PRINT January 1996


Lost Los Vegas

IS IT JUST A COINCIDENCE that Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, and Martin Scorsese’s Casino, three would-be down-and-dirty 1995 Hollywood tributes to lost Vegas, all went into production at more or less the moment when, led by the refurbished MGM Grand Hotel, America’s fastest-growing metropolis began promoting itself as the new Orlando? Lost Vegas became Vegasland, a wholesome middle-American theme-park resort or, as Nick Tosches calls it in his intro to the recently published, elegiac anthology Literary Las Vegas, “a corporate-run nightmare draped in the cotton candy of family values.” Though pols may squawk about our unraveling moral fabric, the sometime crime of gambling, legitimated by both church and state, has been reborn as an essential source of tax revenue, a $30 billion mass entertainment providing half a million predominantly low-salary service jobs (mainly, as journalist Marc Cooper notes, for the “displaced white working class” of “the new downsized order”). Success dictates its own morality.

CineVegas celebrates American independence by positing a world where everyone and everything is for sale. The city is itself a sign. Showgirls’ showgirl triumphant is only free to split town once her image has reached billboard dimensions. A city invented by Bugsy Siegel and the Tinsel-Town vanguard, Las Vegas may be Hollywood’s metaphor for Hollywood. For Showgirls, Vegas is an amoral source of lurid thrills and instant success; for Leaving Las Vegas, it’s a setting for glamorously doomed romance. For Casino, Las Vegas now exists in the aftermath of a Golden Age, destroyed by a combination of cocaine, paranoia, pernicious women, and bottom-line-conscious executives. (Contrary to popular conception, the Vegas belle époque is not the Ratpack reign of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Casino more suggestively spans the decade 1973–83, that is, from Mean Streets through The King of Comedy.) “Today it looks like Disneyland,” whines Casino’s old-time casino boss. And vice versa: the ten-story sphinx guarding the thirty-story disco Egyptian glass pyramid that is the Luxor Las Vegas is a dead ringer for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures logo.

A half century ago construction began on the lavish Flamingo Hotel and Casino—the Vegas landmark for which, having failed to make good on the millions borrowed from investors Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, mobster Bugsy Siegel would sacrifice his life. Alas, poor Bugsy—but viva Las Vegas! This was the cold war’s original what-me-worry?-ville. In 1951, the U.S. government began testing atomic weapons 150 miles away. Some feared the high rollers might be frightened off. Au contraire. The Desert Inn’s glass-enclosed Sky Room became an even-more-popular hot spot. There was, per Time in late 1953, “no sense of doom in Las Vegas even when mushroom clouds [were] rising beyond the horizon.”

Back then, everything was Now. It was as if fallout from Yucca Rats had irradiated the Mojave Desert so that everything grew gigantic and glowing. Squeezed between mammoth, ever-more-spectacular “carpet joints,” the logos of America’s gas stations and fast-food chains appeared familiar yet immense—like the mutated ants of 1954’s Them! A delicious, free-floating megalomania perfumed the artificially lit, climate-controlled, clock-free, never-shut casinos. Las Vegas was the institutionalized wide-open town—an environment where retired Rotarians from deepest Indiana could carry on with pagan abandon, pulses pounding to the assembly-line clatter of a thousand slot machines. In Europe such opulent surroundings had been the prerogative of the aristocracy; only in America was it available (at least in theory) to everyone.

Where casino dress code encompassed everything from tuxedos to damp swimming trunks, Vegas architecture synthesized all human history: Plastic Parthenon Aztec Nouveau, Neo-Jetson Ranchero Deluxe, Mega Baghdad Tudor Moderne. (And unlike Rome, as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown point out in Learning from Las Vegas, it was built in a day!) Signs erupted like pink geysers, advertising the chlorinated-turquoise, flying saucer–shaped hostelries shimmering behind them. The stupendous Stardust rubric—an orchid and baby blue CinemaScope-shaped explosion of winking planets, fiery comets, and skittering meteors, topped by a neon-girdled rotating globe, was smeared across the hotel facade for a city block. The Dunes was fronted by the world’s highest sign, a gold and ruby abstract minaret soaring 22 stories into the sky.

The Dunes sign was erected in 1964, the same year that Tom Wolfe’s classic, career-launching Esquire piece, “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t hear you! Too noisy) Las Vegas!!!”—an essay reprinted in Literary Las Vegas—not only proposed a taxonomy for the Strip but introduced the essential Vegas notion of the “liberated cortex.” Las Vegas as Factory of Fun, as Id made manifest, as Necropolis—the black hole into which the death pharaoh Howard Hughes would disappear. Like that other desert citadel, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas became a holy site. The night of July 31, 1969—11 days after the first moon walk, two weeks before Woodstock—Elvis Presley turned desert prophet and launched his assault on immortality, opening in Vegas at the International Hotel.

Who would have more to say about this Empire of Impulse Behavior: Freud or Marx? Anyone who has seen Barry Levinson’s 1993 Bugsy knows the Flamingo was built for love—a latter-day Taj Mahal, the While-U-Wait Wedding Chapel of Reified Desire. But Las Vegas also turned out to be the mob’s most profitable piece of diversification, paying off $100 billion on an outlay of $6 million (and, among other things, making possible the happy ending of Levinson’s Oscar-winning Rain Man, 1988). Business rules. Scarcely two years after Bugsy’s release, the last remaining fragment of the original Flamingo was demolished—as was the Dunes sign, blown up by phony cannon fire from an ersatz British frigate to mark the opening of a new themed hotel, Treasure Island.

God bless America and render unto Caesars Palace. Las Vegas, like Hollywood, becomes the object of popular nostalgia, despite (or perhaps because of) its own lack of civic sentimentality. The illusion of freedom is maintained in an environment of total control.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.