24 September 2012

YOU GOTTA GAMBLE IF YOU'RE GONNA WIN

On 22 September, 1995, a movie called Showgirls was released on a tidal wave of hype that could only come with being the first major film to get released under the notorious NC-17 rating from the MPAA; a rating which, coupled with the exploitation-friendly setting of the movie, was widely understood to promise, "this movie is porn, getting released like a proper movie". That dread rating has only just started to rehabilitate itself with the 2011 art house release Shame, but considering how much of a ghetto it even now puts a film in (no mall multiplex release for you, Michael Fassbender's dangly cock!) it's still kind of shocking that Showgirls became such a Huge Fucking deal; it is still, by a commandingly vast margin, the highest-grossing NC-17 release of all time, though the curiosity value of its initial release has long since been replaced with a reputation as either one of the worst major releases of the 1990s, or one of the most delightfully campy - or both, for that matter - one of those films that has lost the aura of boundary-busting taboo in light of how trashily stupid it turned out to be.

Now that the movie is old enough to legally see itself, it seemed like the perfect moment to revisit it, and declare as loud as I could: Showgirls is a good movie. Maybe even a great one. Not in some "reclaimed kitsch" way, but in the disappointingly straightforward way that it is intelligently made by a smart director in full command of his powers This is, to be fair, not as revolutionary a claim as it would have been 17 years ago; since that time, there has been a broad reappraisal of all Paul Verhoeven's American films (save, perhaps, Hollow Man), with Showgirls in particular having been the recipient of a great deal of love in the mid-'00s, serving as a subject of what may have been the first-ever film blogathon in January '06 (its historic precedence argued by the fact that the word "blogathon" was never mentioned at the time by any contributor) among other reappraisals.

Still, the idea that Showgirls is an obviously, objectively terrible motion picture remains dominant. It's not hard to see why, either: any positive critique of the film must own up to the fact that, best-case scenario, this is a movie that its director deliberately made to resemble a bad movie, and it's the paradox of an exceptionally well-made faux-bad movie that it will look, in all essentials, totally indistinguishable from a genuinely incompetent piece of shit. There may not be, in fact, any way of splitting the difference without resorting to auteur theory, and in the 21st Century, auteur theory has been in decline amongst the exact same post-modern critics who'd otherwise be the likeliest candidates to cotton to the game Showgirls is playing (it does seem entirely pointless if not impossible to seriously grapple with the film and not talk about Verhoeven, though, and even, in a negative sense, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas).

Also, the rehabilitation of the film has been hung up on the fact that its defenders split into two equally passionate, but largely irreconcilable parties: the "this is a blistering, contemptuous critique of 'American Dream' narratives, and capitalist excess in the United States" camp, and the "uh-uh, it's a tribute to the uniquely American system of garish consumption that made commercial cinema generally and Verhoeven's big hits specifically possible in the first place" camp. I wanted so badly to write a Grand Theory of Showgirls that united these two perspectives; but I was unable to do so, and have fallen in firmly with the first camp (and perhaps, in so doing, I have misrepresented the argument of the second). I will permit the individual reader to determine if this represents an intellectual failing on my part or not.

The film, as scripted by one of the most appalling misogynists in 1990s Hollywood, is the standard-issue backstage melodrama plot from the 1930s transposed into the world of Las Vegas showgirls: and as much as I want to say that Verhoeven snatched everything brilliant about the movie away from Eszterhas, as was clearly the case with Basic Instinct, I cannot shake the feeling that, given how important the wholesale adoption of every shopworn cliché in the book is to the film's total effect, that we might actually be looking at Eszterhas grown into some degree of self-awareness, just in time for his career to implode. More specifically, as has been widely observed, it's All About Eve with strippers and a much more caustic sense of nihilism (which is actually pretty impressive, given Eve's sterling nihilism credentials): wide-eyed innocent, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) arrives in Vegas looking to be a Star! and gets her chance under the mentorship of grande dame Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the headliner of a major new topless revue. Except that innocent Nomi is actually a conniving monster (it takes us, roughly, no seconds to guess this fact), and backstabbing, mind-games, and ravenous bisexuality ensue. It is brutally obvious and ancient storytelling; this is the point. What gets added to the mix here is that good ol' NC-17 nudity, coupled with a jaw-droppingly mean and hateful protagonist who serves as the vessel for all the things Verhoeven wanted to do with Eszterhas's heartily grimy script.

I was recently discussing the movie with a friend, who pointed out its rosier acceptance, in general, among younger people; he proposed that part of this is because Verhoven's subsequent picture, Starship Troopers, by virtue of being much more overt in its satire, but approaching it from roughly the same angle, is the Rosetta Stone for Showgirls, and that people too young to have seen Showgirls in its first flowering, but old enough to have appreciated Starship Troopers as more than just a violent action picture, were in the perfect position to "get" the earlier film. This is not an airtight theory - it ignores that RoboCop, even more overt than Starship Troopers, came out in 1987 - but it certainly works in one key regard: it was only with Starship Troopers that Verhoeven out-and-out admitted that he was deliberately hiding the "point" of the movie from a cast deliberately made up of anodyne, blank pretty faces, and it becomes instantly obvious, armed with that knowledge, that he did the same thing in Showgirls. More to the point: Gina Gershon, whose delicious performance is laced with immensely self-pleased mugging (the way she plays the film's notorious "wow, I ate dog food too!" scene, is glorious: enthusiastic, surprised, a touch mocking, and totally unembarrassed), got the joke pretty early on; Elizabeth Berkley never did, and was almost certainly cajoled into going to relentlessly awful extremes of flailing craziness by a director who knew exactly what he was doing when he cast a girl from TV's Saved by the Bell, just as he did two years later, when he made the painfully vacant Denise Richards play the galaxy's most hyper-competent space pilot.

There are many contributing factors to Showgirls, and I should like to touch upon more of them; but Berkley's performance is always going to be the most important. It's bad acting; some of the most eager Showgirls boosters would throw kind words at the actress, but I can't for the life of me see why. Berkley is terrifyingly unmodulated, lurching from coquettish line readings to fire-breathing eruptions of profanity and flailing rage within a single shot; frequently, she launches into brittle "dances" that beggar description, and are routinely described in positive terms by other characters, a gesture that surely can only be ironic, unless Paul Verhoeven is the single worst judge of dancing skill in the history of civilisation. In her hands, Nomi is neither a scheming harpy or a guileless ingenue; she is a surface-level freakshow of inhumanity, the most fake thing in a movie that is 100% in love with fake things. As befits a movie set in, and with a decent amount of footage shot in Las Vegas, the most fake city in the industrialised world (though a bit less so in 1995 than it is now).

In Showgirls, Verhoeven traffics in absolute, consistent non-realism; starting with Berkley's outrageously alien performance and the strikingly continuity-free lighting, but everything about the movie is pitched at a heightened, ironic level; it is a distance the tempers the most egregious sins of the screenplay, which wants to be much earthier and sweaty, instead of heavily artificial - though even here, some bits of grind house nastiness sneak in, unexpectedly and thankless; I remain unable to do much with all the parts of the closing 20 minutes that have to do with the swift, incredibly brutal rape of Nomi's best friend, and it's this single element as much as anything that makes me downgrade the film from "Verhoeven's American masterpiece" to "Certainly no RoboCop, and not really even Basic Instinct".

Simply stated, I see Showgirls as a slam against the legend of the small town girl who comes the city with big dreams and becomes a star; because in this telling, the girl is such a complete, ridiculous fiction, and the city she arrives at rendered with such a flat, artificial detachment. And since that legend, in its broader guise of "anyone with a dream can make it", is the single myth America likes to tell about itself, Showgirls is rather plainly poking holes in the most foundational idea about America, its scrappy ambition and drive to succeed - though, unlike in RoboCop or Starship Troopers, Verhoeven isn't actually mocking America for this, nor does he take the easy way out of casting Vegas as the tacky nightmare of a late capitalist country devouring itself in an explosion of ugly hedonism. If anything, the Dutch Verhoeven and the Hungarian Eszterhas, foreigners both, have made their tawdry little sex picture something of a trashy cinematic sibling to Alexis de Tocquville's Democracy in America: foreigners taking a snapshot of the United States and summing it up with neither praise nor condemnation, though individual elements might be held up for approbation or scorn.

With special attention, of course, to America's characteristic obsession with sex: a subject the writer and director had explored together in Basic Instinct that serves more as the backdrop to Showgirls than, necessarily, its overriding focus; though of course any movie sold as "mainstream porn with Jessie Spano!" has its sexual component, and as with Basic Instinct before it, I think Verhoeven was having fun mocking American culture's characteristic blend of puritanism and prurience. Certainly, the sex in Showgirls is weirdly non-sexual, partially because there's so much of it that we quickly stop noticing it; more importantly, for all the film depicts sexual hunger and sexual manipulation and sexual marketing, it doesn't really depict sex. Unless you consider the thing that Berkley does, twice, to Kyle MacLachlan, latching her legs around him and shuddering with epileptic torment like a character from an exorcism movie (once in a pool), to be sex.

And, much the same as in Basic Instinct, the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate trick: the film's non-stop dialogue about whoredom almost explicitly points out how, in the fake America that is built on surfaces and artificial culture, sex itself has been turned into just another fake thing. And what is Showgirls, if not a movie that exists solely to promise the viewer, "there will be all kinds of sex", and then fails to promise things? The movie itself is part of the very system it's depicting, in which sex has been turned into spectacle and commodity, and divorced from actual human experience; perhaps the only way the filmmakers could think of the demonstrate this state of affairs was to engage in it, right before our eyes. If Showgirls wants to point out the shallowness of culture, it has the honesty to know that it is, itself, part of that culture, and that in order to make a functional movie, one must buy into the same game of artifice and cinematic construction that things like the generic plot and Berkley's stunningly ill-formed performance have pointed out. This, maybe, is why the film seems so much less savage in its satire than most of Verhoeven's other work; he is here, for the first and maybe only time, admitting his own complicity. It's surely no accident, anyway, that the final shot of the movie promises that Nomi's next stop is going to be Los Angeles; Vegas may be the place where America's deluded sense of entitlement is at its most overt, but Hollywood is where it's most pernicious, in the creation of tacky, tawdry movies just like this one. And Nomi Malone, the patron saint of American striving, will fit in there just fine.

6 comments:

MrRoivas said...

I don't know. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a terrible movie is just a terrible movie.

hayley said...

Is this a first in a "young women learning to use their sexuality to make it in the big city" series?

Cuz next I nominate "Coyote Ugly"

Andrew Testerman said...

If there's a series here (yet another one, I know), I'm pulling for a Paul Verhoeven one, or at least the rest of his American films; by my count, that leaves RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man, if it comes to that. Only half way there, Tim!

Tim said...

I'm willing to say it's a dead certainty that at some point, the rest of Verhoeven's American films will show up on the blog (and, undoubtedly, some of the Dutch ones). But probably not systmatically; I've been doing it too ad hoc to try and stitch it all into a coherent retrospective. Some day, I promise.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Wait a minute, "dangly?" I thought only hard cock scored an NC-17? And even then, where was the MPAA when Antichrist was released?

David Reynolds said...

I dunno, you guys, but I consider Showgirls to be a good movie, 4 out of 5 stars. I would guess that most of the negativity in its reviews stems from the fact that it's a Politically Incorrect movie, somewhat along the same lines as Mr. Woodcock, which received a similar panning from the critics. Fake Americans disapprove of what their fake culture disapproves of. And as for the portrayal of Nomi in the movie, after all she's a shallow, vulgar, rough girl who gets pissed off at the drop of a hat, assaults people with a switchblade, has violently dead parents, and has lived a very rough life. Real people act just as fake.