Silvia Moreno-Garcia | I Heart Showgirls
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I Heart Showgirls

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“He’s a mainstream entertainer, and yet he’s never made a film that seems at all compromised to the mainstream. If anything, it seems like the mainstream stretched to accommodate the kinds of movies that Paul Verhoeven wanted to make…What I love about this filmmaker is that’s he an unabashed panderer who never sells himself short. He will never compromise his own wiliness to pander, which is a strange, but really admirable kind of artistic integrity. I mean, usually, you say that a guy is a great artist because you’ll say he doesn’t pander at all and that’s how you know he’s a serious artist that won’t pander to the mainstream. Verhoeven panders directly to the mainstream and his wiliness to do it and his fearlessness and absolute lack of doubt about doing so to me makes him pretty close to a great artist.”

Adam Nayman, describing Verhoeven in an interview.

I recently heard that there is now some scholarly research about the film Showgirls in the shape of a book by Adam Nayman called It Doesn’t Suck. This made me deliriously happy because I non-ironically love Showgirls.

Why?

Once upon a time we used to get the Lifetime channel and one night Lifetime announced that it was going to be showing (maybe premiering?) a movie called Confessions of a Go Go Dancer, or something of that sort. I know little about go go dancers but I did want to hear what this lady was going to confess. I expected some tawdry dancing and some confessing.

When the movie came on the air it was a total disappointment. Not only was the lady in question not dancing very well, her outfits were nothing to telephone my mom over and there was nothing to confess about. There was a hilarious bit where her brother (or father?) walks into the club where she is working and is APPALLED to see her working there. Yet nobody seems to wonder what her brother was doing chilling at the club. It goes on like that.

I was very disappointed. Yet Lifetime movies must be profitable because they keep getting made and their sanitized narratives appeal to a whole lot of people.

Verhoeven’s Showgirls, however, is not sanitized. It’s a naked, cheap, crass assortment of tits and ass. It’s All About Eve if Eve bedazzled her vagina. It’s sex and violence and flesh by the pound and it’s exactly what audiences are saying they always want. Sex sells, no? Look at the beautiful people, half-naked on bus shelter ads. Cosmo, telling women the way to a man’s heart is to put a donut on his dick. 50 Shades books. They would all point to an insatiable desire for such entertainment and yet…people hated it.

Because they are hypocrites. They want Confessions of a Go Go Dancer, the measured Lifetime movies, rather than the excess of Verhoeven.

It’s as if Verhoeven yelled to movie-goers YOU WANT TITS AND ASS? BY GOD I’LL GIVE YOU TITS AND ASS. And then he did. With all the aplomb of a man thinking he is directing Black Swan. He would soon discover audiences were unwilling to consume this erotic cake because we didn’t really want erotic cake, more like the pretension of erotic cake. People wanted, well…the kind of shit people can giggle and whisper about at parties without raising anybody’s eyebrows. Decent people smut. Not, you know, this kind of stuff. This is Pia Zadora-sized camp!

And it’s fun. It’s fun seeing Nomi yell every five minutes and stomp her heels, fun hearing the outrageous dialogue. It’s fun how the men are peripheral, non-entities because this is a story about women. Catty women, but also fun women because lord knows I can’t take another virginal heroine being swept off her feet by a millionaire. Women who bond over doggy chow and shake their moneymaker, and if you are going to do exploitation you might as well go all in like Verhoeven does rather than restraining yourself or searching for a smidgen of taste.

But Showgirls is anti-feminist, you will say. Actually, it’s not. That doesn’t make it feminist either. It sometimes seems to love Nomi, the heroine of the movie, while at time it despises her. It’s part musical, part drama, part soft core porn, earnest and artificial. It’s a weird bird, Showgirls. Contradictory.

Nomi, the heroine, is not a man’s fantasy figure. I’ve read many men say how uncomfortable she makes them, how unsexy a movie with so much flesh actually is. Nomi is too rough, too jagged, to be the repository of male fantasies. She is not the kind of heroine many women would identify with, though.I remember watching the 2010 film Burlesque with an older relative, while she nodded approvingly at the heroine played by Christina Aguilera. Because Christina was a good girl at heart, a girl with big dreams and a big heart. I don’t think she would have liked Nomi, gleefully stomping on people with her high heels. No, Nomi might appeal to those people who liked the Great Bitches of soap operas of the 80s, figures like Alexis Carrington but even then the fantasy element of the glamour of such world is not present in Showgirls. Nomi is never someone you can fully root for. And as much as Nomi’s naked flesh is dangled before our eyes, possession of her seems oddly impossible, the eroticism is absent, the figures on the screen almost frigid. Yet the flick is entertaining, fun in its bawdiness.

A National Post review of It Doesn’t Suck concluded that “Verhoeven makes art out of a mean-spirited desire to dupe audiences into loving what hurts them.”

Adam Nayman said that he saw the film for the first when he was 14. I also saw it as a teenager. I believe there is some weird kind of imprinting that must take place with this movie, the same kind of imprinting that happens when you watch old black and white horror films as a child. Only in your youth are you able to accept, unilaterally, that the man in the gorilla suit is not a gorilla-in-suit-fellow and take him seriously. You accept that world, a world where people become giant mushrooms and there’s a scientist talking to a brain that won’t die and something weird is happening at the old asylum. You similarly accept Showgirls as the strange spectacle that it is.

Tarantino and Rodriguez understand some of that acceptance – that honest willingness to witness the absurd (and in Verhoeven’s case to create the absurd) – and have tried to replicate it in their movies, to pay homage to certain films. But the homage they make is too polished, though enjoyable. Showgirls is more raw, it doesn’t have the nodding wink that says “Yeah, this so meta!” and “I’m referencing such and such famous movie!” Possibly because it’s satire, not a full homage. Yet, at the same time, the movie loves the melodramas it’s toying with way too much. Verhoeven wants his cake and he wants to eat it, and by good the result is something to be watched.

“Even though Showgirls came out a year after Pulp Fiction (and Quentin Tarantino went to bat for the movie in the press, saying that he loved it) it didn’t benefit from the resultant critical vogue for postmodern analysis…Where Tarantino and the directors who came after him got a lot of credit for their cinephilic filmmaking, Verhoeven’s references were not rewarded.”
– Adam Nayman, interviewed by Critics at Large

A few years after Showgirls came out I chanced upon a TV broadcast of the film, with digitally rendered bras and panties to cover the lady parts of the actresses, and the dialogue dubbed poorly. It’s hilarious to observe the attempts at transforming the NC-17 extravaganza into something else.

Many people want to go through life with the digitally rendered bras and panties over everything. They want just the right amount and type of classy ‘erotic entertainment.’ But Showgirls refuses that shit. It knows you want sleazy, cheap entertainment. You just don’t want to accept it.

Long live Showgirls, say no to Lifetime movies.

These posts don’t write themselves. Support my writing at Patreon.