Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has surpassed the fame of Hunter S. Thompson, its author and one of the pioneers of Gonzo-style journalism. To the point that the film has lost all trace of its inherent social critique.
So, really, what is the meaning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
An example of gonzo journalism
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was intended as an example of Gonzo journalism, a particular type of reporting and a writing technique which Hunter S. Thompson pioneered.
Continuing the lineage of stream-of-consciousness writing which relied on transcription of thoughts and conversations verbatim and a radically first-person narration, gonzo-style writing in the case of Hunter S. Thompson could best be described as stream-of-altered-consciousness writing, relying on drugs and alcohol to enhance the radical subjectivity of the transcribed experience.
As a journalistic style, although gonzo journalism abandons traditional claims to objectivity and verifiable information, it seeks accuracy and social insights at the bottom of highly personal experiences and emotions.
Viewers of the film tend to focus on the first meaning, and ignore the second, loosing much of what was put on the page for the reader by Hunter S. Thompson.
The end of a trip…
The ending of the film and the closing speech made by Johnny Depp, viewable here, reveals the element of social critique latent throughout the film.
The speech, coming at the end of a debauched road-trip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, denounces 1960’s drug-culture as a fallacy. It specifically singles out Timothy Leary, the American psychologist famous for advocating drug use (most notably LSD) as a means to expand individual consciousness and access inner peace.
On a different level, and in light of the rest of the film, the speech should also be read as a damning critique of the American dream which, like the fallacy of the mysticism spear-headed by Leary, crashed in the early 1970’s at the time the book was written.
A critique of the American Dream
More than drug-culture, what is explored in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the crudest exemplification of the American Dream. And Las Vegas, in Thompson’s gonzo-eyes, stands for all of the illusions that compose it.
First, the dream of fame and success. The idea that fortunes can be made overnight, a strong component of the “rags to riches” narrative underlying the American dream, is displayed nowhere as crudely as in Las Vegas’ casinos. The protagonists, stumbling through these in one of the most iconic scenes, reveal the obverse of the dream in the lizard-like lust that it instills in those who play the game.
Second, the hope for peace and justice. Every hotel room scene takes place to a backdrop of military combat taking place on the permanently turned-on TV screen. With the war in Vietnam still dragging on, America’s promise to act as a peace-keeper is sounding increasingly hollow by the start of the 1970’s.
Lastly, the miracle of economic growth. In a way, the previous aspirations are underpinned by this prerequisite: the idea that the economy will keep growing ad infinitam. Just like the protagonists’ drug consumption that leaves them neurotic and depressed by the end of the trip, so too is the American economy experiencing a breakdown in the early 70’s. After being euphoric and stimulated by massive growth in post-war consumption, the economy enters stagflation:
We’re all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the 60’s.
The end of the analysis…
To keep true to the principles of gonzo journalism, the element of critique present in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not accompanied by an exploration of the causes.
The ending speech, which is taken word for word from the novel, sees blame on both sides. To those who sold dreams ignoring the “meat-hook realities that were lying in wait” and to that “generation of permanent cripples and failed seekers” who took it seriously. In the last instance, “their loss and failure is ours too,” and once the hole in the illusion has become apparent the era of optimism which the movie opens on (and assimilates to San Francisco) is gone.
San Francisco in the middle 60’s was a very special time and place to be a part of. But no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time in the world. Whatever it meant.
The exercise in gonzo journalism that is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas won’t allow the author to venture beyond this point. As it is imperative to remain trapped – as it were – in the journalist’s subjectivity, the claim to an objective answer as to what the causes might be is out of the range of gonzo journalism. A mistake, perhaps as big as not taking the social message delivered by Hunter S. Thompson, would be to impose a political message on the text which it simply doesn’t hold.