Friday, September 14, 2007

Las Vegas

When I landed in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, it wasn't the slot machines in the airport that surprised me. Nor was it the Eiffel Tower or the City of New York recreated in some sort of crude Disney-style miniature. No, it was the neo-classical parking ramps that surprised me. I guess I just didn't expect the joke to be taken that far.

I suppose I enjoyed my time there. It was work. But after watching the Las Vegas episode of Anthony Bourdain's travel show and hearing about how great the food there could be, I was wounded. My best meal came from a suburban feedlot called "Bahama Breeze."

"So if Mussolini won the War, would Venice look like this?" Bourdain asked as he strolled through the Venetian Hotel. "A wafer thin veneer of culture and architecture under a matte-painted sky? No, my friends, this is a uniquely American take on Italy." And down the street is America's take on ancient Egypt, selected bits of Paris, France, and my town, Nueva York.

What does it mean when America starts recreating itself in "real-time"? As the late Jean Baudrillard wrote, "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal." We don't need Venice anymore; we got Vegas. It's cleaner.

As Bourdain walks through "Venice" with a friend, he says, "If this were Venice, there'd be a guy in the center of the square selling spleen sandwiches."

"Not here," says his friend.

"We have to take a gondola to this place?" Bourdain asks.

"It's a theme mall," his friend explains. "This is America. There's not going to be any real life, just theme life now."

We see Bourdain and friend leaning over a railing looking at a man in a stripey shirt and the appropriate hat piloting a gondola through clear blue water. "Do not adjust your TV set," he narrates. "Those are gondolas, in a swimming pool, in a mall. I saw these things with my own eyes."

And so did I. So why am I telling about it through the filter of a celebrity chef's cable TV travel show rather than writing about what I saw myself? It's Las Vegas. Why give a direct account of what is the ultimate in American derivatives? The essence of world civilizations distilled down to -- not quite a theme park level -- but to background noise: shit to distract you while you get drunk and lose your shirt.

As Las Vegas tears itself down and rebuilds, newer, shinier and what-have-you, it's just a matter of time before it recreates itself inside itself. Why not? Most of us are already nostalgic for a Frank Sinatra Vegas we've never even seen.

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