Casino

Lately I’ve been rewatching movies from my past, movies I regard highly favorably. The most recent was Casino.

I don’t love everything about this movie by a long shot. For one thing, I’m troubled by the tendency in pop culture to sensationalize and indeed glorify violence and atrocious behavior in general.

I mean, you can make the case instead that Scorsese movies like Casino, Goodfellas, etc. do the opposite of glorifying violent criminals in that they show what awful people they are and how their careers typically don’t last long before they’re dead or in prison, but the fallacy there is that while it may be true that rational viewers would be turned off by seeing what kind of life these people lead and would if anything be less inclined to emulate them than before they watched such a movie, most people are not rational and thus could easily react otherwise.

I think what a lot of people see, and react to favorably on an emotional level, is alpha males who don’t play by the rules and who put no restraints on how they pursue their ends. These are people who act rather than who are acted upon, who carry themselves like Nietzschean Overmen, who (in the immortal words of George Carlin, describing Joe Pesci) “get things done.” Weak-minded women gravitate to the charisma this gives them, and weak-minded men admire them and wish they could be more like them.

In other words, you always have to remember that a lot of people, including a lot of people who watch movies, are morons and hence will react to what they see not in rationally justified ways but in moronic ways.

It’s also worth mentioning that I think Scorsese exaggerates the charisma of the main characters in his crime movies, so it’s not a matter of an accurate portrayal of the mob lifestyle potentially having the unfortunate unintended consequence of encouraging people to assess that lifestyle favorably, but of an inaccurate, glorified portrayal doing so. It isn’t that he denies or downplays their evil or their criminality, but their weakness and general uncoolness. I’ve done a little independent reading about the real life versions of some of the characters in his movies, and, for instance, Henry Hill of Goodfellas was far from the suave, self-directed alpha male of the movie; he was frankly a pathetic, weak, unstable, loser, addict, and rat. There isn’t quite as big a gap between the Casino version of Lefty Rosenthal (renamed Sam Rothstein in the film) and the real life person, but I’d say he still comes across here as a stronger, more dynamic, perhaps more admirable figure than he deserves.

But, mostly my reaction to the best of Scorsese’s gangster flicks, including Casino, is to marvel at just what extraordinarily good filmmaking they represent. They seem meticulously, perfectly, constructed down to the last detail. There’s that feeling of utter competence. Casino is a captivating film from the first scene to the last.

For an “action” movie, it’s surprisingly character driven. That is, these are not simplistic, two-dimensional characters involved in dramatic scenes of shouting at each other, shooting people, racing around in high speed car chases, plotting elaborate heists, etc. There’s always a great deal going on psychologically with these characters and their interactions.

For example, the central relationship between Rothstein and Nicky Santoro is a fascinating one. They’re friends from way back, and in certain respects they need each other and each will suffer if the other falls or there is a break between them. Yet in spite of the fact that self-interest influences them toward sticking together, there is an increasing volatility in their relationship precisely because they are not hyper-rational maximizers of self-interest.

Of the two, Rothstein comes closer to being able to keep a cool head and make pragmatic decisions (which fits with his being a very successful gambler), but he’s far from perfect in that respect due to his large ego. But Santoro’s instability is more extreme and scarier.

There are times that being crazy—or at least perceived as crazy—can be in one’s self-interest, but not in a long term, sustained way, and not when you’re out of control to the degree Santoro is. You have the sense from early on that however much damage he does to others, in the end he’ll destroy himself, and that that end probably will come fairly soon.

It’s like in Santoro’s famous scene with the banker, his “I don’t give a shit what happens to me” proclamation serves his self-interest in the short run precisely by informing the banker that he’s not governed by self-interest, but in the long run it’s not sustainable.

The other key relationship in the film is that of Rothstein and his wife Ginger.

One thing I’ll say about her is that I find her an almost completely repellent person. I take it many males, perhaps the majority of males, would be like Rothstein: simultaneously aware of her flaws yet instinctively drawn to her, the kind of woman you fall in love with, or at least lust for, while recognizing that doing so is a really bad idea.

I’m an exception. I don’t think her criminality, her dishonesty, her greed, her drug and alcohol abuse, etc. make her strong and self-directed in a way that’s somehow sexy or that makes her a worthy challenge to get to love you back; I think it just makes her a weak, pitiful, nasty human being I would never want in my life.

What’s interesting is how Rothstein never can trigger any kind of genuine positive feelings in her for him. At first the obvious explanation is that she sees him as a “john,” as someone she can benefit from financially and therefore not respect, someone too weak, too obviously craving of her love.

Yet, who could be weaker and more pathetic than her friend, lover, and sometimes pimp Lester Diamond, for whom she never ceases to have strong feelings? And why doesn’t Rothstein win her over through his macho man dominance moves against her (which include having the aforementioned Diamond beaten up)?

It’s as if Rothstein gets on a certain “track” in her mind at the outset, and once on it cannot ever be perceived differently by her whatever he does. Or maybe the way to put it is that while Diamond and Rothstein are each in their own way a mixture of strength and weakness, of dominating her and pleading for her to like them, for whatever subtle psychological reasons Diamond’s particular combination of such traits is just right to push the buttons of someone like her and keep her attached to him, while Rothstein’s combination is decidedly uncharismatic to her.

Las Vegas itself is something of a character in the movie. By the end the contrast is drawn between the “old” Vegas of the movie (Mob-run, corrupt, violent), and the “new” Vegas that replaced it (corporate, bland, family-friendly), with the suggestion that the old Vegas was somehow more authentic and more appealing.

Maybe, but mostly I’m not buying it. As much as I hate mega-corporations and view them as a source of great evil in the world, I would put organized crime a level below them. Or at best I’d put them on the same level, since the worst of corporations really are just organized crime. I wouldn’t prefer to patronize gangster-run casinos over those owned and operated by generic white collar businesspeople.

There’s a lot more I could comment on about this movie (like the wonderful visual of the sand rising up in the desert and floating onto the motionless Rothstein as Santoro drives off, or multiple scenes of really ugly violence), but I’ll leave it at that. Casino is troubling in some ways, but is also a great movie.

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