Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Whore's Whisperer

I love Robert Redford. He's a cool guy. I don't think we need an enumerated list to explain why I think he's cool, either. Suffice to say that although neither of his Vegas movies really make my tops list -- in fact, I think one of them is a turd -- he still gets special mention in the pantheon of best Vegas movies because he's such an unlikely leading man for Las Vegas adventures. And it's exactly those distasteful veins that he taps into for each role. Instead of glorifying the city, which would be anathema for him, he brings across the disdain. And yet, that's the beauty of Redford -- it's still done with flair of wit and rapscallion charm.

So it's 1979 and Sydney Pollack decides to make a movie about the beauty of the unspoiled west. A cowboy movie infused with a natural romance. Hmm. Where to start? Las Vegas, of course! He gets two movie stars at the height of their fame and has Hanoi Jane and the Sundance Kid spar along the strip and appropriately calls it The Electric Horseman.

Redford rocks the purple satin, bedazzled with green sequins for accent, as the Electric Horseman, Sonny Steele. (<--great porn name)

Sonny's a hard-boozing, ex rodeo champ who's been outposted to do time as a breakfast cereal spokesman, and he's sent to Vegas, along with a $12 million dollar champion horse, to pitch the stuff. All of this is distasteful enough for Sonny, but when he sees that the once dignified horse is being doped, he gets his shit together and steals it. Which results in this scene, of the Sundance Kid riding down the strip in full, flashing getup.

Unexpected highlight of the movie? Redford, as Sonny Steele, actually slaps Jane Fonda's Hallie across the face at one point! That's the kind of shit that went the way of mob-rule in Vegas. By the mid-80's, it just wasn't done anymore, at least not publicly.

Once Sonny gets off the strip and into Utah, Pollack captures some beautiful scenery to really make this a laid-back western. But until then? It's set in Caesars Palace, which isn't all that different looking from the 1988 Caesars Palace, which still bears a striking resemblance, in places, to the 2007 Caesars Palace. But the wallpaper in the rooms is funkier than George Clinton, and Sonny's tricked-out ride down the strip features a Vegas that's completely gone today.

Fourteen years later, Redford gets tricked-out once again, but in a much more literal way. In Indecent Proposal, his character, appropriately named John, takes an even more expensive ride on a thoroughbred when he mounts top earning Hollywood female Demi Moore (12.5 million for her highest paying gig, I believe, therefore edging out the racehorse) for the American's Top Hooker price tag of a million bucks.

He also tries to steal this bucking babe away from her husband, played by Woody Harrelson, but instead of setting her free in Utah, she runs back to Woody by picture's end. This is the second unsuccessful theft in this film, as the first occurs when sex-obsessed director Adrian Lyne rips off the comic premise of Honeymoon in Vegas and turns it to a fucking dirge. None of this is the fault of writer Jack Engelhard, on whose novel the movie is supposedly based, and who published his book long before Honeymoon. However, he sure didn't help matters, either. Also, it should be noted that I have nothing against the sex-obsessed, I just think Adrian Lyne kinda sucks.

On the upside, Lyne is sex-obsessed, and Demi Moore is unabashedly uninhibited, so we get some skin shots, which is nothing to scoff at. In 1993, Moore was one of the sexiest and most beautiful women in the world, and it's a pleasure to watch her move onscreen. On the downside, Moore was also one of the most beautifully awful actresses in Hollywood, so watching her trying to act can be downright wince-worthy.

But there is also Redford. Casually flipping his chips, seated at a high-limit baccarat table beneath the crystal chandeliers in the Hilton Las Vegas casino. He inspired me to lean that trick. By most people's standards, the Hilton is a fairly unremarkable casino, because it has no theme. It's a just a casino, which is precisely what makes it pretty cool. I owe this movie a debt of gratitude, because I only stopped in to check the place out because of the movie being filmed. And because of that, I discovered the greatest cocktail ever created. The Warp Core Breach. It's not even mentioned in the movie, and in fact, the bar (Quark's) isn't mentioned, either. But this drink, it's legendary. So for that, I'm grateful.

Despite this movie's many shortcomings (no pun intended), it is worthwhile to see the elegance of Redford, and sexiness of Moore's lips as she kisses the dice and then puts on the infamous dress, and to get a glimpse of Vegas that's not theme-park mania.

We all know Redford prefers the peace and natural dignity of Utah. But put him in a suit in the middle of Vegas and he still manages to light up the screen and outshine all the artificial glitter.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Liar's Diary by Patry Francis

Patry Francis is a talented author whose debut novel, The Liar’s Diary, came out in hardcover from Dutton last spring. The trade paperback release is today, but a few weeks ago, Patry was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She's had several surgeries, and her prognosis is good, but given that Patry won't have much energy for promoting, a number of bloggers are banding together to do it for her.

The Liar’s Diary is now available in paperback right here: purchase page on Amazon.

Also, please be sure to stop by Patry's website. Congrats, Patry!

About The Liar's Diary:

Answering the question of what is more powerful—family or friendship? this debut novel unforgettably shows how far one woman would go to protect either.

They couldn’t be more different, but they form a friendship that will alter both their fates. When Ali Mather blows into town, breaking all the rules and breaking hearts (despite the fact that she is pushing forty), she also makes a mark on an unlikely family. Almost against her will, Jeanne Cross feels drawn to this strangely vibrant woman, a fascination that begins to infect Jeanne’s “perfect” husband as well as their teenaged son.

At the heart of the friendship between Ali and Jeanne are deep-seated emotional needs, vulnerabilities they have each been recording in their diaries. Ali also senses another kind of vulnerability; she believes someone has been entering her house when she is not at home—and not with the usual intentions. What this burglar wants is nothing less than a piece of Ali’s soul.

When a murderer strikes and Jeanne’s son is arrested, we learn that the key to the crime lies in the diaries of two very different women . . . but only one of them is telling the truth. A chilling tour of troubled minds, The Liar’s Diary signals the launch of an immensely talented new novelist who knows just how to keep her readers guessing.

The Liar's Diary on Amazon

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Cooler couldn't be Hotter

The Cooler isn't just one of my favorite Vegas movies. It's one of my all-time favorite movies. The only reason this flick doesn't rank as the ultimate Vegas movie is because, although it's supposedly set in Vegas, it wasn't filmed there.

William H. Macy, an actor who specializes in losers, hits the jackpot of loserdom with this role. He plays Bernie Lootz, a guy so riddled with bad fortune that he's employed as a "cooler" at an old-school Las Vegas casino, run by his longtime friend, Shelly, played by Alec Baldwin. All Bernie has to do is show up on the scene and hot tables go cold, saving the casino a fortune. The problem is, when Bernie falls in love with beautiful Maria Bello's character, Natalie, suddenly Lady Luck is on his side, which drives Shelly crazy.

Written by Frank Hannah and Wayne Kramer and directed by Wayne Kramer, The Cooler is quite possibly the only noir fairy tale ever filmed. It's a risky cross-genre that really shouldn't work, but it does. It's moody and dark in all the right places and then effortlessly leaps into unlikely, gushing joy. And it's that duality that so perfectly captures both sides of the coin of love, and Vegas.

This is a smaller picture, not a multi-million dollar extravaganza. And what can make or break a little picture like this is the details. And the details here are so impeccably -- even lovingly -- translated, that it takes this movie to a different level where it does what so few pictures do. It marries the best of film and movies. It's highly entertaining, but it's also smart about it. The soundtrack alternates from tender and haunting with Diana Krall to raucous and swinging with an often overlooked Lerner & Lowe classic. The visual appeal of the movie is undeniable, even without a realistic Vegas backdrop. Here, the costuming stands symbolically in place, from Bello's watery greens to Macy's hot and cool suits. There are interweaving storylines, none of which get cluttered or overplayed; they just twine together and culminate perfectly.

It's a true testament to the excellence of this movie that it really does capture the essence of Vegas while not even being there. It was filmed in a real casino, which helps with the ambience. And it's the perfect casino for the story they're telling, but it's one that just doesn't quite really exist in Vegas, either. But, instead of being a drawback, it only adds to the fairy tale quality of the picture with it's slightly enchanted unreality.

Macy has never been better, and Bello is fantastic. Ron Livingston gives a solid performance. And of course, there's the great Alec Baldwin, and this is one of his greatest film roles.

Visually, Vegas may be missing as a character. But they still managed to capture all the heartbreak and romance of the city and translate it into one cohesive narrative.

The entire concept of this movie was a gamble -- to mix such distinct genres, and put it all in the hands of a loser as a leading man. But that's Vegas for you. Sometimes the most unlikely bets payoff huge. And that's what makes this movie a winner.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A lotta holes in that desert

Martin Scorsese's Casino is often thought of as an inferior bookend to his masterpiece, Goodfellas. The same actors inhabit the screen, but Joe Pesci captured audience and critical attention with his psycho role in as a mobster in Goodfellas and left them wanting more. But when he sank back into the snarling, viciously violent bulldog-bad guy genre this time around, it gave a lot of people way too much. In other words, guns and butcher knives are acceptable murder devices. But using a vise for torture is just, finally, going too far.

It's a shame that this movie is given such short shrift because of its similarities to the impeccable Goodfellas, because Casino, is, in its own right, a damn good movie. Brilliant, in fact. Scorsese is a master in every sense. He marries character to plot and has an unflinching eye for not only the most repulsive aspects of our species, but also a generally unheralded talent for capturing brief-if-startling beauty. And his skills were able to fully present, in all its vainglorious aplomb, a Las Vegas that had already been destroyed. He understood that there was the thinnest patina of faux-class that made the city so appealing.

Back in the '70's the city was exactly like Sharon Stone's character, Ginger. It was dressed up, glitzed out, and entirely tempting. But underneath, at the core, Ginger -- and Las Vegas -- is still a greedy hooker-hustler. From the start, it was set for a collision course, with the very people who creat it. Like a snake shedding its skin (albeit a sequin festooned one this case) and eating its own tail, Vegas has an uncanny ability to slough off the dead components to keep itself alive. It's a process that repeats as the city ages, with different names filling in the blanks to catalogue the rise and fall of fortunes and all the different skins left behind. Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Frank Rosenthal, Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn. The details of the story change with each decade, and the setting reinvents itself in every incarnation. But at the heart of it, there's always romance, and heartbreak, and all that greed.

Scorsese tells the story of the mob rise and fall in Vegas through the fictional Tangiers, with Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) as the epicenter and architect of its success with mobster Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) as his would-be protector and the dame, Ginger, (Sharon Stone) who comes between them to help bring it all crashing down.

This is the last time, at least to date, that Robert DeNiro will be Scorsese's leading man, before the director turns his eye to Leonardo DiCaprio. It's also a film where Sharon Stone earns props more for her acting than for her body.

Filmed at the Riviera in the wee hours, Scorsese manages to do more than just capture the retro-feel of the '70s. He brings it to life. The Riviera is still an old-school establishment (make what you will of that statement) and its design reflects that. Though the Tangiers is fictional and the names are changed, the story is based on the life of Lefty Rosenthal, one of the most talented handicappers in history, and his co-hort, one of the most feared Vegas mobsters in history, Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, and the legend of the Stardust Casino.

By very definition, the material demands that the movie be both more gaudy and intricate than Goodfellas. Therefore, if Goodfellas is the renaissance masterpiece, Casino has no alternative but to tip into the baroque. And baroque it is. The sets, costumes, and violence escalate to nearly unbelievable heights, but that's precisely what stamps it as so authentic. What may appear outlandish can easily be traced by recent historical documents and verified to actually be true. Which is to say -- the infamous vise scene? It's not a construct of Scorsese's. It happened. The timing and confluence of events and certain characters are jiggered with to smooth the overall story. But the details are, frighteningly, real.

I think that's a part of the movie that dooms it even with plenty of Vegas aficionados. We like to swipe a veneer of romance across the past; people often talk about the old days before the classy call girl got turned into the cheap whore. But few of those people really want to think about the bloodshed that kept the machinery oiled back then.

When this film was released, in 1995, Vegas was mired in the grotesque throes of the family-friendly era. So while old-timers were lamenting the theme-parks sprouting up, this movie was an adrenaline shot back to the by-gone era of pure gambling and lights, but it failed to render the scene as dignified as some would like. Instead, it captures the whole story in all its panoramic excess. It doesn't just celebrate the shiny, sequined skin of the fresh snake, it shows us the terrible personal clashes that cause the skin to wither and die, and depicts the shedding in unrelenting detail. And that's exactly what makes it so breathtakingly, poignantly, and disturbingly Vegas.


Check out William Reese Hamilton's "Starlings" live now at the Adirondack Review.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Simon, stalkers, and satire

The audition rounds of American Idol have begun. Traditionally, this is when we sit back and laugh at the idiots. Usually, this is an uncomfortable and guilty program, because we're sitting back and getting our jollies from people being humiliated because they're clueless in their idiocy.

But this year, there's already been a twist. Certainly, there have been bad singers and people so over-the-top with lunacy that I had to wonder if it was just an act for the cameras. But the funniest came when The Stalker Guy came into the room and was so obviously making a joke. He focused on Paula and cheerily sang her a song about breaking into her house and trying on her panties. Sound creepy?

Not so much.

Not since Adam Sandler rhymed "pumpkin pie" with "Sammy Davis Jr. only had one eye" in the Thanksgiving song has the nation been treated to such silly American songwriting. Given my love of "Flight of the Conchords," maybe I'm inclined to laugh at mock-songery. But although The Stalker Guy didn't posses the musical ability of Brent and Jemaine, he did have the same refreshing air of willingness to look foolish courage.

Rhyming everything he could with "stalk her," once he pulled out the "If I was Columbo, I'd Peter Falk her" line, I cracked up. But then, what made it even funnier is that it seemed like even Paula got the humor of it, until daft-ass Simon stopped the song and dourly called the guy creepy. If he didn't think it was funny, I could maybe get that. (but really, Peter Falk her? It's absurdly funny.) What was hilarious to me, though, is that Simon seemed to really think the guy wasn't even trying to make a joke. Simon seemed to think he was generally unhinged like so many of the others that they encourage to go off their meds and debase themselves.

And that's the funniest fucking part. It's American Idol, Cowell, not a freaking NATO summit. The guy was having a laugh, and if Cowell could've pulled his brush-topped head out of his self-important ass for a minute, he might've seen that. But that is the point of the awful audtions rounds, isn't it -- to laugh at people who're so damn clueless. Ahh, good times. These are good times, and Simon could be Jimmie Walker!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bet Two for Good

To say that the Vegas scenes in this next movie had some influence on my life is like saying that Steve Wynn had some influence upon the Vegas skyline. Like Swingers, this isn't really a full-fledged Vegas flick, with the scenes taking up about twenty minutes of the film's time. However, in that twenty minutes, they manage to squeeze in the most recognizable symbols of Vegas that still remain today. There are lights, a pawning of a watch, blackjack, a swank suite, a hooker, and even some some elevator romance.

Set in 1988 Caesars Palace, Rain Man is quite possibly the definitive and final film representation of the city before it underwent the massive Wynnian reconfiguration. Barry Levinson's road-trip tale of brothers forming a connection seems at first an unlikely candidate to so effectively capture the zeitgeist of the city as it breathed its last few intermittent breaths before the desert got reconfigured into blazing corporate monolithic glory. And yet, given Levinson's great talent for character, I guess it's not shocking that he so effectively captured the character of the city at this strange time.

The Thetan and Dustin Hoffman dance before the skyline as Etta James sings "At Last," as the last of old-school Vegas glitters outside, amidst the sand. The only other large building is the legendary Sands, sitting kitty-corner from their vantage point. Next door, the Mirage hasn't yet been built, but it will open to the public just one year later. They're on the seventh floor of Caesars, and yet the rest of the lights seem dwarfed by today's standards. At that time, the strip beyond them was still one bright vein of neon nestled, so unlikely, in the dark of the desert.

The swank suite they're dancing in was once the quintessential high-roller style, but would now be not even be condiered retro-chic but just plain low-class, lacking in amenities and comforts. With its gilded doors and metallic wallpaper, it still had the '70s wiseguy-guache-chic vibe working for it. In Swingers, Vince Vaughn tells his buddy as they're driving to Vegas, "They're gonna put us in the Rain Man suite!" He didn't have any luck, and in all my years there, neither have I. It's officially called the Ann Margaret suite, located in the Roman Tower, which used to be illuminated by the soft green neon lines from top to bottom. But like most everything else in Vegas, I've been told that's it's been highly remodeled and modernized and bears almost no resemblance to how it looked then.

Gone also from Caesars is the blackjack pit where the Babbitts immortalized card-counting. It's now the site of the Pussycat Dolls casino. Gone too are most of the moving walkways and the enigmatic black golf-ball looking thing that was a signature part of the structure. The entrance where Raymond drove so excellently amongst the gaudy fountains has been scrapped and re-built. Entirely gone are the days where someone would feel it necessary to get a haircut and smart suit before sitting down at the tables.

But, blessedly, some of the corners and highlights remain. See below, Cleopatra and Caesar behind Thetan and Hoffman, watching the action? They're still there.

See all those chips piled up in front of them? If you know what you're doing, you can still make those appear, too. (Contrary to what the film says, it's not an illegal activity to count. Just, uh, discouraged.) The bar where Raymond meets the hooker is Cleopatra's Barge, and it remains almost exactly as it was in the film, which somehow increases the romantic melancholy. There are still a few, very few, nostalgic nooks and remnant corners of older Vegas still alive, but most are just strange anachronisms lost in so much chaotic preening and catering to the cult of "new, big, bright." Some chunks may just be slaves to design -- nearly impossible to remodel because of unworkable locations. But some parts left unchanged are a calculated gamble, based most certainly on revenues and not sentimentality.

Those throwback centerpieces, like that vaulted, gold-lighted casino behind Cleopatra's Barge, have been around for over forty years. They may be unlikely candidates, but they've stood the sands of time and make that connection, fusing the old-school swank with the new gaudy-luxury. And being able to see them on beautiful pieces of film, seeming timeless and now iconic is what makes leaving them untouched such a good bet.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

No Reservations, No Writing

As a writer and a reader, I deeply respect Anthony Bourdain.

In other words, he can turn a phrase, crack a joke, and tell a story with the best of them. At times, he has a penchant for overblown vocabulary and indulgent poetic passages. But hey, he's a writer, don't we all? The thing about those words and passages is this: It gives him even more credibility with a lot of people. Why we do that as a society, I don't know, but for some reason, we're much more eager to laugh at someone being rough and crude when we know they also possess the ability to fabricate the appearance of also being urbane and educated. (certainly, these things are not mutually exclusive) Like, they're so high-fuckin-falutin, but they chose to go the lowdown route because it's just more real, man. And Bourdain is a master of leveraging and then cashing in on that credibility and cache.

Again, I'm not taking anything away from him. I not only respect his writing, I think he's possibly underrated as a writer. (If you haven't read Kitchen Confidential, you'll probably enjoy it, even if you're not a foodie or in the food biz, thanks to his writing talent and panache.) But he's also undeniably quite clever in his pursuit of money and stardom. He wields the double edged boning knife of celebrity chefdom with the dexterity one would expect from a French master chiffonading his parsley to both brutally slice through other chefs and gently eviscerate himself upon the edge of funny self-effacement, which serves to make him even more triumphant in his ascendant fame. Again, if you know me at all, you know these are traits I respect. Just because I can see the machinery working doesn't mean I have disdain for it; sometimes it makes me respect it even more.

All of these wonderfully entertaining earmarks of his are on full display in his latest blog entry. Go ahead, read it. The offhanded (deserved) insult to Guy Fieri's hair, the jokes about his own declining appearance, and the wholly well-written and entertaining piece that's both a controlled rant and informative-to-the-public volley back at Scripps.

What really cracks me up about the entry is that last night, I watched the season premier of No Reservations and was considering blogging about it before I read that entry. And I most definitely was going to crack a few jokes about how the smokes and booze are rapidly catching up with ole Tony. There were two things that astounded me last night on TV with their unexpected puffiness: Tony's face, and Bruno's package. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Overall, Bourdain's most recent trip to Singapore already played like vintage Bourdain -- except that the fishing trip was successful. (that was probably attributable to him not so much fishing as laying in a hammock and smoking while another guy fished.) But seeing him gobble down the bones-and-marrow diner/street fare with joyful abandon and then seeing him knock back countless gin-and-tonics (respect!) while he suffered through the high-end hospital-chic setting in that fine dining restaurant was what No Reservations is all about. Well, that and eating disgusting things.

And I think his blog entry succinctly encapsulates what's going on with Food Network airing his past A Cook's Tour series as it axes Emeril Live. Funny, though, how Tony doesn't refer to Emeril as ewok-like when he's using him as a pawn on his side in this battle.

As the writers' strike drags on, I figured I'd toss this gem of a show out there for you to check out as scripted television starts to run dry. Because, as a reality show, Tony's voice overs and monologues don't count as "writing" so production shouldn't be interrupted.

Cocktails first, questions later

Swingers. How can I not love a flick that's all about the 90s lounge scene in LA? Even better, the characters are set up to be a modern Rat Pack. Also? Vince Vaughn.

Written by Jon Favreau and introducing us to the motormouthed tall cool one -- who even at the dewey young age of 26 already wore his eye bags like a true designer accessory -- Swingers remains one of the funniest and most quotable flicks in Vaughn and Favreau's repertoire. Set mostly in LA and chronicling how a group of friends try to get a lovesick wannabe actor back into the social swing by lounging around, this probably doesn't qualify as a full-fledged Vegas movie.

Except it does. It does qualify because the Vegas trip is -- wait for it, you know it's coming -- so money!

The beauty of great Vegas flicks is that they can capture not just scenery but also the ambience of a particular place and time. And since Vegas is so rapidly changing, those settings that can seem so grotesquely iconic can be demolished and replaced within a matter of years. Such is the fate for the setting of Swingers at the now defunct Stardust.

The Stardust was a giant, neon, purple nightmare. And it was the perfect fucking choice to put Jon and Vince and let them do their thing at the blackjack tables. There was a retro-vibe to the place by '96, which made it somewhat hip in its squareness.

It was home for an older generation, but the younger kids would hang out there with both a smirky irony and genuine affinity for the throwback vibe. In other words, it wasn't really a place to be taken seriously -- much like Vegas on the whole. Not a serious place, but sometimes a fun one. And it fit perfectly with the movie's loungey milieu and as a way of juxtaposing the outrageousness of Vince's wannabe hipster flagrance to the contrast of the old woman they end up playing with when they get busted out of the bigger money game.

Reportedly, they didn't even have permits for shooting in the casino, and yet security let them finish shooting before escorting them out. That's Vegas, alright. Or, it was Vegas in '96 at the Stardust. Just as annoyingly Vegas -- how the old woman screws the rules and odds, hits her seventeen -- and wins! AND wins the comps they'd so wanted. And the cocktail waitress hookup is just classic.

Still don't believe that one small slice of a movie can make it a Vegas classic? This is all there is to say: "Vegas, baby! Vegas!"

Win Some

The new Eclectica is online.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Lose some

This is the final year of Susie Bright's landmark Best American Erotica series. In that link, you'll find a detailed post by Susie about why the series is ending.

I'm very sad. I'm sad not only that the series is ending, but also because I fear that Bright is quite correct in her thoughts on the state of publishing and writing. It's uh, it's not easy. There's a lot I could tell you about trying to make a go of a writing life, but that's not really my style. But I will say this: It's not easy.

One of the things that makes it bearable, even joyful, is encouragement, particularly from respected peers or patrons or teachers or editors or publishers. Susie Bright is all those things.

Some of my fellow writers could use a break. Truly. They come few and far between. Sometimes, I feel guilty, or incompetent, or just frustrated with myself, because I've gotten breaks. Lots of them. I don't know how I'll ever show my appreciation to these people. What I want, what I really hope for, is to someday be able to capitalize on these lucky, generous breaks and put together a career so that I can somehow help and push along someone else. As desires go, I don't think it's a bad one. But also, it's ain't gonna be easy.

And that's why the end of BAE is sad. It just got harder. For all of us.

Read some

"The Best People in Town" by William Reese Hamilton.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Showgirls, darlin'

Tawdry, trashy, and oh-so-terribly terrific, one of my favorite Vegas movies is the much-scorned Showgirls. Wait! Don't click off! Hear me out. This movie was a huge failure when released, but in recent years has gained somewhat of a cult following for those willing to view it with a cheeky camp-comedic slant. And I have to admit, I laugh like hell at it, too. But I'm not laughing at it because I'm looking at it with jaded irony. I laugh like hell at it because it's funny, and because people think they're so above it. The melodrama, the glitter, the sleaze!

Part of the reason this movie tanked, and took Elizabeth Berkley's career with it, is because of people's expectations. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joel Eszterhas had previously teamed up to create the sex-laden thriller Basic Instinct. For reasons I understand, that movie made the image of white-sheathed Sharon Stone nearly iconic as a femme fatale for the ages as she gave a mini-peep show to voyeuring investigators. For reasons I don't understand, that movie somehow carried a cache of respectability along with its lurid ice-pick-sharp sexuality.

So then Eszterhas and Verhoeven teamed up again to take on the daunting NC-17 rating. Showgirls was supposed to prove that a film could be commercially viable even with that new badge-of-dishonor slapped on it. People were expecting a suave, sophisticated movie with lots of explicit nudity and sex. What they got was a sleazy, shockingly crass movie with lots of explicit nudity and sex. To-may-to / To-mah-to, you know?

Instead of Sharon Stone in her slicked-back hair and chicly revealing designer outfits, we got the double delight of Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon in enough synthetic fabrics and stage makeup to fuel an all-drag modern Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" for a full year. Snakeskin and spandex, lipstick, leather and lame, and glitter dripping from every eyelash, fingernail and tendril of carefully over-arranged hair.

In other words, Verhoeven and Eszterhas got it just right. This is, after all, Vegas.

But the crowds flocked away from this movie, forever staining the NC-17 rating and signaling a disturbing trend for major Hollywood movies to back away from blatant sex.

Fools. Not the studios. Audiences.

Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable for Sharon Stone to flash her snatch and we consider that tasteful entertainment. But for someone to actually say the word snatch? Tacky!

From the costumes to characters to the sets, Showgirls is quite probably the most stylized-yet-brutally accurate representation of Vegas put on film for that decade.

What was it that appalled the audiences? Was it Berkley's twist on the naked (pun intended) ambition of Nomi Malone? We like our hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stories, and Berkley gave us part of that, but she also gave us the realistic depiction of the hardness that it takes to survive as a whore. Of course, that was the point of the movie. She didn't think she was a whore. Until she accepted that she is one.

The plot is simple. A stripper pushes her rival down a flight of stairs. But it's all those extra details, from the lurid lapdances to the splashy water-sex (still hilarious!) to the characters of Nomi and Cristal. They didn't show us that romanticized notion of a stripper-dancer. We like to envision those grad-school girls who strip to pay their tuition. We like to imagine artistes on the stage --deep spiritual beings for whom dance is a transcendent manifestation of their je-ne-sais-quios. But for both Nomi and Cristal, the dance was a manifestation of their aggressive ambition and willingness to barter their sexuality for their desired ends.

And oh, it was all so campy, darlin'. Gina's wisened Cristal isn't so much smart as she is tough and jaded. And Berkley's Nomi isn't so much a fresh-faced naif as a fresh piece of meat with her own sordid past. The relationship between the women wobbles between the sisterly and the sapphic, but there's never a single exchange between them that's not loaded with underpinnings of catty and jealous competitiveness. By large part, that tension and dynamic between them is built right into the script. Through timeworn archetypes, Gershon and Berkley manage to make these characters their own in their over-the-top way that's a joy to watch. Cristal is the star, struggling to keep her hold, and Nomi is the upstart, hungry to learn from her. But Nomi is also disgusted by Cristal's plain acceptance and crass commercial attitude. Nomi, desperate to be that "artiste" type, bristles when Cristal informs her that everyone is a whore.

And then, ultimately, Nomi's ambition and ruthlessness rise to the top as she sends Cristal plunging down that flight of stairs. She finds her fortune and fame, and just as quickly has to turn her back to it. (A much easier decision for her than for Ricky Gervais's Andy Millman.) She has to turn her back to it not because she thinks she's above it all, but because she's realized that she is a whore, but not a whore in control of her own destiny any longer. She's being pimped out. So she decides to make it on her own again. Well, there's that emotional journey that prods her forward. But there's also the fact that she stomped the shit out of some hotshot's face so she has to hightail it out of the city before she's charged with felony assault.

What's funniest is that some of the things that people found so ludicrous about this movie were actually just a bit ahead of the curve, even for Vegas. The stupendously stupid sex show at the major resort that was passed off as showy? Zumanity is a big hit out there! And there are plenty others like it. Berkley's flaky, psychotically-veering portrayal of Nomi? I fucking defy you to go troll about the Spearmint Rhino, Cheetah's, Olympic Gardens or any other gentleman's club and then tell me that those girls don't have the same melodramatic affectations and over-the-top, cheezy reactions if dissed.

There's a difference between exploitation and portrayals. Exploitation is when we trot out the tricks and get our titillation-factor and then sneer with contempt as we sit back with the moral high hand. But that's the beauty of Vegas. Vegas deals plenty of loser hands to the tourists, but they never deal the moral high hand. In the traditional "cinema" and "films", they sometimes pull the stops and let us get a glossed-up glimpse of scandalous (or in this case, silly) sex, but then the audience gets absolved for enjoying it because there's some moral comeuppance. That comeuppance never happens in Showgirls, and it's quite possibly the only kind of come-shot that doesn't happen in the movie. But that's also the beauty of it -- they aren't exploiting what they're portraying.

It wasn't all dressed up in a classic white sheath in Showgirls. Instead, Nomi makes her grand entrance into the showgirl scene with a black "Ver-sayce" dress, adorned with buckles. They put the sex and lust and desire and greed of Vegas out there, without ridiculing it. But the audience obviously prefers to keep "what happens in Vegas" quiet, like a dirty little secret. And you can't have a dirty little secret splashed all over the silver screen, can you?

Showgirls is tawdry, alright. It's tacky. It's over-the-top, stylized cheeze in the scenes, acting, and costuming. But it's also terrifically candid, and terribly, campily entertaining. You could call it a guilty pleasure, except they leave the "guilt" out of the formula here. That's why it's not a respectable film. But it sure is one hell of a movie, darlin'.

Vicarious Vegas

Happy New Year!

This is now the time of year I wish I could hibernate. The dog days of winter. It's long, it's cold, it's dark. Generally, to get through the months of January and February, I just count down the days and look toward March. I know that's not a good way to live, to wish away time, but I need something to look forward to. And around here, March isn't really all that much relief. It's generally still cold and snowy, even if the days are noticeably longer. But it is a breaking point where the end is in sight. And, traditionally, I'd always take a nice long vacation in March.

For years, I've gone to Vegas for March Madness. So, to help pass the time in enjoyable ways right now, I plan my trip and spend silly amounts of time daydreaming about how much fun I'll have and how wonderful it'll be to get in the sunshine. One of my favorite things to do to heighten my anticipation is watch my favorite Vegas movies. So, since we're also looking down the barrel of a barren television-scape the next few months, I figured I'd tell you about some of my faves for vicarious thrills.