Guest post by Chris Forrester.
“It doesn’t suck,” offers a character at one point in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls — a tease, or understatement in one way or another, from a film not uncommonly heralded as the worst of all time. In context, it’s a throwaway line of dialogue from the film’s doe-eyed, sharp-witted protagonist; outside the text, it might as well be a call to arms, a dare to the viewer who is at this point either head-over-heels enamored with the film or completely reviled by it. For Adam Nayman, the brave critic whose measured not-quite-defense of the film commands a chapter of its history, it’s almost a motto: “It Doesn’t Suck.” And he’s not wrong — Showgirls doesn’t suck, it f*cks.
Nayman’s argument, which was likely even braver when he made it in 2014, mounts an effort to take on Showgirls the film; beyond Showgirls, the monumentally despised controversy heap; and to argue that beneath all the discourse and hatred, there is at least a film there that’s worth parsing on its/Verhoeven’s terms rather than dismissing altogether. But that was 2014 and this is 2023. Nayman is intelligent but not all-knowing, and his once-invaluable defense of the film is now more of an old testament to the Showgirls lover’s new testament; nearly 30 years from its release, there’s still more to Verhoeven’s sticky send-up of capitalism and entertainment than meets the eye.
Showgirls is both a movie and a cult phenomenon, and so it’s worth explaining as both. As the former, it’s about the rise and fall of a spry, young ingénue with showgirl aspirations, one Nomi Malone, and the way that immersion into that world of nipple tassles and backstabs quickly corrupts her — a sort of fall from grace. As the latter, it’s quite the opposite: a film at first eviscerated as “witlessly obscene” (The New York Times) and “such a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating” (Roger Ebert) and slowly redeemed as at first a cult classic and ultimately, if not just a classic, then whatever’s below the next best thing.
Ebert’s review is a helpful bit of context vis-à-vis the film’s reputation. Verhoeven was at this point fresh off the heels of Basic Instinct‘s walloping success, and Showgirls was to be another collaboration with that film’s screenwriter (Joe Eszterhas). That, and the film’s Vegas strip club setting, set unmatched expectations: surely Showgirls promised more of Basic Instinct‘s furious horniness and sexuality. Right? But this is Verhoeven, noted satirist and all-around trickster, and if Showgirls has anything in the way of pure erotic thrills to offer, it’s offered only as bait — a lure into a much messier (but far more rewarding) spectacular about greed, deceit, and, to quote the French master (and Showgirls lover) Jacques Rivette, “surviving in a world populated by assholes.”
Nomi’s journey has a rather beautiful and decidedly non-traditional bit of shaping to it. She begins the film a nobody — maybe literally, given that she introduces herself only a few moments into the film as “Nomi,” or perhaps “no me,” a name we later learn isn’t her given one — whose rise to fame is swift, but complicated, and immediately followed by an equal, almost directly inverse in some of the film’s syntax, fall from grace. It’s more Barry Lyndon than your average erotic thriller, and a lot slippier too.
As alienating as it might be to the more hornily inclined viewer, that structure is also, thankfully, laden with a great many more immediately satisfying pleasures, chief among them the film’s costuming and dance sequences. They possess a sort of madcap glamor that’s much more in line with the sort of film you’d expect of Verhoeven than the one the typical viewer might have expected, but they are beautifully staged, and beautifully captured. Verhoeven is no stranger to spectacle (as illustrated by RoboCop and Total Recall), and it’s with great glee that his camera observes the beautiful excess of the dancers’ performances and costumes. It’s worth noting here that the beauty of these performances, and indeed Verhoeven’s interest in them too, goes far beyond leery objectification; however ridiculous their backstage dramas and onstage performances (one is centered around a volcano that belches glitter and pyrotechnics, for example), these are artists, and Verhoeven respects and identifies with them as such.
It’s as a microcosmic send-up of the real world of American art and entertainment that Showgirls really finds its groove, and where I must, again, invoke Rivette. Wrong as he may be in other instances (like his assertion that it’s also the most personal Paul Verhoeven film), Rivette is spot-on about Showgirls: it’s a film about navigating a world of assholes, and not only that but one engaging very decisively in autocritique about the industry that created it. The dancers of the film are artists, and artists trapped inside a ludicrous, sometimes almost surreally abstract madhouse of power and patriarchy at that. It’s an almost deceptively simple conceit for a film so amped up by epic controversies and equally passionate love and derision, but an effective one for the ways that Verhoeven chooses to lean into and exhibit the cruelty (sometimes perhaps too much so) of this carnivalesque miniature Hollywood.
All this in mind — and maybe Nayman too — the real conundrum of Showgirls becomes the contrast between its perceived failure and the perceived success of Verhoeven’s Hollywood films before and after it. Verhoeven is, after all, famous for the way that he imbued his Hollywood work with sharp, satiric depth in spite (and because of) its outwardly lowly and/or ridiculous trappings. RoboCop and Total Recall are action blockbusters about the way that images of heroism are commodified to pacify the working class, and though they’re commonly touted for their loveable schlock value, they’re also both celebrated for Verhoeven’s thematic deftness. They’re (heavy air-quotes) “pieces of trash” that aren’t pieces of trash at all, but rather slyly packaged satires. And yet far opposite them in the Verhoeven canon is Showgirls, which is also a (heavy air-quotes) “piece of trash” with a clear satiric bent and the formal precision to back it up, but somehow never quite earns the heavy air-quotes.
Why, exactly, RoboCop and Total Recall are “pieces of trash” while Showgirls is just a piece of trash is too complex to parse in one essay (it might take a book!), but the easier, and truer, answer is that it isn’t: it f*cks.
Chris Forrester worships at the church of Claire Denis (and really wants you to reconsider High Life). Also an admirer of Kelly Reichardt, Wong Kar Wai, and Michael Mann, he’s an IU journalism graduate, a film student at heart, and a lover of genre movies.
Chris ForresterChris Forrester
- When De Palma Became De Palma - September 18, 2023
- Until There’s Not: Douglas Sirk’s <em>There’s Always Tomorrow</em> - August 21, 2023
- Another Homo Movie: The New Queer Cinema - March 16, 2023