Heaven or Las Vegas?

A comparative essay on the films
Casino (directed by Martin Scorsese) and
Leaving Las Vegas (directed by Mike Figgis)


Thanksgiving weekend I saw Leaving Las Vegas one day and Casino (for my second time) the next. A weekend in Vegas, as it were. Particularly eye-opening because I still haven’t been to Vegas and have never had the desire to. Maybe if I were on a road trip to San Miguel de Allende or driving from LA to Denver I might want to get out of the car there for a rest stop, but that’s about it. And that’s why Vegas (and subsequently Reno and Lake Tahoe), ultimately were built: As a rest stop in the middle of the desert on your way west. A tangible mirage where you could imagine that you, yes, YOU could take advantage of Nevada gaming, marriage, divorce and prostitution laws, break the bank and go straight up to the top. Up where the air is fresh and clean.

To be brutally simplistic, one of the key themes that Casino shares with Leaving Las Vegas is the concept of trying to buy love. In this day and age as the American empire settles into its own gradual stages of decay where divorce is rife, prenuptial agreements are on their way to becoming standard considerations and abuse is rampant, the institution of marriage has been so thoroughly scrutinized recently that the once hushed secret is finally common knowledge: at it’s core the traditional concept of the institution of marriage has all the trappings of societally-approved prostitution. Therefore, what better time for two films to be released which deal primarily with love in a town where quick marriages and quick divorces are available, in an area where prostitution is legal, thereby endorsing the propositional fulcrum said arrangements are usually balanced upon. After a certain age, usually the time his heart gets irreparably shattered, a male realizes that the last thing a female is seeking in a relationship is a heart. Hell, she can get all the tender comforting she wants without all the sexual strategies and posturings from her female friends. Yes, a nice warm penis and a regular date for movies and dinner they seek as well, but if a guy has no money he will never be more than a friend. It’s that simple and also that textbook Darwinian that it becomes a chillingly sober realization that commerce inevitably takes affection and warmth to the mat and wins two out of three falls every time. No matter how much potential worth a guy has, potential worth is only retroactively evaluated into the equation when a woman wants to settle down. Until that time they want to go skiing in the winter, diving in the summer, bungee jump off the Taj Mahal at midnight AND put the sunset over the Eiffel Tower in their back pocket while their anatomical ripeness and allure can still magnetize attention. Until their biological clock goes off they want to RIDE. They fully realize that once Mother Nature gives them swollen ankles and waterweight gain they are going to want to remember their incredible teens and twenties for the rest of their lives, and they subsequently know that they’ll only have to twirl their hair for about five minutes before some other Joe with a bigger wallet wants to take them out and buy their affection if you don’t. Of course, the biggest inequity is the way the dating ritual has evolved around this. Since money is the name of the game, shouldn’t the poor one ask the rich one for the date? No, because the latent subtext is dowry. It’s a surrogate father thing. A guy has to prove that he will be making AS MUCH MONEY as her father OR MORE before she (and her father) consents. In today’s economy this is why a lot of boys and girls are clueless as to the newer strategies they’re supposed to take if neither income is impressive enough unless they’re combined. These couples, monetarily equal yet using them in yin-yang unison, will obviously be happier. When chasing another person always remember: the more they play hard to get, the less they have to offer. It’s a simple poker bluff. This is all very wrapped up with the concept of their own self-esteem and sense of personal worth as well. In real life, a pair of threes constantly beat a royal flush just because it’s up to the guy (naturally naive in matters of the heart because he has to spend his time and energy learning the finer points of competition in the real world) to risk rejection and offer up his heart. Rage is simply devotion spurned. When females begin chasing with all the diligence males have been traditionally trained to do, they too will realize this and rape won’t be gender-specific anymore. Now that we live in an age where females aren’t content to just "be" but want to "do," those who don’t take as much initiative in the dating game as guys traditionally have will be seen as quaint anachronisms. The phone works both ways. The ones who wait for the flowers and the chocolates and the dinners and trips to Hawaii before they commit are the ones who will make sure there is a prenuptial agreement so should they decide to dispose of you, they’ll still get what they were bargaining for in the first place. No matter how you slice it, it’s a business arrangement between two people, no more, no less, and it is the worst conceivable plan ever devised to legally ensure two people stay together to either be a socially acceptable unit or raise children. As long as there is financial inequality, love and money will never mix. Once males and females do finally achieve salary parity, the amount of marriages will decline, abuse will be rare, if not nonexistent, and those who do marry will do so strictly for love (which is how it should be), and those marriages will have deeper and more rewarding bonds than any previous marriages in human history.

Both Casino and Leaving Las Vegas deal with this naked concept, with each film highlighting completely different angles. In Leaving Las Vegas, Ben (Nicholas Cage) has already lost his family in a way that is so painful that he cloaks himself in complete alcoholic denial and goes to the neon city not looking for love but looking to completely annihilate his pain and if that means vacuous sex, fine, and if that means alcohol suicide, then so be it, which makes the story that much more intense and poignant. What Sera (Elisabeth Shue), the hooker he hooks up with, latches onto is that his level of despair completely matches hers. He may be attracted to her because he thinks he wants her, but she realizes he’s attracted to her because she knows he needs her. At one point he says to her, in a sober mood, "you can never, ever ask me to stop drinking," and when she hears this she empathetically knows EXACTLY what he means and solemnly nods like an obedient little girl. It’s like that great line of Dylan’s in the song Fourth Time Around: "And I, I never took much/I never asked for your crutch/now don’t ask for mine." Cage’s character is in so much denial that although he sincerely likes and understands the hooker on an unspoken level, he’s too awash in oblivion to see her as much more than a sexual object, and her despair is so bottomless that she sees in him simply a chance to finally do something good for someone rather than just get quick cash for the most intimate act there is: to try and save him by simply being there for him, masquerading as a sex toy when in fact she realizes that maybe just her presence (as "my angel" he keeps saying to her) is enough for him.

These people are desperate for each other at this particular time in both of their lives and the strength of the acting fully reveals this. Strange how people who have suffered together have stronger commitments than those who are most content, and that is one of the reasons why this film packs such a punch when it reaches it’s conclusion. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen two actors portray what real love and understanding looks like on screen. There is something so tangible in this film it almost feels voyeuristic. These characters love each other in such a way that since the hooker’s job is, obviously, to have sex with other men, the element of "cheating" is moot for her, but when she comes home one night to find that HE has been cheating, suddenly your mind freezes up and you don’t know what to think until you remember that outside of quickie oral sex you notice that they’ve never made love even though they are so obviously and operatically IN love. Wow.

I noticed that both of these films have a scene where the male protagonist is seen swimming underwater, which is probably in both films just to provide some counterbalance with the garishness of this lurid town in the middle of the desert. A smidgen of nature. An ounce of purity. Because the blueness of water looks so lovely and clear on film, even though it’s just a fraction of a scene, it is immeasurably refreshing for the eyes. In Casino, Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) has everything material he could wish for except someone to share it with and is so struck when he first sees Ginger (Sharon Stone) that he falls in lust with her through a video monitor, but it is not until he goes down to the casino floor to witness her behavior in front of her ‘john’ that he falls in love with her. But the exact same behavior of hers that makes him fall for her instantly initially is also the behavior that destroys their relationship in the end. It takes him the length of the film to realize this. When he proposes marriage to her he basically has to fully illustrate that she will have EVERYTHING she could possibly wish for materialistically and she finally succumbs, but just to hedge her bet she makes sure they have a baby before the wedding. But the price of sacrificing your freedom is so steep for this Las Vegas call girl that on their wedding night she steals away to make a phone call to her former pimp boyfriend whom she has known since she was a teenager.

No matter what extremes Ace goes to in order to provide for her safety and security she still behaves like a bucking bronco and soon starts to hit the skids with drink and drugs. (In one quick scene where she’s seen commiserating with a fellow call girl, well into her marriage with Ace, she matter-of-factly tosses off that "All I had to say was that I’m ‘Ace’ Rothstein’s wife," implying that no matter how brazenly she wields her marriage as monetary ammunition, she suspects just how little identity she actually has even though she has (his) $2 million in jewels in the bank with the ONLY KEY that he trusts her with. In another scene Ginger takes their baby daughter to the safety deposit vault at the bank simply so they can "play" with her jewelry. Are these the ties that bind?) Ace takes her back countless times after gross examples of negligence not only with their relationship but with their daughter. In the end, Ace realizes she’ll never change and spits at her "once a hooker, always a hooker" which makes her go ballistic just because it’s obviously true.

What these films illustrate so well is that love, real love, true love, has nothing whatever to do with legal tender. Just because prostitution is legal in Nevada doesn’t make it any more accessible or exotic, it simply makes it honest. The worst examples of marriages I’ve ever seen are ones where it is obvious that each person simply sees the other as an investment. You don’t see understanding or respect or care in these relationships. You only see trophies bound by obligation and expectation, with a Sword of Damocles each partner dangles over the other. Emotional terrorism in it’s most vile and base form. Human nature stretched across the bartering table. It doesn’t take very long for these marriages to fall apart. In Leaving Las Vegas two of the most down and out characters forge the unlikeliest of bonds and for a fleeting moment experience true love in spite of the money changing hands, money which magically becomes superfluous as their guards are let down to reveal an empathetic passion so real you wish that you, yes, YOU could do something to help them. And in Casino you see time and again how money doesn’t have anything beneficial to add to a relationship, and what interest it does bring is only in proportion to the size of each of the shares, not the act of sharing itself.