Friday, November 30, 2007

At The End Of The Day

CASINO opened Thanksgiving weekend in 1995. People yawned. I’m sorry, were we insane? Were we just too dazed from having seen GOLDENEYE? I admit that the first time I saw it the movie wore me out. Maybe that’s why, to this day, I never like going to see three-hour movies after a long day at work. But the second time, it worked better for me. By the third time, I was thinking, “This is amazing…This is AMAZING.” Before the whole DVD thing happened, my many viewings were on a letterboxed tape, but I wasn’t just watching it multiple times. I found myself absorbing it in pieces, as if I were taking what I needed from the film a little at a time. The structure of it allows you to enter the narrative for a section or two and then you can walk away until the next time you need a hit off it. There are movies where you just want to dive in the deep end and swim around for a while. CASINO is one of my favorite films for doing that.

GOODFELLAS was and is a masterpiece, there’s no arguing that. One long ago interview with Scorsese pointed out that CASINO was like EL DORADO to the RIO BRAVO that is GOODFELLAS. It’s an amusing thought, and gets one to hope that the director will get around to his RIO LOBO one of these days, but it doesn’t hold too much water. EL DORADO was, for Howard Hawks, a case in storytelling of saying, “Instead of this way, we’ll go that way.” CASINO seems to be a way of deepening the themes that were already explored, with richer characters. Whether the real people portrayed in the earlier film had less substance is ultimately irrelevant. But the fact remains that none of them seem to ever have the insight of Joe Pesci’s Nicky being able to sit down when he realizes how bad things are getting and saying, “I fucked up good this time.” Or the pragmatic sense that De Niro’s Ace and Sharon Stone’s Ginger seem to have to call off their fighting for a moment and quietly try to discuss what’s happening. “What if he won’t stop?” he asks. I can back him off,” she answers. None of these bits of insight and humanity seem to do them any good in the end (to allude to a phrase that Sam “Ace” Rothstein seems to like), but for a few seconds there is this glimpse of surprising, recognizable humanity in each of them.

And he has Frank Vincent, out of nowhere deep in the film, confronted with a question, get a voiceover for himself just before he answers it. It hasn’t happened before and it won’t happen again. Who’s to say a minor character in a voiceover-laden film can’t get one little bit to himself? Where is that written? Scorsese gets you asking those questions, continually wanting you to find those answers for yourself.

It’s also hard not to think about the 70s film revolution Scorsese was involved in, a period that he was ultimately one of the few real survivors of. “It turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fucking valuable again,” says Joe Pesci’s Nicky, and he could be talking about any director who was a powerful as Scorsese during that decade. He could be talking about Scorsese. Like Ace, the director survived in ways that don’t even make much sense in movie logic. In the end, his reliance on what he perceived as a sure thing may have led to his downfall but not to his demise. And, in the case of Scorsese, his reemergence after that period.

And I think about Sharon Stone in this film. Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t care. But she takes her aura as one of the last real movie stars and turns in a performance that is so powerful, it makes every crappy movie she ever made irrelevant to me. I think about that elegant shot of her near the beginning when she is first seen. It’s over narration and we never see the shot recur again, but the journey she takes from there, where we see her in the most impossibly beautiful way, to where she ends up, is one that is truthful, fucked-up and ultimately a triumph for her. She’s not so good in the role that she received an Oscar nomination…she’s so good that it’s almost surprising that she got that nomination. This is a film almost entirely populated by men strong, like De Niro & Pesci, and weak, most notable in the ineffectualness of characters played excellently by people you’d expect to be live-wires, like Don Rickles, Kevin Pollack and James Woods. But Sharon Stone as Ginger, the one prominent woman in this group proves herself to be the real wild card, not just in her hustler ways, but in how her sexiness, her ferocity and ultimately her desperation screws up everyone. Ace Rothstein tries to do everything possible to help her, to reason with her but nothing he or anything anyone says can ever get through. De Niro doesn’t have the showy role this time, but all we need to understand everything about him and what Sharon Stone does to him is the look on his face when their eyes lock for the first time and Scorsese freezes on her. That’s all he needs to do.

At the end of the day, CASINO is Scorsese taking his knowledge of film grammar and attempting to expand it to new heights. I can watch it all day and never get bored. In truth, I feel unqualified to write a full appreciation of CASINO, but maybe someday. For now, I will continue to be thrilled by every single shot in the thing.

And that’s that.


Larry Aydlette said...

I just can never get the idea of Sharon Stone going down on Joe Pesci out of my mind. It violates all of what should be sacrosanct in life, and has kept me from appreciating "Casino" as perhaps I should. Now, if she'd gone down on Don Rickles, that I could live with...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Sharon Stone and Don Rickles!!?? Great, now I'll never be able to watch this movie again without thinking of that. But give it another try sometime.