Fifth Street

March 4, 2021

In this issue: The Grim Vegas of Queen of Diamonds | Suni Paz's Songs of Joy and Justice | How I Got Here: Six-word Vegas Stories | Media Sommelier


THERE'S A CERTAIN glamour to Las Vegas onscreen, even in the grittiest indie productions, that makes the city seem like a magical wonderland, albeit one with an occasional dark side. Nina Menkes’ 1991 film Queen of Diamonds is a harsh antidote to that tendency, depicting Vegas as drab and monotonous and alienating, not dangerous or edgy so much as just exhausting. Menkes’ avant-garde film premiered at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival and received a gorgeous restoration from the Academy Film Archive in 2018, which is now streaming on the Criterion Channel alongside a selection of Menkes’ other films.

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Menkes’ sister Tinka stars as the unnamed main character, a blackjack dealer at Bob Stupak’s Vegas World who performs her job with a sort of grim competence, and trudges through the rest of her life with the same lack of affect or enthusiasm. The film is full of long, static takes, with the camera often fixed on what appears to be an unremarkable space. The opening shot holds steady on the protagonist’s hand sticking out from under her bed covers, the long, deep red nails contrasting with the plain white sheets. Menkes forces the audience to stare at that image for longer than is comfortable, and the entire movie is composed of those off-putting compositions, challenging the viewer to look away or give up.

There isn’t much of a plot to Queen of Diamonds, which often resembles an art installation more than a narrative film, although there is some progression for the main character as she navigates her meager Vegas existence. She lives in the kind of rundown Downtown motel that has since been obliterated by gentrification, where her neighbors are a bedridden old man and a constantly fighting couple. Menkes shows the character tenderly bathing and feeding the old man, and it takes a while for the movie to reveal what exactly their relationship is. He’s not a relative or a friend, just a neighbor, and this woman may be helping him out of kindness, or a sense of tired obligation, a fellow Vegas cast-off taking care of one of her own.

She’s completely unsentimental about his passing, though, just putting in a bored call to the motel manager: “Yeah, he’s dead.” Menkes treats the domestic violence next door with the same detached resignation. When the protagonist yells at the man for beating his girlfriend, his only response is to clarify that she’s his fiancée, not his girlfriend. Later, the fiancée is showing off her wedding dress while sporting a black eye, and then eating cake and dancing with her new husband at her wedding, all while covered in bruises.

The movie’s centerpiece is a 15-minute sequence of the main character dealing blackjack at Vegas World, with only the background noise of the casino and indiscernible chatter on the soundtrack. After getting the viewer used to her long takes and fixed camera placement, Menkes instead fills this sequence with frequent cuts, often reusing the same shots, emphasizing the repetitive meaninglessness of the character’s occupation. She deals and discards, over and over again, never saying a word or even changing her expression. She takes no pleasure in her job, has no investment in whether the players win or lose. Watching this sequence is almost like sitting in an actual casino and spying on gamblers or attempting to eavesdrop on their conversations, although Menkes never allows the viewer to make out more than a word or two of what anyone is saying.

That makes Queen of Diamonds sound like an endurance test, but while it can be grueling at times, it also has moments of stark beauty. The other standout sequence is an extended wide shot of a burning palm tree somewhere in the desert, and Menkes has the viewer watch along with the protagonist as the tree burns itself out, the crackling and sizzling on the soundtrack like a sort of perverse desert yule log. With the tree looming on one side of the frame and the people reduced to tiny figures, their backs to the camera, on the other side, the image could easily be captured and placed in a gallery. But it’s more powerful as a real-time experience, almost suspenseful as the fire is slowly reduced to embers.

Menkes also provides a fascinating Vegas time capsule, from Vegas World (which was later remodeled as part of the Stratosphere) to vintage wedding chapels to the scuzzy Downtown that no longer exists. But there’s no dreamy Vegas glamour or nostalgic warmth in their portrayals. The Las Vegas of Queen of Diamonds isn't a place where dreams come true — or even a place where people bother dreaming at all. It's a place for the isolated, the disconnected, the people who are used and discarded like the cards that the main character cycles through endlessly. But there's a certain beauty in that bleakness, and that's what Menkes (and her protagonist) finds here.

Recent movies like Numa Perrier’s Jezebel and the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets have similarly depicted this downtrodden side of Vegas life, but Queen of Diamonds remains a singular experience, showing a new perspective on the city even to viewers who’ve lived here for decades.

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SUNI PAZ SEEMS like a contradiction. Based in Henderson, the singer/songwriter is known for two distinctions: Her expansive catalog of uplifting children’s songs, and her formidable legacy as a pioneer in the genre of nueva canción, progressive Latin folk with a focus on social justice.

But there’s no contradiction: Both branches of her long, colorful career stem from a mission to use music as a form of education. Raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Paz grew up in a household of writers, musicians, and artists where creative expression was encouraged. Paz enjoyed composing and singing, but it wasn’t until she tapped into Argentine folk music traditions that her sense of mission truly took shape. Since moving to the U.S. in 1965 from Chile, she’s performed all around the world, and has been a familiar name on concert bills, often appearing alongside figures such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Don McClean. Paz is as well-known for serious albums such as Breaking Out of the Silence as she is for Children’s Songs for the Playground.

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Paz was recently named a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow; the award recognizes figures whose work presents a diverse vision of American arts, crafts, and music. Today at 5p, Paz appears with other honorees in a virtual presentation, “The Culture of America: A Cross-Country Visit with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows.”

Paz recently Zoomed with Fifth Street to talk about her award and her storied career.

Congratulations on your fellowship. What does this award mean to you?
Someone from the government called me to tell me, “You've got this award,” and I treated her very badly because I thought it was a scam call! I receive scam calls every day, so I thought it was another scam call. I didn't believe it!

But it is so moving to receive this award. I am so grateful to be recognized for writing songs — doing what I love! — and trying to reach the souls of other people, trying to improve the world. That was always my purpose, you know, trying to make the world better, encouraging people to know each other, understand the different cultures, the different languages, the different ways people are. That was always my big thing.

(Paz pulls out a faded black-and-white picture of a man. It’s legendary Argentine folk legend Atahualpa Yupanqui.)

I’ve had him in my purse since I was 18 years old. This is Atahualpa Yupanqui. He should have received this award, because he opened my eyes to reality — the reality of the world. When I was a girl growing up, I was totally sheltered, in my house, in my room, period. I didn't go anywhere. My sister has a phrase that she always said. She said the longest trip she took was around the sofa! That was the joke of our family. She was right at the time.

Atahualpa Yupanqui opened my eyes to the world. As a child, I didn't know that there were farmworkers. I didn't know that there were miners. I didn’t have any idea that farmers were essential. I didn't know that the farmers also get old. Yupanqui wrote a beautiful song about the farm worker getting old. The farmer is crossing the Andes with his donkey, knowing that he's going to die, knowing that this is the end of his life. The song, “Canto Del Peon Envejecido” — “Song for the Peasant Getting Old” — is just magnificent. And my eyes were open. To learn that all these people existed — indigenous people. I didn’t know one word about indigenous people. Or about Black people. In fact, I hadn’t seen Black people until I came to the United States, practically!

For readers who may not know, how would you describe nueva canción?
People call it nueva canción, but I’ve always called it a different name: canciónes con concienca — songs with conscience, songs that open the consciousness of people. Because all my songs had messages, like about poverty or the environment. I have a funny story about that.

In Chile, I wrote a song for a magazine, and it was called, “Better Bicycles Than Citroen Cars.” It had the rhythm of the most popular music of Chile. It’s funny but serious at the same time, because what I wanted to say is we have to finish pollution. And a way to finish pollution is to stop the cars and let’s get bicycling. Many years later, I was in New York, and I received a call from Philadelphia. And in Philadelphia, the people said, “We are a coalition of bicyclists, and we found your song in a magazine in Chile. We want you to come to Philadelphia to sing it and give a concert.” I said I cannot go because my mother is visiting me from Argentina, I cannot leave. “No, no, no, you bring your mother!”

So with my mother, we went to Philadelphia and gave the concert. It was unbelievable! All because of this crazy little song that I wrote for this magazine in Chile. Those are the things that happen, you know?

What’s your songwriting process like?
I start with an idea or message, something I want to say. But I also want to change the world, I want to change people, I want to touch them, I want to help them. All I have is my song and my words.

What is the relevance of nueva canción today? Do you feel the messages in your music still resonate?
Totally. Because nothing has changed very much! (Laughs.) So yes, of course the messages are relevant. I wrote songs about the terrible things happening in Chile. I had lived in Chile. I knew Chile very well. And I had to leave because I saw very clearly there was a revolution coming. And I couldn't be alone with two little kids, two and four years old. In the middle of a revolution, I said, you know, we're all going to die of hunger, you won't have a job. This is going to be a disaster here.

And I got to the United States. But the the songs that I wrote there are still relevant. There might not be a revolution now in Chile, but there are other revolutions in other places. Revolutions keep coming. People revolt against governments that are unjust and horrible.

Now, people have a little more consciousness in some areas now. But racism, has that changed? No. It still is going on and is going to continue going on. So, those songs are still relevant in that way. When I sing about farmworkers, this is still relevant. The people who directed those movements are not alive anymore. That doesn't matter. The movement is still there.

You’ve spent a significant portion of your career recording and performing songs for children. Why is this important?
Society starts with children, and education is important not just to teach knowledge and skills, but values. So it’s very important to talk about values.

I would not have written the amount of songs I wrote for children
were it not for (children’s book authors) Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy. The two of them wrote all the lyrics of the children's songs, they gave them to me and said, “Please put music to them.” My first contract was to write 84 original songs over the lyrics of Alma Flor Ada. Now, you imagine I was crazy when I signed that contract for 84 songs. To tell you the truth, I had no idea that I would be able to write 84 songs!

But I could not say no when she brought to my house a book of her poems and I opened it — I did not know they were her poems — and said, “Oh my gosh, this is a perfect metric and rhythm pattern — ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ta. And, oh, this is one is perfect — cha-ca-ta-cha-ca-ta.” And I began singing the melodies, singing the whole song, right there. So like this, we went throughout the book. And every two songs, I knew the song from beginning to end, just from reading the lyrics.

So the next day when (the publisher) said, “I offer you this contract for 84 original songs, and you have a year to write them,” I said, “No problem!” For Alma Flor Ada, anything, anything. Everything she writes has the music inside.

Amid the messages of your songs, there’s always a sense of optimism. With the state of things, are you still optimistic?
Well, maybe not that optimistic anymore! (Laughs.) Old age makes you less optimistic. You know, because you live in the world for 85 years, and I can see the world goes up and down, up and down. So now we are in the down, and now maybe we're starting on the up again — at least that is a glimpse of optimism, which I didn't see before. Over the last four years, I was desperate. I was in the bottom of the bottoms. I didn't think we were getting out of this one. I really didn't think we were going to be able to come out of this one.

What do you do when not working on songs or other projects?
Cleaning house! Reading. I read like crazy. I read anything that comes into my hands because it's one of my greatest passions. And then I exercise. I am an exerciser. I believe in exercise. So I have a bicycle that doesn't move. A standing bike. And so when I'm watching programs on TV, I'm watching all the political programs, I'm bicycling all the time with my hands and with my feet. And so I keep in shape that way. But anyway, where am I going to go with COVID-19? I'm not going anywhere!

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AS PART OF our spring issue’s feature story on 73 reasons to love Las Vegas, we invited locals to share their arrival stories — in just six words. We received more than we could print. Whether they’re short, earnest poems, clever one-liners, or just matter-of-fact declarations, these brief backstories attest to the strange magnetism of Las Vegas. (And the fact it’s still way cheaper than L.A.)

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Lost job day before Vegas trip.
     -Jenny Hirst Scheid

               ♦

Lured by cruise ship juggler cult.
     -Kirstin Aureal

               ♦

Sandstone cliffs,
limestone caves,
endless sunshine
     -Stephanie Forte

               ♦

Temporary puddle jump,
Shift happens
     -Charlene West

               ♦

Uncle Sam made us.
...
Thanks, Sam.
     -April Corbin Girnus

               ♦

Bamboozled by romance once,
Or thrice.
     -Mindy Woodhead

               ♦

Parents dragged me kicking and screaming
     -Yesenia Moya Garay

               ♦

Came to learn, stayed to adventure
     -Kristen Evans

               ♦

To be honest, I can't remember.
     -Geoff Carter

               ♦

Bored
Out of
My
Damn
Mind
     -Mark Kaufman

               ♦

My bingo
manager uncle
lured us
     -Erik Pappa

               ♦

'Twas the path of least resistance.
     -Logan Hunt

               ♦

I rolled the dice for love.
     -Jane C. Walsh

               ♦

Freestanding homestead, with washer and dryer.
     -Inky Louise

               ♦

I thought it would be temporary.
     -Laura Herbert

               ♦

Babe and babies, business and bikes
     -Heather Love Fisher

               ♦

Starting over alone, surrounded by friends.
     -Patty Dominguez

               ♦

Leaving a home with mixed memories
     -Rachel Cline

               ♦

(Ex-)Husband wanted to,
Winters without snow
     -Erika F. Washington

               ♦

Temporary job became
twenty years, what!?!?!
     -Dina Emerson

               ♦

Came for work, stayed for desert.
     -Jim Boone

               ♦

It's the capital of the Mojave
     -Patrick Donnelly

               ♦

Closer to family, but not California!
     -Jill DeStefano

               ♦

No state income tax, hip hooray!
     -Erin Timrawi

               ♦

Oil shale industry imploded in Colorado.
     -Clinton Pope

               ♦

Couldn’t afford housing in San Jose.
     -Coni Kalinowski

               ♦

Sarmoti,
Grand Mirages,
in-ground pools
     -Todd VonBastiaans

               ♦

Took a gamble. Bad dice roll.
     -Dayvid Jann Figler

               ♦

Nevada’s unique extremes offer more freedom.
     -Daniel R. Patterson

               ♦

Professional Irish dancing on the Strip.
     -Tara Reid

               ♦

A change, and now a regret
     -Shawna Sarmento

               ♦

Closer to parents. Best move ever.
     -Leslie Riley

               ♦

My grandpa built the Hoover Dam!
     -Jen Benborn

               ♦

Out of rain. In to sun!
     -Kimberly Parrish

               ♦

Grad school provided diploma and tiara
     -Anne Davis Mulford

               ♦

My parents wanted out of NYC
     -Lesley Elizabeth Cohen

               ♦

The escape from desperation and despair
     -Tom Owens

               ♦

Job, weather and a midlife crisis.
     -Steve Bornfeld

               ♦

To experience life
outside my bubble
     -Deb Meinberg

               ♦

Needed the truth. Discovered the glory.
     -Megan Edwards

               ♦

Cold weather just
kinda sucks, man.
     -Michael Yunkin

               ♦

Came with pilot who flew away.
     -Carolyn Stephens

               ♦

Dot Boom! Good-bye San Francisco.
     -Jason Delk

               ♦

I’ll never be cold again, WRONG!
     -Heather Lunamama King

               ♦

Sick in-laws, now healthier than me.
     -Jacqueline McCarthy

               ♦

A judge needed a law clerk.
     -Justin C. Jones

               ♦

To make art without preconceived rules
     -Erin Stellmon

               ♦

Highschool sweetheart, he left, I stayed.
     -Cheryl Hobbs

 

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(This week’s edition of Media Sommelier is brought to you by the punctuation mark, “?” I.e., it’s a roundup of compelling articles headed in the somewhat lazy editor’s style of asking a question. Unlike many such pieces, though, these stories actually answer the questions they ask. Will you enjoy them? Yes, you will.)

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1.Did James Plymell need to die?” In this High Country News long read, Leah Sottile takes a break from her domestic terrorism beat for something even more harrowing: the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness. Warning! Don’t read this story if you’re not up to a blow-by-blow account of a man’s death at the hands of law enforcement; it’s brutal. But if you’re able to hang in there, Sottile makes it worth your while by layering personal history with appalling statistics, compiling a thorough examination of a population sector most people would prefer to ignore. And as always, she goes the extra mile, digging into the remnants of Plymell’s life to paint as authentic a picture as possible of a man who, no, certainly did not need to die.

2. How much protein do you really need?” I’m a sucker for this particular brand of clickbait — appearing, this time, in Popular Science on March 1st — because I’m a vegetarian who likes to exercise. I gave up being annoyed by the companion question, “But … how do you get enough protein?” long ago. Instead, I’ve cultivated an arsenal of facts I can shoot back (a personal favorite: “A cup of lentils has more protein than a hamburger!”), and this article will definitely be bookmarked to that end. What’s especially nice is that it answers the question based on three different levels/types of activity, rather than generalizing. One snag is that averages are calculated using metric measurements, which, for most of us, removes the graspability of the concepts by one step. But if you’re committed to eating less meat and still running or lifting weights, you’ll take the extra time to convert your pounds to kilos and grams to ounces.

3. Was any of it worth it? Okay, in this case, the question is actually in the subhead (not the headline), but it still counts, because the question is the compelling force behind the story, “Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison.” Featured in the most recent edition of The Believer, it’s an excerpt from author Ahmed Naji’s forthcoming novel about being imprisoned for promulgating obscenity through his novel, Using Life. The current Black Mountain Institute City of Asylum fellow recalls his time served as a birth into writerdom (after an epiphany, he capitalizes the resulting decision to Be A Writer) — a state with multiple iterations, rebirths if you will, since he’s discovering his craft with the assiduousness afforded by desperate tedium and random companionship. As he assumes each new perspective — of his cell block-mates, the writers he’s reading, his inner selves — the question is re-asked, and each time the answer comes as, “Yes”: It was worth it for us, his readers.

4. Bonus question (implied): Will he live??? That’s the unspoken theme of Outside and PRX’s podcast, “Buried Alive — and Running Out of Time.” It’s the timely, semi-local story of three friends backcountry skiing in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lake Tahoe when an avalanche hits. One gets buried, and the other two struggle to find and save the third. In classic adventure magazine style, it’s an edge-of-your-seat tale bolstered by broader trends, current events, and scientific explanations of why snow occasionally cascades down hillsides and how it kills people. Heidi Kyser

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Photos and art: Queen of Diamonds courtesy Menkes Film; Suni Paz headline photo by Ramiro Fauve, inset photo from "The Culture of America: A Cross-Country Visit with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows," photo by Hypothetical Films, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts; How I Got Here graphic by Christopher Smith

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