Top Non-Cartoons: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Sometimes I think that people wish that they lived in a cartoon. Why else would this movie exist?

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a book by infamous self-insert fan-fiction writer/suicide victim Hunter S. Thompson. In it, two dangerously irresponsible people use a journalistic assignment in Vegas as an excuse for a mad bender. Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego), and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo get tanked on beer, barbs, and ether, and then forgo their assignment completely so they can terrorize the gamblers, policemen, and casino slaves they encounter. The two men are remorseless addicts and compulsive liars, and their adventures are mostly irrational and aimless. They trash hotel rooms and skip out on bills. They frighten hitchhikers and move on girls of many ages. Sprinkled amongst the roguery are poetic eulogies for the 1960s counter-culture. I think the purpose of these is to add some thematic weight to the work, but the whole thing remains a racing, meandering mess. I guess it’s fascinating in a James Joyce-ian kind of way, though I’m not much of a Joyce fan. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t live in the book’s time. I don’t know. What did grab me about it, though, were its contrasts in ugliness: the reader must decide whether the heroes’ debauchery is really any worse than sanctioned sociopathy.

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Terry G. was here

Anyway, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the film, is the Terry Gilliam interpretation of the work, and while it remains an exercise in discomfort, its presentation is so comical that it often plays like some twisted Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s hard to know what to make of it, but the more I watch it, the more I like it.

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Depp as Duke

The casting is brilliant. Johnny Depp plays Raoul Duke with the inebriated sashay he later used for his Jack Sparrow character. He wiggles and wobbles and won’t hold still, and his lines are a stew of unintelligible mumbles. The whole act must look ridiculous to those who haven’t seen or heard the person that Depp’s imitating. Hunter S. Thompson was indeed a hyper man who couldn’t stop talking, gesturing, or thinking, and Depp spent weeks alongside him in order to assume and develop his mannerisms. It’s an excellent impression, but the Duke we see in the film isn’t Thompson in totality. The real Thompson was mischievous, crude, and unpredictable, but Depp is too charismatic to allow these qualities to define him. Whether he means to or not, the actor brings innocence and optimism to every role he takes, from Gilbert Grape to Sweeney Todd, so even Duke, one of the least pleasant characters he’s ever played, oozes sympathy and charm.

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Del Toro as Gonzo

Benicio Del Toro, on the other hand, is not so charming. There’s nothing optimistic or innocent about Dr. Gonzo, a paranoid, fast-tempered menace who tromps about like a massive bull, and then slithers out of sight when he’s most needed. Gonzo has even less control over himself than Duke does, and it’s apparent that he’s far too in touch with his death drive to feel safe around. Gonzo is the Daffy Duck to Duke’s Bugs Bunny: he is an unreliable backstabber, and yet Duke feels some responsibility for him. Duke often has to trick and manipulate Gonzo to keep him out of trouble, since it’s clear that force won’t work on a gun-flashing acid freak.

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The Mint 400

How these two nut-balls attained any level of professional success is a mystery to me, but Duke has been entrusted with the coverage of some dusty, off-road bike race called the Mint 400. Whom he’s writing for is never revealed, but the job itself is a cul-de-sac: a sequence of no consequence meant only to add to the movie’s mural of blazing, manic visuals.

I truly believe that Gilliam was less interested in conveying Thompson’s story — if there is one — than in portraying the outrageous sensory experiences it describes. Much of the movie’s imagery is derived from the book’s grotesque ink drawings, which are rendered in stark, splattery glory by Ralph Steadman. I think Gilliam fell in love with these drawings, and aimed to recreate them as best he could.

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In his DVD commentary, Gilliam said that he wanted a feeling of unease to hang over the movie, so the audience can never quite feel comfortable. His crew colored every scene in garish, mismatched colors, and his camera seems forever trapped on a tilt-a-whirl. Things rarely slow down in this film, and those few moments when Duke and Gonzo slump into their hotel beds provide only fleeting respite. Every inch of this film is chaos, chaos. Rushing chaos, swinging chaos, reeling chaos, screaming chaos, violent chaos. It wiggles and sways like one who obeys every whim of one’s nerves, and the feeling becomes addictive. It makes me wonder: what’s the point of restraint in society? What’s the point of restraining oneself? What’s the point of restraining anything?

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To make a mess of things

Of course, the movie also provides some good arguments in favor of restraint. After seeing this movie, I know that certainly won’t go on a drug binge anytime soon. Sucking down tremendous amounts of acid, coke, and ether might sound like a party (to somebody), but Duke and Gonzo don’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all. In fact, they seem quite frightened and miserable much of the time. Gilliam claims that he’s never actually used any psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs, but he also says that his drug friends concede that he pretty much nailed the experience here.

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And featuring

Duke and Gonzo somehow avoid any serious consequences for their behavior, but Duke, for one, is unsettled at the depths he sinks to. This makes me wonder: why do people do this? Why do they leap into altered states with such abandon? How is it that reasonably intelligent adults, with jobs and paychecks, choose to approach such powerful experiences with zero respect for them?

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And this makes me wonder about altered states in general: do they even have a meaning, or are they just not-so-cheap thrills? Are they little more than quick trips to our own private Disneylands? Opportunities to roll over and succumb while the world turns to a melting cartoon? Why would we take such opportunities? Are we so desperate for distraction that we’ll hurl ourselves into the whirling flush of the mental toilet for nothing but a memory-killing, vomit-inducing kick?

I don’t know the answers. All I do know is that I smoked Salvia a few times, and it took me someplace strange, but it sure as hell didn’t teach me anything.

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Fear and Loathing was despised at its Cannes premiere, and despised again by critics. I agree that it can be hard to take. There’s fun to be had on this trip, but it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no clear antagonist, nothing is at stake, and its heroes can be real dick-bags. Still, it makes me wonder, and about no superficial things. Any movie that makes me wonder so much can’t be all bad. I’m not smart or proud enough to purport that I grasp the movie’s meaning, especially since Thompson himself only enjoyed it with half his heart. I do admire it, though. I admire its cynicism, its fearlessness, its coloration, and its relentless, exaggerated motion.

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MANY

I could see an animated version of this film being directed by Ralph Bakshi. The man knows his mature cartoons, and I can see the teeny veins of Heavy Metal pulsing beneath the skin here. Of course, a cartoon would not be nearly as shocking or bewildering as Gilliam’s creation, which works mostly because of its effective disfigurement of real figures.

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Top Non-Cartoons: 12 Monkeys

Today, I’d like to write about Non-Cartoons. I’m not sure that the term needs definition. Does it? What do you think?

Well, okay, I’ll do it anyway. A “non-cartoon” is a live-action film which, I feel, was made with the ambitious scope, and the careful physical attention, that I associate with animated films. I’m not talking about superhero or Star Wars films, which are practically cartoons already, nor am I talking about dry, adolescent anime films, which would probably turn out the same if they weren’t animated. No, I’m talking about films that go broad: they’re grand in scope, and they deal with very huge characters. They’re extreme, they’re over the top, and yet their live actors somehow keep them from sailing off into space. They are weird, but they would not work if they weren’t.

In this venture, I feel I must start with 12 Monkeys, a film directed by Terry Gilliam: an animator.

Terry Gilliam is the guy who did the Monty Python cartoons. You know, the goofy paper cut-out stuff that bridged the sketches:

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Terry Gilliam is known for his outlandish, ambitious movies, and the boiling water they throw him into. Studio executives hate his works, which often feature bleak and authoritarian settings, strange, cheap-looking props, and dark, ambiguous endings. His most successful movie, Time Bandits, is a whimsical children’s story. Its cast made it attractive — it features John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Sean Connery — and it has some of the most dazzling imagery that I’ve yet seen in a film. I think Gilliam used that marketability to sneak in his trademark cynicism, but he couldn’t get away with that twice. His next film, Brazilwould be his greatest struggle.

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Brazil is another Top Non-Cartoon, one that I would like to write about later. I bring it up now because it is the unrestrained portrait of Gilliam’s vision. It’s weird, it’s silly, it’s frightening, and it’s funny. Different people could call it fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror, art film, and comedy, and they’d all be right. Here’s a movie that’s impossible to categorize, impossible to forget, and, I daresay, impossible to like completely.

12 Monkeys is another one.

This is a time-travel story about a deadly epidemic that’s wiped out eighty percent of the population, and a science team’s efforts to stop it. Forced to live below ground, they send convicts up to the germ-ridden surface to find clues about how everything fell apart. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, has proven himself to be one of their best investigators, so the scientists offer him a full pardon if he’ll go back in time to find the virus’s source.

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The prison facility is a hellhole with joint-crunching cells and terrifying interview rooms. The scientists exchange sentences in a comic fashion, and they observe Cole through a jittering orb of monitors and cameras. Sorry for bringing it up again, but it’s all very Brazil, and all very Gilliam.

The time-travel scheme doesn’t go well. First off, the scientists accidentally send Cole to the wrong year. Second, Cole’s story and violent behavior land him in a mental institution before he can get anywhere. When he explains himself to a panel of therapists, even he seems to realize just how loony it sounds. So he’s trapped, spending his days in a thorazine haze, and his nights reliving a murder he witnessed as a child. Life sucks in a nut house, especially when you think you don’t belong there.

Cole’s foil is a person who’s owned his craziness: one Jeffrey Goines, a string of firecrackers given Oscar-nominated life by Brad Pitt. I fucking love this guy.

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Pitt was chosen for the role in an effort to deflate his “pretty boy” persona, and boy does he succeed. Goines is balls-out wacko. He spews manic monologues. He flips everyone off. His laugh is a dopey croak. He’s that weird kid down the street that your parents didn’t like you hanging out with, and that you weren’t sure you liked hanging out with, but you did it anyway because you were kinda scared to say no to him.

He’s also a ton of fun to watch. Fast-talking and fast-moving, he’s like James Woods on crack. With his wild antics and anti-establishment speeches, he is the original Nolan Joker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. In the movie’s best shot, a desperate Cole pushes Goines against a third-story balcony railing, and holds his head over the side. The camera is held above the two, so we can see the frightened onlookers from the floors below. Goines doesn’t react in any rational way: he just cracks up laughing, and thrusts a fuck-you finger in Cole’s face. It’s a total Batman/Joker moment, only without the stupid costumes and makeup. It proves the superfluity of the superhero movie.

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So Goines is a force of nature, but he’s also a red herring, and the movie kinda limps to its finale after Goines leaves the picture. It gets reflective and melancholy when it really needs to get up and get moving. Threads about sanity and the Cassandra complex wrap up long after we’ve lost interest in them, and the romance doesn’t feel believable. The language of time-travel movies is so familiar by now that there’s no surprise to the ending at all (this was likely intentional, but that makes it no less boring). There’s an excellent, chilling moment involving David Morse’s character, but the rest feels low and saggy.

Now this brings me to the TV show.

For some reason, the SyFy channel felt the need to expand 12 Monkeys into a series, one of those things that makes no sense to me. The movie may be flawed, but it got its point across, and serializing it won’t do its slower elements any favors. I call it “The Sopranos Syndrome,” and you see it everywhere now. The Peak TV philosophy seems to go like this: stretch a plot until it’s ready to snap, bloat it with tired themes, provide no answers or resolution until the mad rush of the finale, and boom, you’ve got yourself a success. Even South Park is doing this now, and it drives me nuts.

What’s more, the producers decided to cast Emily Hampshire as the Goines character, and one of the first things she says is, “Look at you; you can’t take your eyes off me!” Ugh.

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Already, this new Goines has told us that she knows she’s hot. Come on. A great character shouldn’t have to fall back on hotness. There is nothing sexy or even sexual about the original Goines, and that a sex symbol plays him underscores that fact. In the movie, Goines is Daffy Duck. In the show, Goines is Catwoman.

This doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying this because of any feminist leanings; I just don’t find the “small, cute, and catlike” look to be especially threatening. There are plenty of women in cinema who’ve done crazy and terrible without any eye candy. Look at Misery. Look at La Femme/Inside. Look at The Ring! Perhaps it’s the nature of our culture, but it does seem like this equation of menace with attractiveness is more common among female villains. Is there any male villain like that? Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, is the only one I can think of.

Anyway, 12 Monkeys is a true Non-Cartoon, not only because of Pitt’s character, but because of the peculiar setting, wild concept, and crooked camerawork. I think its musical score is beautiful too. I believe that animating it wouldn’t damage it, if it was provided the right animator. In this case, that animator is Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux. His character designs are freaky and weird, and his settings are eerie and monolithic. I can totally see him doing this movie justice, but I would keep him far away from the show.