Viva Las Vegas

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RICHARD CORLISS Las VegasLet's just say it: Las Vegas is the great American fictional city. It's a page-turning novel told in a million lives and 100,000 hotel rooms; an epic movie with casino chips for special effects; a tragedy of addiction and a burlesque with the smoothest showgirls around. It's the town that attracted James Bond, Michael Corleone, Beavis & Butt-head. It's where Robert Redford offered a million bucks for a night with Demi Moore, where Rain Man and Starman got Lost in America. Is Vegas only a movie, a living novel? Does the town even exist? Yes, inside the hopes and greed and need for excess that define us all at our most reckless, most alive moments.The trick of being a great American city, at the end of this century of electronic media, is to match muscle with myth, power with showbiz. New York has the concrete grandeur and Broadway, Los Angeles the Pacific and Hollywood. (Sorry, Chicago, you've got big shoulders but plain features. Too bad, Houston, you're a launch pad with too much air-conditioning.) Sometimes showbiz is all a city needs. Orlando has Disney dream parks built over a swamp, and Las Vegas is a giant id sprouting from a dry groin--the gaudiest mirage that ever gushed, geyser-like, from the desert.Or is desert quite the word? You needn't gaze down from the revolving tower atop the Stratosphere hotel (where a roller coaster winds around the spaceship-shaped aerie) to see that this stretch of Nevada is pretty damn ugly: infinities, in every direction, of dry, brownish-gray earth that is too bland to be called dirt, too soiled to be called soil. The carcasses of extraterrestrials are supposed to be housed at Area 51, the famously obscure military installation nearby. But, really, why would aliens want to land here anyway? Not for the scenic majesty. Just maybe, because Las Vegas is near: for the love of the game.Vegas' bounty and challenge is to be all things to a certain kind of person: a childlike adult with too much money, itching for risk and sensory overload. It's not enough that the New York-New York hotel evokes Manhattan's skyline in its exterior silhouette; it must have (of course) a Coney Island roller coaster one floor above the casino. Visitors stand in line for an hour anticipating their two-minute thrill, even as they stay all night at the craps table, slouched over their ever-smaller pile of chips, still waiting for the salvation of seven. Ambition and sensation are the twin signposts at the last American frontier, and Vegas is their crossroads.The American dream--to get rich quick or have fun failing--is contagious. It lures the wealthy from Europe, Latin America and especially Asia; the formal parties that opened Bellagio had a nice splash of Chinese and Japanese guests. These folks, otherwise sensible, cling to one equation. Go to O, the amazing waterworks show at Bellagio. and you may be culturally enriched, but you will surely be $100 poorer. Gambling is the only night out that offers the hope of returning your investment. Ah, hope--it's the ultimate mirage in this Wild West town. You can ride the bucking bronco of probability for only so long. You throw the dice but, eventually, the dice will throw you.PAGE 1  |  
 
It is an axiom here that the biggest, nutsiest gamblers are the town's entrepreneurs. From Bugsy Siegel and Howard Hughes to Kirk Kerkorian and Steve Wynn, they have poured unholy sums into consecutive, contradictory schemes. The town started as a gangster's dream of glamour--and, with variations, it has largely stayed that way. But the hotel owners are never satisfied with what they've got; or perhaps they don't know what they want. We have the gamblers, now let's woo the family trade. O.K., we've Disneyfied the place, now let's turn it into Fifth Avenue. Bellagio is Wynn's stab at giving Vegas an instant I.Q. makeover. He stares at a city groaning with neon, and sings, like Sky Masterston in Guys and Dolls, Slut, be a lady tonight.Bellagio, itself a work of swank commercial art in the Northern Italian style, knows its financial priorities: its gallery of fine art holds a mere 28 masterpieces and is smaller than some of the hotel's suites. Anyway, the opening of Bellagio, like the November premiere at the Rio of Treasures of Russia (a display of artifacts from the summer homes of the Romanov tsars), is more than a lure to tourists inclined to visit Manhattan and Europe. This flirtation with high culture is the latest evidence of the town's almost religious devotion to the new. And a stern renunciation of the old.In a few endearing ways, Vegas hews to tradition: in the bustier-and-mesh-stocking garb of the waitresses, in the strategic placing of the casino on the long walk from the front desk to the room elevators, above all in the showroom entertainment. Three basic formats have survived since the Rat Pack days. The Ziegfeld-style revue chugs along with Les Folies Bergere (which predates Cats but still has, shall we say, legs) and Jubilee (see the sinking of Titanic--better than the movie, and lots faster!). The headlining comics (George Carlin, Don Rickles) and singers (Diana Ross, Frankie Avalon) are mostly refugees from some '60s variety show. The magicians, like Lance Burton (whose rube charm oddly evokes both Clint Eastwood and Liberace) and the oily David Copperfield, are younger but their schtick is ageless. The glammiest illusionists, Siegfried and Roy, have been making tigers vanish in an orgasm of purple smoke for so long that they and their act are starting to look glazed.If Siegfried and Roy were a hotel, they'd be history by now, because history has no place in a city that believes only in now. Consider that Vegas had a big hand in liberating late 20th century architecture from the slablike sameness of modernism. It restored the notion of a building as entertainment, as exclamation; it put the fun back in function. From the early hacienda hotels to Siegel's bolder Flamingo to the jutting lines of the Sands and the Dunes, Vegas could be a vibrant museum of eccentric architecture--if these hotels were still standing. They aren't. The town treats its landmark hotels like a doddering uncle who needs to be put away. Other cities raze old buildings grudgingly; Vegas does it with pride and pizazz, as a media event and a warning that it will not tolerate the shabby status quo. In 1993, Wynn was pleased to blast the venerable Dunes to smither-eens. On its gravesite Bellagio now stands.Why would a visionary like Wynn want to build hotel rooms so attractive that visitors spend their time there, instead of their life savings at the $1,000 slots? For that matter, why would anyone want to stay in a hotel room, however suavely appointed, when there's a city out there that begs to be experienced with open eyes, mouth and pockets? One Vegas regular suggested that a lavish suite might be just the place to take an expensive call girl. We doubt that Wynn built Bellagio to make $500-a-night hookers feel more comfy. But the regular was on to something: the idea that, in Vegas, all contradictions can peacefully coexist. In this case, high art and high-priced sex.Roller coasters, neon lights that flash and burn out, millions to be won or lost on a spin of the roulette wheel, billions spent on hotels destined for bankruptcy--these are no metaphors; these are monuments to manic-depression. And if gambling holds no thrill for you, if you don't care to pay for romance, you can still love Vegas. Love-hate it, that is. Where else can you ride out the millennium by being a minor character in the most thrilling novel never written? Nowhere but Vegas. You can bet on it.  |  2