Like many, I did my vacationing first by way of the movie screen, making all subsequent traveling the realization of romanticized visions. When I moved to New York, it was a thousand cinematic moments made real, an excitement that still continues in spurts, despite the inevitably of the city having become, simply, the place where I live. But wherever I go, for the first time, specifically, there’s some kind of filmic attachment. In Rome, there was the evocation of countless Fellini scenes, and in Iceland…well, there wasn’t much in Iceland, really, save the Blue Lagoon spa, a high-tech, seemingly impossible haven that I’ll always compare to a Bond villain’s lair. Las Vegas, where my partner and I recently went for our fifth anniversary, has its own unique link to the movies. One might even say the town has spawned its own subgenre. Defined by glitz and excess, it’s a place that was built to be photographed, so much so that I even started to feel guilty, as it inspired more snapshots from me than the whole of Vatican City. It’s also a veritable theme park for adults, preferably for those willing to, if I may quote the Showgirls tagline, “leave [their] inhibitions at the door.” The entire atmosphere is one of fantasy, which, thanks to film, has evolved through various stages of glorification. And the city, in an almost otherworldly way, welcomes those chasing that fantasy with, big, outstretched, glittering arms, standing as a mecca of gluttony, temptation, and, of course, sin. You don’t have to be bad to do Vegas right, but it helps, as the movies have certainly taught us.
When I told our landlord we were headed to Vegas, she said she’d been there many times, and the thing she emphasized most was that the city has changed dramatically through the years. Such is certainly reflected on screen, for although the titular tune is still a Sin City anthem, the place is no longer ever portrayed with the relative idyll of 1964’s Elvis vehicle Viva Las Vegas. For me, Vegas is most connected to films from the spend-happy, devil-may-care 1990s, like Showgirls, Casino, Go, Leaving Las Vegas, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, all of which are deeply rooted in folks doing (to invoke another Vegas film title) Very Bad Things. Being there, one can instantly feel the city’s push to be more family-friendly, as amusement parks and golden arches light up along with Bally’s and The Riviera, and characters like Dora the Explorer offer photo ops on corners. But that increasingly marketable veneer (so lamented by old-school hoteliers like Robert De Niro’s Sam in Casino and Alec Baldwin’s Shelly in 2003’s The Cooler) doesn’t begin to overshadow the glut of no-kids-allowed enticements.
Though it’s essentially grown to be like a giant Times Square (or, for me, as much a filmic fantasy come true as a fantasy model of the world—a happy-meal amalgamation of virtually every global hot spot, from Paris and New York to Italy and Arthurian England), Vegas, in person, still feels startlingly unfamiliar, like the modern world turned upside down. People smoke inside and drink outside, and on every corner not occupied by Dora, escort-service employees slap hooker calling cards in your face (these prostitute-pushers are so ubiquitous that they’ve grown iconic, and I kept a few cards, advertising “Kody” and “Beth,” for posterity). So, yes, it’s like Times Square, yet more unruly, if you can imagine it. The Strip itself is indicative of an evolution, its varying levels of tackiness noting various eras of hedonism. Inside and out, The Flamingo (the above photo of which I took) reminded of me of the wonderfully seedy decadence of Showgirls, which was in fact shot at the Stardust, a bit further down the line (in “Old Vegas,” one man told us). I had to stop and ogle the dancer within a cage above the slots near the front door, and wonder who was giving her offers for more, or if that was even a reality. The pink-slathered place looked classically sinful, an aura unburdened by the fact that Donny and Marie remain its regular performers.
I’m not a drinker, so perhaps I didn’t get the full Vegas experience, but I was surely astonished by the miraculous amount of liquor that’s available everywhere. “Drink me!” it screams, as if fermented by Lewis Carroll. The cache of bottles lining the walls behind every single cashier I encountered (save a Starbucks barista) got my mind reeling as to just how crazy the purchasers were getting. We saw plenty of loud beer guzzlers in polo shirts, and girls in too-small tube dresses with yards of strawberry daiquiri, but you know that, somewhere, there are Hunter S. Thompsons waking up with lizard tails on their asses, or, on a more melancholic note, hard-luck cases like Nicolas Cage’s Ben from Leaving Las Vegas, who are chugging down fifths in perhaps the one place where absolutely no one will bat an eye. The lure of intoxication that one can almost smell in the Vegas air has also undergone metamorphosis, particularly on film. Most all of the ’90s titles I mentioned deal in the rise-and-fall, with depravity ultimately having some sort of dire result. But with the arrival of The Hangover, and the slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” (which basically launched its own movie), the notion of consequence has been shuffled aside, with partying exalted as something one deserves, should be rewarded for, and, thanks to the city’s secret-keeping policy, never have to regret. Dora isn’t the only recognizable character roaming the Vegas strip. There’s also a handful of Zack Galifianakis lookalikes, with full beards, sunglasses, man purses, and plastic babies strapped to their chests. In their way, the impersonators are walking reminders of the city’s new stress-free depictions: “Oh, right, The Hangover! This is Vegas! Let’s drink ’til we black out!”
My partner had a taste of those daiquiris, but the way in which we truly indulged was taking advantage of the ample buffets, which, from my 29-year-old perspective, put all others on Earth to shame. When it came time for a meal, the go-big-or-go-home logic took hold: “We’ll spend close to as much for a sit-down dinner anyway, so let’s just dole out the money for these lavish all-you-can-eats!” And were they ever lavish. The Bacchanal buffet at Caesar’s Palace is a must-imbibe, with so much near-haute cuisine of multiple origins that we missed an entire wing, finishing dinner and dessert without even noticing the Italian, Asian, and salad-bar stations (that’s right—no salad!). We also hit the Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan, and, making up for the Bacchanal snafu, an Asian-heavy brunch spot inside the Aria. As light as it is to consume, I was careful not to eat too much seafood, thinking of the quartet of gents in Go, and the two, played by James Duval and Breckin Meyer, who scarf down shrimp so heartily that they’re left leaning over toilets, hotel-room-bound with a whole different kind of hangover. (This leaves the remaining pair, played by Taye Diggs and Desmond Askew, free to steal cars, set a suite on fire while bedding twins, shoot a pimp after breaking the lapdance “no-touch” rule, and memorably tell a kid in an adjoining room that what they’re doing behind closed doors is “raping small children!”) In general, crime in Vegas has been just as glamorized on film as anything else, from 1952’s The Las Vegas Story with Jane Russell and Vincent Price to, of course, Casino. But perhaps no one gave Sin City law-breaking more sheen than Steven Soderbergh, whose Ocean’s Eleven remake predated the “What happens…” slogan in anointing Vegas with its current “get away clean” philosophy. Clooney and company bounced around the MGM Grand, The Mirage, and The Bellagio, all of them owned by Andy Garcia’s patsy/villain, but the latter is the one you can’t approach without recalling that handsome scheme team. The hotel’s fountain, specifically, gives you that “Wow, I’m here!” jolt, seeing as it played backdrop for the movie’s most iconic image (above).
Seeming to operate in tandem with entertainment like film, Las Vegas ebbs and flows with the times, its architecture, inhabitants, and ambiance both influencing and mirroring popular media. From “old” Vegas to “new,” Viva Las Vegas to Leaving Las Vegas, the fluidity is clear, with the matter of whether it’s evolution or de-evolution openly up for debate. (Is Dora a charming return to shreds of innocence, or a commercial mar on the raw reputation the city’s so ardently forged?) When we returned home, and stopped by my parents’ house to pick up our pets, my dad showed me his Vegas photos from decades back, many of them showing buildings that have since been torn down. Among our photos, there were plenty of shots of new highrises under construction, preparing to welcome a fresh wave of sinners ready to eat, drink, smoke, screw, gamble, spend, be merry, and all that jazz.