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Contact High

Fear and Loathing is the latest in Terry Gilliam's cinematic revolution

It gets dark, but not violent. The book's violent passages -- in the diner, with the maid -- revealed the on-the-edge psychosis of the characters to the readers, but they're not transposed to the film. These episodes of waving knives, threats and anxiety are twisted instead into humorous skits where a little stark violence would've been a good contrast to the general wackiness.

And the drugs. Oh, the drugs. Gilliam is no drug enthusiast; he claims never to have tried acid. Perhaps this is why the characters in the film seem to be having too much fun, even when loaded to the breaking point on chemicals. It's a farce; such exaggeration. In the book, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine. In the movie -- a wastebasket full. Drugs enough to fell elephants, in the book. Drugs enough to incapacitate the state of Idaho, in the movie. Of course, overstatement is nothing new to Gilliam.

"I've never thought the book was about drugs," he insists. "It's a road movie. The drugs were a fuel, but that's not what it was about. It was a character piece; it's always been that. It's about people throwing themselves into the abyss to see what happens."

At points, Gilliam breaks away from the real story and surrenders dramatic power. If he'd emphasized, for instance, that Duke was in Vegas on assignment, screwing up big time -- watching that thin thread connecting his incoherent self with legitimacy fray away -- it would've given his excesses a larger, more desperate meaning. There's no sense that his Vegas degeneracy will affect his or his sidekick's futures. They seem more like a couple of run-o'-the-mill drug fiends, binging for the hell of it, than like two lost, unhinged men trying to disassociate themselves from reality.

Still, Fear and Loathing is an incredible roller coaster, a visual feast and enough to get you thinking about where this country started to go wrong in the '60s. It's apparent, too, that very few changes for the better have occurred since then. "The '80s sort of numbed everything down," Gilliam says. "Materialism has sort of blanketed everything. Everybody's got the goodies now -- the CD players, the televisions -- no one wants to make any noise. But the pendulum always does swing."

Gilliam has called the film a "cinematic enema." And since we're ensconced in the rabid climate of the "War on Drugs" -- the drug use in Fear and Loathing seems lifetimes away -- the rest of the story is just as relevant now as it was 27 years ago. "We're hoping it will cause a stir -- touch a nerve," says Gilliam. "See, the beginning of the '70s was kind of interesting, because the Hunters were still out there. They were angry and disillusioned but were still alive and kicking and fighting. But now, I don't know who's alive and kicking and fighting anymore."

"And at least at that time it was clear who the enemies were -- you had Nixon, you had the war in Vietnam. Now it's harder to know what's wrong and why it's wrong and what needs fixing. I get a sense that people -- not people, but people who are alive and thinking -- realize that something is lacking here, and it must be dealt with. There are a lot of furry mammals coming out from under the rocks saying, 'Man, we've got to change something,' and I'm not even sure if people even know what it is that needs changing or what should be done."

Whatever the film's failings, you do leave the theater with a definite contact high. You may not be contemplating methods to overthrow the government, though the film gives you the sense that something is wrong, terribly wrong, with the world. You just can't put your finger on it. You'll have been too busy gorging yourself on Gilliam's visuals to walk away with a message. But you'll have absorbed something strangely revolutionary, and God knows what you'll be up to later.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Rated R.
Directed by Terry Gilliam. With Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.

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