Hunter Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…’ and suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.” Hunter S. Thompson – Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas(1971)
The opening scene from Hunter Thompson’s famous book finds Thompson and his 300 pound Somoan attorney 160 miles from their destination of Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race for Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson has just filled himself with a pharmacy of drugs since they left Los Angeles an few hours ago and begins to see great monsters and pulls the car over to the side of the road, feeling that he cannot drive anymore. He hands the car over to his attorney to drive.
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The scene freezes the moment Thompson gets out of the car and stares with his hands in the air at the great dragon looming over the convertible. We hear about the drugs and the great dragon via sequential red signs by the side of the highway that relate Thompson’s opening words of the book in the form of parts of a Burma Shave jingle.
The image has stayed in my mind and became a type of symbol for me. Unlike a film image which was already suggested for you, an image from literature had to be investigated, tamered with. It leaves much to the reader’s imagination and participation and these efforts transferred to the reader’s minds makes these literary images so much more powerful, allowing for one’s imagination. It was almost the direct style and mood that Thompson began his book with. Someone waiting for the effects of all the drugs they have taken to “kick in.” It is a familiar “waiting room” form many baby boomers so perhaps this scene is only really understood by baby boomers. It uses a generational counter-culture hero matched up with a shaving company known for moralistic roadhside musings.
The book was first serialized in Rolling Stone and is one of the greatest books to come out of the drug culture of the 60s. It is one of the first and best examples of a new type of reporting invented by Thompson called Gonzo Journalism. The diorama mixes the first part of Thompson’s book with the relatively innocent world of Burma Shave signs that appeared along American highways from the 30s through the 50s. The Burma Shave signs were sponsored by the provided by the brushless shaving cream company Burma Shave. They were a series of small sequential signs spaced apart providing humorous, rhyming poems. Often, the signs were small morality tales about being a safe driver with the Burma Shave logo at the end. For example, one set of signs read, “Hardly a driver / Is now alive/ Who passed / On hills / At 75 / Burma-Shave.” Another set of signs stated, “A man / A miss / A car / A curve / He kissed the miss / And missed the curve / Burma Shave.”
An Old Burma Shave Sign
The first paragraph of the book is mimicked as words on Burma Shave signs in the diorama. The first words remain unchanged, but the rest of the words of the book are changed. A billboard of the film Fear & Loathing is on the upper left-hand corner of the diorama. The billboard is there to quickly identify the scene yet it advertises a film that is non-existent in 1971 when this scene takes place. (The film – with Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro- would not come out until 1998). The location of the scene is a two-lane desert highway 3 miles outside of Barstow, California and 157 miles from Las Vegas. We know this from the distance highway sign along the highway.
In the scene, a gold convertible gold Cadillac has pulled off the road and the driver has stepped out with his hands in the air as he looks at a great dragon. (The dragon is substituted for the giant bats of the book). The little string of Burma Shave signs reading from left to right along the highway say:
We were around Barstow / When the drugs took hold / I stepped on the gas / I was feeling bold / Then a dragon appeared / One of great size / I pulled the car over / I was not fit to drive / Close Shave (immitating the Burma Shave logo always at the end of the series of signs)
Here, the Burma Shave signs do not state some safety jingle but rather express the first-person narrative of the driver of the gold Cadillac. (Changed from the original red Cadillac 1971 Eldorado Thompson refers to as “The Great Red Shark” in the book because I couldn’t find a model of a 1971 red Cadillac Eldorado convertible in 1/87 scale). They form a short statement from the driver of the convertible about his condition and how he has to pull off the road. The viewer is forced to interact with the scene and interpret it by reading the little signs. At the end of them, they come upon the gold Cadillac. The attorney is casually sitting in the Cadillac but Thompson has gotten out and stares at a great dragon looming over the car with his hands in the air.
Planning Stage 1 of the Diorama – The highway, signs, billboard, car & dragon
It’s interesting as the viewer of the diorama sees the scene from the perspective of the car’s driver, Hunter Thompson. This leads to a subtle narrative confusion or nuance for the viewer that might make the viewer question the state of his/her own mind. Somewhat like the narrative voice in the “Brown Stocking” scene of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. It is not all that clear who is narrating this scene. After all, a dragon is out there in the front of this scene for all to see. And, who is the viewer of this diorama? An “objective” outside observer? Or, someone part of the narrator’s first-person narrative as told in the Burma Shave signs?
Planning Stage 2 of the Diorama – Sandpaper for highway surface, colored signs and Woodland Scenics Shaper Sheet for desert
Yet it’s also interesting that the viewer is not given the whole story on this scene. Rather, the viewer needs to take the action of bending over and reading whats on the little signs by the side of the highway.
Planning Stage 3 of the Diorama – Sandpaper and desert painted and yellow center line painted on highway
Completed Diorama – Spray painted with Rustoleum Textured paint and desert bush pasted in.
Another Photograph of Diorama With Different Background
Hunter Thompson Confronts the Great Dragon While His Attorney Relaxes in the Caddie
“Somehwere Around Barstow”
Drawing By Ralph Steadman
Johnny Depp As Hunter Thompson in the Movie Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)