Leaving Las Vegas, Directed by Mike Figgis
United Artists, October 27, 1995 (US)
Screenplay: Mike Figgis, based on the novel by John O’Brien
Starring: Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue
The pain. A world of pain.
Back to the dentist chair but this time not to get doped on laughing gas while floating down Leonard Cohen Lane (see Dear Heather). It turns out that tooth sensitivity I was experiencing would be just the beginning. I was about to feel a different kind of jab.
“We’re turning into a Bubba society,” the dentist said. Was he including me in this? “We frown upon anything remotely cultural.”
I frown upon anyone poking at my gums and hitting nerve endings.
Although I agreed with his sentiment, I wasn’t exactly keen on live theater (the jumping off point of the conversation). I think of an audience’s coughing and sneezing and shifting, even their silence. It is distracting. Takes me away from fully experiencing the journey. I am especially squeamish about musicals where actors are not only singing what they should be speaking but also doing it with over-the-top-when-you’re-a-jet-you’re-a-jet choreography thrown in to hammer it all home. Didn’t anyone else feel a bit awkward here?
I’m not sure that I ever explained any of these feelings to my dentist. Like the root of pain hidden somewhere between my teeth and gums, it was something too broad to easily pinpoint or explain in an instant. Besides, there was certainly many examples where I managed to enjoy live theater. Maybe this Bubba Gump was just embarrassed, understanding that a big part of this aversion to live theater was on myself and my own strange hangups. Some social thing. Another demon exposed. But more often than not, the bottom line was that I found it extremely difficult to get lost—really lost—in live theater like I could in a film or book or even, dare I say, a TV show. American Horror Story, me like.
During a temporary reprieve from drilling, I have a chance to insert my reply. Spontaneously, Las Vegas pops into my head. Of all places to turn to for my rebuttal regarding high-brow culture, I turn to Las Vegas. Ha! But the previous night, I just happened to rewatch Leaving Las Vegas. So I throw it out there, a film. Nothing more. Nothing less. Specifically, how this particular one manages to take me to a place that feels incredibly real. And raw.
I try and explain how it is easier for me to get lost inside of a film. From my own living room, I am wandering Vegas streets where I come across a whore and then a stranger—a desperately lost soul who I am about to discover is actually drinking himself to death, literally drinking himself to death. How absurd it is to watch a young man’s lights going out in a city where rivers of electrical currents flow on without end.
While not to be confused with an excursion to the Civic Opera House or the Goodman Theater, this particular Vegas trip is no less astounding, even culturally speaking. There is something so seedy and real in its snapshot of love. A chance meeting in the dark of night at a dingy intersection in what could easily pass as the gates of hell. It is amazing to see just what can be buried in the shadow of such a chance encounter. More than half the time, we can’t possibly even notice how important or life-changing any one moment can be, anywhere.
I know it is a difficult film to watch, especially considering that it is based on John O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel, meaning we are fully aware that O’Brien himself also succumbed to suicide. This tragic detail ultimately elevate the exploration. While devastating, it is impossible not to appreciative the totality of the experience, its beating heart. And, being confronted with the author’s stark take that, in the grand scheme, life and love can only ever hope to be instantaneous is something that wallops the mind and heart. The thump of realization is as sharp and piercing as a jab into a swollen and now bleeding gum, as agonizing as an attack of Trigeminal Neuralgia.
Doc, you gotta do something for the pain.