Viva Las Vegas: Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson's alter-ego Raoul Duke.
Novelist Nicholson Baker dissects the dark heart of 'Fear and Loathing'
By David Templeton
David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies. This week, he rendezvous with noted novelist Nicholson Baker (Vox, The Fermata) to check out the ugly new adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
THE MOVIE theater sits before us like a vast, squared-off reptile, lounging on this downtown Berkeley sidewalk, patiently waiting for meat. Its gaping neon maw--located just behind the box office--lies open, inviting its unwitting prey to enter.
To follow this metaphor to its natural conclusion, esteemed author Nicholson Baker and yours truly-- having, of our own free will, just purchased tickets to see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--must be the meat. "We're actually going to see this, then, are we?" Baker sensibly wonders, stealing a tentative glance at the uniformed adolescent waiting next to the gullet of the reptile, preparing to take our tickets.
His trepidation is understandable: we've seen the horrified reviews, we've experienced the nightmarish commercials, we've even read the book: Hunter S. Thompson's scandalous 1971 description--originally published in serial form in Rolling Stone magazine-- in which language is stretched to unprecedented levels of gleeful hyperbole as Thompson (grandly impersonated in the film by Johnny Depp) tells of a drug-addled, hallucination-filled excursion through Las Vegas, searching for the "heart of the American Dream" with his massive, extraordinarily unpleasant attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro).
"I do remember sitting in my living room, reading Thompson's book, laughing out loud," Baker admits. "I liked the verbal texture of his writing."
Baker's own novels--while dwelling at an opposite literary pole from Thompson's nutty, paranoid ravings-- have also been praised for their "verbal texture." Baker's imaginative writing--he's often lauded as one of the English language's best, most ingenious practitioners--is never less than flat-out beautiful; his stories are slyly offbeat, inventive, and often daringly erotic.
His first book, The Mezzanine (Vintage, 1990)-- reviewed as a "novel about nothing"--demonstrated an obsession with everyday minutiae long before Seinfeld, and may have been that celebrated TV show's earliest inspiration. Not only did Baker's ingenious novel about phone sex, Vox (Vintage, 1995), gain him a worldwide reputation as a writer of erotica, it landed him in the middle of a national scandal when it was made known that Monica Lewinsky once gave a copy to President Clinton.
Baker's latest work is a surprising shift in direction. The Everlasting Story of Nory (Random House, 1998) is a delightfully crafted tale of a 9-year-old American girl attending a school in England. One of the best and funniest books yet written about the inner life of a child, Nory perfectly captures the lovely imprecision and loopy inventiveness of children's language, while casting fascinating light on the process children go through in deciding how to think and feel about the wide world around them.
FEAR AND LOATHING was really a perfect movie for me to see," Baker merrily exclaims after the movie, having at last been expelled from the reptile's innards, "because it runs counter to everything I hold important and valuable. There's no beauty in it. It's joyless. The only intellectual element going on at all is the sarcastic, negative comic moments--all at the expense of poor innocent pedestrians and service people.
"Maybe it's childish, but I wanted these people to exhibit some warmth, some sentiment--something, anything."
Not that the film is entirely without its pleasures-- fleeting and inconsequential though they may be. When Thompson, barely able to walk after using an American flag to sniff ether with, shouts at Dr. Gonzo, "You sick, sorry bastard. You've gone all sideways on me!" or exhorts his drunken friend to get up off the barroom floor--"Quick! Like a bunny!"--it does raise a smile.
Speaking of the flag, the old stars-and-stripes are almost a featured character in the movie, as Thompson mangles and mutilates one flag after another in his numerous artistic trashings of various Vegas hotel rooms.
It's almost enough to make Newt Gingrich reach for the ether.
"It's funny about that," Baker confesses, taking a seat at a nearby diner. "I actually feel that you shouldn't mess with the American flag. It didn't seem that so many instances of 'flag abuse' were really inspired or justified by the artistic demands of the film.
"I was talking about history textbooks with my 11-year-old daughter," he goes on. "She's really gung-ho about her textbook, even though it's kind of blandly written. It's called America Will Be. It weighs over a pound. What my daughter was saying was that she was really happy with her history book, but she really missed having a description of the circumstances surrounding the invention and the sewing of the American flag.
"All there is in the book is the fact that they used propaganda to establish national unity, and then a picture of the American flag. That's one of those mythological things that I remember being taught in school: Betsy Ross and the flag. And my daughter was wanting that, because the flag is a symbol that actually has some importance to her."
"Hmmmm. Are children capable of true patriotic feelings?" I wonder.
"Sure," he replies. "I think all those innocent kinds of things--like patriotism, and religious feeling, the desire to be heroic--those things seem to come naturally to kids. One of the things that's appealing about writing about kids--in the case of my book, a 9-year-old kid--is that she can go to England and be genuinely excited, in a straightforward way, about seeing a cathedral or something and be genuinely proud of being an American."
"aybe I'm wrong," Baker laughs. "But flags are clearly part of some basic identificational plumage instinct. They are deeply part of being human. Kids are fascinated with the flag pages in encyclopedias. I know a kid who knows all the flags and what countries they represent.
"Of course," he adds, "the flag also stands for all the bad things that country has done as well. So I understand it's being a complicated symbol for some people."
Which brings us back to Fear and Loathing. "I was thinking," Baker muses. "It's supposed to be a risk-taking movie, and yet it really takes no risks. Or it takes the same risks that all the 'risk-taking' movies of the last few decades take: the drug use. So what? Special-effects hallucinations--we've seen these special effects. And by reducing all human interaction down to these two mean-spirited guys who either take from people or are taken by them--if that was once risky, it's not anymore.
"The truly risky thing is to depict a reasonably happy life and show how that can be intellectually interesting, and beautiful, and worth thinking about. I suppose I think that sentiment--giving evidence of why you love someone--is riskier than merely showing the dark underside of someone."
Baker gestures through the window at the theater, where a fresh group of appetizers have just disappeared down the reptile's throat. "We've been to that dark underside so often already. The floodlights are already there. Now show me something I haven't seen."
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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.