IN CONVERSATION: "Leaving Las Vegas" dir. Mike Figgis, 1995

Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas was released in 1995 to considerable acclaim, winning Figgis an Independent Spirit Award for Best Direction and Nicholas Cage an Academy Award for Best Actor.  For the second installment of "In Conversation," writer and film critic Nathaniel Drake Carlson and I are going to talk out the curious case of this unique picture, hailed upon it's arrival, but seemingly transformed in it's public and critical reception over the sixteen years since it's release.

Jason Hedrick:  Nathaniel, I feel like the best place to start with Leaving Las Vegas is connecting it to the mid-90's, then hopefully move toward the lingering influence, or maybe even the lack thereof, generated by the film since.  For both Figgis and Cage, the film seems to sit at a fairly pivotal point in their careers.  In the case of Figgis, I think it's safe to say that he emerged as a significant part of the "independent" era associated with the early-to-mid 90's, even though he was not really part of the Miramax grouping of Soderbergh, Tarantino, and the like.  Also, it's important to note that Figgis is British, which may not come through in a film like Leaving Las Vegas, but will definitely make sense in relation to his first feature (aside from a 1984 TV movie with Stephen Rea called The HouseStormy Monday (1988), a movie that seems to highlight the particular confluence of Figgis's cultural influences.  Even though Stormy Monday was not a huge success, it spawned the opportunity for Figgis to direct the more mainstream Internal Affairs (1990), with Richard Gere and Andy Garcia, which would appear (at least in my distant memory) to fit less into that Indy era climate than the no-holds barred, dive-into-the-abyss feel of the film that, I think we would both agree, truly brought Figgis as a director to his largest audience yet, Leaving Las Vegas.  

The last couple of weeks have been for me an accidental mini-film fest of cinematic reflections on compulsive sickness.  Reviewing Leaving Las Vegas happened to align with me seeing two recent films that delve into similar dark territory: 1) in terms of alcoholism, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's Young Adult, an uncompromising, if not altogether successful, portrait of an alcoholic played with abilities beyond the scripted material by Charlize Theron, and 2) on the subject of sexual addiction, Steve McQueen's Shame, which features Michael Fassbender in a role that echoes Cage's monumentally memorable portrayal of utter human collapse in Leaving Las Vegas.  Though Fassbender's character in Shame is drawn in a less overtly self-reflective and more restrained manner, seemingly possessing less agency in his own downward spiral, it feels like it holds a distant connection to Cage's portrayal of Ben.  When I think about Leaving Las Vegas in relation to these films and other similarly bleak character explorations that happened in the intervening years, it seems that Figgis and Cage made a different kind of character exploration possible again;  bleak, to be sure, but one that parallels the dark masterpieces of the 1940's (Billy Wilder's Lost Weekend comes to mind) and the emergence of more character driven pieces in the early 70's (maybe something like Jerry Schatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park?), as opposed to the shallow star vehicles of the 80's.

Lost Weekend

I wonder if your perception of Leaving Las Vegas in 2012 is similar to mine, in that the film seemed at the center of something important happening in the mid-90's, but has since been screened very little, and the memory it perpetuates becomes increasingly distorted.  One reason this may be true is that Figgis's career didn't follow a path that was necessarily interested in the same things that seemed to interest people about Leaving Las Vegas.  Figgis's follow-ups of the late 90's, like The Loss of Sexual Innocence, or his adaptation of August Strindberg's seminal work of Naturalism and misogyny Miss Julie, failed to find the same kind of audience as his "breakthrough" film.  I think most people, if they have a sense of Figgis at all, associate him with Leaving Las Vegas, save for the world of the Film Appreciation student of the last ten years who may associate him with the simultaneous single-take experimentation of 2000's Timecode.  

As for Cage, Leaving Las Vegas obviously vaulted him into another realm of movie stardom, although the pictures that most movie goers probably still associate him with are the mega-hit follow-ups, Michael Bay's The Rock in 1996, and Simon West's Con-Air in 1997.  Obviously, we are going to have to resist falling down the rabbit hole of discussing Cage's strange career, which includes some of the most drastically alternating turns of bombastic brilliance and dreadful absurdity since the filmography of Brando, that it would be foolish to attempt to cover it here in any meaningful way.  Still, as a few critics have recently noted, Cage has created a career for himself that nearly constitutes it's own genre.  I would say Cage's career path mirrors Ben Sanderson's journey, in some ways;  relentless, hopeless at times, a bit crazed, only occasionally reminding us that there is something beautiful and fascinating about his abilities buried somewhere just beneath the layers of compulsive behavior.  I have always said that Cage seems to be just as good an actor as the material he's involved with.  A great example of this is last year's Drive Angry, which puts Cage's "minimal effort strategy" in relief compared to William Fichtner's fairly brilliant turn, nearly elevating that film from total trash to a slightly more tolerable curiosity.  But, ultimately, the script, although not without it's weird, excessive charms, is not complete;  the same goes for Cage's performance in that film.  In his most memorable turns, Cage is obviously fueled to remarkably engaging levels of creativity by scripts that allow for that, most notably for me, The Coen's Raising Arizona (1987), David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990), Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002), and Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant:  Port of Call New Orleans (in this case, I still hold the suspicion that Cage's gonzo character creation was a result of Herzog spending more time with the lizards than with Cage).  I would also throw in there a reminder that Cage produced one of the great films of the last decade, E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire (2000).  My point is, when it comes to Cage, the sporadic nature of his truly great work is perhaps telling, and something to keep in mind as we assess his performance work here.  For me, this performance is still truly fascinating, and even though I had not seen the film in many years, I was surprised at the degree to which Cage's line readings were lodged in my memory.  I find his performance in Leaving Las Vegas to really hold up, mostly because it takes risks that you rarely see actors take in roles like this.  There's a "safe" way to play Ben Sanderson, and Cage certainly doesn't do that.  Though it's all too easy to become frustrated with Cage over the path of his career choices, my return to Leaving Las Vegas reminded me that it's a rare actor that can pull a performance back from the brink of disaster, given the risks he takes, so adeptly.  If we can start by expanding on that central aspect of Cage's performance, I am curious as to how it struck you this time around, and how it maybe re-framed the careers of both Cage and Figgis for you.  

Nathaniel Drake Carlson:  Cage's performance struck me this time as being remarkable in just how restrained it is, how subdued overall and measured. He almost never goes for big, hysterical melodramatic moments, the likes of which one might expect given the extreme nature of this character and these circumstances. As you say, it's an acting choice that is profoundly daring though I imagine it has just as much to do with Figgis's direction. I think part of the reason the accomplishment of his performance stands out so much to us here and now is very much because of what came after, all the National Treasures and mindless action flicks Cage seems to have been all too eager to embrace in the years since, remaking his career into a veritable caricature when he had the chance to do so much more. 

National Treasure 2:  Book of Secrets

I'm glad you mentioned his line readings as that was something that I noted as well. There's the rather famous, and appropriately so, moment of blurted out apology to his boss early in the picture ("I'm sorry!") that is just so redolent of a kind of barely suppressed childish desperation, one that may lie at the heart of his character's very particular despair. But there's also what he does for the majority of the film, which is a carefully crafted and modulated kind of low-key descent into silence, a silence of inevitability for which there really is no possible response. In that sense, the other key moment would surely be his early acknowledgment to Elisabeth Shue's Sera that he recognizes and understands the definitive nature of their relationship, arguably even more than she does. It's an evidence of a deep seated resignation but one that still manages to allow for a tear.

I do think, however, upon looking at this again, both this year and last, that Shue actually has the harder job in the film and gives the even more impressive performance. The fact that she continues to be underacknowledged for this is a travesty . Whereas Ben remains, more or less, resolute in his accepted melancholy and commitment to his goal with little deviation to speak of (though what there is then becomes that much more significant), Sera's reality is far more cluttered and obviously compromised. She is depicted as equally responsible, at least in part, for her own state but she manages it far less successfully than Ben, for whom all such concerns have been rendered irrelevant by design. Sera still nurtures a sense of hope, tentative and self-denying though it may be, but tempered by the reality of the situation she has been cast into and the one she takes on herself. Shue, meanwhile, manages all of what is required with a kind of supremely admirable dexterity, always attuned to Figgis's overarching ambitions, his established tone and rhythms. 

Of all the principals involved in this picture, it is Shue's subsequent career that is most disappointing and dishearteneing to me. Having revealed herself with this performance as an actress of uncommon sensitivity and excellence, one far removed from the memory of her thin pop turns in the likes of Karate Kid and Cocktail, one would have expected her to be much in demand, to have developed into one of our premiere actresses. But this has not happened and she seems to have been lost along the way somehow. In this she reminds me of Mickey Rourke with his many "lost years" (basically the bulk of the 90's and 00's); it is always tragic for an actor of substance to disappear or be waylaid by circumstance, whether of their own choosing or not. But it also may be that there simply never were as many roles of comparable quality available for actresses of any age. And that reframes the issue, as more to do with a general deprivation of quality, period. Ultimately though, Cage may have chosen to drive himself into a career ghetto but I suspect Shue was not afforded as much of an opportunity to make those kind of self-defeating choices for herself. 

Out in Fifty
And as for Mike Figgis: well, he has always been a favorite of mine, though not necessarily for this particular film. Until recently, I hadn't even come back to this one myself in years, possibly since its original release. If I am at all representative, that may very well speak to some of the neglect that you mentioned. I had remembered the experience of viewing it as being uniquely unpleasant and unsettling and, frankly, I don't think it mattered to me much, for years, whether that was the intended result or not; in other words, whether it was successful or not. For me, Figgis was and is most notable as being the paragon of a particular kind of high style expressed in expressionistic fashion. The arc of his career is certainly fascinating. Going from the rather humble origins of rather derivative neo-noir with Stormy Monday, he ramped up his stylistic tendencies to truly heightened proportions for 1991's superb but little seen Liebestraum, a film utterly immersed in a haunting, dream like atmosphere, one that matched the material.  Liebestraum remains my favorite of his work, though I would imagine its saturation in stylistic excess, however justifiable it may be, is potentially alienating for some. In the larger scheme, that film exists as a pivot point, the pinnacle of a stylistic expression Figgis has spent much of the rest of his career toning down, refining but, crucially, never abandoning. That's part of the unique appeal of Leaving Las Vegas, and part of why it retains such singular power and has had, I would argue, inevitably little in the way of direct influential effect upon other filmmakers. The film is both too bold and powerfully bleak and yet also too personal, too intimately derived from a specific stylistic progress--in this case one that has resulted here in the fusion of his signature style with an increased attention to naturalistic detail, nuance and unadorned vulnerability. And unlike something like Requiem for a Dream, Figgis's insights into bleak despair are never puerile or purely sensational, no matter how broadly they may at times be depicted. There is far too much raw exposure of basic human need here for that.

I do wonder how much you received the film as primarily an actors' piece, a forum for these performances, which is how it seems to be mostly remembered. As indicated above, I regard that as a supreme disservice to Figgis's skill, not just at evoking an atmosphere through style but also at evoking properly modulated performances from these admittedly exceptionally gifted and skilled performers. I noted this time how beautifully framed and composed Figgis's images are--they don't announce themselves as such much of the time (unlike, say, the aggressive manner of Liebestraum), but that is fitting here where a more subdued approach is appropriate, one that accommodates the careful calibration of intimate detail. In particular, I wanted to draw attention to a motif he employs throughout, which is a blocked out shot in which there is significant foreground action between two parties with a consistent presence hovering in the background, a triangular composition where that often out of focus background element looms as subtle threat over the proceedings (here, off the top of my head, I think of the scene at the bar between Ben, the thug and his girlfriend; the confrontation between Ben and the man at the mall foodcourt; and, perhaps most importantly, Sera's discovery of Ben's "infidelity" with his half-glimpsed form perceptible through a half-open door). What images or compositions, subtle or not, made an impact upon you?

JH:  For me, more than individual shots, I am left with the overall impression the film achieves through so many of it's images, which you are right to define as expressionistic.  If one takes a moment to reflect on the film visually, most likely the blurred wash of the Vegas lights framing Ben and Sera in a moment of romantic stroll will come to mind, the accompanying music accentuating the beauty and heartbreak of the fleeting moments of "normalcy" they achieve together in their brief affair.  I am also struck by the moments that contrast these more painterly moments of mis-en-scene, particularly the close ups of Sera in the "therapy" or "interview" scenes, which not only enlarge what Shue gets to do as an actor, but also seem to root Sera in a reality that plays against simply reading her as a symbolic character; an "angel" that only exists in Ben's fever dream ("Sera" most likely being a nod to the term "Seraphim," a heavenly entity, sometimes characterized as having an excess of charity).  With that said, I think one of the interesting layers of the film is considering the extent to which we are rooted in Ben's fiction; his final, dreamt screenplay through which we glimpse a mixture of the creative mind that thrived and the feeble capacity of what remains.  But, I think the play of that artificiality against the very real attempts by Ben and Sera to create their desperate simulation of a rather mundane relationship ritual, from the initial courting through to the sexual issues, is presented in a way that elegantly places that meta-cinematic aspect as a playful and crucial aesthetic element, rather than a demanded and definitive way to read the film.

In response to your observation about the triangular blocking compositions in the film, I must say this is a visual motif that seems very clear once you mention it, but that I did not take note of myself.  Once you mentioned it, it jived so well with the aforementioned aspect of Ben and Sera's "relationship ritual," and it occurred to me that in many instances it has to do with the potential intrusion of "reality" into the "fantasy" situation they're creating for themselves.  A scene that seems crucial in this sense, and that features the same triangular construction you mention, is the scene at the pool.  At first viewing I associated this scene with the more meta-fictional play in the script that refers to the earlier moment with Ben in the bank, wishing into a tape recorder for a bourbon soaked sexual encounter, a chorus of eerily still extras looking on (whether conscious or not, it's the Hal Hartley moment of the film, for sure).  But, this time around what seems most relevant in the "vacation" scene is the employee hovering in the background, and the ultimate admonishment she gives Sera after Ben crashes into the glass table ("WhoooOOOps!!!).  The string of attempts made by Ben and Sera to enact this relationship--the first date, the gift giving, the domestic dispute, the vacation--is ultimately invaded here by that subtle threat that has been lingering in the background.  That moment of Sera being berated is crushing, and her reaction is certainly a moment worthy of the praise you give to Shue's performance.

To turn more closely to Shue, I think your attention to her performance is dead on, and one I overlooked entirely in my initiation of this conversation, going immediately to the film as a "product of Figgis and Cage."  But, yes, Shue is remarkable here.  And, yes, it is sad that the last thing I saw her in was Piranha 3D.  Indulge me for a moment as I put it in Dark Knight terms:  as a professor of acting, I would often ask students very simple questions about acting in the initial stages of an acting class, trying to find ways for them to develop a language to interrogate their own choices as actors.  After the release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, when I would ask students about performances they had responded to in the past and why, the most frequent response I would get was in praise of Heath Ledger as "The Joker."  After a semester or two of this response, I think I became increasingly aggressive in my disdain for that choice, being sure to draw attention to the fact that assessing a particular performance should take into consideration the difficulty of the task.  In short, "The Joker" is the easiest role in the film, and there are a thousand actors lined up who would tear that role up with ease because it comes with a lot of the work already done, and it's the most fun role to play. The difficult role in The Dark Night is Batman (and, frankly, I think Bale, an actor whose work I mostly admire, manages his task less successfully in that role than in the majority of his work).  Now, I don't mean to say that the Ben role is as easy as the Joker, and Cage certainly doesn't play it in any easy way, but I do think that Sera is the more difficult role in contrast, and the same kind of performance that would go entirely unnoticed by first time acting students who are usually only focused on the showiest of roles.    

I will add that I've wrestled with whether or not Shue is miscast here, but I think I've come to the conclusion that if that is the only negative critique I can cast on her, then it's not worth making.  She commits so fully to even the darkest moments of this film, and I think we should ultimately speak to those moments, as late in the film we follow her through an unsettling gang rape, and the harrowing moments of the aftermath.  I'm curious as to how these scenes play for you, as they are surely not only the most difficult scenes to watch, but bring into question Figgis's intentions in handling this aspect of the material.

I understand through Figgis's prior films that he is interested in themes of sex, death, and violence, tempered heavily as they are with noir and jazz-fueled inspiration, but I can only say that I admire his choice to go to some very extreme places in the final scenes of Leaving Las Vegas, while still acknowledging that they are some of the more problematic aspects of the narrative, and, put simply, difficult to re-watch.  In Liebestraum I find nothing as unsettling as I do here, as I fall more into the "alienated" category of viewer for that one, although I do recognize the overwhelming sense of atmosphere you mentioned (and, as you know, just having recently lent me your copy of Liebestraum, I have no history with that film, which, as we were establishing in our last "In Conversation" on Blue Velvet, can sometimes figure into criticism in a significant way).  Stormy MondayInternal Affairs, and Liebestraum, all seem to me an interesting study in a director's progressively refined work with actors.  Figgis achieves some incredible moments of collaboration with Gere and Garcia in Internal Affairs that end up being the most interesting aspects of the film, by far, and in Liebestraum he manages to create a pervasive tone in the performances that marks him as a focused and risky actor's director.  Across those films, Leaving Las Vegas seems to me to emerge as his most successful work, especially in the way the performances merge with the whole, particularly in terms of the score, but also the progression of the narrative and the framing of the whole affair.  Yes, in some ways it is very much an actor's piece, but not at the expense of not also being a great film.

Internal Affairs

I've mentioned a few aspects that I've struggled with this time around, and am wondering what, if any, elements of the story or execution fail to come together for you?  How about the final image of the film?  Ben frozen in that weird smile?  That's one I've debated internally a bit, and have my own reading of, but I wonder where the finality of that choice left you? 

NDC: For me, there is very little here that I would change or that I see as a negative. The final image of Cage is not something I've ever given a whole lot of thought to, I must admit, so I thank you for bringing it to my attention as a point for discussion. I'm intrigued that you have wrestled with it. I guess I haven't thought much about it because it just seemed right to end there in a not particularly conclusive fashion. And that ephemeral image plays like a properly fitting memorial, fitting the tone of the picture and the point where we leave Sera as well. In that, the fact that the image seems so arbitrary doesn't matter as any one of Ben would do, really. So, other than maybe one too many Sting songs on the soundtrack, I wouldn't change a thing.

You mentioned Sera's therapy scenes as an example of something that grounds the character in a more realistic setting or context and I think that's a very solid interpretation, one that emphasizes the contrast or tension between artifice and realism sustained throughout. But I would go even further here and suggest (along with David Thomson, who's written the single best piece on LLV I've seen) that perhaps there is no therapist and she is talking to herself. The idea alone adds pathos and poignancy but is also, when you consider it, all too believable as this is at the very least a film pre-occupied with isolation and solitude, to a fault even; there is a desperate loneliness informing everything that is the real source of the film's distinction as well as the likely reason for its lack of direct imitators. It is too raw and unbearable at times, despite the fact that so much is so stylized. The complicating notion of Sera talking to herself contributes to that, evidencing a way in which any contrast between the presumed real and its alternative is transcended through intertwining them utterly.

The style is expressionist and the reality is caught up in it, perhaps to a point where they are indistinguishable and intentionally so. It's an indicator of how much we rely on heightened forms of art to properly depict states of being. I love the elegance and tragic beauty of Ben and Sera's slowed down clinch in between the game machines at the casino. It speaks to your point about the enactment, desperatly derived once again, of banal relationship moments. But it's also part of that blurring of the line (the meaningfulness of the line even) between reality and fantasy. How much does one inform the other and which one when? Is there ever really a line at all? Think of the scene at the desert motel, watching The Third Man on a TV out by the pool. A romantic moment,  maybe even a self-consciously elevated one, but people do this. And it is significant that Figgis achieves such results here rather than in something like the infinitely more aggressively heightened Liebestraum, which wears its expressionist tendencies on its sleeve from frame one to the end. I adore that film as Figgis maintains a thoroughgoing dedication to style as substance throughout but that is most certainly not a necessary strategy and would, in fact,  be counter-productive in this picture. Figgis clearly understands the modulation necessary and, in its successful balance of elements, I would agree that LLV is his best film to date; quite possibly it is the best in classical, formal terms he will ever make, given his restless, often unformed experimental nature. It's fair to say that Liebestraum owes much to Lynch in terms of texture and rhythm (though the intention behind their application and the resultant effects are very much Figgis's own), while LLV is a refinement or distillation of technique. The tone is more fully formed and distinctly Figgis's alone. Style and substance are of equivalent value here too but there is more of an interest in how they can impact one another and our perceptions rather than simply being one another. When we see Sera acting out Ben's fantasy of a bourbon drenched lover we remember what we heard before and recognize the ramifications of the act, the depths that have been reached, but it's an observation that is not made from a position of codescension to these characters, never from that position. We just see the truth of it, a truth in it; our empathy is complete.

This stylistic determination might also be articulated as one related to subjectivity, to exploring the extent of its effect upon what we perceive to be objective "reality". One of the best scenes to use as evidence of this is the confrontation between Ben and Sera after she discovers him in her bed with another woman (significantly another prostitute). There is an interpersonal aspect here, of course, and reason for what is happening but I want to concentrate on the aesthetics as illustrative of my point. Principally, I want to point to the way the music shifts and changes throughout, going from what we assume is a non-diegetic cue indicative of something ominous, to the clearly diegetic with Ben reacting to it and conducting with his hand, then to an unclear space in which the music seems to react to or directly express Sera's distress as she sinks down against the wall; all of this is handled subtly, smoothly, without calling attention to itself. What we are left with, though, is the distinct sense that we can never fully disentangle ourselves from the aesthetic world so often haughtily dismissed.

The infamous rape scene is another case like that. Its impact is savage and severe, more so because it comes suddenly and feels so very likely. The hold over a controlled situation (of presumed fantasy or not), which is what Sera has necessarily convinced herself she has perfected, is tenuous indeed. It's a nightmare scenario but not one without an additional aesthetic complication. In this case it's the presence of a video camera one of the boys appears affixed to and uses with abandon throughout the scene, both prior to the actual rape and during. What this would seem to indicate is both an inclination to frame everything, all experience, as an aestheticized reality as well as a disinclination to make any meaningful distinctions. All is performance and all is reality. Isn't this what the film itself conveys? Aren't we implicated by that while at the same time commissioned to establish some kind of moral framework? Sera herself admits during one of her monologues/therapy scenes that what she does is "performance" and much of her later course of action with Ben would then read as drive toward an authenticity which is exposed as ultimately and inevitably painful, for this is truth of last resort, vulnerability as authenticity. Ben too is seen performing: his bravado and sexual swagger in the bar at the beginning can't be maintained, is not even "authentic", as he admits to Sera when he remarks that he is "not much good in the sack." But it's his act of admission that matters.

The video recording also speaks to the world of the movie, the Vegas of the title, and all its attendant associations, most especially its promotion of itself as pure veneer, unyielding superficial surface. And this, in turn, situates the nature of the drama as one attuned to or informed by such associations of context, of inescapable environment. We can see then how the longing for a kind of security in domesticity exists against the outsized desires of extreme characters, unwilling to be entirely domesticated; and, equally so, how that aspired to normalcy is the fantasy here, why it cannot be attained.

JH:  I think the way in which we are "commissioned to establish a moral framework," as you so succinctly put it, is not only essential to this (and all) film, but the way in which Figgis "catches up" the viewer in this is perhaps one of the keys to what he is always dealing with as a director, but perhaps rarely achieves as well as he does here.  I think it's long overdue that we give credit to the author of the novel Leaving Las Vegas, John O'Brien, who committed suicide two weeks into the production of the film.  Undoubtedly, O'Brien's death affected the extent to which Figgis went to capture the complexities of the novel on film, and this may have not only caused Figgis to create such an effective and dense work in LLV, but also widened the scope of his technique in the work that came after.  Although I wasn't as aware of it in the mid-90's, I think that LLV did leave such an impression upon it's release that when I picked back up with his work, particularly 1999's The Loss of Sexual Innocence, it failed to play by those same rules so drastically that it faded from memory rather quickly.  Perhaps I just wanted something that felt more like Leaving Las Vegas.  Looking back at The Loss of Sexual Innocence now, it's indulgence in a more experimental, disjointed narrative style, and it's even more overt play with highly stylized frames, at times recalling Figgis's roots in the theatre, seems like such a vital direction for Figgis to go after LLV.  The Loss of Sexual Innocence is a film that captivates me now just as much as LLV because of the risks it takes, and because of the way in which Figgis pushes his craft as a storyteller and director of actors to new places.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence
Figgis over the last few years has been experimenting in an array of documentary and short film work, and even some television, much of which I have not seen, though I know we both had an opportunity to see his film Love Live Long, a rather short piece of video experimentation that was funded in part by a European racing event called the Gumball Rally.  Love Live Long is similar to Leaving Las Vegas in many ways, most notably in that it's primary character (Sophie Winkleman's portrayal of "Rachel") is in the midst of a suicidal spiral.  Love Live Long also echoes LLV in that it is essentially a two person drama that requires the actors to leap into some similar emotionally risky territory.  Though the central characters in Love Live Long lack the sympathetic complexity of Ben and Sera, the way in which the location of the film and the aesthetic handling of that location frames their desperate and depraved behavior jives with the way in which you unpack that same intricate relationship between reality and fantasy in LLV, and the extent to which that "unyielding superficial surface" of Vegas is essential to that.

To pull back and readjust the critical framework a bit, Leaving Las Vegas is a welcome portrait and indictment of Las Vegas.  It is, in a crucial way, about Las Vegas.  Without ever making a move to announce it as such, Figgis made one of the most succinct films about the true horror of one of the most unique of American cities.  If you cull up some of the cinematic depictions of the city through the late 80's and early 90's, you mostly see Vegas as a background to pretty lighthearted fare, such as Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988) or (yet another entry in the extensively wacky Cage filmography) Andrew Bergman's Honeymoon in Vegas (1992).  Of course, there are more dramatic works in that period as well, but none that seem to achieve much lasting significance, in my opinion: Barry Levinson's Bugsy (1991), Adrian Lyne's Indecent Proposal (1993), and, right on the heels of Figgis's film, Martin Scorsese's Casino.  Looking across these films as films about Las Vegas as an institution, an idea, and  a sickness, none of them come anywhere near LLV's perfect cocktail, equal parts horror and humor, artifice and actuality.  In Casino, Scorsese creates a concise reveal of what is really at stake in Vegas...and then muddles it all with 2 hours plus of what may be some of the messiest film making of his career.  With LLV, those romanticized elements of Vegas--the excess and sex and neon flashes and waterfalls of shiny coins--all build toward a death scene that is undeniably tragic, and feels more like a metaphorical death than a real one.  To return to the idea of expressionism, Ben is a character who is an archetype of certain American institutions:  husband, father, film maker.  And, of course, he is an alcoholic.  And, he became an alcoholic in an era of film and television that failed to reflect the consequences of that particular sickness in any meaningful way.  In that moment of his death in the motel room, as Sera mounts his pale, dying carcass, both of them stripped of all their performative defenses, they conjure the image of a dying heart;  the continually dying heart of a city that is never allowed to die.

As I seem to be reading across a number of films now, I have to add that when it comes to "Vegas" movies I hold a  certain admiration for Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), although the technique of the adaptation there is somewhat different, and more overtly haunted by the voice of the author.  What the films have in common is that they are both brilliant adaptations that take into thoughtful consideration the difference between the source material and what that might look like in film form.  This seems basic, but as I've noted all too recently on ECSTATIC, it seems that the choice to adapt literature into film is often doomed from the initial choice of material, or forced by the studio into a style of narrative that will never contain what makes the literary work great.  It seems what Figgis brings out of O'Brien's material is entirely intact in that it exists on the level of an engaging piece of character-centered realism, as well as an expressionistic, and occasionally meta-cinematic, portrait that gets at larger cultural notions of excess.  

Speaking of the meta-cinematic aspects of the film, one moment of Leaving Las Vegas that stays with me involves an aspect of the film that we have hardly touched on, the story lines peripheral to Ben and Sera's story, namely those that include the great Julian Sands, and a silent cameo by Figgis himself as one of the men hunting down Sands for some reason or another.  The moment that strikes me as curious is early in the film where the character Figgis plays takes a moment to stare down Ben in a chance roadside stop encounter.  The reason this is curious is that the character Figgis is playing has virtually no connection to Ben in the film.  Also, Figgis appears again in the "Red Mullet" (also the name of his production company) advertising image atop the Vegas cabs in the film, sporting quite the "do" and sunglasses.  What do you make of this inclusion of Figgis himself (something that happens in many of his pictures, even more significantly in Love Live Long), as well as the fleeting story line involving his character and Julian Sands' character, Yuri?  

NDC:  Sands' performance is really fine in what is kind of a thankless part. And it is so quite intentionally as his character Yuri and all he represents exist solely on the level of genre mechanics which not only does not interest Figgis but which he makes a point of refuting. It is no accident according to this reading then that Figgis shows up as a hit man in his own film--he is here to "take out" the genre trash that so often in narratives such as these acts to clutter and distract. Having said all that, credit is due to Sands for what he is able to do with that character given such limited time and attention but also to Figgis for treating his storyline with just as much care and compassionate sensitivity as the rest (Yuri's final moments, for instance, are perfectly realized--he is dispatched with a grave solemnity rarely allowed to characters like his even when the bulk of the narrative is about them).

Yuri also embodies the film's focus on desperation but it's in a bald and hysterical way rather than the more sublimated expression of Ben and Sera. His great fear rests on his vulnerability, his exposure, and it emanates from his awareness of that. Sera shares this but she has the privilege of being able to be more circumspect about it, not broadcasting it as such. We recognize it though in the early scene in which she confronts Ben as he sits slumped on a bench and he offers to take her to dinner. Her confessional moments have already informed us of the strange affection she has developed for him, so we read her refusal of his offer as a gesture of self-protection and an assertion of independent self-sufficiency. She only willingly returns to him, willfully dropping her guard, after Yuri's removal--when she has no recourse left. The literal framing of that confrontation scene is significant to me, too. Their dialogue plays out in foreground while in the back, in another triangular composition, nuns handing out literature cast them occasional glances. This seems so fitting not just for what it suggests about the indifference of the certifiably compassionate but also in its reversal of accepted hierarchies of value and our awareness that the interchange of a Ben and Sera are the background to many lives, most lives.

Their entire relationship is forged from and built upon that shared, exposed vulnerability, an attempt to stave off or assuage a deeply felt loneliness. She even states it bluntly at one point, saying, "I'm tired of being alone. That's what I'm tired of." The fact that this statement is made to Ben through an open door as she uses the toilet is indicative of just how physically exposed Sera is used to being. She may be able to casually recite a laundry list of "services" to potential johns (most notably in the first motel scene with Ben, a moment I regard as amongst the saddest in the film) but that particular exposure is hollow, facile; it cannot reveal her soul and she understandably shies away from what does. But, as she herself admits, she needs Ben and he needs her too, after his fashion. Her need for him, which eventually presents itself as unconditional love, is real but it's also debilitating, ennabling. This can be observed best, of course, in the gift of the flask, a very genuinely well meant offering, even achingly sincere, but one we can't help but regard as misguided and tragically naive.

Ben's need for Sera is not quite the same as hers for him and is certainly not sexually motivated. It bears examining and further scrutiny. If the isolated identity is regarded as meaningfully definitive then its destruction (as we witness with the burning of the family photo) is as well and Ben's free fall into loneliness is unavoidable and absolute. Sera seems to exist for him as reminder of something, an example of an open and accepting possibility and for that he values and loves her. His love emerges in warped ways too, but ways suggestive of the deep complexities of their particular relationship. His disconnect from conventional means of expression is palpable, as when he gives Sera his money for safe keeping early on and tells her, "Giving you money makes me want to cum." This and several other moments can be read as awkward attempts at intimacy but no such justification can be made for the callous and hateful remarks he makes to her as he gives her the gift of a pair of earrings later in the film. And yet the cruelty of his action barely registers on his features; he does not enjoy it.

These are people who take pride in being honest with themselves about who they are, their motives and intents. But they lie to themselves throughout, unable to acknowledge what some have called an "ethical jealousy" that lies at the heart of their union. Both Ben and Sera want to believe they have accepted one another fully and emphatically assert this on a number of occasions but even they, who can bare their souls to one another and expose so much other pain and grief, cannot expose enough and, it could be argued, their damnation is a result. Ben's cruelty to Sera, as expressed in those remarks at the mall food court and in his actions in her bed with another woman, come from an inability to admit that he cannot accept what she does after all. She claims to understand and accept him but can't really do that either. Yet their mutual pledge to remove judgment prevents any possible deviation from the course or alteration of their circumstances.

In that respect all the many other background characters they each run into and experience encounters with depict the whole range of human responses available to them--whether it be the bartender who is critical of and dismissive to Ben or the resolute regard of the hit man or the cab driver who is hateful toward Sera or the cab driver who is tender and concerned. Most especially, though, there is that encounter with the anonymous man at the food court, who is more sensitive to what Ben risks losing than he is himself.

You're right to point out how Figgis deals here and elsewhere with an intertwining of sex and death, as a foregone conclusion even, their fatal inevitability. And though there is a givenness to that attitude, it doesn't exactly communicate as neutral. In fact, that inevitability is pure tragic fatalism indeed. That's why I was suprised to see Figgis say in a vintage interview at the time of LLV's release that he thought Sera would just continue on as a prostitute and that he saw nothing wrong with that. Though courting a moralistic response is always risky, I think here the film doesn't support his claim. It goes to great lengths to dismantle it, in fact. Certainly we see no evidence of any great pleasure possible from these enactments, especially in the face of the lack of the authentic, and we also see great danger and continued diminshing prospects for anything else. Sera's "getting dressed for work" montage, set to Lonely Teardrops, is the counter to all such mindlessly celebratory sequences in pictures like Pretty Woman.

Pretty Woman

I'm glad you mentioned other Vegas set films that work to contextualize the achievement of this one. I'd like to offer up a couple more. We should not overlook the significant similarities in Wayne Wang's The Center of the World, which is yet another intense relationship picture, this time about a socially awkward man who hires a stripper to accompany him to Vegas. They end up sharing a series of brutally revealing experiences and in that it certainly brings Figgis's film to mind; but Center of the World I remember as being more punishing than enlightening or enrapturing or insightful and in that sense it suffers the comparison. There is also Nina Menkes's superb indie art film Queen of Diamonds which goes to great lengths to explicate even more fully than the Figgis the ways in which Vegas can act upon personal consciousness in a corrosive and destructive way. That's a rigorous work out of a film though and doesn't offer up all the small pleasures that provide a relief from the monotonous gloom in LLV. Finally, I want to mention Bernard Rose's underseen masterpiece ivansxtc which is not set in Vegas but reflects many of Figgis's concerns here in respect to the morally degenerative environment of Hollywood and how it can function as catalyst for a profound self-reflection when personal tragedy hits. Rose's film (along with Figgis' Timecode from that same period) was amongst the first to successfully, artistically mobilize DV as a medium for expression and indicate the evidence of its potential. It was a movie from the margins that acted as an indictment of a Hollywood sensibility whether it was fully seen as such or not. The fact that Rose and Figgis are both technically outsiders to that world, both Englishmen, may not be so irrelevant here.

JH:  Agreed.  And I think Rose's ivansxtc (criminally unreleased on DVD in the US) is another interesting touchstone here in relation to the uniquely cast nature of Leaving Las Vegas, which shares a couple of crossover cast members in Danny Huston (briefly, as the bartender you mentioned) and Valeria Golina (who also appeared later in Figgis's Hotel) , both actors, I think you would agree, we could stand to see in more great films like these.  And for all the discussion we've generated about how singularly focused the film is on Ben and Sera's relationship, I feel I should take a moment to note the wide array of actors and non-actors that appear in LLV, some in very memorable turns, as in the cabbies you mentioned, played by (as "Cynical Cabbie") Xander Berkeley and (as "Concerned Cabbie") Lou Rawls;  others barely glimpsed, as is more the case with the likes of Ed Lauter, French Stewart, and Mariska Hargitay.  LLV frequently showcases Figgis's ability to get something special out of brief scenes with great character actors, whether it be the outrage of R. Lee Ermey's uptight convention-goer, or the slightly askew sit-com-esque quality of Laurie Metcalf and David Brisbin as Sera's landlords.  The scenes with Metcalf and Brisbin are maybe some of the least successful in the film for me, but in a film that takes such drastic risks with tone, I think they make sense read as another mirror held up to Ben and Sera's attempt at domestic normalcy, or as another comic invention in Ben's fantasy.  In another moment of reflection, early in the film we find Steven Weber and Richard Lewis perfectly cast as two Hollywood producer types who Ben awkwardly begs for a loan.  This scene works so well because we see so clearly how Ben once fit in with this upscale crowd, and how he's crossed a line that even they, most likely addicts themselves (Weber and Lewis just radiate their propensity for cocaine consumption, don't they?), are growing weary of having to retrace for Ben. 


And the list of curious, brief character turns continues throughout Leaving Las Vegas, with a rare bit of acting by Jullian (as in "son-of-John") Lennon (as yet another bartender), but perhaps one of the most interesting cameos, which happens in the "food court" scene you mentioned, is that of Bob Rafelson, who appears for a moment to urge Ben to "try another take," so to speak, of what strikes me as one of the most unsettling moments in the film, Ben's cruel whisper into Sera's ear that follows him giving her a new pair of earrings.  I agree that this scene gets at Ben's inability to come to terms with what Sera does.  There is a surprising naivete to Ben, perhaps one that can't really conceive of the world through a lens not colored by Hollywood--both the business and the product--where the consequences are never quite real.  To the extent that we have really bought into Ben and Sera's relationship at this point, Ben's callousness is rather jarring;  the type of thing someone would only say in a movie.  Rafelson appearing in this moment puts yet another meta-cinematic spin on the film, perhaps recalling the existential restlessness of Nicholson's character in Five Easy Pieces, and his ultimate departure at the conclusion of that film, similarly unable to find any reasonable way to be a part of the familial or social constructs set up for him.  Though I began this conversation trying to situate Leaving Las Vegas in relation to the cinema climate of the "Indy" trends of the early-to-mid 90's, looking at the film in relation to Rafelson's brief appearance makes me think that the film may sit more comfortably beside the great works of the early 70's, including Rafelson's follow-up to Five Easy Pieces, the equally fantastic Nicholson collaboration The King of Marvin Gardens.

Five Easy Pieces
No matter what decade, the kind of attention that Figgis brings to character and performance is something that we could stand to see a lot more of in film.  As I continue to advocate for the exploration of the more far-reaching visual potential of film in it's more experimental capacities, I am equally captivated by performance work in film that is challenging and innovative, which is what we find here in a film so careful in it's framing of the characters that one may miss just how exacting it is visually; a "pure" piece of cinema, indeed. The independent era seems to have left us with an even greater lack of interest in the Camera as the central aspect of making a film, and by way of that some pretty narcissistic and facile flicks that wouldn't dare to delve in to the risky territory of a film like Love Live Long, barely recognized by critics or audiences, which seems odd in the age of "mumblecore."  Could it be that in the climate of those films that Figgis is even more risky today than he was in 1995?  I'm not being cynical at all about the new realist films, a few of which I adore.  Though we may be losing Mark Duplass to more mainstream efforts, he has exhibited an incredible abiltiy for storytelling in some of his previous work.  But, for a generation that has made the camera less of the focus in the independent realm, and (to return to the career arc of Cage) seems increasingly more satisfied with mere repetition and "star power" in the commercial realm, it seems that Figgis's uncompromised visions are more important than ever.  Any current glimpse at the box-office numbers will reveal movies that couldn't possibly have been sold so successfully to the public through anything other than a reliance on tabloid-driven, Pavlov-esque repetition and celebrity-centered marketing, to the extent that way too much critical due is given to films that, frankly, deserve to be ignored (I think I'm reading your recent comments correctly in that this is the case with Cage's most recent turn in Joel Schumaker's Trespass?).

The Puffy Chair
Love Live Long
In any case, I think we'll maintain a focus on directorial work that brings out the best in actors for our next installment of "In Conversation," perhaps take a cue from Figgis's inclusion of Rafelson and delve back to the cinema of the 70's.  For the next time, lets move to the work of a director whose achievement in the evolution of acting on film is truly second to none:  John Cassavetes.  This director's work may prove a bit more contentious for us in conversation, as I'm pretty sure I have more of a fondness for Cassavetes' tendency to give everything over so fully to his actors, which I think is an aspect that has often left you a bit cold, though I know ultimately we both regard him as a hugely influential film maker, and one worthy of all the discussion critics and fans can generate  There are so many great films to chose from when it comes to Cassavetes, and although my favorite is maybe 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, and I had casually suggested to you that we address 1970's Husbands, I think we both agree that 1977's Opening Night is the film of his that would prove most interesting for our exercises in critical interlocution.  That is, I can't wait to hash that one out with you.  Thanks again for your insight, Nathaniel.

Coming Soon:  "In Conversation" - John Cassavetes' Opening Night (1977), featuring Gena Rowlands, John
          Cassavetes, and Ben Gazzara.

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