One of the many things that separate the movies of Hollywood’s classic era from those of today is their indulgent attitude to alcohol and drunkenness. So many famous scenes from studio pictures made in the years between the coming of sound in 1929 and the mid-Fifties are chained in memory to the bar or the drinks cabinet that hard liquor and cigarettes seem integral to the medium, as essential as klieg lights and mascara. From Rick’s bar in Casablanca, to Margot Channing’s theatrical salon in All about Eve, to any Western saloon, booze is the magnifier for all that 30-foot-tall emoting.
Vol. 18 No. 7 · 4 April 1996
From James Wood
Nick James is far too kind to both Leaving Las Vegas and the novel on which it is based (LRB, 7 March). Watching the film, one knows that its novel-source must be terrible; and reading the novel, one knows that no decent film could ever be made from it. John O’Brien, the author of Leaving Las Vegas, has been treated sweetly by film critics such as your contributor because he was a young novelist who committed suicide. But O’Brien also committed his novel, and this too seems a shame.
Like the film, the novel is sentimental, fraudulent and preposterous. It wants to be truthful and ‘searing’ (a word whose use by film critics now means its exact opposite), but is in fact hazy and genteel. Like Mike Figgis’s film, it recycles old clichés: the prostitute, or fallen angel, who leads a chosen sinner towards apotheosis. People such as Nick James seem to have been conned by the film’s sad ending – in which Nicolas Cage has sex with Elisabeth Shue for the first time, and then dies of alcohol poisoning – into judging it a triumph over Hollywood’s upbeatness. But of course this ending is a haloed consummation: the sinner is led by the angel towards a point he has never reached before. Meanwhile, just in case we missed the point, Sting croons about ‘angel eyes’, and Cage wonders aloud if Shue is not an angel ‘sent to me from one of my drunken fantasies’.
Cage warns Shue, when he moves into her cosy apartment, that he will be difficult – that he will vomit, knock things over etc. In fact, the film protects us from real degradation, wrapping up the truth in cartoonishness and bombast. In this it exactly resembles O’Brien’s novel, which becomes more flailingly ‘literary’ the more it strives to tell the truth. Here are two quotes, both concerning Sera, the prostitute, who is standing on Las Vegas’s main boulevard:
Across the street – not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods – a dormant construction site, populated with adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the green and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the night. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums.
It is worth remembering that O’Brien is writing about a construction site in this passage. I will pass over the hilarious, St Trinian’s-like carload of ‘chums’. A page or two later:
And she is a good thing, good at this thing. Paying for and using her, there are always men available. The tricks turn to her, for she glistens with the appealing inaccessibility of the always introspective. They turn to the buyable quench – no lie, no promise in the panties – and she plays out the bargain with the competence of one consistently able to hit well the mark … Her tricks go away quietly, their burden of dissatisfaction lessened sufficiently to fulfil the terms of any implied agreement that may have been struck.
This world of sentimental cliché, in which prostitutes of ‘appealing inaccessibility’ relieve men of their ‘burden of dissatisfaction’, is copied by the film. This is a fantasy of the truth, not the truth, and its determination to glamorise unhappiness – Cage dies of alcoholism with only some stubble and eye-shade to show for it; Shue is a street-walker who dresses in Vivienne Westwood and lives in a book-lined condo apartment – exactly partakes of the Hollywood ‘hypocrisy’ which Nick James thinks it has overcome.
Vol. 18 No. 8 · 18 April 1996
From Nick James
As James Wood has used my review of the movie Leaving Las Vegas to attack film critics in general (Letters, 4 April), I feel obliged to return the compliment and accuse him of a typically literary reading of the movie. His letter is mostly about the faults of John O’Brien’s novel, which I barely remarked on, and is otherwise casually riddled with unlikely expectations of Mike Figgis’s movie, something that one has come to expect from those whose usual study is the work of single authors. The movie ‘recycles old clichés’, he says, as if he doesn’t know that nearly all widely-seen movies, whether by Scorsese or Kieslowski, do that. It is a ‘fantasy of the truth, not the truth’, which sounds like a pretty good definition of all art (for me Godard is wrong: film is not the truth, not even at 24 frames per second). He complains that ‘Cage dies of alcoholism with only some stubble and eye shadow to show for it.’ This is a classic trope of those who want to dismiss cinema, to point up its artifice, as if cinema-goers were somehow unaware that there are movie stars on the screen wearing makeup.
Wood persists in trying to view Leaving Las Vegas as if it were shot in a style that connotes realist intentions – which clearly it does not. It is, instead, a work of genre, a melodrama in which clichés are there to be used and abused. Wood pays the movie a disservice by yoking it to the book, and arguing that ‘no decent film could ever be made of it.’ Cinema has a long and successful tradition of cannibalising pulp fiction. Figgis has made a questioning and evocative work out of O’Brien’s book. It may, like all film noir and much of French cinema, ‘glamorise unhappiness’, yet it conveys an intimate tragedy in a direct and accessible way. I am happy to be accused of being kind to it.