|Leaving Las Vegas,
directed by Mike Figgis, 1995.
Since it was Christmas Eve, I thought it might be the appropriate time to go see a movie about a writer who endeavors to drink himself to death. I'd read a couple of good reviews of Leaving Las Vegas and I have always had a soft spot in my heart for drunks, or at least a certain kind of drunk. Most poets do. I phoned my friend Windrow who makes furniture in the lower Haight and invited him along. Windrow has been known to enjoy a drink now and then and he's also a renowned noir novelist-in France, that is. He's got five novels with the prestigious Rivage/Noir House, titles like Les Damnes Ne Meurent Jamais, Le Demon Dans Ma Tête, Injection Mortelle, that sort of thing. He had a couple of books with Barry Gifford's old Black Lizard series but it's in France he has his following. Not to mention a small following in his neighborhood: Windrow is nothing if not gregarious and has always been a soft touch for most anyone reasonably civil who needs a fiver to tide him or her over. Which is why Windrow is often broke himself; that and phone calls to his wife, who is acting in Rome just lately.
Windrow liked the set-up and needed no arm-twisting. The plan was to walk across the town to the Lumiere and see what the streets were like. We had a couple of pops of holiday cheer at his apartment above the shop to get in the mood and were chatting about matters noir. He shares the same French publisher with the late English writer Derek Raymond, a favorite. Windrow was saying that his posthumous book, Not Till the Red Fog Rises, was having a difficult time finding a publisher here in the States. But then, even David Goodis is out of print over here, and when I went looking for a Ross MacDonald title at Borders the other day there wasn't one to be found. No writer is quite so wonderfully bleak in this genre as Raymond, who succeeded in drinking himself to death not too long ago. Windrow had a drink or two with him in Paris not long before the end and the two hit it off. It takes quite a while to drink oneself to death, I reckon, so I was eager to see how the Nicolas Cage character managed it in four weeks.
It was a fine afternoon, cool and sunny. The Forty-Niners had just lost a nasty little affair to Atlanta. Not too many folks on Market, the usual mix, homeless with shopping carts, people in costume, a couple of kids, maybe from Salinas, looking for something or other and evidently not finding it. I'm told Market was a grand street once, before the war. That's tough to believe, especially along the stretch from Laguna to Taylor, which these days feels more like Heartbreak Corridor. In any case, Windrow and I found ourselves running late so wound up having to jump on a 42 bus up Van Ness. Windrow confessed that he hadn't been on a bus in several years and was excited, it seemed. The young woman sitting in front of us looked nervous, possibly made so by Windrow's volubility. One guesses sometimes at what's going through the minds of people on public conveyances by the expressions of their faces. And one guesses nearly always wrong.
When the soundtrack is as loud and slick and rotten as it is on Leaving Las Vegas you know you're in for a long two hours. Jane Campion's The Piano was like that. When you were hit with that New Age Muzak at its beginning you knew the director had no taste. The Piano was an insufferably arty, ponderous, and pretentious film, but it wouldn't have been quite so unendurable if Liszt, say, were being played on the piano instead of Michael Nyman. Mike Figgis, who directed Leaving Las Vegas, is responsible for the soundtrack, on which he also plays trumpet. I believe he had a hand in the script as well. In fact, it could only have been Figgis. The soundtrack consists for the most part of someone called Sting butchering old torch songs, beautiful songs like "My One and Only Love." (Listen to Johnny Hartman sing it with Coltrane behind him sometime.) There is, however, during one among countless anguished moments in the film, a noise that I can only describe as a Tyrolean yodeller in the midst of a colonoscopy. That was very good, and there was another moment when the protagonists were outside of Vegas at a desert hotel and a coyote comes in hard on the heels of one of Sting's gold lamé interpretations, much as a hound bays in the wake of police and fire sirens. That was good as well.
Here's the set-up: A Hollywood writer (?), Nicolas Cage, has an industrial-strength drinking problem and talks very loudly in airports and bars about women's genitalia and how he would like to pour liquor on these genitalia and so on, making an enormous nuisance of himself. His boss at the movie studio evidently finds out about this and decides to let him go, whereupon Cage packs his belongings into fifteen garbage bags and leaves them out front of his LA stucco bungalow for the garbagemen and heads off into the desert with thirty bottles of hooch. There's a nice shot of the mountains.
The silliest aspect of this intensely silly movie is the drinking. The Cage character goes through bottles of vodka, tequila, bourbon like a 285-pound offensive lineman from Florida State drinking Gatorade. I enjoy bars, and San Francisco has quite a few good ones, and I've had ringside seats more than once at the spectacle of someone destroying himself with alcohol. I have no idea what Figgis has Cage doing. By my estimate his character is consuming about three gallons of hard liquor per day before he turns to beer and then back to tequila, stingers, screwdrivers, Bloody Marys. He does allude to vomiting at one point and, in fact, does retch rather daintily into a basin near the end of the movie. But otherwise, though he slurs his speech and lists to port or starboard now and then, he manages to drive, be almost witty, inquire after women's genitalia, and generally take care of business, or not take care of business, as it were. The heroic bout of drinking which allegedly finished off Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern wouldn't have even gotten our Hollywood writer friend past the morning shakes.
But no matter, back to the plot. Upon arriving in Las Vegas and booking into The Whole Year Inn, which is transformed by his blitzkrieged vision into The Hole You're In, he drinks several gallons of scotch, vodka, and tequila and decides to have a leisurely drive around town. At a stoplight he runs into a pretty young hooker played by Elisabeth Shue and inquires of her genitalia. They drive back to his place and it turns out after all those inquiries about private parts that what he really wants to do is cuddle. The Shue character falls in love with him straightaway, no doubt because cuddling sounds pretty good after the day she's already had. She invites him to move in with her. Most of the dialogue from this point on consists of Shue asking Cage, "Are you all right?" (No, silly, he's not all right; he's pissed as a newt, to use an Australian expression.)
The leitmotif amidst the vicissitudes of a drunk and a hooker in Las Vegas is the gorgeous Ms. Shue's attempts to get Cage to screw her. Surely every male in the audience (and Windrow and I were the oldest) was crying out to the Cage character in his heart: "Pull yourself together, schmuck, and give it the old college try!" But it is not until the very end of the movie (I hope I'm not giving too much away here) that their union is consummated. The divine Ms. Shue mounts the quivering, moribund Cage (who at this point would be bleeding from the mouth and anus, not to mention suffering from Korsakoff psychosis and polyneuropathy) and a gentle copulation transpires. How he managed an erection at this stage eludes me, but to quote from a naughty old blues, Ms. Shue's character "could make a dead man come." Which Mr. Cage does and promptly drops dead.
'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, but I felt badly for Nicolas Cage nonetheless. He has a long, hangdog clown face, deadpan funny, and is a likable presence on screen. When he smiles he can look the kind of handsome that I'd imagine makes him endearing and attractive to women. It's an impossible part to bring off, but he can't act, regardless. Neither can I, for that matter. It's no big thing. He tries terribly hard and does a godawful lot of shaking and the overwrought routine until the cumulative effect is like a very, very long skit from Saturday Night Live. I blame this and everything else wrong with the movie on Mike Figgis, the director. I was later told that the film was based on a novel by John O'Brien, who killed himself, probably after seeing what Figgis did to his book. But I cannot vouch for the teller of that tale, nor would I.
The cinematography is boilerplate for these days with the standard fades and what Windrow likes to call "candy-apple reds," by which he means color saturation and lots of primary colors, which he tells me comes out of the old Miami Vice TV series. Windrow doesn't have a TV so somebody probably told him this. My TV is black-and- white and all I recall of Miami Vice are two cops, one black, one white, who seemed to get rid of the pretty women as quickly as possible so that they could be together and admire one another's threads and buttocks. Ah yes, and a melodramatic, synthesizer soundtrack. Great stuff.
Elisabeth Shue, however, is not only a beautiful young woman but a fine actress. She can't carry the movie a C-140 transport couldn't do that but she's the reason I didn't walk out, not that Windrow would have let me and he had the aisle seat. Her character unaccountably changes early in the film from being a helpless ditz to an emotionally complex young woman. One would like to believe she is transformed by her love for the Cage character but it's merely one of the countless holes in the script. She has no real lines, no director, no leading man and she still manages to be riveting. That's something special. American actresses are seldom attractive. They're not really supposed to be, just as Americans are not really supposed to enjoy sex or food. Michelle Pfeiffer and Geena Davis are attractive. So is Elisabeth Shue. You'll be seeing her again. There's also a very fine cameo by an older actress whose name I'm afraid I missed in the credits. She plays the manager of the little motel the two principals go to in order to chill out and attempt romance. During yet another of Shue's desperate, and delicious, attempts to get Cage into bed, the drunken Cage character demolishes a glass table. The manager cleans up the mess and very sweetly, very icily tells Ms. Shue to take her "loud talking ways" back to their room and be out in the morning. It's the best performance in the movie and no more than a minute long, but certainly no reason to fork over seven and a half bucks.
I don't know what Polk Gulch was like in Frank Norris's time but in a town filled with good bars it's slim pickings around California and Polk. There was a sad little dive a couple of doors down from the theater, though, and Windrow and I were in sore need of refreshment after the ordeal of Nicolas Cage's ordeal. We found a couple of stools next to the Foozeball table and I asked Windrow what he thought of the film. "I liked it," he said, much to my surprise. It wasn't easy to hear in the place; they had the Ramones cranked to a decibel level that only old Led Zeppelin fans could endure. But this is what Windrow said: He liked the set-up, two desperate characters at the ends of their tether linking up. That's the kind of subject he liked to write about himself. He adored Ms. Shue. He was willing to look past the ludicrous drinking, the bizarrely incongruous Lithuanian pimp (I left him out), the want of a script, and so forth. Windrow said one should think of the film not in the context of drunk movies like Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses, but as kindred to Le Grand Bouffe. It's about hyperbole, he was saying, when we were interrupted by a young woman who had been shooting pool nearby. She was petite, all cheekbones and red lipstick, pancake make-up and a black Henry the Eighth hat over hair dyed a kind of white I'd seen on young women before but which didn't look too healthy in the bar light. She was very eager to chat, which led me to believe she was either a transvestite or a hooker. Windrow and I had another round, just to find out. She called herself Gigi and had these peculiarly aggressive conversational gambits, such as: "If you were on a desert island with your best friend and he had cancer and $100,000..." What emerged after some time was that she had decided that we were managers and she wanted business advice. She took her hat off and turned it inside out. It was reversible, crimson. Then she turned it into a handbag. Amazing. She made these things and wanted to know what we thought was a reasonable mark-up. Windrow was most helpful and forthcoming in this regard and Gigi was clearly warming up. But Windrow's happily married and I have arrived at that age and station in life where it ill behooves me to tarry with young strangers, so we bade Gigi adieu and headed into the night.
August Kleinzahler is a poet who lives in San Francisco. His books include Green Sees Things in Waves and Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow.