Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Self-Sabotage for Success - CASINO (1995)


Summer is a time for living dangerously and nowhere is life more dangerous than in the movies about gambling, which is almost meta to begin with, since moviemaking is an intensely expensive venture (CASINO cost $50 million, enough to build a casino or two all its own) and no one knows for sure when they lay down big cash like that the film won't bomb and they'll lose it all, baby. It's a roll of the dice. And the mob's been associated one way or another with Hollywood since the beginning, from Al Capone's boys acting as technical advisors on the 1932 original SCARFACE to "this is the girl" in MULHOLLAND DR. Wherever there's big money and trade unions, the mob is there, and Hollywood has both, so rolling the dice on a film about rolling dice is so meta it can't fail.

And thanks to the internet, gambling isn't just limited to Vegas, as casino sites like http://www.jackpotcity.co.uk let you live the giddy rush of Vegas from your own home. Things are changing, and the criminal element can't keep up, which is why Scorsese's film looks back to the mobster version of Vegas' heyday, a tangent moment to the Rat Pack's OCEAN'S ELEVEN, which played up the glamour, drunkenness and class, but kept it light. Robbery of a casino meant as a lark is far less, somehow, evil than the actual operation of one. But Scorsese knows that to be a big winner in gambling, to  keep your tells in check and your sense of the odds present without resorting to card counting or cheating, you must be unlucky at love. And what in the end, is a priority? The smart gambler may deliberately sabotage his chances at a happy love life. Robert De Niro's character does in CASINO, in order to preserve his luck at cards. One hopes it's not just that he's too stupid to succeed.

I've already covered the delights of the here-and-gone beauty that is Robert Altman's 1974 underseen CALIFORNIA SPLIT (here). But what about 1995's overseen CASINO? A fine metaphor for the allure of gambling, and the danger and exaltation of living in a 'paradise' designed by shady guys in suits smoking big cigars, who think comped cocktails, air conditioning, prostitutes in tail feathers, and glitzy lights are the height of elegance. Their Vegas is a playground where a regular guy can live the gangster arc of winning the world only to lose one's shirt, or life. Who wouldn't want that kind of rush? Why else do we watch films about gangsters, if not for the vicarious thrills, the vicarious paranoia, then the final dislodging from vicariousness--when the gangster dies, the credits roll, and we go scurrying out into the light and back to our daily grinds, grateful to not be lucky at cards after all?

Giddy rushes aside, CASINO is fraught with problems, none more glaring than the curse of its predecessor, GOODFELLAS. From the punchy wiseguy narration to the long tracking shots packed with period rock music and beautifully craggy old Italian faces, the Scorsese aesthetic we all fell in love with is back, but there's been so many imitations in the interim it seems like Scorsese is just imitating himself.  Joe Pesci is now so typecast the only he can escape his legendary role as Joey (see one of my very first-ever posts on Acidemic, 'That Joey, he's a wild one) is to up the ante. He doesn't drop the ball so much as hold it so tight it deflates. He looks older and stockier, his make-up oranger, belly paunchier, sneer frozen, and when he throws massive tantrums he's not scary-fun like he was in GOODFELLAS, just alarming, as trapped by the irresistible momentum of Scorsese's period gangster rhythm as a fly on an express train, the gravity seems to weigh him down, broaden him around the edges as he sinks into self parody's disheartening mire.


Sharon Stone, critics dutifully adoring her all the while, falls into the same hole in the desert, turning a sad vixen's marriage into a brilliant if overly shrill and humorless bid for Oscar respectability. Do you think Barbara Stanwyck ever 'tried' to blow us away with her raw force? She merely released what was always inside her, the tigress. Stone just wants us to see how Joan Crawfordianly hard she's trying to be a sad vixen Stanwyck knew that before you get to the raw tigeress force you need modulation, dynamics, some laugh. Hardness without softness, darkness without lightness, what is that? Whatever it is, it doesn't deserve the acres of tantrum space Scorsese carves out for it in the final act of CASINO. Verhoeven in BASIC INSTINCT, and TOTAL RECALL, knew how to use Stone's Bette Davis imperiousness and Jane Fonda insecurity combo as part of a comic book tapestry, a delicious villainess rather than an 'identifiable' heroine. A director like Sidney Lumet or Nicholas Ray, or George Cukor might have helped Stone to reign in some of her less successful ideas and enable her to win an Oscar, but without a genius who loves and can direct powerful women and knows how to get them to retract their claws and let down their hair, she falls into the same morass that snared Annette Bening in AMERICAN BEAUTY, the morass wherein female rage against the patriarchal machine comes out as abrasive, ineffectual spite, all while the infantile, unconsciously misogynistic director smiles and nods.

But everyone knows romance and female characters (ALICE aside) aren't Scorsese's strong point. He lives and breathes cigar smoke from the boys in the back room. His films about dangerous hoods work because he truly 'feels' the threat of violence, knows the streets, hires actual Little Italy characters (including his own mother) and makes effective, occasionally sickening use of cattle prods, spittle, baseball bats ("lots of holes in the desert") and beatings over owed vigs. Don Rickles, for example, as the pit boss, is like a bouncer from hell, his insult comic genius held in check like a pit bull on a leash. In the scenes where De Niro's narration takes us through the process of the skim, the film takes off into the blissful realm of pure cinema, and a solid hour of running time evaporates like crack.

But by the home stretch of the film, the tantrums of Sharon Stone in her Big Oscar Bid bogs it all down. Try as I might I can never really give a shit about the fate of her marriage with De Niro's obsessive casino boss, so I spend these scenes admiring the elaborately gaudy outfits she wears, the fringe jacket and smoky blonde hair cuts as she angrily packs her suitcase and calls her old pimp (James Woods, 'lighting up' the screen). We only see the happy Sharon Stone in an initial slow mo montage of her strolling through the casino, tossing chips and duking parking attendants. The rest of the film she's moping by the phone, sobbing hysterically or otherwise chewing all available scenery in booze-amped despair. Scorsese might have allowed us to see her happy and jubilant within the marriage itself, as opposed to merely doing her job posing like a trophy, then collapsing into tantrums. De Niro wouldn't seem such an unmitigated fool then. Instead he doesn't even get the wan smile a legitimate john might earn, i.e. she can't even fake liking him. As one who makes a living on gambling, it's kind of odd that--even knowing the outcome from the start-- bets everything he has on Ginger to change her mind, and seems genuinely shocked when she doesn't, even after having a kid. The only explanation for putting all his eggs in such a shitty basket might be that De Niro unconsciously figures being unlucky in love means being lucky at cards, so deliberately sabotaging any chance at happiness in his personal life ensures continued winning streaks.


While Scorsese too is on a winning streak, for at least a good hour of CASINO, in the end it's his do-no-wrong reputation that brings him low. Like the master gunfighter in the western where every hotshot snotnose with an iron on his hip wants to challenge him to a gunfight in order to build their own legends, every young punk out there imitates Scorsese, and as a result he's as insecure and second-guessing about his own genius as Malick or Kubrick, slowly losing touch with his nitty gritty acumen through  the thick fog of his adoring legions, none of whom would dare point out when a scene is going to hell.


That's why CASINO is De Niro's last brilliant film, as well as the first of his bad ones. You can feel the gambler's luck turning halfway through, right around the time De Niro fires Joe Bob Briggs, nephew of a Nevada gaming commission bigwig, and refuses to even hire him back "somewhere farther down the trough," though the politician makes it clear De Niro's going to wind up losing his license if he doesn't comply.  How did someone so smart get suddenly so stupid... twice? Why would De Niro fuck up a good thing with the gaming commission just by insisting on firing a dopey relative of a high end Nevada politician? De Niro then seems surprised when he loses his license appeal, just as he's surprised when Ginger tries to run away.

By the same token, why did Marty think his next project after GOODFELLAS (and before CASINO) should be AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)? I'm not saying one should never wander from one's own back yard, but if you can't find anything new to talk about within it, maybe your just not looking hard enough. If a man can find Shakespeare within the language of a Brooklyn gangster movie, does he really need to do actual Shakespeare to prove himself? It's like with 'these' you don't know how to kill the bunny! 


For a director who suddenly could do any project he wanted to decide to film some creaky Edith Wharton tale in a Merchant Ivory-just-with-more-elaborate-tracking-shots style is telling of Marty's deep-rooted insecurity and drive for petit-bourgeois respectability. Sure the film is great in its way, Daniel Day Lewis rocks it, but why not let the Brits do that posh shit?  What made the clans of mobsters in early Scorsese so fun was their mix of boorish blue collar philistinism version of wealth and power. Imagine if the first thing Henry Hill did with his newfound success was buy a box at the opera, a polo pony, and a subscription to The New York Times? Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an artist of the streets is success amongst the hoi polloi, resulting in the sudden ill-advised need to break into the one class of people who momentarily welcome you into their inner circle. Like Sinatra angling for the slumming rich girl virgin instead of the floozy in SOME CAME RUNNING.

Sometimes the worst that can happen to a gambler is to win so big that no future jackpot can ever measure up. Surrounded by imitators trying to duplicate your formula, you eventually wind up imitating them and your comfort zone shrinks around you like a soaking wet straitjacket. Soon even the moon looks like just another cracked poker chip, and the electric pop style you invented through hard work and genius seems as derivative as hell. CASINO is the proof Marty can't go home again. His house is packed with freeloader wannabes like BLOW, MASTER OF WAR, TRAINSPOTTING, AMERICAN GANGSTER, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, MIDDLE MEN (see "Gotta get the papez, get the papez" or Johnny Two TImes, Because He Said Everything Twice), and everything by Guy Ritchie.

And that's that.

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