• Redressing Showgirls

    On IMDB, Showgirls has a rating of 4.5 out of 10, based on scores from 47,213 users (or at least that was the case when I wrote this).

    If you haven’t seen Showgirls and someone were to recommend it to you today, you would most likely check the score on IMDB and decide against it. If you still had any doubts, you would probably check the Rotten Tomatoes page and conclude there was little point to watching what critics have described as:

    “A film of thunderous oafishness that gives adult subject matter the kind of bad name it does not need or deserve.”
    Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

    “A waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating.”
    Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

  • “An overcoat movie for men who don't want to be seen going into a porno theater.” Rita Kempley, Washington Post

    The premise of the film seems fairly simple -- a look at the competitive, cutthroat nature of making it as a dancer in Las Vegas. It concludes that even with good intentions, most people with drive will let the path of ambition poison them in order to succeed, regardless of what that success really means.

    It is a less than subtle attack on Hollywood as much as it is a story about making it as a dancer in Las Vegas. Director, Paul Verhoeven, cynically suggests to us that it’s not so much about how hard we’re willing to try or how talented we are, but how low we’re willing to go and, in fact, who we’re willing to blow. Evidently less poetic and nuanced, it still tells us just as much about the world as Citizen Kane does (minus relatively elusive references to Rosebud and Kubla Khan). However, unlike Citizen Kane, it’s clearly no masterpiece, which is partly why I like it so much.

    The film also resonates with me on a more personal level. When I first saw Showgirls, I was fourteen. My Dad had gone to bed, and I stayed up late, pretending to be interested in watching a Sumo Wrestling competition on TV. This was just a ploy so I could scour the satellite channels for a glimpse of naked female flesh.

    The German Satellite channels were usually the places to search, with, among others, their frequent late night dubbed incarnations of the Emmanuel films. On that particular Saturday night, there must have been a disappointing level of nudity available, so I channel-hopped my way to one of the Sky Movie Channels only to be blown away by the glorious mess that greeted me.

    This, shockingly for younger readers, was prior to the time when everyone had broadband - most people didn’t even have dial-up internet at that time. It was prior to

    the time that everyone had a mobile phone. It was, in a sense, a time when the world was a little simpler and a little more innocent. It was certainly a time when I was a little more innocent.

    In F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, the protagonist, Amory, in a period of existential angst and financial quandary says:

    “Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don't. They just want the fun of eating it all over again. The matron doesn't want to repeat her girlhood—she wants to repeat her honeymoon. I don't want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”

    Thus, I associate Showgirls with the glorious memories of a time when I was losing my innocence. It is a way for me to sample the candy again. It lingers on the top of my tongue, and if I try hard enough, I can just about taste it. I can go back, just for a moment, and only in the vaguest of ways, to that splendid time.

    But regardless of my personal inclinations, Showgirls has many merits for the Everyman. For example, it contains, in my opinion, one of the greatest lines in cinematic history - a remark made by a stereotypical Japanese businessman watching a dance whilst in Vegas, which is duly and incredulously translated by the, seemingly multilingual, sleazy strip club owner around twenty-five minutes into the movie: “In America, everyone’s a gynaecologist.” You could say that the line is ridiculous, and you would certainly be right. But that’s partly what makes the line so brilliant. It almost matches the ludicrousness of a line in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room when the flower shop owner doesn’t recognise her favourite customer because he’s wearing sunglasses, and, when he pulls them up, she says, “Oh, hi, Johnny.

  • I didn’t know it was you.” That could only make sense if sunglasses were like motorcycle helmets.

    The other reason why the line is brilliant is because it’s an epiphany dressed as a jester. There is actually a hell of a lot of truth to it.

    Around five years ago, I decided to try out open-mic comedy in London, but I hadn’t realised that the open-mic comedy scene was already so saturated. It was sometimes impossible to get a gig, let alone stand out. It turned out everyone’s a comedian in London just like everyone’s a gynaecologist in America.

    Aside from a short-lived feeling of validation, having my writing submissions accepted is no longer that exciting, because it turns out that every fucker these days is a writer and the likelihood of it being read by a bigger audience is reduced by the increased amount of magazines, journals and websites that are out there. It turns out everyone’s an editor too.

    And, maybe, just maybe, screenwriter, Joe Esztherhas, wrote the line as a genius, pre-emptive fuck-you strike against the anticipated backlash the film would receive, akin to the meaning of “Everyone’s a critic”

    There’s a lot more to that line, though. It also turned out to be a pre-internet age prophecy.

    Before internet pornography became common fare, sex and nudity were already obsessions enough to at least suggest people were overly interested in examining vaginas. But if the internet porn era, which really took hold about five years after Showgirls, is anything to show by, we’re all getting very close to being gynaecologists.

    Of course, that’s looking at it on very crude, basic terms. What else can it tell you about the internet age? The internet has been brilliant at knocking people off their pedestals, but it’s been so successful, there is hardly a pedestal for anyone to stand on!To put it another way: it’s impossible to stand out as a gynaecologist when so many people out there are tinkering with vaginas.

    Showgirls is also an important comment, albeit in a bizarre vessel, on how hollow and soul destroying the nature of making it can be. And not only does it hold personal resonance with me because of the memories I associate with the time I first saw it, the content of the film represents the same ideas: the loss of innocence.

    The lead character, Nomi, is a naïve, sometimes childlike (at times, dummy-spitting tantrum annoying) girl caught up in the swirling reality of her dream, and it’s not long before she loses her innocence on the screen in front of us. It’s an ugly thing once innocence is lost, but the innocence is not much better looking. It’s only the process of its loss that is beautiful, and we get to see it, in its grotesque glory.

    Critics who do not rate the film highly seem to believe the film is accidentally bad. Aficionados critics, on the other hand, are split. Some think it is deliberately tongue-in-cheek, savvy satire with purposively corny dialogue, using stereotypically warped caricatures as the main characters. Some think the magic of the film is based on the fact that Verhoeven was attempting to make a serious, hard-hitting, adult-themed drama, and, paradoxically, succeed and failed spectacularly. Personally, I think it’s somewhere magically in between. Like a good cocktail, I can tell roughly what ingredients are contained but not in what quantities. I’d rather just enjoy the drink.

    But, as much as I love Showgirls, I have to admit it’s much harder to enjoy it with the current background noise of sycophantic critics giving Verhoeven way too much

  • credit as an intellectual and an artist of intent. It’s like overhearing someone in a pub waxing lyrical about how great Denzel Washington was in The Matrix.

    Of the positive reviews from critics, most tend to be in retrospective articles. Dawn Taylor in her retrospective review in DVD Journal suggests: “Of course audiences hated the movie. They were supposed to hate it. And that's what makes Showgirls a work of art.”

    I find the claim that Showgirls was an intentional disaster hard to believe. Frankly, it is inconceivable that Verhoeven made an entire film on an estimated budget of $45 million for audiences to hate. With respect to a solid filmmaker, he’s still the guy who made Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Robocop; he’s not making the cinematic equivalent of Finnegans Wake.

    Calum Marsh said in a discussion with Jordan Cronk on Pop Matters in November 2011: “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.”

    And Eric Henderson in a review on Slant in 2004: “Showgirls is one of the most honest satires of recent years.”

    In a 2004 article in Salon, Charles Taylor said: “For a certain type of educated audience, the ones for whom Las Vegas and strip clubs and the desire for fame are indicative of nothing more than the shallowness of contemporary culture, Showgirls is camp precisely because it takes seriously something that they don’t.”

    Whilst Showgirls may have ended up as a wonderful blend of the camp, the satirical and the serious; it’s in no way due to Verhoeven’s auteurist vision. It seems

    incongruous at best for a film to take the subject matter seriously, whilst at the same time offering a satirical message and camping up the characters and dialogue - making Las Vegas ultimately even more vacuously spectacular. For almost any director, it’s akin to suddenly juggling four knives when you’ve previously only learnt to juggle two balls.

    If this did all happen, I think it has as much to do with infinite monkey theorem than directorial vision. Put a monkey at a typewriter and give that monkey an infinite amount of time; eventually they’ll come up with Shakespeare (or, in this case, a camp epic) .

    In yet another positive Showgirls retrospective from 2010, Dennis Lim argues in the Los Angeles Times: “There seems to be very little about Showgirls that could be called accidental. Verhoeven is hardly a subtle filmmaker but he's a purposeful one: an instinctive provocateur and a connoisseur of excess who remains in control of his material even — or perhaps especially — when it goes way over the top.”

    It’s one of the best efforts of any aficionado critic, and it’s almost convincing, but I just can’t buy it. I’m not intending to denigrate Verhoeven as a director. He’s an acclaimed director, and he’s made some very good films. I’m not suggesting that the vulgar over-the-top take on Las Vegas wasn’t deliberate. I’m not suggesting that the movie wasn’t a critical comment on a culture that desires status and commodities beyond happiness. I’m not suggesting that the dialogue wasn’t intended to be funny. I’m not suggesting that Verhoeven didn’t attempt to satirise mainstream Hollywood. I’m not suggesting that Verhoeven didn’t intend for us to take the overall story and message seriously. I’m not suggesting that he wasn’t attempting to make a serious adult drama.

  • However, I can’t for a second believe that he intended (or was capable enough) for all of these aspects to be deliberate and work harmoniously in some perfect factory conveyor belt, with the ultimate objective being the production of a work of art.

    The only directors capable of putting together a film with all these directly intentional aspects would have to have already forged a reputation for meticulousness. Verhoeven is not one of those directors. It’s well documented that he changes scenes on the fly, coming onto set with heavily annotated scripts. Even the most famous scene in any of his movies (the leg crossing scene in Basic Instinct) was an unscripted short-notice addition.

    If you feel I was being unkind in saying Verhoeven wasn’t capable of putting all these things into the film as directly intended, then you can at least see that it’s clearly not his style to do so. On the other hand, directors like Jean Pierre Jeunet, Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick might have given it a good bash, and they may have made a wonderful film, but in no way would it have been the wonderful film that Verhoeven created.

    You could, of course, argue that intent doesn’t matter; all that matters is end result. A monkey has produced Shakespeare. Shouldn’t we just read Shakespeare and be happy? Well, perhaps if Verhoeven had produced Shakespeare then I could agree with this more readily. But in the end, the swirling mix of intended and unintended is what makes it so special; it’s also what separates it from making onto the pedestal of art (and even if it made that pedestal, it would soon be knocked down by some renegade gynaecologist!).

    Ultimately, when we consider artistic merit, intent matters a lot. This is often why the background explanations to an artwork enrich the work itself and its meaning to us. Cinematically, it is the difference between being Tommy Wiseau or Akira Kurasawa.

    In law, it’s the difference between serving ten years in jail or serving life.

    Some fans of Showgirls may still feel that I’m treating Verhoeven too harshly. After all, he gives the impression of having strong artistic integrity, especially when you learn that he was upset that his vision for Basic Instinct was compromised by the demands of the studio that made it, so he had it placed in his next studio contract that Showgirls would have an NC-17 release (the only film certificate in US for which a film can still be widely distributed at most cinemas, but with heavy restrictions on who can actually see the film for which studios usually do all they can to bring down – e.g. censorship). However, if you also consider that he allowed (or didn’t account for) the studios ludicrously censoring the film in order for it to be shown as a daytime TV Movie, resulting in dancers wearing digital bras and risqué dialogue dubbed over to be beyond the already farcical, it is additionally difficult to argue that Showgirls is something that we can consider of particularly high artistic merit.

    If you’re still unsure on what Verhoeven and Eszterhas envisioned, I doubt you’ll be able to work out the true objectives from the interviews. Many of the original interviews at the time of release allude to the film being a serious drama about Las Vegas and the use of sex and sexuality in society to get what we want. In fact, Eszterhas wrote an open letter to Variety shortly after its poor box office opening, claiming that the movie highlighted the genuine plight and exploitation of Las Vegas dancers, and imploring people to not let the “fast-buck” studio marketing distort the viewer’s perception of the movie. However, in later interviews, Verhoeven stressed that the film was also satirical. Take what you want from that, but, unfortunately, it’s left me none the wiser.

    Then again, can you really trust half the things you hear in an interview? Andy Warhol is said to have reprimanded Lou Reid for a response he gave to a journalist,

  • with: “You’re not telling the truth are you? Why would you do that? Aren’t you bored with that yet? You really shouldn’t do that.”.

    For me, the last words on Verheoven’s intent must surely go to the filmmaker and critic, John Waters, who, in a brief introduction to a roundtable discussion in Film Quarterly in 2003 said, "Showgirls is funny, stupid, dirty, and filled with cinematic clichés; in other words, perfect… Even better, the writer and director, no matter what they say today, don't seem to be in on the joke."

    Recent critics have attempted to dress Showgirls in an unbecoming designer frock. I think it’s now time to put her back into the glittering clown-suit she deserves.