I must have been to Las Vegas hundreds of times. I’ve robbed its casinos with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, conjured the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson with Johnny Depp, examined bodies with its Crime Scene Investigators and I don’t even remember what I got into with Zach Galifianakis.
And for some strange reason, I keep making return trips with Nic Cage, with whom I’ve crash-landed a plane full of convicts onto the strip, drank myself to death, and parachuted with a squadron of flying Elvi (that’s the internationally agreed-upon plural form of “Elvis” for you linguists out there).
OK, fine. So I had never actually visited Las Vegas in person until last week. When I finally did set foot in that desert oasis I had to admit I was a little disappointed because no matter what happened to me in Vegas, there was no way it was going to be anywhere as interesting as what I’d seen on television or in the movies.
There are really only two reasons why Vegas is featured onscreen as often as it is. The first being location because it’s only a short drive through the desert to Hollywood, making it remarkably easy for the studios to get there.
The second and more interesting reason is that the place is already a living, breathing movie set. Massive casinos are built as scaled-down facsimiles of ancient Rome, New York City, medieval Europe, Paris, and a pirate-infested Caribbean island just to name a few.
The place is like Universal Studios with slot machines and the lingering odor of shame.
It could also be argued that part of Hollywood’s draw is the mythos perpetrated by the city itself as a carnal retreat where what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. This is a sentiment echoed throughout pop culture, as any 10-minute segment of the movie “Showgirls” will gladly attest.
Of course, all of this is really just a facade as the main purpose of Las Vegas is to serve as a place for capitalism to go to be a dirty, dirty whore.
Every flashing light, dancing fountain, and buxom waitress is designed for one thing and one thing only: to get you to open your wallet. It is the city of high-end malls, overpriced meals, and odds that favor the house. The fact that Vegas is aggressively upfront about all of this is strangely refreshing.
Las Vegas knows that all marketing is ultimately about greed and sex, and by removing all the pretense, the city proves that while it is willing to insult a lot of things, it simply doesn’t have the time or inclination to insult your intelligence.
Like most places on Earth, Vegas is what you make of it and my wife and I had a very good time. In a lot of ways, all those movies and TV shows had adequately prepared me for the living fiction that is Las Vegas.
But still, it seemed that for every awesome thing I saw, I witnessed two more that made me a little bit sad, and I saw a lot of awesome things.
After beholding it all in person, I have to say the movie that may be best sums up Las Vegas is “Swingers.” The opening segment of the movie has Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau on an impromptu trip repeating the infamous phrase “Vegas, baby! Vegas!” before it all winds up with Favreau broke and softly crying in a cocktail waitress’ trailer.
Perhaps no other city in the history of the world has so enthusiastically embodied the strange combination of excitement and depression as well as Las Vegas, Nevada, which is why Hollywood keeps coming back again and again. Well, that and all the strip clubs.
Viva Las Vegas!