest to find the secret of the American Dream, an excuse for an orgy of hallucinogenic hedonism and dangerously antisocial behavior as the pair tromp through the unreal neon wonderland of Sin City.
The character of Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro in the film, was based on Hunter S. Thompson’s real-life friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney/activist. Acosta mysteriously disappeared three years after the publication of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1974 while traveling through Mexico and has not been seen since.
The original script for the film was written by Alex Cox and his colleague Tod Davies, but differences between Cox and the producer Laila Nabulsi, as well as open disdain of his treatment by an unhappy Hunter S. Thompson, led to the script being dropped. This left only a few precious days for Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni to write a new script to begin production with. Gilliam and Grisoni allegedly finished their script in only eight days, with two additional days for rewrites.
Featured heavily in the opening of the book, the Rolling Stones track “Sympathy for the Devil” was going to be the opening theme that set the tone for the rest of the film, but Allen Klein, former manager of The Rolling Stones and owner of a sizable chunk of their early library, demanded an exorbitant $300,000 for the song. As this would have devoured half of the soundtrack budget, so Terry Gilliam opted for the more fiscally reasonable “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as the closing track.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the scene where Duke, who is peaking on acid while checking into the Mint hotel and has already seen the carpet climbing up a cowboy’s leg and hotel clerk Katherine Helmond‘s face stretching like Silly Putty, suddenly sees the denizens of the hotel bar transformed into a tribe of literal lounge lizards.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Master fantasist Terry Gilliam brings Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical satirical novel about a degenerate journalist and his equally debased attorney companion whose idea of a good time is to sniff ether and scarf mescaline before striding into the whirling carnival of the Bazooka Circus casino to howling life. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s increasingly deranged pilgrimage to the Mecca of American venality turns into a grim and perverse endurance test for both them and the viewer, as the pair see how far they can push the limits of decency without losing their lives, freedom or sanity.
Original trailer for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
COMMENTS: When Terry Gilliam was promoting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, I recall him saying two things on the interview circuit that stuck out: first, he hated drugs. Secondly, he hated Las Vegas. Those confessions made me question whether he was the appropriate man to adapt the cult novel about two modern savages rampaging through Sin City while chugging down a psychedelic rainbow of hallucinogenic substances. The contemporaneous response to the film suggested the pairing was, indeed, a mismatch. Pitched as a comic romp, the puke-stained antics of Dr. Gonzo proved too disgustingly visceral for most critics and viewers. Some fans of the novel found Gilliam’s vision too grotesque, lacking the novel’s context and sense of humor, while newcomers to the story saw only a meandering tale about two antisocial drunks acting like asses. Even my initial review of the movie in 1998 was slightly negative: I wrote “Gilliam films the novel quite literally… and the literalism is part of the reason why the movie fails. The novel was about venality, depravity and corruption, but the movie simply is venal, depraved and corrupt. The novel is a swirl of reality, supposition, imagination, hallucination and exaggeration, but we are always safe in the hands of Thompson, whose prose gives the sense of blindly groping for meaning amidst the bestiality. By putting these depictions on the screen without his mediation… we only garner a sense of disgust as we witness Dr. Gonzo puking his guts out in graphic detail…”
There’s still something to that criticism, but Fear and Loathing has proven to be a movie that has stood the test of time: it’s better on a second viewing, after the initial shock and disgust has worn off. As a comic romp featuring a pair of lovably hip scamps putting one over on the establishment Vegas squares, the movie does fail. But what made the novel linger in the mind was not only the picaresque drug trips and Duke’s crazy sleep-deprived schemes, but also the undercurrent of sadness expressed in the book (and movie’s) epigram: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Fear and Loathing is a tragedy about disillusionment disguised as a comedy about rebellion. The opening scenes—with Depp swatting at the imaginary bats he sees reflected in his mirrored shades as he and Del Toro terrify a hitchhiking hayseed hippie with tall tales about traveling to Vegas to rub out a scag baron—do set a tone of off-kiler alt-humor. Dr. Gonzo fires a pistol into the air, but it only clicks; unlike the man wielding it, it’s not loaded. The pair of rapscallions are essentially harmless. Depp and Del Toro appear to be Merry Pranksters, holy fools infiltrating the green felt halls of the rich and mighty. Their intentions are pure; after spending the night before the journey stoned on the beach, Duke proclaims the trip to Vegas is to be “an affirmation of everything right and true in the national character, a gross physical salute to the possibilities of life in this country.”
And, for a little while, it is. Through the film’s first half, Duke and Gonzo’s adventures are of the put-one-over-on-the-squares variety. They mock the sacred institutions of the Debbie Reynolds Showroom. They try to keep it together while bombed out of their gourds, as the faces of the hotel staff morph into serpents and the power of speech forsakes them. They search for the American dream and find only miserable suburban gamblers looking for Tom Jones tickets and a cheap shrimp cocktail. The trip peaks on the midway to the Bazooka Circus, a bizarre hyperreality that makes psychedelics superfluous. High above the casino floor a trapeze routine involves a pregnant acrobat giving birth to a baby astronaut, complete with umbilical cord. A cowboy barker offers the chance for your image to appear on the Strip 200 feet tall. It’s the American dream seen in funhouse mirrors.
But it’s too much stimulation; between hiccups, a dyspeptic Dr. Gonzo mumbles that he’s got “the Fear.” Back in the hotel room, he takes a whole sheet of blotter acid and, knife in hand, climbs into a bathtub filled with dirty brown water and bobbing grapefruit and begs Duke to electrocute him with the tape recorder when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” peaks. Duke locks him in the bathroom and reflects that Gonzo’s high is over; marinating in his own filth, the poor bastard will now have to endure one of those “hellishly intense introspective nightmares.”
Duke takes the break in the action as a chance to write and reflect; he remembers San Francisco in 1965, the burgeoning LSD scene and the feeling that in that time and place “There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. Our energy would simply prevail… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…” Seven years later, in this Las Vegas hotel room with an armed roommate in the grips of drug psychosis, he realizes that youthful dream is long past. Gazing out his window, he muses that he “can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
This central “wave” speech is the first time we realize that the Las Vegas trip itself, which begins in hope and a spirit of fun and ends in hedonistic degradation, is an allegory for the defeat of the naïve ideas of the 1960s counterculture. From this point on, the comic tone of the film slowly shifts into the background, as the costs of Duke and Gonzo’s overindulgence starts to catch up with them. Things really go wrong when Duke takes too much adrenochrome, turns beet red and sees multiple Richard Nixon heads invading his hotel room. (Adrenochrome, a mythical psychedelic stimulant that can only be extracted from a freshly harvested human adrenal gland, is a symbol of the “bad drugs” like speed and heroin that were scarfed up in the dying days of the Sixties by indiscriminate hippies reared on the “peace and love” drugs like pot and LSD). The story becomes more fractured, a series of barely sketched incidents of the boys breaking open coconuts with hammers and screaming incoherently at middle-class motorists gawking at the lights of the Strip. Scenes of Del Toro emptying his guts into the toilet bowl or out the window of the convertible proliferate. Their hotel room is trashed beyond all semblance of reality; bottles and syringes float in an inch of liquid, the walls are smeared with Playboy pinups and ketchup, and someone has set up a shrine to Debbie Reynolds, complete with glitter and Christmas lights.
These low points of the trip reach their nadir in a quiet scene that’s performed with the pounding realism of a hangover. Out of pure boredom, Dr. Gonzo pulls out his trusty knife and psychologically abuses a hard-luck waitress, played with dignity by an achingly human Ellen Barkin. Duke can only sit by and watch, as if he’s been detached from his worse half and forced to observe the atrocity. Depp’s performance in this scene as slinks out of the diner, returning his plate of food silently with the sad realization that the violation goes far beyond the possibility of any apology he could offer, is one of the few truly decent moments Depp allows his caricature. It’s the point at which Duke realizes their experiment in the antisocial has gone too far. Once, he thought their positive energy would prevail over the official forces of corruption, the powers behind Jim Crow and Vietnam; now, the aging refugees of the Love Generation were terrorizing poor women at knife-point. It suddenly appears that the titular loathing is as rightfully directed toward the hero as it is toward the establishment.
Focusing on the theme of disillusionment and loss of innocence–both countercultural and personal—may be the key to unlocking the power of the film. With its intoxicated camerawork, CGI hallucinations and neon lit unreality, the movie works as pure eye candy and hallucinogenic spectacle. As a comedy, it’s less successful; but Gilliam does capture the loathing of the tale. The script’s downward spiral into ever worsening psychosis makes for a hard sell, particularly for those who come looking for a psychedelic wish-fulfillment fantasy, a simple tale of weirdos triumphing over squares by sheer force of weirdness. That surface element is there, but it’s the way Gilliam taps into the underlying sadness of Thompson’s decline and breakdown that makes the film distressing, memorable, and ultimately beautiful.
FEAR AND LOATHING script analysis – David Morgan breaks down the differences between Alex Cox’ original script and Gilliam’s rewrite, and explains why Gilliam burnt his Writer’s Guild of America card
DVD INFO: As befits a bizarre film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has had a strange history on DVD. Since the movie was a failure in theaters, Universal did not invest too much in their original 1998 release, issuing a disc with a deleted scenes and a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as the only extras. Sensing a cult film in the making, the Criterion Collection bought the distribution rights to the film in 2003 and issued a lavish 2-disc Special Edition (buy). Headlined by three separate commentary tracks—one from Gilliam, one by Depp and Del Toro, and one featuring Hunter Thompson himself—and an entire disc full of supplemental material on Thompson and the film. The popularity of the Criterion edition helped launch a reappraisal of the film, which had been almost universally panned by critics.
In 2006 it appeared that Universal realized they had made a mistake by under-marketing the film, and they re-issued their version of the movie—in the doomed HD DVD format. In 2010 they wised up and issued a Blu-ray (buy) with additional “Blu-ray live” features and D-Box motion simulation capabilities. Assuming that Universal had reacquired their rights from Criterion, many movie fans, including yours truly, purchased the Universal Blu-ray in 2010. We’d been had, however, as 2011 saw Criterion release their special edition on Blu-ray (buy)! Since the Criterion edition is clearly superior, the only reason to buy Universal’s competing Blu is to save money.
Fear and Loathing can also be rented or purchased digitally (rent on-Demand).
PLOT: Alcoholic skid-row poet Charles Serking (a pseudonym for Charles Bukowski, on
whose stories the film is based) drinks, writes poetry, has bizarre sex with a small harem of loose women, and finally falls in love with a beautiful but self-destructive prostitute.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Though no movie where a barstool patron calmly inserts a giant safety pin through her cheeks can be said to be unweird, Tales doesn’t go over-the-top in weirdness, and doesn’t compensate with exceptional insight or drama.
COMMENTS: Tales of Ordinary Madness’ greatest asset is the fact that it recreates the feeling of sitting on a bar stool listening to a charming, plastered braggart tell tall tales pulled from a head full of hazy, half-remembered adventures. The first sequence illustrates the method. Bleary eyed, brown-bagged bottle in hand, a bored Serking stumbles out of a poetry reading and discovers a runaway nymphette has set up a makeshift bedroom, complete with clothesline hung with her dainties, in an antechamber of the deserted performance hall. “Are you real?” he asks as a prelude to pedophilic seduction. She answers in the affirmative, but we have our doubts—even though she seemingly leaves him a pair of panties and takes a bus ticket. That’s not even the most improbable of the soused author’s sexcapades, which include stalking a woman who later claims she likes to be raped, having a beautiful call girl pay him for sex so he will ruin her for her clients, and trying to re-enter the womb with the help of a game, dumpy housewife. Each vignette has the feeling of something that might have happened, but not quite in the way it’s told to us. When Serking gets his break and is sent to the writer’s big leagues, the paid fellowship gig involves sitting in an office cubicle in a literary assembly line under the sickly green glow of a fluorescent tube. Throughout the film, we see Serking engaging in some increasingly odd adventure that passes out before it gets too strange. He then wakes up alone, as if he’s sobered up and reality has reset itself. Besides boozing and womanizing, Serking occasionally writes poetry, although it can turn Sam Spade-ish: “Los Angeles… some call it Lost Angels. Me, I was just another one of the lost, back where I belonged…” Ben Gazarra goes all-in for the role, and a less committed performance might have wrecked the film. With a winning smile beneath a ragged beard, he delivers his street poetry in a boozy, bemused baritone that conveys more hard-earned wisdom than is actually contained in the naive romanticism of the script. Exotic Ornella Muti is more luminous and intoxicating than the glow of a neon beer sign in a dim bar, and the series of increasingly shocking body mutilations she goes through penetrate the heart far more than Serking’s doggerel. The movie’s principal problem is its unreflecting over-eagerness to buy into the “tragic artist drowns his sorrows in a river of pleasure” mythology. The portrait is of a young male poet’s fondest fantasy: be fashionably sad, drink all day, bang out a few sentimental lines every now and then, and beautiful women will throw themselves at you. The layer of grime necessary to cut the glare of the glamor is missing: Gazarra is too healthy, too vital, too clear headed, too able to shrug off the whiskey and get an erection whenever he needs one. He only vomits once. But perhaps that’s all part of the movie’s “it really happened, but not quite the way I’m telling it now” stylistics.
Charles Bukowski’s life was also the subject of a more conventional and accessible film, Barfly (1987), with scruffy Mickey Rourke looking more beaten down and low-rent than Gazarra’s relatively presentable portrayal. More recently, Matt Damon tackled a Bukowskiesque figure in Factotum (2005). Bukowski himself reportedly did not like Tales, and some critics complain that this reverent work misses out on the writer’s subtlety and undercurrent of irony. I suspect, to the contrary, that the movie captures the Bukowski project too perfectly. Like a lesser William S. Burroughs, this is an artist whose literary reputation comes from his tormented persona rather than from his actual writings. This narcissistic artistic fantasy, where warts are redrawn as beauty marks and paraded as badges of authenticity, makes Bukowski’s personal mythologizing look too transparent.