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Snake Eyes

PBS Series Points Camera at Las Vegas' Gamblers

By Adele Marley | Posted 8/16/2000

P.O.V.: Dreamland

It may seem like taxi dispatcher and recovering gambler Dorothey Elaster is cluelessly passing the buck when she likens a slot machine to an "iron pimp" that holds an enchanting but vicelike grip over its patron's will. "When you pull down that lever on that slot machine, it controls you. You stick your money in there, but you get nothing back. And you can walk in the casino, and it calls your name," Elaster intones in an ethereal, drawling voice-over in the new P.O.V. documentary Dreamland. Blaming an inanimate object for a consuming obsession is obviously easier than jump-starting your own flagging willpower.

But Dreamland doesn't buy into the clichéd hokum so prevalent in our victim-centered culture's vernacular. Nor is it a glitzy tale about vice's sleazy glamour (although I'd probably be stoked if it were). Instead, director Lisanne Skyler surmises that Las Vegas fills a void for the winners, the losers, the lonely, and the disenfranchised, because money changing hands is the most basic, least judgmental form of human interaction. In her documentary, Skyler follows Elaster and several other Vegas residents over two years, revealing a community in which gambling is the only focus. In essence, Dreamland suggests that maybe the iron pimp was beckoning Elaster after all.

Andy Warhol once said that consumerism was really the great equalizer in America--something along the lines of, "Elizabeth Taylor can buy a can of Coke, a homeless guy can buy a Coke, and so can you." In other words, purchasing power--no matter how little you have--represents the squarest root of our participatory, democratic culture. Everybody's into the green scene because everybody can buy status that he or she has either been cheated out of or hasn't quite earned.

Maybe this sentiment seems like a vulgar oversimplification when applied to the ka-ching capital of the Western World, but Dreamland posits Vegas as a refuge of sorts, with an open-door policy for anyone with a little loose change in his or her pockets. (Which seems to be P.O.V.'s theme these days: In the PBS documentary series' next episode--American Gypsy, airing Aug. 29--Vegas is cited as the one place where the film's reclusive subjects can enjoy themselves and break free of the prejudice that generally inhibits their participation in the American experience.) Gamblers are just seeking validation in one way or another, the film reasons, and it's in the casinos that validation is for sale--a perfect symbiosis that's the epitome of capitalism gone berserk. (I don't quite buy one interviewee's theory that his streak of bad luck on Wall Street was an impetus for his downward spiral in Vegas--there is such a thing as an unsound investment--but it is an apt parallel.)

Dreamland trips through the testimony of Sin City's denizens and habitués: down-on-their-luck dealers, Mercedes-driving oddsmakers, seen-it-all therapists, and the working-class schmoes who decide to take a chance on the gaming table when their lives and loves don't pan out quite the way they'd expected. The backbone of Skyler's film is the story of tailor Lou Gerard, a septuagenarian blackjack junkie who leaves his friends and a hole-in-the-wall shop in Los Angeles for semiretirement in Las Vegas. He seems like a reasonable, affable (if eccentric) guy, a grandfatherly type who wears customized matching caps and shirts in loud plaids and is on a first-name basis with the entire staff of the casino he frequents. In reality, he's the gaming industry's dream mark--an elderly, tirelessly resourceful bachelor with an obsessive bullish streak and a penchant for routine (implying that he loses money reliably). Skyler's talent as a filmmaker is her ability to see past the superficiality of Gerard's sad-sack persona and the sob stories told by some of her other subjects to find individuals who are resilient, candid, and ultimately capable of reclaiming themselves (nearly everyone featured in Dreamland is a recovering gambler, even though they may not have been when the cameras were rolling).

But, damn, compulsive gamblers have some whacked-out tales to spin. There's the single mom who practically lived at the casino, phoning her latchkey kids in the mornings to make sure they've brushed their teeth and packed their lunch; the dealer who lost seven grand in one sitting the first time he sat on the other side of the table; the slot-machine enthusiast who hasn't pulled a lever in years and is still about $20,000 in debt; the Keno-holic who decides it's easier to kill herself than abstain from busting numbers. (According to the film, Las Vegas has the highest suicide rate in the nation.)

Skyler shows a lot of welcome restraint, avoiding the cheap thrill of looking askance at or exploiting her subjects. She even rejects demonizing gambling as a vice, although the gaming industry appears appropriately ruthless and greedy. (One dealer almost loses his job after turning away a desperate roller on a losing streak; many smaller houses of gambling target their own and other casino's employees as customers, as to relieve them of their recently pocketed salaries; and there are even slot machines in supermarkets and 7-Elevens, for God's sake.) Ultimately, Dreamland is more than just a realistic study of gamblers' obsessions; it's a strangely upbeat documentary that implies anything is surmountable, even when the odds are stacked against you.

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