Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Lights Out in Las Vegas

Las Vegas -- a place where anything’s possible, a place that encourages visitors to let go of everyday reality -- has now become a site of all-too-real death and destruction. The events of Sunday night won’t leave my head anytime soon.

I’ve always had mixed emotions about Las Vegas. When I was a kid, it was where my clean-living parents went for adults-only weekends, during which they swam in glamorous pools and celebrity-gazed at classy low-rise hotels like the Sands and the Dunes. (No, they never gambled—and I was startled to learn that they occasionally ordered a round of something called Dubonnet.)

When I was old enough to drink and watch shows featuring topless women, my in-laws treated my spouse and me to a few Las Vegas weekends. My father-in-law, who was born into abject poverty, loved Vegas. For him it was a place to put on his best suit and check out the craps table. He certainly never gambled to excess, but I think just being in that atmosphere made him celebrate how far he’d come in the world. Even when he was elderly, bereaved, and sad, he perked up in Vegas: the place seemed to give him a new lease on life.

Moviemakers too have always loved Las Vegas. Its garish atmosphere combined with its proximity to workaday Los Angeles has made it a destination in countless movies. Remember Vince Vaughn’s exuberant shout as he and his buddies drive toward the Strip in Swingers: “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” For his playboy character, Las Vegas is a place of escape from the humdrum world, a place where anything can happen. It plays a similar role in countless other wacky and raunchy comedies, from 1964’s Elvis flick, Viva Las Vegas, to 2009’s cringe-worthy The Hangover. Given how much money changes hands in Vegas, it makes a great setting for rollicking heist dramedies like Ocean’s 11, both the 1960 Rat Pack original and the all-star 2001 remake. And it enjoys an effective closeup in Rain Man, where Tom Cruise’s character sends his autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) to the blackjack table, to take advantage of this savant’s unlikely talent for numbers.

It’s no secret that Las Vegas has had a long association with mobster types. One source of the Strip’s frenetic glamour has always been a struggle for power between tough guys who fully intend to hold all the marbles. In the town that some would-be wits call “Lost Wages,” the winner takes all. This fact has resulted in powerful Vegas dramas like Bugsy and Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Films of this sort link the Vegas gambling-joints with dangerous men, femme fatale women, and bloodshed on tap.

But the Las Vegas film that lingers in my memory banks is not about the city’s big “machers.” Leaving Las Vegas, from 1995, explores the seamier side of life just off the Vegas Strip. Nicolas Cage, in an Oscar-winning performance, plays a failed Hollywood screenwriter who has taken up residence in Vegas in order to drink himself to death. By his side in his seedy final abode is a kindly prostitute (Elisabeth Shue) with troubles of her own. When Cage’s character leaves Las Vegas, it’s clear it will be feet first.

It’s a life (and a death) he’s chosen. But those poor souls who came to Vegas last weekend to enjoy a country music concert didn’t deserve to have their lives shortened. If their killer found the need to leave Las Vegas in grim fashion, how tragic (and how unfair) that he chose to take them with him.

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