Tuesday, December 30, 2003

holy and profane

We watched Randi Steinberger's documentary holi-days on The Sundance Channel.

It's an interesting meditation on tourism in Jerusalem, Florence and Las Vegas.

Steinberger, in voice over narration, describes herself as someone who likes to travel and watch other travelers.

In Jerusalem, we see religious tourists, visiting the holy sights of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, including Christ's burial site, the Temple Wall and the Dome of the Rock. We also see crowds of people, waiting in line, walking past these sights, some moved and overwhelmed, others checking off lists. The kitsch side comes out. For Christian tourists, we see a bloody Jesus on the cross being dragged through the streets amid the crowds (it's Easter season).

In Florence, it is the art. Churches and plazas full of art draw the crowds, but shopping does as well. There is one very telling scene, where we see different tourist groups posing at a high point overlooking the Arno and the city. Group after group come to this one spot, smile and take their picture. If you have ever lived in a place where visitors come en masse, then you will recognize this photographic moment being played over and over each minute with an entirely new group. Or you see yourself on tour doing the same thing.

One of the talking heads from Florence said that he thought people come there to soak in the atmosphere, but that because there are so many tourists, he says that there is no atmosphere, no real city.

Finally, we move on to Vegas and the Strip. Here, a talking head describes the whole notion of luck and how people who flock to casinos are making bargains with luck, hoping for validation and reward.

The film closes with these statistics. In 2000, 3 million visited Jerusalem (that's probably down due to the current troubles), 6 million visited Florence, and 36 million visited Las Vegas.

They never mentioned the mentally disoriented feeling that some visitors to Jerusalem and Florence experience, overwhelmed by religion in the former and art in the latter, but I suppose that Vegas could create a similar disorientedness. I've only been there once, but there is no escape from sensation and noise, no respite, day and night are arbitrary distinctions, and the series of casinos and theme-park malls make one feel totally cut off from normal life.

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