Film

CinemaDope: Beyond the Strip

A hidden Las Vegas and a male revue

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Thursday, July 26, 2012
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros
Magic Mike

At this point, I think it's safe to assume that we're all on Facebook. Or that, if you're one of the holdouts, you at least have a decent idea of how it all works: a bunch of people you don't always know all that well come together online to chat about all kinds of stuff, but mostly funny cat videos, political protests, and poorly framed pictures of the setting sun.

It's also, occasionally, a wonderful window onto various subcultures that thrive on the Internet: gamers, TV junkies, and foodies are all well represented on The Book.

This week, a friend of mine who is an avid poker player was discussing with friends a hand that had been played at this year's World Series of Poker. Facebook being what it is, I had a front row seat to a conversation that quickly went over my head. I think this was the line that finally drove the point home: "If you watched someone fold quads to your all-in, you don't think you'd show jacks full to attempt to put him on tilt?" I'm still trying to parse that one, but even if I didn't understand it, I loved reading it all.

I was reminded of the exchange—with its mysteriously compelling nuggets of poker argot—when I noticed that Lisanne Skyler's film Dreamland would be playing in Northampton. Originally aired by PBS as part of its POV series, Skyler's 2000 film is an attempt to dispel some of the romanticism that surrounds hard-core gambling, and to shed light on how problem gambling—so often seen less as an addiction than a hobby—can quietly destroy lives. (For the record, the friend I mentioned above does not fall into this category.) Even a native Las Vegas weekly remarked that "not since Martin Scorsese's Casino has the naked truth about Las Vegas been captured so perfectly on screen."

Skyler's film follows some of Vegas' year-round residents over a two-year period as they make their livelihoods in a city that goes far beyond the glitz of the Strip. Squint hard enough to see past the glare of the bigger casinos and you'll find that the Las Vegas that most of its own know is another world. It's a place of threadbare and dirty gambling halls with more sadness than stage show. Here, the people who make up Skyler's documentary struggle with—and sometimes, for a moment, escape—the compulsion that keeps them coming back for more. They are retirees, they are middle-class people with jobs and families. Skyler finds that even casino dealers—who surely know the odds as well as anyone—fall victim to the lure of a big score.

The director focuses in particular on Lou Gerard, a retired tailor from Los Angeles who moves to Vegas with thoughts of an easy retirement: cheap rent, free meals comped at casinos, and a bit of gambling. What he gets isn't quite so easy. Though happy at his usual haunt—Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino—his losses begin to add up, forcing the retiree to pick up work on the side to cover his debts. But Skyler isn't merely a scold; she sees problem gambling as akin to drug addiction, with its sufferers trying, on some level, to escape some hidden pain or loneliness by giving themselves a fleeting high that gets ever harder to recreate. Watch Lou in his retirement, and you might agree.

*

Also this week: Matthew McConaughey's abs pick up a mighty big paycheck for their work in Magic Mike, a new film out now that explores the world of male stripping. Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street) stars as the title character, a dancer who dreams of being a furniture designer; McConaughey plays Dallas, the owner of Xquisite, the club where Mike makes the ladies swoon. The film is a tale of mistakes and redemption, and of following your dreams wherever they take you—indeed, it's based on Tatum's own story; the actor worked as an exotic dancer early in his career before hitting it big as a hunk in Hollywood. Directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), it's worth a look—don't let a fear of thongs keep you away, even if you're watching through your fingers.

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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