Wednesday, January 11, 2006

THE GLORIOUS EXCESS OF SHOWGIRLS



One of the major bonuses of living in the DVD/home theater age is the relative ease of revisiting films from our past which we remember with fondness, or sometimes more accurately, those for which we have fondness that we don’t remember so well. It’s a chance to confirm and re-experience what it is about the film we loved so much in the beginning, and see what time has added to that experience. And, of course, sometimes it’s an exercise in demonstrating how time and the events of our own lives will serve to subtract from a film’s overall effect and its hold on our sensibilities.

But in the recent past I’ve begun to discover that, opposed to reapproaching beloved films, it’s often even more interesting and rewarding to go back and have a look, divorced as one can render oneself from the attendant hype generated by the distributing studio and filmmakers, as well as the ossified consensus (which only grows more rigid with time) arrived at by the entertainment press and even the general critical community, at a film which one felt pretty strongly about in the negative upon the first (perhaps only) viewing. I recently took up a challenge from a fellow writer whom I respect who has always loved Body Double, a film by a director (Brian De Palma) whom we both admire which I had always found repellent, ill-advised and deficient, both from a narrative and visual standpoint, given the filmmaker’s usually high standards. Revisiting the movie, I still found it largely ill-advised and lacking in both narrative and visual consistency, but also not nearly the misogynistic crime it seemed in 1985. My admiration for Body Double hadn’t increased significantly, but it was a valuable opportunity to test my own sense of how a movie “changes” in one’s mind over the years.

In fact, I suppose it’s not all that uncommon to revisit a reviled movie and have one’s initial reactions confirmed. And I’m never too surprised, whenever I take another look at a beloved film from my past, if it either holds up well against my memory, or even if it is revealed as less than what I once thought, as merely an ethereal byproduct of my nostalgic imagination or fond recollections of the time and place in which I first took it in, or colored by thought processes that have been perforated and exposed by the passage of time.

The rarest circumstance, however, at least in my experience, is one in which I choose to revisit a movie that I hated upon first viewing, and then see it again some years later, only to have my eyes opened, my blinders stripped away, in order to discover the terrific movie that was there all along. The most obvious occurrence of this phenomenon in my moviegoing life was my complete turnaround on Nashville, a film I hated (and one which I was not equipped to comprehend) when I saw it at the tender age of 16. A couple of viewings later, during my university days, and Nashville quickly became my favorite film, one which I saw three times in one day my senior year of college, one which held that “favorite film” status for 26 years (it was finally bumped down a couple of notches by Once Upon a Time in the West this past summer).

But that experience with Nashville could be chalked up to simple immaturity. How often does it happen that you revisit a film by which you were initially repulsed as an adult, your critical faculties presumably alive and engaged and ready for bear, only to find out that you were completely and utterly wrong, that you were either a victim of or a willing participant in a smothering groupthink that seeped into your mind, forming unshakable preconceptions and preventing you from seeing the movie that was right in front of your eyes?

Most people, I’d wager, who comprised the meager audiences that turned out in theaters for Showgirls when it was first released in the U.S. in September of 1995, were fully aware of all the brouhaha over the NC-17 rating, director Paul Verhoeven’s previously announced intentions regarding the project (something about fully erect penises on view—or was that Basic Instinct?—and a no-holds-barred look at Vegas show life), and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s reputation as an overpaid sleazemeister, and by the time the first print actually screened the film’s early critical reputation as a notorious bomb, a reeker on the order of Myra Breckenridge or Plan Nine From outer Space-- a candidate, in other words, for Worst Movie Ever—became generally accepted as fact. (After its U.S. debut, it trickled out all over the world over the next few months, into January 1996—in fact, on this very day, 10 years ago, it made its debut in Verhoeven’s homeland The Netherlands, by which time negative reaction to the film had become a toxic fogbank of conventional wisdom. (Peet, did you see the movie when it was first released in the Netherlands? What do you think of Showgirls?)

I didn’t see it myself until it arrived on laserdisc, sometime in 1996. By then that fog bank was mighty thick, and my initial reaction wasn’t so much repulsion as boredom. Verhoeven had made a movie that was as packed with nudity as I’d ever seen, but rather than getting me excited about all that flesh constantly on display, Showgirls had succeeded, through sheer visual repetition and matter-of-fact presentation, in numbing me to its presence. I was repulsed, however, by the berserk, feral presence of Elizabeth Berkley, or more accurately by the use to which she was put—completely unmodulated, in-your-face attitude and (surprising to me) an entrenched hostility shoved front and center within that big Panavision frame. (That rape scene, and the subsequent violent reprisal it inspires, was no pretty picture either.) Of course, I saw Verhoeven’s Vegas as a tawdry condemnation of the values of show business and, by extension, American taste, and I’ll admit I got my back up about someone from another country, to whom America had been quite generous, from a career and financial standpoint, making such a bold and corrosive “statement” about the tackiness and bad taste of the entire nation, especially when the statement was apparently being made by Verhoeven and Eszterhas, two men never known for subtlety and nuance. (At least Verhoeven made his movie in America-- right, Mr. Von Trier?)

I had been quite comfortable ignoring Showgirls after that screening, relatively assured that my reaction, although strong, was justified. Then, in March of 2004, Charles Taylor, then still in place as a senior film critic for Salon, published an appreciation of the film (unattached, as far as I’m aware, to any DVD release or other Showgirls-themed event that would have sparked a synergistic impulse in his editor’s mind) that, despite my initial insistence on eyeball-rolling, resisted my condescension though the sheer clarity of his response and argument for the film. His argument was reasoned, reasonably pitched, and convincing. But how convincing would it be after having actually watched the film a second time?

Nearly two years after Taylor’s piece, which pricked the skin of my interest in revisiting Showgirls, I got an invitation to write a piece which would stand as a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the movie’s Netherlands release date (January 11, 2006), a commemoration intended to extend over as many blog sites as wished to participate. There was no stipulation as to the attitude of the piece, negative or positive; it only had to be about Verhoeven and Estzerhas’s notorious spectacle. I printed out Taylor’s article, vowed not to read it again until after I’d seen the movie, settled in on my couch a couple of evenings ago, at the end of a very long day, and invited Showgirls into my home theater one more time.

What an embarrassment. And I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about having to face up to perhaps my most egregious misread of a movie since dismissing Nashville. Showgirls turns out not to be a work of found comedy, of two sleaze merchants pitching an earnest drama and missing the plate by a mile, but an uninhibited melodrama that dares to not condescend to its subject matter—the backstage milieu of Las Vegas, where sex (or at least nudity and the trappings of sex) are ritualized (or choreographed into routine) and funneled into gaudy stage productions. I really wonder how many of the people who have made a point of slamming Showgirls over the past 10 years would think nothing of plunking down big dollars for a Vegas weekend, perhaps one centered around a “classy” topless show like “Goddess” (the show that makes Berkley’s Nomi Malone a star), take the whole package at face value and enjoy the hell out of themselves. Well, by modeling their story on the backstage musicals of the ‘40s (Brian over at Hell On Frisco Bay provides some excellent context for those jumping-off points in his Showgirls entry), as well as inverting All About Eve and telling their tale of show business back-stabbing and rivalry not from Margo Channing’s perspective, but from the conniving Eve’s, the filmmakers do just that—they provide a narrative context in which to observe the everyday goings-on in the world of these splashy nightclub productions, through which Nomi, the film’s protagonist, attempts to outrun her mysterious past and redefine herself.

But in the process, Verhoeven thankfully forgets to skimp on the vulgar amusements that are one of the defining elements of Las Vegas itself, the neon buzz that fuels Nomi’s frenetic dancing, her relentless ambition, and he doesn’t hold that ambition to anyone’s standard but Nomi’s. As Taylor observes, Verhoeven doesn’t hold her feet to the fire either and insist, per the familiar formula of such tales, that she pay for her ambition and misdeeds. Indeed, Showgirls recognizes that Las Vegas allows Nomi to become, through her ascendance to stardom within this strange show business microcosm, exactly who she seems destined to become, and Verhoeven assures, by acknowledging the charge, the dirty thrill she gets from performing and becoming a part of that world, that any value judgments placed on that ascension will come from the audience, not from him.

Unlike my initial reaction to Showgirls, I came away from my most recent brush with the film thinking that Verhoeven is not condemning Las Vegas or Americans for reveling in bad taste. On the contrary, he’s reveling in it himself, drawing parallels between himself, as a participant in American show business, and the characters on screen, and he’s not making any excuses for anyone’s behavior. But he’s doing so in a much less obvious way than, say, John Waters has in the past, and therefore he runs the risk of being dismissed as a simple vulgarian or a crude camp satirist. I don’t think he’s exclusively either, though to suggest that Verhoeven here is not vulgar or exhibiting a satiric sensibility would be to, again, miss the point. In Showgirls, Verhoeven the visual stylist, with only the slightest exaggeration, heightens the melodrama of Eszterhas’ script with gleeful sexuality (and vulgarity) and deranged life by presenting Vegas as the new model microcosm of the American dream, and Nomi as one of its prime dreamers, and encouraging us to experience the city and its milieu through those wide brown orbs hidden, as they almost always are, behind glitter-encrusted eyelids. (Not one single close-up of Nomi or any of the other women in full production regalia allows us to back off of the extremity of the costumes and makeup—in this movie, you see just how exaggerated, how scary, and yet at the same time how sexy these women can look from five feet away in sparkling getups designed to dazzle the back row of the theater. At times Berkeley’s overreaching lipstick and pancake makeup applications make her resemble nothing less than a slimmed-down R. Crumb cartoon come to life, or a Nick Park creation with pumps and a G-string.)

Seen through Nomi’s eyes it makes sense that nudity and sexuality would be seen as everyday, that it would be made routine, less than special, even numbing. Verhoeven and Esterzhas, despite what you may have heard, aren’t too interested in fueling male fantasies much beyond the lap dance Nomi gives to Kyle MacLachlan’s Zach Carey, and Nomi most certainly isn’t. Showgirls is far more concerned with tracking how this hostile girl with a hair-trigger temper sees the world in which she’s chosen to navigate—she attacks everything from dancing to eating fast food to having sex with the same violent, clipped, unfocused energy, and she has very little patience with anyone who doesn’t, can’t, or won’t play with the same energy. (Her impersonation of a boat propeller during the infamous swimming pool sex scene with MacLachlan is ridiculous, but intentionally so, a parody of porn excess.) She even moves up the ladder into the top spot on the “Goddess” show by literally pushing its star, Cristal Collins (Gina Gershon), down a flight of stairs. Yet again, Charles Taylor correctly observes that she’s never punished for her transgressions because they are recognized as part and parcel of survival in the movie’s brutalizing show business world—Cristal herself is revealed to be every bit the schemer Nomi is by her hospital bed confession (and subsequent reconciliation with Nomi, her “friendly” archenemy) that she grabbed the spotlight for herself in exactly the same way Nomi has.

Nomi’s past, however, and her attempts to closet it, add an extra element of uncertainty about her which works in the movie’s favor and provides a little more context for her seemingly relentless hostility. At one point Carey dangles her criminal record in her face—prostitution, possession of narcotics, assault with a deadly weapon—and I thought to myself, “And that’s just what she got caught doing!” As played by Berkley, Nomi comes across as potentially homicidal at times, so much so that when she puts the stiletto heel to craven pop star Andrew Carver (William Shockley) after he facilitates and participates in the gang rape of her best friend, Molly (Gina Ravera) I had no trouble believing that, if she didn’t feel she couldn’t escape the charges, she’d have no problem putting one through this guy’s eyeball and being done with it.

Too bad Elizabeth Berkley never had the opportunity to dispatch some of her harsher critics in the same way. She, of course, ended up taking the brunt of the abuse for the box office (and perceived artistic) failure of Showgirls, and her brash, unseasoned performance, which is exactly what the movie calls for, however you feel about the level of rage with which she imbues the character, was an all-too-easy target. Any reasonable viewer ought to be able to see that Verhoeven saw the raw ambition in her that was perfectly realized in Nomi, and that Taylor probably rightly suggests was a source of inspiration, and fear, for Berkeley herself. Why wouldn’t an actress, known mostly for a supporting role on a kids’ TV comedy (Saved by the Bell), who suddenly found herself the focal point of a big budget (but at $40 million, not that big) movie that was itself being held up as the litmus test for the success or failure of the NC-17 rating, feel a little pressure? Fair enough. But heaping blame squarely on her shoulders for what became the Showgirls debacle seems patently unfair, based on what’s on screen, especially when what’s on screen has itself been pretty shamefully misjudged from the word “go.” If Showgirls ever got as fair a shake upon its initial release as it is getting today, through the network of bloggers who are attempting to reshape opinion, frame honest reconsideration in some small way by singing its praises, or perhaps even continue the negative appraisals in the clear light of day, then we probably wouldn’t be gathering forces like this to celebrate the existence of one of modern cinema’s most (unjustly) reviled totems of excess.

I’m really glad Showgirls is out there. I’m glad for Charles Taylor standing up for it from the beginning, and for writing a terrific piece that led me to my own reappraisal of the movie. I’m exceedingly glad to have been invited to participate in this forum (even though my entry is a tad late in the day). And I hope that by reading this, or one of the many great pieces that are available on line through this celebration, that someone else might at least be able to take another look, with fresh eyes, without the pressure of insistent and official opinion ringing in their ears, at a genuinely terrific movie that has been cloaked in ignominy and derision for 10 years. As Eric Henderson stated in his outstanding article about the film, “I'd probably be a lot more worried about the possibility that I'm overselling Showgirls if it wasn't already patently clear that most people have already closed themselves off to the pleasures the film has to offer.” In that spirit, I invite you to check out Showgirls again on DVD, and if you’re like me and you didn’t before, do it this time with eyes wide open. You might not like what you see, but then again you might.

17 comments:

Eric Henderson said...

Above. Beyond. Wonderful addition to the Showgirls blog orgy. Change-of-heart stories warm my loins.

Flickhead said...

Holy smokes, Batman! Excellent article!

Campaspe said...

This was excellent. My entry was a loud, emphatic "NO" to the movie but you make your case fascinating. I especially love the point about their makeup. I never thought about it, but by putting the showgirls' cleopatra liner, eye glitter, striped blush and everything else in your lap, Verhoeven makes you confront the otherworldly aspect of a stage appearance.

Aaron Hillis said...

Rock and roll, welcome to today's club.

Thom McGregor said...

Wonderfully written stuff, as usual. And I have to say that, given the subject, if this had been written by anybody else, I wouldn't have been able to get myself to even skim through it. Yes, I saw "Showgirls," in fact, with you! I knew its reputation beforehand and, strangely enough, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to see it. I must admit that at the time I was hoping for a rollicking good time at Camp Cinema. But all I really remember about the "experience" of "Showgirls" was mind-numbing boredom, disgust and exhaustion. I didn't think it was funny, interesting or smart. I don't think P.V. or J.E. (I can't even bother with spelling their difficult names) have the capacity for intelligence or daring humor that you and all the other bloggers are displaying today. I did think that the movie was secretly about drag queens who REALLY DO think they are women, but that didn't mean all that much to me. That said, I did feel the way you do about how Elizabeth Berkeley was being crushed by the media 10 years ago. Not that it didn't look like she could take it, or even that she had much talent, but I found it typically misogynistic (there's that word again!) of the world of entertainment to blame a loopy young girl for the sloppy work of a couple of weird, sleazy behind-the-scenes guys. In a way, I admire Berkeley's performance, as sort of a physical version of Sheryl Lee's emotionally raw and open and daring performance in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." Both performances were fearless in their own ways, with no apparent concern for what this would do to their personal careers. But I won't see "Showgirls" again! I can't! Life is too short. Just seeing that picture of the flopping fish sex scene made me cringe. But congrats to you for writing a great essay, and to all the bloggers for uniting on this day in wonderful solidarity. Kind of heart-warming in its own way, really.

girish said...

Terrific, open-minded, searching.
I loved it, Dennis.

p.saga said...

Dennis, a quick note to add my congratulations on another excellent essay, one that's timely and, holy smokes, high-profile. Dude, you're only two clicks from the Oregonian!

I remember the hubby being caught up in the hubbub at the film's u.s. theatrical release, and I remember sitting that one out. I'm afraid I'm sitting out the anniversary orgy as well. Ah, but it's just darn swell to be able to live vicariously through the eloquent likes of you and Thom. Cheers!

blaaagh said...

Y'know, I've never seen "Showgirls," but it always seemed strange to me that it could be as bad as it was made out to be, especially once I saw "Starship Troopers," with its wonderful off-kilter sense of humor and dark undertones. Guess I'll have to join the club and watch it now. Thanks for a terrific piece!

Peet said...

Wonderful testimonial, Dennis. I wish more critics had your courage and honesty.

You asked:
"Peet, did you see the movie when it was first released in the Netherlands? What do you think of Showgirls?"

Yes, I did see it when it came out. From Dutch interviews at the time, I knew Verhoeven was playing it relatively straight. Mind you: in the case of Verhoeven, "relatively straight" means way over-the-top--but in the authentic, gloriously vulgar spirit of Vegas. (As you noted before, subtlety has never been Verhoeven's thing, intelligent and likeable as he is. When Paul goes for something, he really goes.) I could clearly recognize his love-hate relationship with the States at the time, but especially the smart-ass dialogue of the script put me off.

Perhaps strangely enough, the bathtub scene always kind of made sense to me. Nomi is playing the sex goddess she wants men to think she is. The girl's showing off, because she believes it will get her further in life. This is her one-way ticket to the American dream.

Like most people, I was disappointed to see Verhoeven and Eszterhas stick to the FLASHDANCE formula. In retrospect, the choice seems logical: what better cinematic model is there to portray the the hard-sell glamour of the American Dream?

I should see this film again...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words and for the indulgence. Believe me, when I set out on this little journey Monday night, I really didn’t expect it would have this result, or that so many of us would jump into the challenge so enthusiastically. As Nilblogette, I, and a few others have already expressed on various comments boards along the Showgirls network, Showgirls Blog Day was, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had in my short history as a blogger. Sincere thanks to Girish for proposing the idea in the first place, and to Brian and Flickhead
for getting me involved. And I really encourage everyone to travel over to Flickhead and Girish, where you’ll find a long list of links that will take you to Showgirls pieces that I guarantee you will find most worthwhile. In particular, check out the two entries by Eric, Zach Campbell's letter to Elizabeth Berkley, as well as the terrific work contributed by Flickhead, Girish, Brian and all the others. If there’s another movie that would lend itself as perfectly to another round of festival blogging like the one we just launched yesterday, I’d love to know what it is so I can get cracking on my research. But it’s gonna be hard to top the genuine thrill of finding out a knee-jerk opinion held for 10 years was so very wrong, and that a movie most widely appreciated and perceived as intentional, or unintentional, camp was, in fact, so much better, and so much more just camp, than I would have ever allowed myself to believe before.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

PSaga: The Oregonian! Where I come from (with apologies to Mssr. Waits), that's the big time! Black gold! Texas tea! (Oh, and you really should see this movie!)

Peet: Thanks for the Dutch perspective. What was the feeling over there when Verhoeven made the move to commercial "American" movies? (I say "American," because isn't his financing usually pretty polynational?)

Blaaagh: I think we need to rent this one and run it on a double feature with Joe Dante and Allan Arkush's Hollywood Boulevard when next we meet. We never did see HB together over Halloween, and now I think we've got its perfect satirical companion piece. Some see a division between the anarchic, subversive satire of Starship Troopers and the relative humanism (it doesn't sound so strange after you've done a complete turnaround on the movie like I just did) of Showgirls, but I think if you're prone to appreciate what Verhoeven has cooking in Starship, you might be able to see Showgirls for what it is too. And you liked Basic Instinct, didn't you? Maybe it's time for me to take another look at that movie... because, as you know, Catherine Trammell... is the devil.

Peet said...

Holland was proud when that happened and, in retrospect, it made us appreciate his Dutch career even more. (DE VIERDE MAN/THE FOURTH MAN is my favorite; TURKS FRUIT/TURKISH DELIGHT and SOLDAAT VAN ORANJE/SOLDIER OF ORANGE are both wonderful; I wouldn't exactly recommend SPETTERS) It wasn't until HOLLOW MAN that some of us started to get really annoyed by the obvious Hollywood restrictions Verhoeven had to put up with.

Luckily for us - and for filmlovers all over the word, I hope - Verhoeven decided to move back and team up with his old screenwriting partner Gerard Soeteman. At the moment, he probably just finished shooting WWII drama ZWARTBOEK/BLACKBOOK.

Brian said...

Dennis, just wanted to say that your piece was definitely one of my very favorites from lat week's Showgirls Blog Day. I also wanted to thank you for linking to a more substantial Charles Taylor review than the one I'd previously read. His enthusiasm for the film is totally infectious.

Last night I watched Flashdance for the first time, believe it or not. It's a big nothing of a film, especially when compared to Showgirls.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Brian. And like I said before on your site, I really appreciated your digging into, and making clearer to me, the rape scene, which is the moment I found most troubling, both thematically and as narrrative. Your thoughts, and the thoughts that ensued in your comments section, definitely helped define that moment for me not as a lapse, but a necessary (although no less unpleasant, and thank God for that) explication of some thematic strands percolating within this movie, which has really stuck with me over the last week. And I had no trouble, by the way, identifying with your impulse to tell the Midnight Movie crowd to shut the hell up and watch the movie. I didn't see Showgirls in this situation, but even if I wouldn't have liked the movie I would have at least appreciated the opportunity to come to that conclusion without all the "RockyHorror-ification" ringing in my ears. Over this past week too I've had some interesting conversations with people who think I've fallen off the common sense wagon because of my reaction to the movie. But that's okay. That's what keeps one honest, I think, and I appreciate those conversations too. But I appreciate our little Showgirls Blog Day experiment even more, because I feel like I've gotten to know some really good writers, yourself included, in a unique and relatively rapid way. And I'm glad you liked the Taylor piece too. I have a feeling that's gonna be a key article for me in my continuing development as a writer about film. As for Flashdance, I did encounter that one again recently, and I'm with you-- I'll take Nomi in full showgirl regalia over Jennifer Beals and her artfully splashed buckets of water any day.

It seems I haven't posted much since Showgirls day-- Did the experience take that much out of me? Whether it did or didn't, I hope to finally have a top ten posted in the next day or so, and a piece on Altman and his upcoming Oscar, so I hope you'll check back in. Oh, and no plans to get back to the Bay Area just yet, but I'll defintiely keep you updated!

blaaagh said...

Dennis, Yeah! Let's catch up on this one, along with "Hollywood Boulevard," during our next mad weekend, be it north or south. All this talk has got me very curious to see it. In fact, I'd venture out to rent it tonight, if I weren't locked into work 16 hrs a day right now. Sigh...Nomi awaits, god help me!

Brian said...

Dennis, definietly keep me informed if you're going to be visiting the Bay Area.

I'm not sure my writing really got across the fact that I really had no expectation or even desire to stop the screen-yelling activities of my fellow Midnight Mass attendees. I find it fun to occasionally see a film that way, with an overly raucous crowd, and though I usually prefer that the film is one I've seen before so I can form my reaction on my own first, in this case I really didn't mind, and in fact was enjoying it. I also knew that to truly evaluate the film I'd need to see it again and was glad to finally find an excuse. But when I yelled my own comment, I did it in such a caracatured voice and at such an inopportune moment that I doubt anyone thought I seriously wanted the audience to calm down.

aishwarya rai said...
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