Mafia Glamour: Reflections on Scorcese’s Casino

September 24th, 2009 § 0

Made the mistake of going to see Casino at the Film Museum in Vienna on Sunday night. In case you were tuned out in 1995, Casino is a three hour Martin Scorcese blockbuster featuring Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone. Not that Casino is a bad film, quite the contrary. As great art often will, Casino took me down a long rabbit hole seeking a deeper understanding of its subject.

The setting is mainly Las Vegas and it is a look inside the Mafia’s years at the top of the Vegas totem through the life of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a sharp gambler who managed the casinos for them.

When in Vegas, Rothstein makes the mistake of falling for Ginger, one of the top hustlers/call girls of the town.

I couldn’t actually believe that Robert De Niro’s character would be foolish enough to put his whole life at risk for the sake of a strumpet. Then I saw the swimsuit pictures of the real life Geri McGee on whom Ginger’s character was based. Even Sharon Stone in her prime looks like a wallflower in comparison to the original here.

Geri McGee Casino Sharon Stone
Geri McGee inspiration for
Sharon Stone’s Ginger in Casino

At the end of Casino, the whole deal falls apart with a campaign to drive Rothstein out of Vegas, Ginger dead of a drug overdose after robbing him of a million dollars and spending it on rough bikers. Rothstein’s best friend and nominal protector in Vegas, mafioso Nicky first watches his own brother beaten to death in an Iowa cornfield by the same guys who used to be his own crew before suffering the same fate himself. The higher up bosses who ordered the hit on Nicky have problems of their own, in the form of an indictment for racketeering and rigging the casino books. All witnesses and accessories must disappear.

Generally the message is not that crime doesn’t pay, but that you don’t get to keep the money and it costs too much personally.

As the plot behind Casino is based on a true story (Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s life), it sent me to research whether this message is the truth or a trite simplification.

Once you start digging into the lives of the mafia in Vegas, you are led into the mafia of Chicago and then New York. From there the story moves to Naples and Sicily and to the murders of the special prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and the corruption of Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti who was in the pocket of the mafia and running interference for them most of his political life.

If you read them in a novel, you wouldn’t believe the stories of betrayal and viciousness. But they are true stories and people’s lives.

Of the thirty or so short biographies* I found and read, over 80% of the protagonists either spent decades of their lives in prison or were murdered by other mafiosi, in many cases their former closest associates. In some cases, both prison and murder.

Each of these men lives extraordinarily unpleasant lives of anticipation and worry and brutality before finally suffering a similar fate to that which he had so glibly wreaked on others. It’s Rousseau’s social contract gone totally awry.

There is so little room for upside in their world. In the case of Rosenthal/Rothstein, he accidentally survived a car bombing before being able to go on with his life. He should have been just another mafia victim. He only survived thank to a special floorplate installed on that model of Cadillac due to a factory recall.

What were Rosenthal’s crimes:

  • appearing on television and thereby attracting attention to himself
  • being at the centre of a very lucrative business which worked out very well, i.e. he knew too much.

It turns out that with the Mafia if you strike it rich, you have probably signed your own death warrant. Almost the entire generation of mafiosi who helped run the casinos in Vegas ended up in body bags at the end of Scorcese’s film. Otherwise they might talk.

A more striking example is the Lufthansa Heist which took place in JFK airport in New York. A crew managed to heist $6 million in a single evening in 1974. Jimmy Burke who organized the heist didn’t want to share so much money around. Moreover loose lips sink ships.

So instead he tried to knock off almost every heist participant. With great success.

The Lufthansa Heist is perhaps the single most successful single street level operation the Mafia ever managed to pull off. Yet the guys who did the good work ended up dead.

Quite frankly, as a career mafioso sucks. Do good work: get iced. Do bad work: go to prison and/or get iced.

When you look at each of their faces (mostly mugshots so one should make allowances) very little love and very little grace. Being a thug or a wiseguy is bad for your physiognimy.** These guys do not look as good as Dustin Hoffman and crew in The Godfather Trilogy. The dingy apartment of Lefty in the film Donnie Brasco is closer to the truth.

Most of those who do get to old age, get there without much in savings. Despite the millions that went through their hands as working wiseguys, they end up living very dreary lives in a suburb somewhere in Arizona.

Frankly after all the glamorization of the Mafia, I was surprised at how tough the life really is and how bad the odds are.

Conclusion: as a career move, joining the Mafia is probably even worse than signing up with Enron. At the end of the day, you can only lose and every day you know the reaper may be coming for you.

Notes and Trivia

* Surprisingly the Wikipedia entries for most of these guys are so badly written that basic sentence construction and verb tense are wrong most of the time. The entries are curiously repetitive as if never properly edited. I’ve never seen worse Wikipedia articles on any subject.

** Single exception La Piccolo in Italy. He was a very good looking young man and even now doesn’t look too bad for his age.

Dance on Screen Suspended or Cancelled?

January 11th, 2007 § 2

Bad news from the Canada Council today.

Important Notice from the Dance Section – January 2007

Dance on Screen Production Fund (Pilot Program) – Next deadline February 15, 2007 is SUSPENDED
Please note the upcoming February 15, 2007 deadline for the Dance on Screen Production Fund (Pilot Program) has been suspended. Please check our website for updates regarding the Dance on Screen Program (however, you will receive updates via email in the future).

Strangely, the Canada Council don’t seem to put this dark bit of news on their own website anywhere.

This is the second suspension for the wonderful program which helped Kathleen and I create Lapinthrope.

I’d rather be making dance films [not a bad idea for a t-shirt]. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m not.

Very sad about this.

Maria Callas Film

June 26th, 2006 § 2

During the daytime I filmed Simona Noja’s performance with the room empty. Here is a teaser for the final film. I shot vertically as I find the horizontal frame of a television extremely unattractive for a dance solo, particularly in a room like the Eroica Sall in the Austrian Theatre Museum.

The end result will be two vertical frames side by side for an HD picture. We worked with a Sony VX2100 in Pal DV SD (DV standard definition 720 x 576 pixels 25 frames per second) with the camera mounted sideways (yielding a single image of 576 x 720, which makes up two vertical frames in the 720p version of HD (1280 x 720 pixels progressive scan 25 frames per second) with some room left over to make sure that essential shot information isn’t cut off on the sides.

The future of television in Europe and all over the world is HD and we made this film for HD to offer a much richer dance viewing experience. Two frames seems ideal to me for working with dance – which hasn’t been possible until now, due to the resolution limitations of video. With twice the resolution or more, HD lets us do this at last without using film (which is very expensive to shoot for dance, as one needs lots of footage). I have done similar experiments with SD before – Althea Frutex.

But even a single vertical shot is attractive for web viewing and gives a sense of the wonderful performance in exceptional surroundings. Somehow Simona managed to transform herself into Maria Callas and carry the emotions of both Violetta and Maria Callas herself in Ingeborg Tichy-Luger’s expressive choeography.


Click to Open Film in New Window – Attention 64 MB download!

Alas, right now we are short of money for post-production and the immediate future of the HD version is in doubt (my own company Decadence Films is donating half of the post-production budget). Please donate a small amount now if you can and we will feature you in the credits and in a special thank you page on the film’s website (with a link if you would like)! We only need 100 donors.

For more pictures of Simona Noja as Maria Callas, please visit my friend photographer Anton Hoellersberger who took some wonderful photographs during the filming.

Art Channel Paris | Brothers Atanasković

January 23rd, 2006 § 0

Last winter when I was living in Paris, I went regularly to the cultural evenings and exhibitions at the Centre Culturel Irlandais on rue des Irlandais just behind rue Mouffetard.

At one of the exhibitions I was introduced to a pair of tall and imposing Serbians with the incredible project of mounting a for free cultural satellite channel. The two Serbians were the brothers Atanasković and their channel was called Art Channel.

Art Channel is now broadcasting 21h to 05h CET, free to air, via satellites HOT BIRD and W2 (EUTELSAT) over Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa to more than 120 million households.

You can preview the programming on the web. It’s not bad. I particularly liked the simplicity of Laurent Mazar’s Carte Bleue. But there are lots of other more baroque and/or experimental works.

Congratulations Milan and Slobodan!

If you see anything you like feel free to leave a note below. Video artists don’t neglect to visit Art Channel’s submission page to see if it might suit some of your works.

Dance Films of Babette Mangolte at Tanzquartier Wien

November 5th, 2005 § 0

Tonight at Tanzquartier Wien, three films of Babette Mangolte were presented in the presence of the filmmaker as a coproduction with MUMOK.

The films were Water Motor (1978, 7 minutes), Glass Puzzle (1973, 17 minutes) and Four Pieces by Morris (1993, 94 minutes.

Water Motor was shot on 16mm and is easily the most interesting (and briefest) of the three works. Choreographer Trisha Brown executes a beautifully self-involved solo. It is only two minutes long. Immediately afterwards we see the same solo but in slow motion. Very high quality slow motion. The trick was that Mangolte shot the piece at 48 frames per second, so the first half at real speed was actually accelerated.

Unfortunately beyond the change of speed there is absolutely nothing engaging or original about the camerawork. We are at a middle distance from Trisha Brown who is on a very drab stage. All her limbs are fully visible all the time. In praise of the work, we have a clear view of the choreography and dancing. As documentation this is excellent. As filmmaking, it is dull as dishwater. A work of art it simply is not. But I was happy to see Trisha Brown’s own dancing after having seen some of her work at Opéra de Paris and again at Impulstanz.

The next Glass Puzzle was very experimental with enormous closeups of dancer’s faces with pendulums swinging in front of their eyes. Originally shot on video in the dark ages of the format (early 70’s), the image doesn’t have much texture.

Imagistic shots of pelvises, superimpositions, Glass Puzzle is totally different from Water Motor and Four Pieces by Morris. The answer to the mystery is that Babette Mangolte was charged only with camera and direction was in the hands of one of choreographer and dancer Joan Jonas. She and Lois Lane give enigmatic performances in this elliptical work.

Four Pieces by Morris is exactly that. Four pieces by sculptor Morris. I had somehow thought that the four pieces would be by Mark Morris so I was attending more. Robert Morris is an extremely ascetic creator whose structural compositions have less to do with the theatre and more to do with installation. We have a workman moving white boards back and forth across a stage finally revealing a female nude reclining on a couch behind the last one. The woman does not move, the workman does not notice her. Nothing happens. The sonic backdrop is an intense recording of street sounds and construction which was distracting and irritating to my ear but was supposed to serve to “heighten the presence of the performer”.

Each one was more tedious than the next, with perhaps the exception of the lecture on perception in the third piece.

There were some closeups inserted – the workman playing with his gloves, the lecturer taking his enormous spectacles on and off – but more or less Four Pieces is in the same style as Glass Puzzle. That is to say, the camera observer. We just watch these stage pieces happen. The camera tracks back and forth the considerable horizontal movement of props in the first and fourth piece.

Again as documentation this is perfectly adequate. If one is a Robert Morris fan or were making a study of conceptual stage art of the period one would be very pleased with the work. But as a dance filmmaker, I find this kind it quite depressing. Engage movement, engage the camera.

In dance terms, Robert Morris’s own preoccupations according to Babette Mangolte were “casual movement and untrained bodies” which she quite correctly notes are subjects of considerable interest to some of today’s choreographers. A recurring vice among choreographers who are unwilling to face the unlimited challenge of trained, able and talented dancers.

This sort of work fits in well with the Vienna non-event school of dance on the ascendent now.

Babette Mangolte’s dedication in recreating these mid-sixties stageworks to make a dance film of them in the nineties is astonishing.


For some reason some guy in a long leather coat chose to intervene three or four times during the screening. He stood in the bottom right hand corner of the screen and made small hand gestures and struck strange poses to the bemusement of all. Finally Babette Mangolte rose from the auditorium and accosted him – “I can’t allow you to do that, it is not respectful of Bob Morris’s work” – before he was led away by Sigrid Gareis, artistic director of the Tanzquartier.

In something that could happen only in Austria, this same gentleman in his Cheka overcoat was lounging at the Tanzquartier bar enjoying a glass of red wine and an animated conversation with an attractive patron of the arts.

Is this laid-back attitude a good thing or a bad thing? Probably a good thing. I’m still wonder about his movtivation. I wish I’d asked him.

The conditions of projection were excellent with a very bright and large screen setup within the main dance studio with audio running out to a well setup sound system.

Visit to Universidad Nacional of Columbia in Bogotá

October 19th, 2005 § 0

Today I had an eleven o’clock screening of Lapinthrope, followed by a lecture on arts filmmaking in the cinema department of Universidad Nacional in Bogotá.

The class was small – apparently one of photography. I spoke about digital filmmaking and made a strong case for the future being digital and not chemical.

I spoke about light cameras and custom steadycam rigs. I spoke about PAL and NTSC and television interlacing (30 frames of NTSC televison are in fact 60 frames of interlaced low-resp – smooth and ugly).

I spoke about Hollywood and their absence of need for other tales than their own. Of the commercial nature of commercial cinema. I spoke about integrity and the desire to tell one’s own stories. I gave them strategy (buy a good camera second-hand and sell it after the project; rehearse with the camera you will use to shoot).

I spoke about collaboration and the torment of the shoot. Choose your collaborators carefully as you must trust them absolutely, even under extreme stress.

I spoke of the need for companions. A film can only be a success if everyone likes every minute of an entire film. Everyone has to be engaged by every minute of your film throughout. This is why you need more than one set of eyes. You cannot see your film for everyone yourself at all times.

Other eyes help you with this.

They asked about my goals with this film.

To speak about things which I care deeply about. Urbanisation, civilisation, alienation, community. To share my passion for dance. So that everyone who saw this film Lapinthrope would love dance and follow it regularly afterwards. So that there would be an audience of millions who would demand more films liked Lapinthrope.

As you can see, we have had some success but we have some distance still to go.

Not sure if they caught the ironic drollery in the above.

Claude Lelouche “Le Courage d’Aimer”

October 19th, 2005 § 1

For a long time, I’ve been mildly contemptuous of Claude Lelouche’s films. Eminently français, these tired tales of bourgeois hypocrisy and venality, had lost all optimism, all beauty.

While Lelouche may have the pulse of the French elite and a great facility with camerra and word, blackness alone does not a world make.

In Le courage d’aimer, Lelouche finally puts his cinematic gifts to good use.

The Courage to Love is a bold exploration of the consequences of passion. It is also a picture within a picture within a picture. Truffaut’s Jour de nuit in a mirror funhouse.

We begin with an out of work Italian singer, a pretty shoplifter and identical twins who work as waitress in a jazz bar and maid in a château.

We pass by a ring of jewellery thieves, Comédie Française actors and a pizza magnate in this cardinal work crowned by a suicide.

Many of the moments – the young singer forced to choose between her success and the love of her life – leave hearts in throats. Lelouche is manipulating us, but with the masterly touch of a man whom life has manipulated endlessly throughout his own existence. We are left with a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves.

Pizza magnate Gorkini tells his mistress shortly before she becomes a murderess, “The motto of France should have been libery, equality and infidelity.”

My experience of France would tell me the same thing. Never has the beautiful been more perfidious. Nowhere does one suffer more from the consequences of inconsequence.

On Air France, Le courage d’aimer et la vie du château. A good meal. Good wine. Poire William. The benevolent and dangerous smile of the devil. The devil of pleasure.

Contrast Konsequenz – a bold Germanic intention to take the world to its logical conclusion and construct a reality within which one can live and one’s descendents also. Hopeless Gauls. Happy flight.

Music Rights, Grand Rights and Music Publishers: IMZ primer for Dance and Opera Arts Producers

May 9th, 2005 § 0

The following is a partial transcript of the IMZ Workshop on Grand Rights at the Golden Prague International Television Festival on 9 May 2005. It is largely of interest to dance and opera arts television production producers.

Music Rights, Grand Rights and Music Publishers: IMZ primer for Dance and Opera Arts Producers Continues »