FESTIVALS: Fear and Loathing in CineVegas
by Richard Baimbridge
Winston Churchill once said that no man is complete without knowing the beauty of winning and the sorrow of absolute defeat. Presumably, he was not quoted while sitting at the Roulette table of a Vegas casino. Then again, perhaps he was. It's 3am, and I'm down $80 after being up by well over $100 just 15 minutes ago. Strange how the chips can build up and recede so quickly, like some insane riptide dragging not only you, but all your possessions, straight out to sea, where they disappear into a tiny whirlpool near the dealer's cufflinks. Elvis may have passed away in Memphis, but this is the place that killed him. And it's damn near killing me.
Officially, I am here to cover the 2nd annual CineVegas Film Festival, held at the stunning new Paris Hotel and Casino, in the heart of New Las Vegas. I say "New" Las Vegas because, in case you haven't been here in a while, Las Vegas is now two separate and distinct cities that have as much in common as San Diego and Tijuana. The former is revisionist, capital-heavy, and sparkling-clean, like Disney's "New" Times Square. The latter is cut-off and aimlessly adrift, slowly asphyxiating and pungent as a 50-year-old hotel lobby ashtray. Without a doubt, however, the "New" Las Vegas is far more insidious than the old one could have ever hoped to be, just in a different way.
And I say "stunning" (in reference to The Paris Hotel) because it is truly that. Stunning, not so much as in breathtakingly beautiful, but stunning, as in debilitatingly overwhelming, like the darts they use to put the rhinos to sleep with right before they capture them for the new show featuring a life-size replica of Noah's Ark that carries two of every known animal on earth to perform nightly at 8 and 11pm. Clint Black plays Noah, singing modern Country ballads based on the Old Testament and the show climaxes with a manmade typhoon.
Like every other hotel in the "New" Las Vegas, The Paris has a theme -- namely, Paris. Commercials for the gargantuan 3,000-room hotel feature an army of movers descending on Paris, boxing up everything in sight, and shipping it to Vegas. And it appears as though they have done exactly that -- there is a 2/3 scale model of the Eiffel Tower in front, a life-size version of the Arc de Triumph over the parking lot, and the interior is designed to look like a small French town, with cobblestone streets and signs that point to the "boulangerie" or "pâtisserie." It is a French person's worst nightmare, and an American's dream-come-true. A France where everyone pretends to speak French, but is really just an American who speaks English. It is France without having to leave the safety and comfort of America -- France without those pesky French.
"Bonjour monsieur, comment ça va?" a woman asks me as I check in.
"Ça va bien, merci," I respond. "Et toi?"
A look of bewildered annoyance comes over her face. "Est-ce que vous avez baggage?" she asks, ignoring my previous question.
"Oui, j'ai ici," I say.
"What?" she asks.
"Le baag-ahhg," I say. "I have it here."
"Pas de quoi."
"Your room - votre chambre - is 2347. Merci bo-coo."
"Thank you," I say, confounded by this language issue, which will continually plague me for the week to come.
When I get to my room and flip on the TV, a man appears on the screen, giving instructions in case of fire. "Eef zer ees a fi-air, please do not pan-eek." Mon dieu. Outside my window, the lights of the Flamingo are coming on, and the Bellagio is shooting its water fountains 200 feet into the air, with Beethoven blasting in the background. Further down, a life-size replica of an 18th century British battle ship is sinking after being hit by cannon fire --- for the third time today. Across the street, a man is serenely cruising the canals of Venice on a gondola.
For such an enormous hotel, the rooms at the Paris are surprisingly small. The chairs are too small to sit in, the carpet hurts your feet and the bed sheets make you itch. This is either serious aesthetic oversight, or part of the Vegas master plan to keep you in the casinos, spending money. No matter which way I turn in the lobby (where it's always approximately 4pm with clear blue skies), I find myself somehow back in a casino, surrounded by colorful slot machines that hum like some kind of weirdly hypnotic electric gamelan, putting you in a deep trance. People walk around like zombies in Western wear, with matching nylon jackets. I have yet to see a fellow film-festival-goer, and (as you may have gathered by now) I seem to have forgotten there is a film festival here, at all.
In a sense, trying to throw a film festival in Las Vegas is like trying to hold a bake sale in the middle of a riot. Few people notice, and even fewer seem to care. There is a shark feeding-frenzy going on for Gods sakes; who has time to sit and watch a movie? For the first time in my life, I find myself being drawn to a nearby Starbuck's as the closest thing to sanity. I sit nursing a latte, trying to regroup. Just outside is a car rental lot, and I decide to rent a jeep to get out of town for a while, maybe go up to the mountains, and come back with a fresh perspective. But like the hotels, there seems to be no way out. All roads either dead-end at some new suburban development, or lead back to Vegas.
At least there is a party tonight. I put on my finest and rendezvous with a sexy young journalist from Sweden. At the party, we meet a British couple that have lived in Vegas for years, and swear they love it. "We're looking for something very authentic," I explain to the man. "What about the shows at the hotel?" he suggests. "Well, we were hoping for something more. . . " "Raunchy?" he asks. "Precisely." "You want the Palomino," he says. "Vegas' only all nude show. It's at the end of the strip."
The Swede and I convince a CineVegas volunteer (a 2nd grade teacher by trade) to drive us to the Palomino. She drops us off amid neon signs, hourly rate motels, sex shops and hookers. "Now this is Vegas," I tell the Swede. She smiles and agrees, as we slide $12 through the plexiglass box office. Four drinks later, we have moved up to the stage, where girls collect dollar bills from you, using their bare breasts. One of the girls grabs her ankles and winks at us with her sphincter. "Talent," I tell the Swede. She nods and gives the winking woman an extra dollar.
It's 2am and I'm feeling guilty for not seeing more films, so I head to the media lounge and pop in a VHS tape of "Wadd" - the story of John Holmes, who also nearly burned out in Vegas; he woke up one morning in a Vegas hotel realizing he'd married "the butt-queen of San Francisco" during a drinking binge the night before. "Wadd" is a fascinating film about a guy everyone over the age of 10 has at least heard of, if not compared himself to. The documentary by Cass Paley is extremely informative and entertaining, making "Boogie Nights" seem like a Disney flick in comparison. Unfortunately, like it's subject, the film is far too long. Furthermore, in the middle of a sex scene, a security guard in a French policeman's uniform bursts into the room, takes a look at Holmes pumping away on screen, then looks at the Swede and me on the couch, stands there speechless for a moment, and runs out.
By the following day, I have vowed to clean up my act. I am up by noon, have breakfast, and am in the theatre by 2:30 to catch the UNLV student shorts, which I must say was one of the highlights of the festival. Two films, in particular, peaked my interest: "Midlife at 29" by Vincent Caramela and "A Teddy Bear's Life" by Wes Herni. Caramela has talent. I mean, this kid could easily be the next Spike Jonze -- this is Vegas filmmaking at its finest.
Inspired by young Caramela, I went to see "Le Petit Voleur" ("The Little Thief") by Erick Zonka, who also showed "Dream Life of Angels" at CineVegas last year. A brutal yet succulent slice of Cinema Vérité, "Petit Voleur" seemed to compensate for the Ah vohtre ser-vees "phrase of the day" sign I saw in the employee area earlier that afternoon. And to be fair, I would have to say some other very nice things about this festival: for one, it went off without a technical glitch in sight. The venues were large and the projection was immaculate. For another, the fest does seem serious about bringing in good films from around the world. There were also some great "special screenings" (they decline to call them premieres), which, due to the proximity of Vegas to Hollywood, and to settle a few gambling debts (that's a joke, guys) studio execs have been willing to pony up films like "Snow Falling on Cedars" and "Cider House Rules" to get things rolling.
What's lacking is some sort of framework to tie it all together. There were very few chances for filmmakers to meet and talk, or even notice each other's presence, despite a very nice closing night ceremony in smashing Vegas style. Furthermore, the prospect of inviting people with no jobs and $14,000 in credit card debt to come to Vegas is, well, perhaps a bit risky. Lest we begin to see a lot of people with limps showing up at the IFFM. And the same holds true for freelance journalists.
On my last night, I ignored the bad feeling in my stomach, and headed to the "new" Caesar's Palace. Moving sidewalks, like the kind they have in airports, lead you into the casino, but when you leave at 3am with your pockets quite a bit lighter, you get nothing but your own two feet to exit. To hell with Winston Churchill, I thought. Better to heed the words of Bob Dylan, who once said, "I'm goin' back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough."
[Richard Baimbridge will be reporting next from Sundance. He will be the one with a slight limp, looking for very inexpensive accommodations.]