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"Showgirls" is seriously one misunderstood film...

Douglas Reese

almost 4 years ago

I don’t understand how so many consider this movie unintentionally funny when there are so many signs that the humor is so obviously intended. To get what I’m saying, understand that “Showgirls” is a satire on Hollywood in so many ways. From setting it in Las Vegas and making it centered around dancers, it’s like a big sign when the paparazzi are all over Vegas dancers that the director is being completely tongue-in-cheek. Many moments in the film that most refer to as the most infamously “so-bad-it’s-funny” moments actually have situations that prove their humor to be intended. The “I just got here” here line the main character mutters in the beginning… how can someone really say that wasn’t intentionally over-the-top and hilarious? The ketchup coming out of the bottle… was that really unintentional? Was the fact that the Molly character in that scene gives a greatly straight-faced comeback stare to her really unintentional? Give me a break… Or another scene in which most refer to as the “screwing the fish” scene in the pool. Do you really think the director was trying to be sexy with that? It’s obviously a joke on the lapdance she did to that same guy earlier in the film. Many more scenes that are “unintentionally funny” just have things in them that make them seem so obviously intended. Verhoeven has always been a satirist. This film is no exception, and his humor is boldly here.

Moving on from my mini-bitch rant (haha), the film is quite brilliant, I think. A satire on the Hollywood industry and its dark secrets of sex and violence. This remains so obvious in how Las Vegas is presented as some kind of place of dreams (when it really isn’t) and the dancers are seen as paparazzi-chased celebrities (when they really aren’t). The film shows, through Nomi Malone (seriously, do you really think the filmmakers weren’t being cheeky with that name?), that in order to make it as a big celebrity in the business, you must screw and/or hurt others on the way up that latter. And it’s all for you to be famous for a while, because not everyone is famous eternally. “There is always someone hungrier coming up the stairs after you,” Cristal says at the end. Remember how Nomi started out in the stripclub before getting discovered, stripping to Prince’s “319”? Now take note how Cristal, no longer the dancing goddess she used to be, is now in hospital room 319. Cristal has dropped back down to where she was before she got big, just as Nomi would soon afterward had she not taken off. Isn’t it also amazing to note that when Nomi first gets to Vegas, it’s Halloween, and when she hits big as the goddess dancer, it’s Christmas?

The way director Paul Verhoeven makes it entirely obvious that the film is satirical on Hollywood’s sexual underbelly. What better way to celebrate this than by making the film almost cartoonish in terms of dialogue, but completely colorful, fantastic and superb (even those who dislike the film admit that its a very well-made film with its editing, photography, etc.) in technical terms?

Also take note how the film always has men being dirty, horny bastards and the women always being servants to their needs. Notice the way one of the film’s characters, a fellow stripper, sleeps with a guy who promises to make her big in the business. Notice how she never gets anywhere? Now look how Verhoeven studies the way Nomi sleeps with Kyle MacLachlan’s character and she hits it big. It’s always about sleeping with the right people, isn’t it?

Which goes back to a line said earlier in the film: “In America, everyone’s a gynecologist.” If you don’t get that, and how it connects to the violent and depressing rape scene towards the end of the film, then there’s something wrong with you. The fact that the rapist is the character’s favorite celebrity is also a big hint. Take note to that and think back on everything else. It makes so much more sense.

Seriously, one underrated film. Glad, though, it hasn’t been forgotten, even if for the wrong reasons. If you think about it, the fact that it’s remembered as the go-to film for guys to get their eyes looking at loads of boobs is quite ironic to Verhoeven’s point with the film in which all the men see nothing more of the women then sex objects.

I love the way Verhoeven casts Elizabeth Berkley in the lead role. Even if it wasn’t intentional, isn’t it especially great to note that Berkley played a women’s rights activist / good girl on that show and then went onto playing a bipolar character who is treated cruelly under the ways of powerful and/or controlling chauvenists in order to get what she wants?

In the end, not much else I have to say. Just felt like getting this rant out.

Thoughts?! :P

Adam Cook

-moderator-
almost 4 years ago

Spot on, Douglas. Brilliant film and brilliant filmmaker. I recently re-watched this after initially shrugging it off in my younger days. Pitch perfect satire with some truly audacious scenes. My favourite has to be when the monkeys are loose in the dressing room and one of them applies makeup in front of the mirror one of the showgirls uses. That isn’t the only sequence where Verhoeven equates humans with animals: gotta love when Nomi and Cristal marvel over the greatness of eating dog chow. That rape scene is truly horrifying; classic Verhoeven. I’m going through his filmography and I must say the man is pretty consistent. Flesh + Blood stands as the best so far.

BTW, nice eye & ear with the 319 thing.

Fraser-​Orr

almost 4 years ago

I understand everything you’re saying, and the film is still terrible.

Ben Simingt​on

almost 4 years ago

…and it totally falls to pieces in the third act.

Douglas Reese

almost 4 years ago

@ Adam:

Actually I didn’t catch the 319 with my eye in the final scene. It’s actually blatantly said by the nurse when Nomi goes to look for her. :P

And yes, I love the way Verhoeven alludes the WOMEN to animals. Ties in with the allusion that the men see them as nothing but [sex] objects to be tamed.

Douglas Reese

almost 4 years ago

@ Ben:

What makes you feel that it falls apart in the third act?

Adam Cook

-moderator-
almost 4 years ago

In that case I retract my compliment for your good eye, and further emphasize my compliment for your good ear. Guys, this film is seriously brilliant…Are you Verhoeven fans, otherwise?

The scene where Gina Gershon makes Kyle Maclachlan bust a nut in his pants was definitely a special moment, I have to admit.

greg x

almost 4 years ago

I don’t know if Showgirls is that seriously misunderstood anymore. It certainly took an unfair beating by critics when it was released, but now I almost feel like people have overcompensated for that early slight. When it’s talked about at all nowadays it’s usually to sing its praises. Much of that praising is certainly true to my way of thinking, but it seems like quite a bit of ammunition aimed at a rather insignificant target. (I mean the film towards Hollywood and the mythic chorus girl makes good tale.) My personal feeling is that it should be seen as an important part of Verhoeven’s oeuvre, as well as a well handled satire in it’s own right, but I can’t see it as anything like a masterpiece. It is a fine example of craft though, pretty much everything and everybody in the film works at a top notch level in that aspect.

Adam Cook

-moderator-
almost 4 years ago

Yeah, I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. I’d say Flesh + Blood and Starship Troopers are superior, with Basic Instinct being on par.

but it seems like quite a bit of ammunition aimed at a rather insignificant target.

Thank you, Greg!

greg x

almost 4 years ago

I should add that Showgirls was slightly ahead of its time in prefiguring the “reality” TV trend where people’s desire to see and unknown shoot to stardom is balanced by their desire to see those same people be humbled later on. It captures something of the ugliness of “our” relationship to celebrity in that aspect, but that’s been known for a long time too reality television just made it more a part of everyday conversation.

Dr. Szell

almost 4 years ago

It’s enjoyable enough, but IMO it’s way overrated as a cult/camp film.

Orlando

almost 4 years ago

I was thought that as well, this is a very good script, and the tech values are excellent. The field in which I thought it lacked a lot and made the film get its reputation is the acting. With really good actors, this would have been a truly excellent satire. It’s pretty much the only department in which the film truly lacks.

Matt Parks

almost 4 years ago

The whole arc of Verhoeven’s Hollywood films, from Robocop to Hollow Man, were misunderstood by the general public and many critics (and, frankly, by the studios he made them for). But, as Greg says, there’s been a strong corrective in the interim. For me, Showgirls belongs somewhere at the middle of that pack of films.

Bobby Wise

almost 4 years ago

I also agree that there has maybe been too much of a corrective in reclaiming “Showgirls”. I love the film. Not necessarily for ironic campy reasons, and not necessarily for coolly-distant deconstructive theoretical purposes. Place me in the middle of that pack. On top of that, I have a feverishly hot crush on Gina Gershon, probably more so in this movie than any other she ever did. And I also got extreme pleasure in seeing Elizabeth Berkeley in this after being a huge fan of “Saved by the Bell” and knowing her only from that series. Truth be told, that’s the only ironic, campy, deconstructive pleasure I get out of the film. All my other reactions to it are pure. As a matter of fact, I still don’t think I’ve ever seen Berkeley in anything other than “Saved by the Bell” and “Showgirls.”

Is it a great film? Probably not. Is it a film that I want to watch to the end, no matter what point I may catch it in the middle of? Absolutely. I always do. And I think that’s a pretty rare and worthy category of film, which probably speaks something to its quality in the final analysis.

El hombre huevo

almost 4 years ago

‘Camp’ is an odd thing. If one argues that this film is indeed ‘camp’ one cannot really argue that the humour is intentional. Camp, almost by definition, has to be unintentional. So if this is ‘satire’ then it’s pretty poor satire in that the acting is about as terrible as any big Hollywood film I’ve ever seen, but if it’s ‘camp’ then you have to argue that Verhoeven was trying to be serious in his attempts but failed so miserably at them that the film becomes unintentionally funny. Either the way it is a pretty horrible film.

Adam Cook

-moderator-
almost 4 years ago

Oh man, this thread needs Daniel Kasman…

Matt Parks

almost 4 years ago

I wouldn’t call Showgirls camp.

For the record, Jacques Rivette on Showgirls (from a 1998 interview with Senses of Cinema ):

“I prefer Showgirls (1995), one of the great American films of the last few years. It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal. In Starship Troopers, he uses various effects to help everything go down smoothly, but he’s totally exposed in Showgirls. It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless. It’s so obvious that it was written by Verhoeven himself rather than [Joe] Eszterhas, who is nothing. And that actress is amazing!

“Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy. Of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas, Showgirls was the only one that was real — take my word for it. I who have never set foot in the place!”

Kurt Walker

-moderator-
almost 4 years ago

I strongly agree with Rivette, whom I think must relate to Verhoeven’s impleccable structuring present in this film which is constantly on the tip of exhausting its ideals. Eric Henderson from Slant wrote a great review of this film, and its surrounding culture:

“Gleefully inspiring audiences everywhere to challenge conventional definitions of “good” and “bad” cinema, Showgirls is undoubtedly the think-piece object d’art of its time. It is Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s audaciously experimental satire-but-not-satire, an epically mounted “white melodrama” (to borrow Tag Gallagher’s description of Sirk’s early, less mannered, and more overtly humanistic comedies of error) and also one of the most astringent, least compromised critiques of the Dream Factory ever unleashed on a frustrated, perpetually (and ideologically) pre-cum audience. Many things to many people, and absolutely nothing to a great deal more, Showgirls’ proponents and detractors still square off, digging nine-foot trenches in the sand (some planting their heads therein instead of their feet) and lobbing accusations of elitism and anti-pleasure. It is perhaps one of the only films to bridge that critical gap between Film Quarterly (which hosted a beyond extensive critical roundtable on the film last year) and Joe Bob Briggs. It is a film that will continue to bend brains and drain dicks long after the golf-clap (and Clap-free) cinematic “excellence” of your Jane Austen bastardization of choice is long dismissed. It is the very definition of the term “essential.”

Okay, 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. Unimpressed that Joe Eszterhas cribbed copiously from All About Eve and 42nd Street, viewers don’t even stop to address the notion that he and Paul Verhoeven—who most of the auteurist crowd have given a pass to by this point, but it doesn’t matter because Showgirls exists outside of and beyond auteurism—are directly commenting on these “Star is Born” pipe dreams and their culpability in force-feeding the American Dream to an audience of pop junkies. (I’d love them to try to digest the notion that a third major influence is Jean Renoir’s French Cancan.) Showgirls establishes its structural patterns so quickly that it seems ludicrous that one could spend more than 10 minutes ruminating on the obvious narrative parallels. Nomi Malone, an aspiring bon vivant and full-time cheeseburger consumer, arrives in Las Vegas with dreams of stardom. Her hitch-hikeé distracts her with casino tokens and the promise of a job interview before running off with her luggage. (Actually, the blunt cut between Nomi celebrating her beginner’s luck at the slots and her inevitable crap-out is definitive of the film’s high-low mood.)

From there on, Nomi rides the roller-coaster of ambition and success as she climbs the ladder of showgirl notoriety, moving from the sleazy, low-rent Cheetah club (which the film depicts as squalid but honest) to the Taj Mahal of the Miracle Mile, the Stardust and its sensational “Goddess” floor show. But to get her name in lights, she’ll have to lie and/or backstab everyone she meets: Molly, the sweet girl who discovers Nomi vomiting in the street after having her luggage stolen; James, the club bouncer who recognizes Nomi’s burning “talent”; and, ultimately, Cristal Connors, Vegas legend the current “Goddess” headliner. As quickly as Eszterhas introduces characters, Verhoeven introduces generic devices and archetypes: sexhibition, backstage musical, screwball farce, self-actualization melodrama, diva worship. The constant push-pull effect of mixing genres, tonal shifts and paradoxes in the name of political incorrectness masks some of Verhoeven’s most sincere directorial choices. Showgirls is a catalogue of professional, cinematic grace notes. The song Nomi dances to at the Cheetah that entices Cristal for the first time is Prince’s “319,” which turns out to be the number of Cristal’s hospital room late in the film (the tables have turned, but the seduction is still ongoing). At the beginning of the film, it’s Halloween and an utterly down-and-out and French-fry-tossing Nomi is sans costume (read: identity). When Nomi steps outside after her first night as a member of the “Goddess” dance troupe, literally reborn as a woman in charge of her destiny, it’s unsurprising to see that it’s Christmas in Las Vegas.

Verhoeven’s unheralded earnestness (the same that undoubtedly inspired him to personally accept his Razzie for Worst Director) also applies to his canny casting perception. Everyone pays lip service to how “ironic” it was for Verhoeven to cast Saved by the Bell’s Jessie Spano in the very physical role of a seemingly bipolar hooker-cum-dancer. This admittedly fabulous stunt casting ends up leading most to shortchange Berkley’s equally internal portrayal of Nomi’s transformation from fallen woman to, well, re-fallen woman (see the evil, lowered-eyelid geisha shtick she develops). On the other hand, no one ever seems to comment on how perfectly Gina Gershon was cast as her brash, Bette Davis rival and how she embodies her role in an entirely forthright, non-snarky manner. Gershon’s blousy performance is miraculous, one element from which even Showgirls’ biggest detractors can all find some worth. Like Berkley, Gershon acts with her entire body, but exudes a certain comfort within her own frame that Berkley, with her thick lower half and puckered nipple buds, clearly envies to the point of full-on imitation. Gershon’s cockeyed grin is, in its own special way, every bit as luridly indecent as every last bare breast. And her centipede-leg-perfect wave of the hand and husky-voiced “I’ll think about it” brusqueness turns the scene where she compares her nails with Nomi’s into a galvanizing chamber drama, the culmination of Nomi and Cristal’s ongoing power struggles. Likewise, Verhoeven stocks the rest of his cast with actors who embody their roles fully and embrace their prototypes: Ungela Brockman as the volatile, standoffish showgirl Annie; Lin Tucci as the vaudevillian Henrietta with the jack-in-the-box bosom; and especially Patrick Bristow as the albino, nebbishly queeny choreographer Marty.

Even those who are willing to look at Showgirls without falling back on espousing its patently obvious camp charms (which need no defense from us, so go ahead and insert your favorite Eszterhas couplet of choice here) end up acknowledging that the film is an outlandish, albeit obvious, satire of Hollywood/America. (“In America, everyone’s a gynecologist!”) It’s not necessarily an incorrect stance to take toward the movie, but it doesn’t fly too well with those who only see Verhoeven and Eszterhas as getting the rocks in their collective sac off, as opposed to the ones in their collective head. There is, of course, more going for the movie than splashy sadism and contempt. The filmmakers’ real target isn’t Hollywood or American crassness in and of themselves, but rather the morally bankrupt “Star is Born” tales. The film’s vulgarity isn’t reflected in its anarchic rejection of the rules of cinematic good taste because it’s making the claim that it’s those very rules that are corrupt and ideologically facile. Offended critics (to reference Adrian Martin’s wonderful essay that opens with a Showgirls example) are reacting not to the fact that they’ve been punished for wanting titties (after all, the titties are there and they are spectacular), but that they’re being more slyly punished for wanting Nomi to succeed (or fail, as the case were) specifically because it will fulfill their preconceived notions of the archetypes of wish fulfillment.

Anyone who’s found their “in” with the film by means of settling for the pungent sexuality of its cast and its equally voluptuous cinematography (Showgirls rivals Suspiria for sheer, eye-popping color rush) or enjoying the film for its unabated “badness” inevitably reaches an impasse once Eszterhas reminds hedonists of the existence of rape. When Molly, Nomi’s second banana, meets her rock star sexual fantasy (earlier in the film she squealingly strokes his billboard image and jokes about not being able to hold a needle straight from how many times she’s masturbated thinking of him) and follows him into his hotel room and the gang bang waiting inside, it’s a rude interruption for those who haven’t managed to work up any empathy for anyone in the film up to that point. The scene is suitably horrifying, doubly so considering it’s the moment that she realizes her own fault in creating a sexual fantasy that can’t exist in a shitty star-struck caste system in which she’s nothing more than a seamstress. (Lars von Trier only wishes he could dream up a rape scenario with as much political and psychosexual mindfuckitude.) What is even more problematic is the porny vigilante sequence that follows, because it asks us to accept a very contradictory set of terms of engagement: (a) that Nomi uses the fantasy structures of Las Vegas royalty (already clearly defined as corrupt) to exact a tidy, “let the punishment fit the crime” revenge, and (b) that her experience, her win ends up validating that corruption, simply by virtue that she succeeded in gaining the upper hand.

But not so fast. Verhoeven and Eszterhas use this sequence, what with Berkley’s pussy-who-swallowed-the-canary smirk of satisfaction, as the means by which to set up the final scene’s “punchline,” where we learn that Nomi hasn’t learned a thing at all. This ending, by the way, strikes me in the same way as the finale to A.I. in how their tonal discord lead viewers who aren’t emotionally invested in the films down the absolute wrong path. It’s not “funny” that Nomi is going to make the same mistakes all over again. It’s crushing that despite the fact that the Myth has been revealed time and time again for the ugly bastard it is, she is still seduced by it after the small shred of “victory” she attains. When Rena Riffel (so good-natured and winningly ditzy as the Cheetah’s new girl “Penny”) showed up in David Lynch’s La-La Land masterpiece of female martyrdom, Mulholland Drive, it was almost as heartbreaking to see her portray a strung out, worn out shell of used sex appeal, the logical outcome of Penny’s character arc; and Lynch seemed to cunningly use her iconography to channel some of the Elizabeth Berkley mystique. (That Berkley’s career had to—make that needed to—fail in order to lay the groundwork for Showgirls to be “reborn” as a camp classic is undoubtedly one of the most damning pieces of evidence in the case for holding the film’s subsequent audience in contempt.) Just as the coda of A.I. mistakenly led people to believe Spielberg was rejecting Kubrick’s penchant for pessimism in favor of suburban bliss, the zinger at the end of Showgirls was read by far too many viewers as an absolution of their own culpability in sealing Nomi’s dire fate. As a result, the film is now often celebrated for its campy excesses, but unfortunately not as widely celebrated for what seems a very clear, conventional, and humanistic sensibility.

Ultimately, Showgirls is one of the most honest satires of recent years because, as Noël Burch wrote in the aforementioned FQ roundtable, it “takes mass culture seriously, as a site of both fascination and struggle. And it takes despised melodrama seriously too, as indeed an excellent vehicle for social criticism.” Unfortunately, the critical and public brickbats thrown at Showgirls (to say nothing of the hosannas foisted upon those concurrent Austen travesties) demonstrates that most prefer satire when it’s dealing with the distant past to the extent that one can feel morally superior to the subject of ridicule without recognizing oneself in the mix. I can’t decide whether it’s a sad comment on the vapidity of pop culture or merely a reflection of business-as-usual that VH1’s “I Love the ’90s” series studiously ignored including the film in its year-by-year roundup (it certainly inspired as big a shitstorm as the Snapple Lady, for God’s sake). But it’s an understandable omission, since Showgirls is truly one of the only ‘90s films that treats pop culture as a vibrant field of social economics and cerebral pursuit, and not merely tomorrow’s nostalgia-masturbation fodder. "

Ben Simingt​on

almost 4 years ago

Thanks for posting this…this is great.

Joks

almost 4 years ago

Didn’t Verhoeven claim this movie wasn’t meant to be a satire though? I’m pretty sure i read that. And unlike MIlos, he has no particular reason to be dishonest about it.

But even as a satire it fails. it’s completely toothless. It’s more parody than satire i feel, and i think it’s a mistake to treat more seriously because Verhoeven is usually a decent director. Hollow Man was rubbish too. even worse. What is there to misunderstand about that one Matt? It was just a badly executed blockbuster with a nasty streak.

kerfuff​les

almost 4 years ago

…And “The Room” is actually a “black comedy”.
I think “Showgirls” is so terrible that it almost doesn’t seem possible that it was done without any sort of intentional camp value. But I truly believe that all efforts that went into creating “Showgirls” were seriously misguided and resulted in a terrible and hilarious film.

Ben Simingt​on

almost 4 years ago

MUBI: Monumentally Underrated, BASIC INSTINCT

John Lehtone​n

almost 4 years ago

The review above pretty much sums it up. Showgirls is a masterpiece. Paired with Starship Troopers, it is the most cutting satire of Hollywood in existence (though Troopers is more a political satire).

Uli Cain, Cinefidel¹³

over 3 years ago

Elizabeth Berkley is 38 today, man I feel old.

Lester Burnham

over 3 years ago

Hmm, a thread for wretchedly bad films. Talk about trying to turn shit into Shinola. What a waste!

Steve

over 3 years ago

Truly a waste. Showgirls is complete crap

yroc

over 3 years ago

look, if SHOWGIRLS is a misunderstood cinematic revelation, than DEUCE BIGALOW was foreshadowing the collapse of the financial market in America—i mean, when the big fish died and he had to buy a new one before Anton got home? It’s a blatant metaphor on the idea that even though your finances may deplete before your eyes in these trying times, Rob Schneider will still be getting overpaid to make shitty movies that Darrel Hammond should have been in instead.

it’s right there in our faces-soooooo obvious.

Kurt Walker

-moderator-
over 3 years ago

Showgirls is a total masterpiece.

Lester, Steve, Cory, would you guys mind sharing your thoughts on the Eric Henderson article I posted in the middle of the page? thanks.