Filmmaker Florent Tillon exposes the crumbling American Dream — Las Vegas: Meditation uncovers fear, loathing and post-apocalyptic culture in a city still reeling from the collapse of the US housing bubble.

When Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo loaded up their red Cadillac with a whole galaxy of multi-coloured uppers, downers, screamers, and laughers for their savage journey into the heart of the American Dream in Fear and Loathing, there could only be one destination: Las Vegas.

Like Hunter S. Thompson four decades earlier, for filmmaker Florent Tillon, Vegas is still the city that represents the heart of the American psyche. His new documentary Las Vegas: Meditation reveals a darker side to “The Entertainment Capital of the World”, that post-financial crisis has far less to sing and dance about.

After seeing some of the biggest rises in house prices in the US pre-2008, after the crash the bubble has well and truly burst, leaving devastation in its wake: empty developments, shattered dreams and hundreds living in underground storm drains. The city is also reaching ecological crunch time as it outgrows its limited water supply, and the Nevada desert seems to be threatening to swallow up the new houses, many of which lie empty on the city’s outer fringes.

Florent is drawn to ruptures in the American system, and in his previous film Detroit: Wild City, he surveyed the wreckage of America’s former manufacturing powerhouse. Amid the ruins of the Motor City, he found artists musicians and farmers using the empty space creatively to work towards a more positive post-industrial society. Las Vegas: Meditation paints a more sinister picture of another crumbling, formerly-utopian city, with the aid of creative people attempting to find meaning in the cultural wasteland.

What first inspired you to make a film about Las Vegas? What’s your relationship with the city?
Actually, I already thought about Vegas when I was shooting my previous feature in Detroit. I had been staying in a room in a collective house and had replaced a kid who had gone to Las Vegas in search of a better life. I met him just before he left. At that time, Vegas was still the “place to be”, as the advertising proclaimed. The best place to make money, have a house, cars, dog, grass, etc., it was the “fastest growing city in the USA”. The Nevada desert was filled with expensive houses and shopping centres, while in Detroit, you had nice trees, nature, a desirable environment, beautiful downtown, huge historic houses for cheap, but at the same time ruins everywhere.

It was really bizarre to see all those youngsters quit Detroit to go to Vegas. Talking with this kid, I witnessed the heart of the American soul: quit, leave, find a new place to colonise, regardless of where you’re coming from or what you’ve been through; only thinking about the ultimate goal: make money, find gold. So, to me, making a film about Vegas after Detroit had a kind of logical sense, like filming the extreme excess after the extreme emptiness. Although, three months after shooting in Detroit, the global mortgage crisis exploded, and Vegas became the worst affected city in the USA: the worst place to be, another record. I often think about this kid who gave me his room. After that, Vegas changed and became “Detroit-ed”. Ruins appeared, jobless people, homeless people. The aspect of crisis gave me even more reasons to make a film about Vegas after Detroit.

Ultimately, both cities have the same story: they are laboratory cities that experimented with new business and new industry; cars and factories in Detroit, tourism and megaresorts in Vegas. Both were built quickly with a gold-rush mentality and both were struck in the same way: crisis first, but above all, obsolescence. Detroit disappeared when the car-city model spread around the world and Vegas is now dying as casinos, shopping malls and the entertainment economy have gone global. Both are experimental cities, designed to be thrown out when the model was approved.

Personally, I really hate Vegas, particularly the urbanism, police control, and even the people, who are mainly comprised solely of those who want fast money and will do anything to make it. The cultural level is below zero… on purpose. Everything is private, lonely. It’s really the darkest vision of what our future could be. Actually, the world is already in process of “Vegas-isation”. So, I didn’t really try to represent it authentically, I just wanted to show how close the rest of the world is to becoming Vegas. Someone said to me during an interview: ‘Vegas is not a model, it’s a warning…’

You looked at a crumbling Detroit in your previous film. What is it that attracts you to decaying American cities?
It’s true that I’m attracted to ruins. It seems like we’re at a historic peak of ruined landscapes around the world right now. Even after the collapse of the Roman Empire, I’m pretty sure that there weren’t so many ruins everywhere. If you think about the future and the different possibilities, ruins will continue to grow, whatever happens. So that’s maybe what attracts me to the ruins. I’m also fascinated by new buildings, new downtown areas, all based around shopping and leisure: entertainment.

Actually, in a lot of my films you have these two figures: the ruin and the casino, the abandoned factory and empty houses, and the new indoor shopping centre or steel-and-glass building. I take those two landscapes as the dominant figures of the post-modern world. The question is: where is the more desirable life? In the ruins or in the casino? To me, the answer is obvious: the ruins offer freedom where casinos only offer pains. Casino and shopping centres really are the new factories: people are suffering, but they think they’re growing socially, just like our grandfathers did when they quit their farms.

Why do there seem to be so many people in Vegas are obsessed by the idea of a post-apocalyptic society? Do you think this is it all rational, given that the city survives on such shaky ecological foundations?
Of course, living in a false world, in a technological bubble, surrounded by desert and thinking that a huge blackout in the summer could make a lot of people die if the air conditioning stops working and the fact that the water is simply vanishing could be reasons for the post-apocalyptic culture. But in my opinion, there is more than that.

Vegas is the second American capital of spectacle (the first is LA, with Hollywood), so it’s natural for the city to cultivate the apocalyptic culture that is present everywhere in the rest of USA, and the rest of the world. For example, nine out of ten sci-fi films right now are post-apocalyptic. Whether it’s the zombie, the earthquake or the monster, it’s always the same: civilisation appears to be collapsing right now, so you have to fight to survive, that’s the same simple message everywhere.

Back in the fifties, when the USA was obsessed by the cold war and the threat of the A-bomb, atomic testing was being carried out in the Nevada desert. The city embraced this apocalyptic culture, building houses overlooking the test sites, cultivating extra-terrestrial paranoia and screening Hollywood martian attack films downtown.

One of the characters in the film predicts a new series of zombie-themed hotels appearing in Vegas. That’s already happening, you now have an “apocalypse hotel” in Vegas. Ironically, I think that might even be a way to make Vegas cool again: play the card of decay, apocalypse, zombies, and catch the imagination of a new generation of American tourist. But are they intelligent enough to see this opportunity?

Do you agree with one of the characters in the film who says “Vegas is the most American place in America?” To what extent is this true? How about the guy who says “Everything evil in the US stems from this buttcrack of a town” – is that an overreaction?
That’s a quote from Black Monk. Yeah, I totally agree. When you reach the edge of the city you can see street signs like “Pioneer Street”, or “Gold Avenue”, etc. Pioneer Street is located in development with house in the middle of the desert, with some sand roads: really at the edge of the city. This idea of the new frontier, colonisation and spread makes Vegas the most American city, but the thing is, there’s nothing there: the new frontiers are in the mind.

Ironically, the first people to experiment with the idea of the new frontier of the mind were the Beats. They had this vision of the USA as already full of people, streets, cities, industrial farms, so their idea was to make the road west again, but exploring a new frontier: the mind. Of course, sometimes that involved drugs, but the new frontier at that time was the spirit, the mind, the inland empire. The irony comes when this idea is now repeated by the people at Google, and Apple: they also talk about the new frontier – no longer space – but the digital world. They want to turn the human being into a pure digital spirit, that’s the new frontier for them. So, you can consider Vegas a transition to this new world. That’s why it’s the most American city, but also the worst…

The failure or corruption of the American dream is a strong theme in both movies. Is the American dream dead? Was it ever true? What interests you about the idea of the American dream?
The American Dream is complicated. It comes from far away, it’s always turning in something else. As I said, the new dream could be to become immortal in the digital world. I don’t want to get into a definition of the American Dream – that would need several books – but I can say that, in my opinion, the dream is the same for everyone: live comfortably, have a good life, have children (or not), a place to live and be happy in doing what you’re doing.

The fundamental difference between the American or the French dream, for example, is that the French dream was built on the collective: the idea of the French Revolution was to build a world together, where inequality would decrease. The American dream is the opposite: you can reach your goal, but for you (and possibly your family), alone. That’s partly why Hollywood films are full of single heroes or superheroes, the “special one” who succeeds and saves the world, etc. That’s a big difference, although the goal is the same: to have a good life. But don’t worry, the French dream has now also been totally destroyed by the apocalyptic global governance…

Artists and musicians are a huge part of the story in both Las Vegas: Meditation and Detroit: Wild City. Why do you feel artists are important voices or good sources of information to learn about a place? What can you learn from their experience?
In Detroit, one of the characters was a poet. I found those poems beautiful and felt they described the Detroit atmosphere remarkably well. But back in Paris, strangely those poems seemed less strong. That’s what I love about “local” artistic creations, they are linked to the place where they blossomed. It’s another landscape of the city: the mental landscape. Local musicians are an important part of Las Vegas and music will be important in my next projects too.

Las Vegas: Meditation premiered at CPH: DOX and will be shown next at Festival International du Film d’Environnement in Paris, February 2015.