The Flaming Lips – Christmas at the Zoo (1995)
Like rainbow and sunshine heroin injecting themselves into one’s musical bloodstream, Wayne Coyne and his merrily fucked up accomplices somehow craft some joyful seasonal whimsy out of anthropomorphic existentialism in this delightful dos decades ol’ ditty from the pre-breakthrough pre-Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi,pre-digital, pre-Miley Cyrus WB sanctioned album Cloud Tastes Metallic; the last glorious/inglorious gasps of record company panic as they tried to understand the ‘alternative’ youth of America ( In tandem, across the waters see also Britpop era conservatism c.1994 – 1998 RIP)
It’s hard to recall a time when Martin Scorsese was not viewed as a cinematic treasure. But back in 1995, before he won his overdue Oscar at the sixth attempt with The Departed in 2006, his reputation as a singular, adventurous and influential artist in mainstream American cinema was already set in stone, his body of work already being studied by new generations of film students but still he struggled to get financing for his projects unlike his contemporaries such as Spielberg and Lucas who produced their own material which appealed to a broader, family friendly audience.
When Casino was announced as Scorsese’s first project since 1993’s The Age of Innocence – a period drama which underperformed commercially and was an attempt by Scorsese to broaden his creative palette – there was a sense that the director was in danger of repeating himself, spinning his wheels by returning to familiar territory, the milieu of the mafia and a period crime story; a form which he had already mastered with Goodfellas only five years before.
And I recall there being a very real sense of déjà vu among critics and the cinema going audience when Casino came out back in early 1996. This of course was also the draw of the film with Scorcese, De Niro, Pesci and screenwriter Nicholas Pilleggi all reuniting for what was in essence a Goodfellas sequel.
My first memories serve me the enterprise felt excessive and indulgent. But of course, that’s kind of the point. It’s a film about excess and indulgence although at the time I felt I had just seen nothing more a bloated, gratuitously violent sequel to Goodfellas. Though there were similarities in it’s shooting and storytelling the sheer overabundance of it in Casino meant it suffered in comparison to the director’s more lean and focused 1990 gangster classic.
The film received something of a mixed reaction from both critics and audiences back in 1995 with many feeling that the many scenes of violence were unneccessarily graphic. What had been expected to be a front-runner in the annual awards season received only a single Oscar nomination (for Sharon Stone’s electrifying performance as Vegas call/girl gambler) and it disappointed at the box office.
Over time Casino’s critical reputation has increased rather than diminished. I have viewed the film several times since my first viewing 17 years ago am now of the altered opinion that it is in fact one of Scorsese’s finest films, an unflinching examination of the darkness at the heart of the American Dream; how the criminal/capitalist/individualist mindset leads to not only the moral compromise of societal institutions but ultimately, a corruption of love, spirituality and the soul.
Saul and Elaine Bass’ brilliant, operatic title sequence sets up the films modus operandi. As the film opens, Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) gets into his car and starts up the engine with his voiceover laying out his characters philosophy – “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed that’s the kind of love I had.” – Rothstein puts his keys in the ignition, the car explodes and we see his body propelled into a sea of hellish neon and fire as J.S. Bach’s ‘St Matthew’s Passion’ soundtracks his descent with poetic precision.