It Doesn't Suck

A fresh look at Paul Verhoeven's once-reviled Showgirls
by Adam Nayman  posted June 11, 2014
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This is an excerpt from the book It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, by Adam Nayman (published in 2014 by ECW Press, ecwpress.com). In conjunction with the publication, Nayman will introduce a screening of the film at Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday, June 14, at 7:00 p.m.

Is it really possible, though, to kill something that's already dead? Showgirls expired meekly at the box office. Its domestic theatrical gross of $35 million in its initial release was extremely disappointing in relation to its $40 million budget and to Verhoeven's previous American productions RoboCop, Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct, which had each been among the top earners of their respective years. Showgirls was also D.O.A. with critics, who saw a vulnerable target and did quick-hit executions of virtually everybody associated with the film. The most lethal bullets were reserved for Verhoeven, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, and star Elizabeth Berkley, who absorbed the fire like Sonny Corleone stopped at the tollbooth in The Godfather (1972)¡ªalthough perhaps a more apt comparison would be Sofia Coppola in The Godfather: Part III (1990), who took the bullets meant for her father(s) onscreen and off. "She can't act, but watching her try to act, to do the things acting is rumored to consist of, is moving," wrote Anthony Lane in his typically glib evisceration of Showgirls in the New Yorker. Compared to some other writers, he was being kind.

The definitive public eulogy was delivered by the Golden Raspberry Awards Foundation, which bestowed a record seven Razzies on the film, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Actress. Showing unprecedented chutzpah, Verhoeven bucked tradition by accepting his statuette in person. "When I was making movies in Holland, my films were judged by the critics as decadent, perverted, and sleazy," he joked. "So I moved to the United States. This was ten years ago. In the meantime, my movies are criticized as being decadent, perverted, and sleazy in this country." If the grieving period for the director was brief, it was non-existent for everyone else. Over the next few years, in a series of tell-all articles and books¡ªmost prominently Eszterhas's 2006 showbiz memoir The Devil's Guide to Hollywood¡ªeven members of the immediate family took their turn to speak ill of the deceased.

The continued abuse of a movie that had already been relegated to the slab could be taken as profaning a corpse. But it was on the midnight-movie circuit¡ªa place where the occult is taken seriously and vampires and zombies feel at home¡ªthat Showgirls began its rise from the grave. Though few people wanted to see Showgirls when it was in theaters, on home video it became a curiosity, and then a minor group-viewing phenomenon. Starting in 1996, MGM graciously offered prints to repertory theaters, and then hired drag queens to attend the screenings and encourage audience participation.

Suddenly, Showgirls's major reference point had shifted from Valley of the Dolls to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). "A performer named Winona, in a black vinyl miniskirt and bustier, passed out scripts that cued viewers... when to shout along with the dopiest lines," reported the New York Times. "The movie rolled, accompanied by non-stop shouted wisecracks. When Nomi threw a pile of French fries during a dramatic scene, a heckler yelled ¡®Overact, Nomi!'" MGM had allowed their intellectual property to be reduced to a punch line, but in the end, the studio laughed all the way to the bank. The various re-releases shored up Showgirls' box-office take until it became, with all revenue streams accounted for, one of the most profitable titles in the studio's back catalogue. To date, Showgirls has grossed more than $100 million. To quote the film's loquacious screenwriter: "Remember that chicken shit can turn into chicken liver."


That line is classic Joe Eszterhas, but transubstantiation is generally considered to be a more sacred process. For one thing, you need some high priests. In spring 2003, as MGM was repackaging Showgirls as an ironic and fully interactive home-entertainment experience, the American journal Film Quarterly found space for a 16-page "roundtable" on the film. "It sounds like the setup for a punch line about those wacky academics who find value in any kind of popular culture," snarked Salon's film critic Charles Taylor, calling the confab "the perfect new joke for people who realize that their old gibes about the French and Jerry Lewis are getting a little tatty at the edges."

Leaving aside the fact that Taylor's own gibes about academics are themselves rather tatty at the edges, his invocation of a Gallic tradition is correct, especially in regards to prevailing trends in film criticism. The long lineage of French critics turned directors had often been marked by the various cohorts' enthusiastic endorsement of American popular moviemaking. Fran?ois Truffaut's 1954 essay "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" yielded the concept of a politique des auteurs, which was adapted and codified by the American critic Andrew Sarris, in his landmark book The American Cinema, as the "auteur theory." At its root, the auteur theory holds that the director, more than any other member of a production, is the "author" and guiding intelligence of every film on which she works, scrawling each with a recognizable signature.

Both the politique and theory of auteurism resulted in a sea change in critical values. Where mainstream American and British critics of the 1950s were content to praise Alfred Hitchcock as a competent entertainer, French auteurists like future filmmakers ¨¦ric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol saw him as working through a constellation of recurring themes and visual ideas. Jean-Luc Godard waxed rhapsodic about the taut genre pictures of Howard Hawks and the florid Technicolor melodramas of Nicholas Ray, whom he memorably designated as the living embodiment of what moviemaking might aspire to. ("The cinema is Nicholas Ray," he wrote.) And in this same spirit, it was the French director Jacques Rivette¡ªa colleague and contemporary of both Truffaut and Godard, whose half-century and counting career has been dotted by eccentric masterpieces like Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and the mammoth 13-hour Balzac riff Out 1 (1971)who really got the ball rolling on the critical rehabilitation of Showgirls.

In 1998, Rivette sat for an interview with Fr¨¦d¨¦ric Bonnaud for the French magazine Les inrockuptibles. He was asked about several new movies, including Verhoeven's 1997 science-fiction satire Starship Troopers, which, unlike its much-abused predecessor, had been something of a critical cause c¨¦l¨¨bre. Rivette offered a few words of praise for Starship Troopers, but he was more expansive in talking about Showgirls, which he called "one of the great American films of the last few years." He went on, "It is a movie about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that's [Verhoeven's] philosophy... of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas, Showgirls was the only one that was real¡ªtake my word for it. I, who have never set foot in the place."

"In my films, I hold a mirror up to life," wrote Paul Verhoeven before the release of Showgirls. While it is always a risk to take this frequently wiseacre filmmaker at his word, there is something to this assertion. It says here that Showgirls is a movie that is also a mirror, which offers a vivid rearview on a very particular pop-cultural moment and also a telling reflection of the viewer. This is not to say that Showgirls is a Rorschach test. Rorschach diagrams are, by their nature, opaque¡ªblack ink splashed against a blank surface, they are designed to elicit a high degree of creative interpretation. Showgirls, however, is utterly transparent. Fans and detractors alike see right through it. If the viewer wants to see a "piece of shit," chances are that he will; certainly enough people did and still do. If the viewer knows how to look, however, then Showgirls's magnificence will reveal itself as grandly and nakedly as a striptease.


For some, the picture will get clearer with repeated looks, as it did for Jeffrey Sconce, whose contribution to the Film Quarterly symposium, entitled "I Have Grown Weary of Your Tiresome Cinema," is an entertaining experiment in relentless re-viewing. "If you see Showgirls just once," he writes, "it will linger simply as an exercise in bad excess." Then, later: "Leaving the theater after screening two, one begins to wonder: is the film bad, or just highly, highly stylized? And how would I be able to tell the difference?" Moving along: "At the third screening, Verhoeven's genius is unmistakable... it's not bad filmmaking¡ªit's a brilliant savaging of the vapidity of Hollywood's typical narrative machinery." By the end of screening four, Sconce is breathlessly invoking Roland Barthes's "Myth Today" and name-checking Brecht and Baudrillard and declares that Showgirls is nothing less than a "long-lost Edenic text of bliss."


Crucially, Sconce only caught up with Showgirls a year after its initial release, when it had already been branded as a piece of shit. This quality of seeming better in retrospect is not uncommon when it comes to cult movies, be they fortunately rediscovered (¨¤ la the Coen brothers' sublime yet initially underappreciated The Big Lebowski [1998]) or cannily pre-packaged like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film that fails Sontag's definition of "na?ve" or "pure camp" and instead succeeds as a piece of calculated kitsch. Showgirls was never supposed to be a cult movie: it was supposed to be a big mainstream hit, and movies playing that sort of high-stakes game seldom get a second chance to make a first impression. And when somebody styles his career like Paul Verhoeven, always trying to be the fly in the ointment, he's begging to get swatted from time to time.



 

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THE AUTHOR

Adam Nayman is a film critic living and working in Toronto. He writes for Eye Weekly, Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, LA Weekly, and other publications.

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