The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th December
DRINKING YOURSELF TO DEATH
Sometimes life’s ironies can be a bit too much. Yesterday morning while I was working in the Paradisos café here in Kythnos, the TV was blaring with a wonderfully decerebrated US movie about a race against time crisis involving, guess what, aeroplanes and frantic air pilots. It was such virtuoso garbage that even the Greek subtitles looked embarrassed, but it had been on for well over half an hour before I realised that the lead actor was Nicholas Cage (born 1964) a man who is currently worth around $25 million, and is nephew of the illustrious director Francis Ford Coppola. The reason why I felt moderately sad rather than terminally disgusted, was that only the night before, and for the fourth time, I had been watching Cage in his mesmerising star performance in the 1995 Leaving Las Vegas, as Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood script writer and raging alcoholic, who decides to literally drink himself to death on a mad terminal spree in Las Vegas. It was based on the autobiographical novel of John O’Brien (1960-1994) who tragically committed suicide two weeks into the shooting of the film. Cage portrays the pitiful dissolution of this talented young writer with amazing and frightening fidelity, and was rightly awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actor and Academy Award ditto. For research purposes he not only read O’Brien’s novel but went binge drinking in Dublin (and had his friends film his facial expressions while doing so) presumably because he thought that’s where folk really know how to pack it away, but Cage also visited hospitalised celebrity alcoholics and described the research as very enjoyable. Likewise, his co-star Elisabeth Shue (born 1963) who played the Las Vegas call girl Sera and who falls seriously in love with him, also went and talked to experienced Las Vegas hookers.
The film was directed by Mike Figgis (born 1948) who outstandingly is one of the few good things to come out of Carlisle, Cumbria, my home county, though luckily for him he swiftly moved to Nairobi and then Newcastle upon Tyne. Figgis not only directed the movie, he also wrote the screenplay and was responsible for the potent and haunting film noir music that plays throughout. I may be wrong but as the credits raced past at lightning speed, I’m sure it said he played trumpet on some of the score, so let’s just agree he is a Renaissance Man who makes me and you look like the bone-idle slouches we tend towards as default and in line with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. And talking of moving towards maximum entropy, that is essentially what happens to Ben the screen writer, when at the start of the movie he skips joyfully if alarmingly around the booze aisles of an LA supermarket with an outsize trolley, and rapidly empties them of all whisky and vodka. Then of course with absolute predictability, by the end of the film he is sprawled senseless and inert on a seedy Las Vegas hotel bed, just as he set out to be. En route he gets in practice as a grovelling sponger when in an LA bar he bumps into 2 writer colleagues and their girlfriends, and his excessive bonhomie fools no one, especially when he asks for a private confab with one old pal who gives him all his cash and tells him he never wants to see him again. That evening he blows the ‘loan’ in a downtown bar where the sardonic barman grins as he insists on buying drinks for a gentle young woman dressed alluringly all in pink and who is obviously attracted by him, whilst aware he is a pathetic babbling drunk. He proposes they spend the night together, but she gently and kindly says she has to get up early, then as she leaves urges him please to stop drinking all that booze.
The next day Ben’s boss calls him in and sheepishly tells him without any explanation that he is letting him go. There is a generous severance cheque in the envelope he passes across, and when Ben goes to cash it in his bank, the agony of squirming public humiliation is harrowingly evoked. Ben’s hands are shaking so badly he cannot hold a pen, and he even ludicrously asks if it can be cashed without a signature. He then does what most alcoholics would do, and goes back to the same bar to take the hair of the dog. The barman after reproving his early morning boozing and evidencing an unwonted compassion, suddenly gets perversely angry with Ben and finally, rejecting all responsibility for the ridiculous wreck in front of him, chooses to give him a large drink on the house. Back in the bank and with steady hands, he enters a bizarre waking fantasy where the handsome counter clerk has decided to coat her breasts and genitals with bourbon and he is happily and heroically licking it off. He seems to be speaking this aloud to the consternation of the other customers, but as the bank clerk doesn’t bat an eyelid throughout, we can assume it is all going on inside his drunken head. Later that day in one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Ben enters a classy strip joint, clutching a bottle of whisky, and as the ferocious yet muted jazz gets ever more piercing, the stripper with remarkable and unbelievably conical breasts seems to weave provocatively towards him through the darkness. Ben is drunkenly delighted and after his neighbour refuses a swig from his bottle, he promptly gulps it entire and then goes into terrifying convulsions, alarming to behold to everyone watching, apart from the unshockable stripper.
The next day Ben’s madness follows its natural course, and prior to his terminal exit to Las Vegas, he decides to make a fire in his yard out of unwanted things like his clothes and most other personal possessions. He drives off to the gambling city glugging away at a whisky bottle, paying but sporadic heed to motorcycle cops who happen to be driving parallel. Once reached Las Vegas he almost runs over a handsome call girl who tersely chides him but accepts his offer of $500 for a night of love in the horrible motel room he has just booked. She introduces herself as Sera and on his bed, she performs fellatio which given his extreme drunkenness seems little short of a miracle. Just as Ben’s drinking himself to death motif, is reminiscent of the excellent subversive 1973 French movie La Grande Bouffe where some world-weary rich businessmen (two of them played by Marcello Mastroianni and Philippe Noiret) decide to eat drink and fuck themselves to death, so Sera the hooker’s confessions to presumably her offscreen therapist, seem to echo Jane Fonda as call girl Bree Daniels in another US noir masterpiece, Alan Pakula’s 1971 Klute. There Fonda dilates to her therapist about how she is a truly excellent hooker and that is mostly down to the fact she feels nothing whatever for her johns. Sera says the same and adds that she can assume anything and be anything, adopt any kind of perversion or performance to suit her clients, but otherwise she had nil emotional involvement with them. Both of these women are confounded by the fact they have for the first time in years fallen in love; in Fonda’s case with the capable and charismatic private eye Klute (Donald Sutherland) and Sera less convincingly with the pathetic and suicidal drunk Ben Sanderson. This then is the one serious weakness in Leaving Las Vegas, that we have to believe that Ben’s hopelessness as an adult male, his pitiful disabling addiction, and his frequent sexual incapability, all appeal to and conquer a woman who spends her time dealing with men who are by contrast violent, perverted, unloving and at times plain terrifying.
One such happens to be the volatile and disturbing pimp who controls her, a Latvian immigrant called Yuri Butro played very capably by the Englishman Julian Sands (born 1958 in Otley near Leeds). When Yuri makes love to her he does so in silence and with frighteningly brutal and contemptuous thrusts of his hips. The same night she sleeps with Ben she returns to tell Yuri she had made very little money that evening. Yuri enraged starts beating her around the face whereupon she picks up a knife on the table and we assume she is about to fight back. Instead she offers the knife to Yuri, then bends over and exposes her underwear and invites him to cut her backside by way of punishment, as if he cuts her face it is bad for business. Instead of accepting the provocative offer, Yuri shrieks at her in what sounds like convincing Russian but might have been Latvian, and he shows a similar surprising restraint later when some Polish mobsters come looking for him, and he unselfishly shoos Sera out of the way so that she does not get what is about to be meted out to him.
As part of her pursuit of regressive fairytale innocence, call girl Sera gets Ben to move over to her place where he has to sleep on the couch rather than share her bed. They declare their love for each other, and then decide to have some fun at the nearby casino. Once there, all is going well until Ben explodes for no obvious reason and has to be ushered out of the place with Sera as well as the culprit being banned for good. Sera then breaks her promise and tries in her desperation to get this one and only love of her life to see a doctor. Ben in his barely sentient attrition angrily rejects her and wretchedly she sets off to find some business in a place called the Excalibur Hotel. There three college students want to have serial sex with her which she refuses before changing her mind. Thereupon they demand anal sex which again she refuses, and at that point they embark on a hideous gang rape. The next morning, she staggers back distraught and unkempt to her flat, and the landlady is there with her notice to quit. After a phone call from Ben she goes and visits him on his death bed, and again remarkably she would appear to bring this corpse to life when they have a half-dressed and orgasmic copulation. Shortly afterwards, Ben Sanderson the LA screen writer dies, and the film ends.
For all the unconvincingness of their identity as truly romantic lovers brought together in ironic extremis, Mike Figgis’s film is redeemed and put to the top of the league by two things. Firstly, there is the miracle of Nick Cage’s world class sympathetic and nuanced acting, with its fearless intensity and its brilliant wavering between chirpy sophomore optimism and rank and panicking and very unAmerican spiritual desolation. Secondly, and this might sound even a bit facetious, the prodigious musical accompaniment, the blindingly powerful black and burning jazz score, together with the acute and sensitive photography are of such piercing and allusive power that they notch up another 30 per cent to the quality of what is a quite exceptional film. After all, even people who love cinema often forget that film, like TV, is par excellence a visual medium where the spectators’ eyes should be as busy as the brain, but how many US or UK directors do you know are prepared to take a risk and put a lot of their energies into the non-verbal, the pre-verbal, the world that is quite simply beyond words? Instead by timid and imitative default, they go for discursive dialogue and sequential plot and hope that that will carry the day and win all the prizes. That is just the kind of formulaic movie Nick Cage has spent most of his life making, but here in Leaving Las Vegas and also in that fine comic role as the inept and idiotic thief in the Coen Bros’ Raising Arizona (1987) Cage shows how much exactly he has got stored under his sleeve, and I for one am completely bowled over and would like to ask for more.