Saturday, February 28, 2015

“Leaving Las Vegas” - a study in nihilism

“Leaving Las Vegas” - a study in nihilism
I have often wondered why art forms, and to a large extent, society in general, treats an alcoholic with an melancholic sympathy; looks upon him with a kind of motherly vulnerability, when we never think of according such curtsies to a smoker, or any other drug abuser. Have you ever heard of any jinxed, unrequited lover, smoking or drugging themselves to a sublimely artistic suicide? I haven’t, or it is extremely rare? I guess, there is nothing "romantic" about such acts. Unlike an alcoholic, who has found reams of poems and rich prose devoted to his escapades and sorrowful destiny, No bard, novelist, dramatist or film maker has ever elevated any other form of addiction (with a few exceptions, of course) to a pedestal where they can be viewed sympathetically or with an artistic eye. The archetypal alcoholic male with his stubby beard, shabby clothes, droopy eyes, slurring voice, unsteady steps; holding a glass or bottle reflecting fine points of golden light emanating from the sparkling, effervescent liquid; speaking platitudes filled with intoxicated wisdom that is at once philosophical and despondent at the same time, burying his teary eyed face on his beloved's shoulders with a nihilistic smile on his face – these are motifs that have never failed to evoke deep resonance of empathy in an audience. And if one happens to be a man fallen from grace and taken this path to self-destruction - then waves of empathy become even more intense, bordering almost to a point of veneration or adulation. It is almost as if we excuse them for their conscious annihilation of themselves. Hunter Thompson, renowned author and Journalist summarized this condition beautifully “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for people..." Yes, who can argue with that!! It works.
I finished watching the 1995 classic "leaving Las Vegas". The movie is an unadulterated chronicle of alcoholism and its inevitable conclusion - to the extent that Nicholas cage (who plays "Ben") on his death bed - has a swig of Vodka, with his sympathetic friend, lover, or companion (call her whatever you may, played brilliantly by Elisabeth shue as “Sera”) sitting on top on him, impaling herself on his manhood, watching his life ebb away with a whisper of "wow...” on his lips. These are the last incoherent ecstatic mumblings of a man who runs away from his job, wife, and kids to Las Vegas hoping to drink himself slowly to death. Now why he chooses to kill himself is not clear, but it seems he cannot control himself from hitting the bottle; hence, loses his job, respectability and a sense of purpose in life. In Vegas, he bumps into a young beautiful prostitute who befriends him. Her sense of aloneness is akin to his, but of a different kind. The daily act of desecrating her body for strangers repels her, but she does not wish to move away from it - just as an alcoholic would not stay away from his drink even for a moment. Both of them are addicted to the pleasurable pain their addictions bring. Sera is portrayed as an intelligent lady (her apartment is lined with books), and she finds in Ben a soul mate - non-interfering, detached, with no strings to their relationship (not even sex, until the last scene); scorned, yet tolerated by society - they drift along trying to make sense of their relationship and life shying away from committing to each other. The entire movie is nothing but a reflection of psychological ruination to a point that, as a viewer, one gets nauseous of Sera’s sexual innuendoes and Ben’s interminable drinking. Both of them revel in the intense suffering that the act begets. With nothing else to hold onto, their abusive way of living seems a recompense – or may I say, a painful surrender to their intense loneliness. But, strangely as I said in the beginning of this essay - there is this thread of empathy that flows from us towards these characters. Deep down, we feel that life has given them a raw deal, and their sordid life and painful death each moment seems to justify the insecure and perilous lives they lead.
Well about the film itself - it is of the highest caliber. Director Mike figgis, better known for his documentaries had done a wonderful job capturing the story in its brutal elegance. Figgis filmed the movie on a shoe string budget of 3 Million; a screen play based on a book whose author committed suicide on knowing that his book was being filmed; composed his own musical score; shot most of it with 16mm hidden camera in real time at one shot to stay within budget and avoid legal permits to shoot; encouraging Cage and Shue to delve deep into their respective characters, leading one to go on an alcoholic binge and the other to spend some quality time with hookers in Vegas downtown. It all paid off. The authenticity of the movie justified all the risks and madness involved. It won its way into four Academy award nominations and grossed 20 times more than the investment in it. What can I write about the performance of Elisabeth shue save the fact that she was an odd choice for a character that she ended playing so wonderfully well? Born into almost aristocratic family, cuddled in wealth, educated in Wellesley and later transferred to Harvard where he completed her degree in Political science - acting was merely a passion with her, and if there is anyone who could be considered unprepared for this role as an actor – it had to be Shue. Her characterization of a street prostitute is perhaps one of the most realistic performances I have seen in films. She spent weeks living in dingy hotels and mingling with pimps, learning how different the world is from her own cloistered upbringing. All that learning paid off - I don’t think she will ever get a role that can surpass the intensity of this one. I would also hasten to add that she peaked too early in her career. The Academy awards (once again) ignored her performance and gave the Oscar to Susan Sarandon for a more “womanly” role in “Dead man walking”. But Nicolas cage won his award. He suited the role well and essayed what is perhaps the most poignant portrayal of an alcoholic on screen.
In many ways this is a many layered film; and audiences get to appreciate or criticize it different ways. To me, the movie draws out the fact that Man can essentially be a very lonely animal in this world. And this existential crisis can never be solved by smothering one’s consciousness. “Leaving Las Vegas “is a very powerful work of art, told with frightening clarity. Watch it, if you can face some unsettling questions that may rise in you…
God bless…..

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