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Viva Los Vegas…

I saw The Hangover last weekend, and it occurs to me: has there ever been a truly great Las Vegas movie? A movie (or even a show) that fully captures the feeling of living in a city that glows with neon glare twenty-four hours a day? I can name at least a dozen movies using Vegas as a backdrop: there’s the obvious ones like Viva Las Vegas, Leaving Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and maybe even Casino. Then there are the smaller films like Jon Favreau’s Swingers or The Cooler which are set in the city. I’m not sure that the film has received definitive treatment on film.

Bright light city gonna set my soul on fire...

Bright light city gonna set my soul on fire...

I’m talking about an iconic portrayal of the city, that kind of captures the very soul of the place on film. Like Robert Altman routinely did for Los Angeles or Woody Allen did for New York. Something that gives you an idea of what it was like to live in that place at that period of time (you could make the case that Allen’s New York no longer exists – maybe that’s the problem with Whatever Works… well, that and casting). These days television can even do the same – the Miami of the television show Miami Vice is a living, breathing, sweating city (the movie is another story), while The Wire built almost a scale model of Baltimore, creating a fully 3D representation of the city over five years.

It’s hard to catch the soul of a city on screen (if cities in general – and Las Vegas in particular – can be said to have souls). For the examples I cite above there are countless less successful attempts. It isn’t even a matter of capturing geography on film or recognisable land marks, sometimes it’s catching a representation of the life that goes on inside these urban centres (this year’s three-in-one anthology Tokyo! is an example of such an approach, as are romances Before Sunrise and Before Sunset for Paris).

There have been countless movies and series based around the City of Sin, but few seem to really do it any justice. The early seasons of CSI showed a very slight glimmer of promise, but most of the shooting continues to be done in Los Angeles (as it is with the other shows in the franchise – David Caruso flies from Miami to Los Angeles to make CSI: Miami). Las Vegas was filmed on a soundstage. The less said about Viva Laughlin the better. Maybe Las Vegas – that army stop over in the middle of the desert – doesn’t have a spirit that lends itself to film. Or maybe it is so hyper-real – like an adult version of Disneyland – that it really seems as fake as it does on celluloid.

All you need's a strong heart and nerves of steel...

All you need's a strong heart and nerves of steel...

Maybe it is a city that matches its portrayal on the big screen. The Hangover seemed like a weird drug trip involving tigers and Korean mobsters, where three non-dwellers were left dazed and confused by the surreallity of it all. Maybe there is no real Las Vegas. he bulk of the people in the city at any given moment are tourists, on their way here or there, or eventually on their way home. Very few people live in Las Vegas – they come, they party they leave, or maybe they get trapped or maybe they do the trapping. Based on the US census, the city has a smaller population than our own capital, Dublin.

Perhaps the films, like the people that flood the streets of Vegas itself, are just passing through…

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