“This is a fabulous, extraordinary madhouse. Beams of light shoot down from Baroque ceilings on the masses of earnest morons flinging their money down the drain…”
Noel Coward’s diaries, 1954
“I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices…”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, 1762
The last time I was in Venice I experienced something close to serious nervous breakdown.
The crowds, the tourist hysteria, the flash photography, the bustle of San Marco square, the confusing back-streets, the wildly expensive restaurants and shops, the Murano glass at ridiculous prices, the sense of decay, the expensive gondola journeys, the empty “floating signifiers”, all those gore-splattered death-heavy movies made about the City of Angels on my mind…
…were nothing to do with it.
Flying home to Manhattan was the first and last time I said: “thank goodness for the quiet of the West Village.”
What brought about the feelings of acute alienation, depression and claustrophobia was an accumulation of stories I lived-in for three Venetian days and nights. They were as follows: in the pre-lapsarian American flight world of spring 2001 I hopped a security-lite Jet Blue plane from JFK to Las Vegas to attend a three day conference on mobile communications. I was meeting up with a group of executives from a large mobile phone company there: we were close to doing business, the odds about 60:40 in our pipeline favour. Before the crashes, that is. So we “hung” together, and I picked up the tabs in search of “client chemistry”.
Even at the airport in Vegas there were many slot machines, gambling is omnipresent, and Bermuda shorts. Only English superiority and bad teeth got me through; that, and a thorough knowledge of the narrative themes, and robust theme-music, of “Diamonds Are Forever”.
Check-in at The Venetian Hotel, Sheldon Adelson’s profitable one-dimensional homage to Italy’s Venice, took an hour, and then the walk to the elevators, and so the rooms, a lengthy trek past most of the busy gaming tables – bad design? I thought so at first. And it was loud; loud with some plaintive noise far beyond sound, perhaps it was what the English poet Al Alvarez calls the “collapse of confidence in the utility of work.”
The conference is about the “future” of cell phones; the downtime very much about the orgasmic moment of jackpot at cards, craps, roulette; later: sex, drugs and rock and roll – occasionally food. [Was Alice Cooper playing at the Bellagio? Or Nirvana?] The line to take a taxi from the Venetian is about an hour, day or night. There is no escape. Although at some stage I was in the House of Blues, or the Hard Rock Hotel, and at the next table Keannu Reeves is playing poker – perhaps. Or Slash. That actress from "Showgirls". And sometime else in the 72 hours I listen to a man “be” Sammy Davis jnr. Or Celine Dion. Was there a circus as well? Circuses? Flames and carnival, and masks? Probably.
On the first night I went for a solitary escapist post-conference drink in the then-red modernist “V” bar, because it looked vaguely not European, sorta Manhattan: as my home city was rapidly taking on the role of “Eden” in my floating mind – and there was an over-choice of about twenty bars in “Venice” in those days. Here at the “V” I met a man who said he was the “second richest man in England”. He had a Midlands accent and crisp white collars & cuffs and a business making thin mobiles (when there were none), and he bought $15 martinis for many with little reluctance. Upstairs online in my room I discovered he was. Though with the falling-through of a later take-over deal or something - the current expectation of which had led to a massive share price rise in his company, thus “the second richest Englishman” tag - he wasn’t on the fortunate five hundred charts for very long. Certainly not long enough for client chemistry with me. I still have his card somewhere.
I had dinner, somewhere (was it the best steak house in Nevada?) but still no gambling. I watched my would-be clients win big, and lose. They told me their secrets. I tried to smile. Later I met a guy who’d been at MIT doing math who was part of a “counting” syndicate. He said he had a life expectancy of five weeks. (It was months before I understood what that was about). I went to the conference again, and listened to the future some more. It was Babel (America didn’t do text messaging then, not really) without Brad Pitt or mute Japanese schoolgirls. That night I returned to the “V” bar, but a little later. A chill-out party was taking place for a rapper who’d just played the House of Blues. A mellow kind of vibe ensued: half dressed women lay face down on designer leopard-print sofas and wiggled like Loreleis and mermaids and undines; rap-entouragers checked the goods, then fondled them; some just dived right on in. There was dancing too. Which was quite good. Rappers dance better than tourists and gamblers, I noted. Then one rapper – let’s call him “X” – took out a gun. Which waz badd. There was an argument about a girl, it seemed. I was near the bar, away from the dance floor, and talking at the time to an elderly woman about living in Vegas; I’d bought her a whiskey and she told me about the old days – in the 1980s. Reagan: whadda guy.
With the gun’s emergence we all hit the floor and made screaming noises. Then Mr. “X” made a run for the door – where outside there was an ugly Bermuda’d line waiting impatiently for access. At some point a large security guard hit him rather hard; Mr “X” went down as heavily as shortly would an Enron executive. [At this point in History, Enron was still on our client wish-list “pipeline”, it being the “future” of energy. NB. My would-be clients with me at the Venetian were all fired in September in one of those big global murders and acquisitions].
We stood up. My elderly friend said: “I hate it when they do that.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve never seen a gun before.”
“No, stupid. When people hit the floor just because some asshole pulls a gun. Mine’s a Jack [Daniels].”
I didn’t want to stay for long, though I bought a few more Jacks, and sank some martinis, but the mood had gone, curiously, with the dancing. Then I went out to practice amateur semiotics on the gaming floor over a beer-lite. The French thinker, Jean Baudrillard, I read, calls all of this stuff the “negation of the sign as value…” Soon I was sitting at a bar-rotunda with touch-screen “Blackjack” instead of coasters. Where I negated $2 worth of my own value. The gun still seemed to me very much not a negation of value though, so I drank some more beer-lite and negated $2 more gambling on 21s. Then again, I thought, Mr. “X” went down quite stage-ily: perhaps that too was part of the mis-en-scène?
In the Las Vegas of early 1960, when his chances of becoming President of America were still “emergent”, John F. Kennedy had a ball. “Half the people he met there thought that ‘Senator’ was just his nickname…” an onlooker once said.
“Dallas” was wearing a very nice dress from Prada, I noticed. She asked me how I was. I said I was a little low, told her about the gun incident. “You need some company,” she said from around the Rotunda. I bought a lavish glass of champagne for her. As in Tom Coryat’s Venice, so too in Sheldon Adelson’s: certain courtesans have a special status. “To sleep with you is $12,000,” she said, with a smile. “”Oral is $4000.”
Like Tom Coryat in Venice, I explained that I was merely talking;soon conquered the blushing and speed-dictated my history as a journalist on a liberal newspaper - and in England. But as such I was still intrigued to know who might pay these fees: yes, I was sure having a “special pass” to go upstairs wasn’t “cheap”; but $12,000?
“Look around these tables,” Dallas said. “Every night a few people, men or women, get very lucky indeed. And when you get lucky you celebrate. I am just their tip.”
I left Dallas in pursuit of tipsters and oral-cheapskates and went upstairs one floor, braving one of the things I’d spent two and half days trying to avoid: the two-thirds scale recreation of San Marco square, complete with Tiepolo skies set permanently, thanks to the lighting, at two in the afternoon and opera-perfect gondoliers (actors, it seemed) with motor-driven gondolas. It was precisely twelve hours later than early afternoon.
Ray-Ban daylight wasn’t right for a half-drunk, half paranoid conference delegate thinking about the future of cell phones well past his bedtime; nor was the madness of $12 million paintings in the stores; singing gondoliers – tourists [tour groups, from “downstairs”] venturing out from their home (at the black-jack table or running the slot alleys). The air was pure, heightened. And – unlike Venice or a dot-com start-up – there were no exit strategies. No last train to Padua or Treviso or home here. I went outside somehow, where at three in the morning it is still ten degrees hotter than inside. Someone had designed the exterior walls to have quotes in Latin. Perhaps I read a few lines of Virgil, or Petrarch. The taxi line was still an hour. Anyway, where to go? Eygpt? Paris? Luxor? The Moon? Watch the Titanic go down again?
I watched movies most of the rest of the night, slept little; I couldn’t sweat though, because the air conditioning control was too complex. In the morning, the last day of the conference, I went to the elevator. Inside the lift flanked by two security guards was President Jimmy Carter, our keynote for today. It was hard to concentrate on his “vision”, though everyone stood for his entrance and made appreciative sounds. At the lift door I just smiled. Of course. There wasn’t much about cell phones in the speech, but a lot about hope, I recall, and smiles. Later I skipped the round-tables and closure sessions and holed up in my room and watched a rerun of “Mission Impossible” on the Pay For View twice over edible room service (food).
Insanity seemed very close indeed.
Then I flew home. Most of my friends didn’t believe any of these stories. Was I reading Damon Runyon at the time? Yes, but... They’d been going to Vegas for years and the worst that happened to them was losing a house. They said things such as:
"Some take a lover, some take drams or prayers
Some mind their household, others dissipation.
Some run away, and but exchange their cares,
Losing the advantage of a virtuous station;
Few changes e’er can better their affairs,
From the dull palace to the dirty hovel:
Some play the devil, and then write a novel."
But it all really happened, just as described.
When the Venetian hotel opened in Vegas in 1999 Massimo Cacciari, then mayor of Venice [Italy], called the project “a circus tent of bad taste.” Later this month The Venetian Macau opens down Asia way: the cheapest rooms are around $1000. In “Venice, the tourist maze – a cultural critique of the world’s most touristed city” written in 2004 by Robert C. Davis and Garry R. Marvin, the authors claim that The Venetian hotel complex has “emergent authenticity…” I wonder if, in “A Picture of Dorian Gray”-like way, Italy’s Venice thus has a disappearing authenticity. Once his Venetian franchise was up and running and raining in the dollars Sheldon Adelson said he sees Italian Venice with different eyes: it belongs not to Venice or Italy but the whole world.
Which must be a bummer for the copyright lawyers.
Last year in a bid to revitalize a fifty-three year old James Bond franchise under threat from those other lively “JBs” Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and the Vegas-y Ocean’s films and Ethan Hunt’s impossible missions, the Broccoli heirs returned to basics; tried to recreate the “authentic” school-bully Bond as envisioned by Ian Fleming in his 1953 novel, "Casino Royale". That meant casinos, tough-guy stuff, proper pectorals, no gadgets really, a terrorist banker, sadism, masochism, and a Venetian* ending – which artfully also mirrors the denouement of the film of Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Sean Connery’s second ur-Bond outing as 007 in 1963 – which came complete with a Matt Munro (who often sang in the “Sahara” in Las Vegas, once with Jack Benny) singalong that made the charts in the US and England but was voiced by someone else in France.
[*Venice is surely one of those “pure” Bond locations – like Vegas or Cannes or any Swiss ski slope.]
As realism goes the new streamlined Daniel Craig James Bond Casino Royale isn’t bad. The last reel destruction of the Venetian palazzo is almost a triumph of CGI, and the (faithful-to-the-novel) scrotal flagellation sequence, whilst “PG” for the obvious box-office of contemporary reasons, would still have inflamed the passions of pain-crazy Ian and Anne Fleming in the 1950s, I am quite certain.
And then, his Lorelei-love (Eva Green, last seen very naked in “The Dreamers”, Bernardo Bertolucci’s dire reworking of both the Paris riots of 1968 and Gilbert Adair’s rather good pastiche-of-Cocteau novel) drowned with the Palazzo, Daniel Craig as Bond gets into his gondola and takes out his laptop. Soon half the wide-screen is filled with an image of a big Sony Vaio computer – for the last e-mail clue to the whereabouts of the very bad banker-man and good-guy flagellator: which is a villa on Lake Como.
Symbolically, and in actuality, this is also one home of George Clooney, James Bond’s ultimate economic rival - what with Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 and their modern and even more grittily authentic national theme for our “pathology of hope” generations: (which sees America as still about wanting and believing despite the odds) we may not beat all the terrorists but robbing a casino, again? No problem. That’s what we do best: robber-barons. Just look at our history books. Any nation’s.
With the arrival of the Sony Vaio on-screen what seems to some as crass product placement (the film’s studio producers, MGM and Columbia, are both owned by Sony, after all) is, I think, the moment of final modern authenticity in “Casino Royale”. Rather than staring Anschenbach-ly towards the Venice lido (and another dull but expensive art Biennale) how much more realistic to look the Lido sands (or Lake Como) up on Google Earth, nod wisely, and then slip downstairs to The Venetian Hotel’s ground floor Rialto and break the bank with the assistance of an MIT trained “counter”, and win the favours of “fair” Ms. Dallas for just one night? Or merely watch the now daily re-enactment of the “rapper with the gun” pageant in the “V” bar? I wonder who plays me? Matt Damon?
No, he’s Tommy Ripley, another face of Venice and Las Vegas. But he and Pat Highsmith are for later. Nick Cage maybe.
I hope I am ready for the Serenissima, Venice. A place that the author Mary McCarthy calls the “folding picture postcard of itself.” If not I guess there’s always Macau. August 28th is the grand opening, I note. Failing that somewhere on my portable hard drive there’s the "RIP" I made of the free DVD of “Don’t Look Now” that the Guardian newspaper gave away many Saturdays ago to boost circulation when posters of fish & fowl would not suffice.
“Everything, you see, is arranged here,” said Noel Coward, friend of Ian Fleming, in “Mr Coward Dissects Las Vegas” an article in the New York Times magazine of June 26th 1955 reflecting upon his re-making (and major re-financing, my they paid well, the Mafia) at the “Sands” hotel in Las Vegas (also the location to which this piece’s opening Coward quote alludes) where his risqué reworking of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” was a smash with the “comp’d” crowds and the Aga Khan, possibly Rita Hayworth as well. “And yet,” he added, “I suspect, there’s a tragic side.”
Whatever could he have meant?