Tuesday, November 29, 2011

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 15 - Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls


This week, the ReFramed crew attempts to redeem Paul Verhoeven’s universally misunderstood cult classic, Showgirls.
Jordan Cronk: Well, Calum, this was inevitable. But you know what? I can’t think of a more appropriate title to feature in the pages of ReFramed than Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s subversive 1995 cult classic Showgirls. In many ways this film embodies exactly what we’re trying to accomplish with this column, and that’s to encourage reexaminations of misunderstood and unfairly neglected cinema. And in that sense, Showgirls is the quintessential misunderstood film of our time.

Let’s begin with a bit of contextual information, though, as it is all but mandatory when discussing this great piece of earnest, satirical filmmaking. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has had a storied and unique career in the Hollywood these past 25 years, but it’s important to note the series of early films he made in the Netherlands throughout the 1970s. While none of these are probably standalone masterpieces, they do document a vivacious, committed visual stylist and a unique strain of sexual provocation that would reach its, um, climax, in the early-to-mid-‘90s with Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a pair of thematically rich, bold, and uncompromising works he made at the peak of his Hollywood visibility.

Both have reputations they’ve had to and failed to live down, but it’s interesting to note the legacies of each film and the level of acceptance general audiences have with works of this nature. When satire is couched in a homoerotic, highly stylized thriller or, more commonly in Verhoeven’s work, in the trappings of the sci-fi genre (see Robocop; Total Recall; Starship Troopers), viewers can easily interpret political and sexual texts from a remove, allowing them the opportunity to guiltily enjoy the surface pleasures of each story without ever needing to engage the subtext, all under the guise of traditional Hollywood entertainment wherein women are either mothers, martyrs, psychotics, or whores—easy caricatures to hoist expectations and wish-fulfillment narratives onto.

I’m obviously already aware that you also greatly admire Showgirls, but I’m wondering about your history with the film, Calum. If it’s anything like mine—which is to say, teenage-curiosity-turned-critical-fascination—then this film has become something of a line in the sand when outlining the modern Hollywood narrative. In short, there was before Showgirls and there was after Showgirls, and say what you will about the movie, but no filmmakers have gotten away with so much under the watchful eye of big budget studio filmmaking in the sixteen years since.

Calum Marsh: Oh, I agree. And let me just begin by saying that I’m really pleased we’ve found our way to Verhoeven and to Showgirls in particular, because I think it’s just as important to seriously reevaluate popular Hollywood films as it is to highlight completely obscure ones—and there are few popular films more in need of reevaluation than this one. As far as my personal history with it goes, I’m in the same boat you are: as with most of Verhoeven’s American films, its scandalous exterior made Showgirls extremely attractive to me as a teenager, and seeking it out seemed to me a kind of taboo but unavoidable adolescent rite of passage.

Of course, now it’s obvious to me that their appealing vulgarity is just a front, and that why their surfaces are appealing is central to the meaning of each of Verhoeven’s films. It just takes a bit of critical distance to discern that, and the ease with which you can ignore it is the reason for his overwhelming popularity with American audiences—they don’t notice that their tastes are being attacked rather than validated.

I admire all of Verhoeven’s American pictures, but Showgirls has always struck me as the most interesting of the bunch, if only because it’s the most vehemently disliked by critics. It seems quite strange to me that while many mainstream critics were discerning enough to glean the satirical bent of both Robocop and Starship Troopers, practically nobody would accept Showgirls as anything other than a half-baked, totally amateur erotic drama. Even audiences refused to approach it as straight-forward entertainment, assuming its comedic aspects to be unintentional and therefore necessarily bad. It swept the Razzie awards (and apparently found it odd that Verhoeven himself appeared to accept the award for Worst Director), was brutally panned by just about every major critic in the world (Metacritic lists it as 16/100), and to this day, despite having developed a widespread cult following, it holds a dismal 4.2 rating on the IMDB. Seemingly everyone hates Showgirls, and if they don’t it’s probably only because they find it campy and amusing.

Which reminds me: I strongly dislike that this film has become a cult classic on the grounds that it’s unintentionally funny. Though I hesitate to be some kind of spoil sport for those who find it hilarious, I just don’t think redeeming its “badness” as kitsch is fair—and in fact not only do I think it’s a misreading, I think it undermines better, more serious readings. Of course, it’s incredibly trendy to like bad movies ironically, and demanding that things be taken seriously is about as uncool a sensibility as one can adopt. But I genuinely think that Showgirls has value in a way that was entirely deliberate, and I think it’s possible to redeem it as an authentically great film without sinking to the level of ironic re-appropriation, which bores the hell out of me. It’s easy to watch the movie and just laugh a little, I guess, and I’m not advocating it as a masterpiece for its treatment of traditional drama. But there’s just way too much going on in this film to allow irony to overtake it entirely.

So, Jordan, I really hope you weren’t about to say that you only like it ironically.

Cronk: Oh, absolutely not. I think it’s a great film, period—full stop. I mean, it’s certainly one of those films where it’s easy to see why it has the reputation it does, but in relation to Verhoeven’s filmography it makes perfect sense. I honestly do think it has something to do with the genres Verhoeven plays around with, because by and large a film like Starship Troopers is just as ridiculous and unbelievable as Showgirls. This is a fable, a morality tale, a Hollywood satire, not an exposé on the backstage environments littering the seedier ends of the Vegas strip. This much seems clear to me from the outset.

When Nomi Malone (played with a scary sort of dedication by Elizabeth Berkley, whose performance I’m sure we will touch on shortly) is picked up hitchhiking on the outskirts of Vegas, the dialogue between her and her driver is so arch, so bluntly stupid that it can be disorienting. Nomi speaks of her dreams and ambitions, puts her trust in the first guy she meets, and soon suffers the first of her many setbacks on the way to the top of the showgirl pyramid. It’s the classic rise to fame narrative that audiences so blindly accept when the edges are sanded off and the actors mime their way through, hitting every last performance note.

The film moves at a furious clip, one farcical visual gag, melodramatic breakdown, and churlish sex joke after another—all things that critics of the film lay at the feet of Eszterhas, who truth be told, establishes patterns and subconscious connections within the narrative so subtly that it’s easy to simply get caught up in the forward momentum and gaudy exterior of the film and ignore the thematic implications being explored. That tempting exterior I speak of is all courtesy of Verhoeven, of course, who, not to be too crass or anything, absolutely directs the shit of this movie.

This is muscular, brutal filmmaking. Compositionally it has few peers from the era, and the way Verhoeven reflects his heroine’s motivations, desires, and emotions in her surroundings is extraordinary. There should be classes taught on the stylistic intricacies and brute force trauma of many of this film’s best sequences. I find it hard to believe that a film so masterfully shot, edited, and designed could be so negligent with the actual narrative, which is one of the main reasons I’ve never bought this as the disasterpeice many claim it as. Furthermore, nothing in Verhoeven’s oeuvre would lead me to believe that he could make a one-off piece of garbage like so many would have us believe. I suppose it comes down to Verhoeven’s predilections and desires for each individual film.

When he goes completely serious he un-coincidentally ends up with unqualified masterpieces like Black Book, but when he—unfortunately for his critical standing, more often than not—assimilates genres and attempts to deconstruct archetypes, people resist the advances. Maybe I’m a cinematic masochist, but I enjoy these bludgeoning, infectiously entertaining fables that Verhoeven has built his Hollywood career on. And I think deep down most critics do to, but it can be difficult when confronted so earnestly.

Marsh: It’s a relief that you agree—I can get pretty vindictive when defending this film’s intentions. I think essentially there are two simplistic ways of approaching Showgirls, both of which are misguided: on the one hand, there are those who see it as a straight-forward failure, a big-budget Hollywood spectacle as poorly executed as it was devised; others, though, see it as kitschy, unintentionally hilarious B-movie, a guilty pleasure in the tradition of cult favorites like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Neither approach really works, though the latter at least knows to laugh a little. Because of course so much of Showgirls is indeed funny, just not in the accidental, so-bad-it’s-good way its midnight audience believes.

If you spend some time looking up user reviews and message board discussions of this film, you’ll find some opinions as bizarre as any of its professional notices, 99% of which oscillate between earnest contempt and ironic celebration—in almost every case, it’s called either a genuine failure or an unintentional success. I think you’re right that it’s easy to see why people reach either of these conclusions; it’s just a shame that more people don’t. Because I think once Showgirls clicks as the complex satire it is, it’s a much more enjoyable experience overall.

Reading reviews of the film from the time of its release is pretty amusing, by the way. Time Magazine blasted it for a “gross negligence of the viewer’s intelligence”, the Los Angeles Times decreed it to be “dehumanizing”, and the Washington Post, best of all, called it “a coarser, dumber, smuttier remake” of Flashdance. You’ll notice a recurring motif in these articles: there’s an insistence that the film itself is stupid, and egregiously so. It’s amusing that a film this subversive would be lambasted for stupidity, of all things, but I suppose that’s the risk when you attempt to bury high-minded satire in outwardly “trashy” genre fare—people will almost inevitably fail to see past the surface.

Not that it doesn’t have its defenders, mind you. The Nouvelle Vague master Jacques Rivette wrote effusively of Showgirls, arguing that it’s “the best and most personal of Verhoeven’s American films”, describing it as a film “about surviving in a world populated by human garbage”. This is much closer to how I feel about the film, and I think it’s a much more fair and accurate description of a film that’s been laughed off for more than a decade and a half now. Do you think it’s possible, Jordan, for the film to be properly redeemed, or has its ironic, midnight-movie revival doomed it to a legacy of badness?

Cronk: Unfortunately I don’t think it can ever be fully redeemed in the eyes of mainstream audiences, though thankfully a few critics and thoughtful defenders have attempted to come to its rescue over the years (in 2003, Film Quarterly actually dedicated a panel discussion to the film). I just feel there are too many retroactive hurdles the film would have to jump to get back into widespread good graces at this point. Beyond the obvious characteristics in storytelling we’ve described, there’s the fact that Elizabeth Berkley was never really able to seriously work again after the film, which as far as I’m concerned is a travesty—rarely have I seen such a dedicated, full-body performance from a young actress.

People seem to get that Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLauchlan are having fun with these portrayals, but few if any people give Berkley the credit she deserves for throwing herself so un-ironically into this role. You can see the gradations and intricacies of her performances as the film moves along, as she goes from naive, star-struck stripper to arrogant, vindictive showgirl to vicious has-been celebrity out for blood. I doubt there are many actors that would be willing to take on such a taxing role, and even fewer who could pull it off. Do you have any thoughts on the various acting styles put forth in the film?

Marsh: Well, I’ve seen another, nastier theory posited about Berkley’s performance in the film: Verhoeven was putting her on, tricking her into thinking that Showgirls was the film debut opportunity of a lifetime when he knew full-well that she wouldn’t be taken seriously for it. The idea, I think, is that Berkley would embody the repugnant corruption and moral bankruptcy of late capitalism so wholly and seriously that she’d be destroyed as a performer in the process—which, even if it wasn’t the intention of those involved, was still the end result for her career. Which makes Berkley herself a tragic figure, in a way, and makes her performance exceptionally brave, if not formally perfect. But for a film that’s interested in deconstructing this quintessentially American mythology of success, presenting its lead actress as a kind of ideal manifestation of that mythology seems like a clever way for the film to criticize its own machinations.

I think that all of Verhoeven’s films are to some degree about the way cinema functions as both a reflection of and contributor to national and commercial ideologies, and Showgirls is no exception: it provokes visceral and emotional reactions in its audience that it subsequently seeks to underscore or undermine, and if the result is a sense of discomfort or embarrassment in the viewer it’s because the movie makes us aware of what it’s doing. If it’s excessively crass and vulgar, it’s because it wants us to examine our own impulsive desires to relish crass and vulgar experiences; it provides us with the trash we want and then encourages to think about why we want it (or don’t, as the case may be).

The really crucial element for me, here, and what I think is the most obvious sign that Showgirls shouldn’t be taken as merely ironic and funny, is the surprisingly intense rape sequence near the end of the film: most viewers, regardless of whether they find the film so-bad-it’s-good or just plain bad, find the scene out of place and objectionable, and in a way that differs drastically from the more frothy and good-natured objectionable content which precedes it.

But that’s exactly the point: the scene is so jarring and direct that it forces the audience to confront its desire for the on-screen sex, and to realize (hopefully) that the eroticism throughout the film is itself insidiously misogynistic and oppressive, if less brutally so. It’s almost as if Verhoeven is responding to an audience’s demand for sex with an uglier, more outwardly horrifying version of the same, which is a bold and contentious thing to do.

Cronk: Indeed. The whole third act of the film really turns the experience on its head. The rape scene is brutal and another example, I believe, of the film’s serious intentions, even when taking this solely as a satire. It’s even more cruelly ironic on the part of Verhoeven—who, just to respond, I have heard tricked Berkley into thinking the role would be something other than what is has turned out to be, though no one’s letting on about this little theory, so I guess we’ll never truly know; in any case, it works—to on the one hand give the audience what they want (i.e. sex) so forcibly only to eventually set Nomi back on the very same course of self-destruction that brought her to this point. Showgirls is circular, literally ending how it began, and is not very optimistic as a result.

Is it sad that Nomi has learned nothing through her whirlwind journey to fame, or is it depressing that audiences want her to fail again, if only to re-experience the sensual delights of her rise, neglecting the hard truths of rape, victimization, and betrayal in the process? In this sense, the character of Nomi is a symbol—which works further in legitimizing Berkley’s performance; anything too self-conscious would really have not worked—both of our romantic views of stardom and as manifestation of a typical audiences guilt for encouraging this behavior for sheer entertainment value. It’s when one really digs into these complexities that, like you say, Showgirls really begins to reveal other dimensions and becomes a more honestly enjoyable experience while still remaining the surface level pleasure product that it can also works as, for obvious reasons.

Marsh: I think it has a lot more depth if you’re willing to approach it that way, in the very least. And because of the complex relationship the audience is forced to have with the tone of the film—which shifts jarringly from campy and fun to brutal and serious—its satire is ultimately more nuanced than other, less complex works of this kind tend to be. It’s also more straight-forwardly entertaining as a result, because it allows its surfaces to be both ridiculous and the subject of its own piercing ridicule—which is to say that we’re encouraged to take pleasure in what it depicts, so long as we’re willing to take a sobering look at the implications of that pleasure.

Of course, serious conversations about films as ostensibly low-brow as Showgirls are themselves rarely taken as seriously as they should be, or are else shrugged off as needlessly pretentious—I bet there are people reading this who’ll accuse us of reading into it too much. You know, we’re either elevating authentic trash to the level or art or reducing an unintentional camp masterpiece to something requiring analysis; either way, not everybody will agree with us that Showgirls deserves critical redemption. But I hope that we can encourage a few people, at least, to take another look at what Verhoeven’s wrought, and to think about what he might be saying with this. I’d like to think there’s more to it than corny lines and lap dances. [PM]

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