I love the United States and I especially love driving around it. There are so many weird things and odd types of people I recognise from films, from books, from images.
As we grow up, we absorb experiences and visual cues. These form the framework to hang new adventures - allowing understanding and context:
I grew up with The Godfather (1972), The French Connection (1971), Warhol's Car Crash Series from the 1960s, and Watership Down by Richard Adams. So now, when I go to the States, I am subconsciously looking out for dark and grubby side-streets. Lined with oversized wheelie-bins and tumbling trash, featureless metal swinging doors lead of into seedy gin-joints populated with heavy-lidded Italian gangsters.
I'm looking out for ridiculous cars - longer than four dead Presidents laid end to end.
I'm looking for restaurants made of chrome and shiny red plastic that serve burgers with a massive smile and plenty of sauce.
I'm guessing here, but I suspect British people of a tender age, when on their gap-year State-Side, are looking out for something totally different:- wholesome be-sofa-ed cafes like Central Perk, well-dressed ditzsy women tripping over the kerb and emptying their Gucci bags onto the sidewalk. They're looking for white shiny limos carrying Who-Knows and her Chihuahua from Sunset to The Polo Lounge. I'm sorry, but they wouldn't know an American gangster if they were offered one FREE in a cardboard Bargain Bucket.
And that is where this film, Casino 1995, falls down. It's dated. Everything about it is dated.
The film is about the Las Vegas Casinos in the 1980s for heavens sake.
De Niro plays the lead, and he over-narrates the whole film with a tired Italian-American accent. And he gets blown up in a car-bomb within the first few minutes. And it's a pure history lesson of how the Casinos were set up and run by the Italian Mafia.
And it's set in the early 80s, so the men all wear platform shoes and girly trouser-suits, or ridiculous bright pink jackets with soft white shoes. They smoke in between mouthfuls of pastrami-on-rye. The Mafia bosses look like they missed acting school, and Scorcese's mother keeps looking into camera (as always).
Gangsters are dated.
The sexy women all have tall hair and glistening cat-suits.
It's all so dated. Even the date it was released, (1995), is dated.
And I love it.
Why is this important?
It's important because the history of Las Vegas is fascinating. The story of this City is another blip in the history of this megalithic country that claims to be the holy of holies.
Let me tell you about Las Vegas.
It's a huge City slap-bang in the middle of a desert. This desert is surrounded by a huge and imposing mountain range - a rocky barrier that is constantly shifting in the shimmering heat.
Vegas started in earnest in the early 30s and its population expanded quickly under the influence of Roosevelt's New Deal and the legalisation of gambling.
Almost immediately, dirty money and criminal influences began to arrive in the town and more importantly, became intricately involved with the casino industry. And so it has remained ever since, although the definition of "criminal" seems to change every decade or so.
The organised gambling was largely restricted to one street - Fremont Street - which ran North-West / South-East. In the fifties, more criminal money arrived in the form of illegal funds siphoned off the Teamsters Union - millions of dollars apparently. New casinos were built on Fremont Street, and more importantly, casinos like The Sands and the Sahara were built along 5th Street which is now known as The Strip.
More criminal money arrived as the decades passed and The Strip began to fill with lavish sparkling Casinos which were developing almost Industrial means to relieve visitors of their savings.
The point of this history lesson is to inform you that the City of Las Vegas (population now in excess of half a million) is not what draws your eye as you drop out of the crystal blue sky into McCarron Airport. Peering out of your plane window, you will only have eyes for The Strip which scythes through the flat built-landscape like a sand-worm trail on the Beach back home. The casinos on The Strip are huge multi-colored tower blocks of blue and gold - the names of their founders written cursively along their parapets. They sit like industrial chimneys pouring the effluent of a million dreams up into the crispy dry Nevada sky.
Walk along the Strip and your senses reel - the Casinos jostling you on both sides for attention:
The Bellagio Fountains. The Eiffel Tower. A Sinking Pirate Ship.
Music and digital hysteria bawling at you from huge TV screens with their sub-woofer speakers.
But this is an illusion like the town in Blazing Saddles (1974). Just take a quick walk down the side of any one of these behemoths, and it all goes quiet. You see acres of seedy characterless hotel rooms and kitchens and car-parking. I've never quite understood the attraction of hotel rooms, but these rooms are truly little better than any Travelodge or Super8 on the Eye 15.
If you want to escape this corporate Disneyfication, then you have to catch The Deuce bus North. Along The Strip and past the ridiculous wedding chapels, back to where it all started - to Fremont Street.
Here you'll find the original and un-recycled Binions and Four Queens. Casinos that were built with those skimmed Union Dues back in the fifties and which still manage to retain a human scale. Casinos that serve the local Las Vegas population on their night off. Casinos with tiny Poker Rooms where the dealers know your name. Restaurants that serve juicy 2 inch thick New York Steak for the price of a coffee.
Be quick though. Fremont Street now has a roof which flashes and sings at you on a ten minute cycle. It has a Mobster Museum and street actors.
Its time may already be gone, and a visitor might just be another cog in the corporate machine selling faux criminality for a few extra bucks.
I love Scorcese's Casino 1995 because it is a reminder that Vegas is real. That the room cleaners are paid so little they live in drain tunnels under the Eye 15. That gambling is destructively addictive, and that many of the workers you meet are there simply to be near the action.
Casino 1995 reminds me that the shiny façades are a distraction from the machinations of suspicious employment and accounting practices. That however many glistening new Hotels are built on the fallen bones of previous buildings, they will never be able to hide the bloody foundations of this remarkable Town. No matter how often Justin Bieber or Britney Spears perform at Caesar's Palace, they can't hide the web of lies that is the American Dream.
But I do know a small smoky casino where they still deal 1-pack blackjack for a 2$ minimum and serve barbecue on paper plates. Your shoes stick to the carpet and food odours adhere to your jacket. The staff laugh and smile with you. The regulars give you a hug when you win.
But I'm not going to tell you where it is because you'll bring the big-money and wreck it all.
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