Immersion is the essence of cinema. Nobody famous or important that I know of said that, but someone probably said something similar at one point. I’m not even going to Google it; that’s how confident I am. But there’s truth to it— a movie can be as much about its setting as it can be about its story. Engaging the audience’s senses by building a relationship between the story elements and the setting is an undervalued art achieved by only masterful art directors and storytellers. Think of how cleverly and subtly Tim Burton exploits the Florida suburbs in Edward Scissorhands to provide thematic contrast for his character or how carefully Ben Affleck pans the Boston sky for his cop and crime dramas.
The relationship works both ways. Their stories and styles also influence the way we perceive places we haven’t yet been, or places we visit. Imagine going to the Empire State Building without thinking of scenes from King Kong or Spiderman. The Twilight series may be unbearable, but look what its done to romanticize our image of the Pacific Northwest and boost tourism in the region. Our idea of the Vegas strip wouldn’t be the same without great casino films like these.
This has been my personal introduction to our newest series: On location. In this series we will pick an iconic place and look at the movies that shaped our idea of that place as well as how the movie portraits the setting. First up: sin city.
Casino– The eighth and final collaboration by Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro is a true testament of their chronicle of work together. Their version of Las Vegas smolders the city beautifully into their style. More so than the other films on this list, art direction and aesthetics of the setting were carefully considered. The film gives the city a classic, glam-yet-gritty image we often see in similar crime dramas by Scorsese. Casino may be less iconic than their other work, but its impression of the city’s wealth war glory days is forever strong because of its efforts.
Ocean’s Eleven– While the 2001 remake by Steven Soderbergh is the one we will come to remember, the 1960 original casts an equal impression on Las Vegas as its invaded by rat pack capers. However, with a full franchise of films to tout, Soderbergh’s collaboration with… uh, most of Hollywood sits heavy in our heads. Visually and aesthetically it’s nothing remarkable, but throughout the series enough images of classic sites are filled with A-list starts, Armani suits and sharp quips, that this Vegas becomes a GQ photo-shoot weekend getaway for Californians.
Fear and Loathing of Las Vegas– While the film went under the radar when it was released, introduction to DVD and the Criterion Collection along with Depp’s rise to fame gave it recent cult status. Terry Gilliam’s take on the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name is far from ordinary depictions. To get the period of 70’s Vegas to look right, Gilliam and his art director used a series of tricks, including using rear-projection footage from the old TV series Vega$. Drugs, rock and the bizarre from this film did little to give an impression of Vegas, however, the film certainly alters perceptions of the city and takes you on a trip while watching.
The Hangover– The most recent Vegas film on the list is highly memorable for its male-driven, slapstick humor catering to a Facebook, YouTube generation of “what the hell happened last night?” millennials. Here we see Vegas far less posh, far more wild and collegetown-ish. Because of the sheer size of this film’s box office success, its understandable the film has aided tourism and brought in a crop of eager frat guys looking for their own hangover narratives. Stereotypes of the city and what the strip offers (think of the city’s popular advertising slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”) have been reinforced heavily due to this film’s shenanigans.
Diamonds are Forever– The only way to ensure Vegas is more glam and ritz than it already is in film is to set a Bond film there. Add Sean Connery; add class. The 1971 Bond film is one of the more memorable (even if campy and humorous), thanks in part to Mr. Connery and its neon nights setting. Film crews had the advantage of real Vegas hotels and streets thanks to the collaboration of Howard Hughes, who was a friend of one of the film’s main producers. Usually filming in Vegas’ casinos can pose unachievable logistical issues, so the film benefited from these production values The result:Diamonds depicted a classic image of the city, like a sharp yet smoldering Lana Del Ray track that people would continue imitate for years.