Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On loving Showgirls.

In which your humble author writes an introduction to a day of Showgirls-related posts as part of the Showgirls blog orgy...

Ten years ago I rented a laser disc copy of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls for the tits. I'm not going to lie, I was lured in by that shiny new NC-17 rating and its unspoken promise of wall to wall nudity and debauchery of the highest caliber. (In case you were wondering the NC-17 is actually for "nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and sexual violence.") Ten years, two home video formats, and dozens of viewings later I'm over the wall-to-wall nudity but I'm not over the film. Here are a couple of reasons why.

For one, it's an enormously entertaining and wicked satire of the star system and Hollywood via Vegas (or Vegas via Hollywood, or Hollywood and/or Vegas, etc.). Yes, bad-to-horrible acting abounds and Joe Ezterhas's script/intentions might just be questionable... But can we get past that? Can we try? If that's possible, I think you might just be able to see it as a prequel of sorts to Mulholland Drive, with Verhoeven opting to tell the story as an oversexed melodrama rather than using the abstract-dream-film idiom that Lynch employs. I think people get wrapped up, uptight, and offended by Showgirls when they take it as some sort of literal docudrama and not as the brash poison valentine that it is.

I also suspect part of Showgirls's longevity (and much of its camp appeal) springs from how committed the people in front of and behind the camera are to the material. When Elizabeth Berkley literally throws herself into her role (Did you see her slam herself into that car? Did you see her attack that ketchup bottle?), I find it next to impossible to resist. And it's my sneaking suspicion that those involved take it so seriously because, well, it's deeply personal and-- fuck it, I'll say it, it's autobiographical.

Consider: the ingenue so hungry for her big break that she's licking poles and risking serious back injury via aquatic sex romps all in the name of some very dubious "art"; the hard-ass director of the project, oblivious to the fact that the material isn't so much erotic as it is crass, announcing "I'm erect, why aren't you erect?"; the reliable older star who knows she's wallowing in big budget shit--hey it's glitzy, but it's still shit--but doing it with charm and a wink; the backer of the show, convinced he's doing something classy, has deluded himself into thinking that Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul (circa 1995) would be willing to take part in it.

Need I go on? I'm not implying that Elizabeth Berkley actually fucked her way to the role of Nomi (er, well, maybe I am) but it's a thin line that separates Berkley '95--fresh off Saved By the Bell and ready to be the next Sharon Stone--and Nomi Malone.* And could there be a better line than "I'm erect, why aren't you erect?" to illustrate the chasm between Verhoeven and the initial audience? And do you doubt that executive producer/writer Joe Ezterhas thought he could get A-list stars (i.e., Janet and Paula) for the project? (Apparently Madonna and Drew Barrymore were the first picks for Cristal and Nomi.) That's a long-winded way of saying I think that the autobiographical connections seep into the film, grounding some of the melodrama and adding an over-the-top ferocity to the rest.

And just as the actors and their roles blur, I think that we, the audience (or at least the appreciative, receptive audience), blur with the Goddess audience. As much as you try to fight it, that tawdry, shitty, profoundly vulgar spectacle sucks you in through sheer will and makes you like it. Yup, that neon is garish and David Stewart's synth-score is all bombast and Cristal emerging from that papier-mâché volcano is silly, but goddam is it effective; Verhoeven and Ezterhas have got their hands all up in your id and they're not letting go.

Leave your inhibitions at the door, the show's about to begin.

*Need more? How 'bout this: "We were filming the scene where Nomi's about to go into her audition at the Stardust and she's saying 'I can't do this.' And suddenly I thought, I can't. I can't do it. I looked up and saw the sign that said CRISTAL CONNORS IS GODDESS, and for a second I saw ELIZABETH BERKLEY STARRING IN SHOWGIRLS, and it was so emotional." (As found in the Taschen Director's volume on Paul Verhoeven.)

18 Comments:

At 2:28 AM, Blogger D. Greene said...

Ben, as much as I love and respect the work you do on this blog, arguing that Showgirls is some sort of archetype that lays the groundwork for Mulholland Drive... makes me wonder if you and Armond White got together last night, did a bunch of peyote, and conducted a seance to get in touch with the ghost of Pauline Kael. Seriously dude. It's ok, I'll let you have this little indiscretion on the side. After all, Armond thinks War of the Worlds is a great movie, for crying out loud. I mean, yeah, the scene you referenced where they come out of the basement is good, but dude. Showgirls. Seriously dude. The thing that makes it terrible is that there is no irony. It's just Goodfellas for strippers with dreams of making it big in Hollywood. It's just Goodfellas - the outsider making it in a world he doesn't belong in and then running - except with a lot of boobies, stock editing and dialogue and a shitty ending.

I remember making a point of watching Showgirls when I was on a hockey trip when I was 13 and we got HBO in our hotel room. I wanted to see boobs. Yeah, I did, but what I really took away from it was 'man, what a fucking terrible movie,' and this was at a time in my life where I was already panning movies and appreciating Batman: The Animated Series for it's visual style but I really in general still just enjoyed movies like Billy Madison and Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber. But I knew Showgirls was dreck.

Also, if you bring in Rivette in support of your 'side' I'm just going to mention that when Peter Bogdanovich gave a speech one evening during a seminar at my college in 2002, he mentioned that Moulin Rouge was so bad that it, as he put it, "made me hyperventilate." Extrapolating from this given data I would say that they cancel eachother out. Besides, no fair arguing from authority.

It's ok, I'm not mad at you. I'm sure I will get drunk enough one of these nights and end up watching a movie like She's All That and explaining why it's quoting Carl Theodore Dreyer's theme of the ideal woman as displayed in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet - Rachel Leigh Cook is persecuted but redeems Freddie Prinze Jr. (Joan) and in a way she is resurrected into a new life (Ordet).

Also, sidenote regarding your earlier post: Tilda Swinton as Gabriel in Constantine is totally hot.

 
At 2:53 AM, Blogger D. Greene said...

I'm sorry I ranted so long, I should have just said 'you're plum crazy and I'm beginning to feel crazy trying to think about Showgirls as a serious film'

 
At 6:11 AM, Blogger girish said...

Ben, you've planted a long, squishy-wet kiss on this movie and I love it.

"I think people get wrapped up, uptight, and offended by Showgirls when they take it as some sort of literal docudrama and not as the brash poison valentine that it is."
Exactly!

 
At 9:03 AM, Blogger girish said...

And check out Eric's.

 
At 10:01 AM, Blogger nilblogette said...

Wow. Peter Bogdanovich and his ascot were as good as dead to me until d. greene's comment - I also loathe MOULIN ROUGE.

 
At 10:02 AM, Anonymous nilblogette said...

Wow. Peter Bogdanovich and his ascot were as good as dead to me until d. greene's comment - I also loathe MOULIN ROUGE.

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Dan-- give me a second and I'll try to write a response-- DAMN YOU WORK FOR INTERFERING WITH SHOWGIRLS BLOG ORGY DAY!

 
At 10:16 AM, Blogger Ben said...

And we're on the same page re: Moulin Rouge. I hate that shit.

 
At 10:48 AM, Blogger girish said...

Ben--Thank you.
You provided the crucial spark.
And are hereby anointed Godfather of Showgirls Blog Orgy Day.

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger B.A. Slattery said...

Moulin Rouge is a shining example of how bad movies can be. I'm glad to have friends in my club of raging contempt.

You guys are friggin' awesome.

 
At 4:01 PM, Blogger Eric Henderson said...

Great entry in the blog production of Goddess (watch out I don't push you down the stairs). The Berkley quote from that Taschen book is so telling.

 
At 6:13 AM, Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I actually kind of like Moulin Rouge and think it's a moderately intelligent film ... so when is Baz Luhrmann Day? (Remember hating Romeo + Juliet though.)

 
At 10:06 AM, Blogger Dashiell said...

Not only is "Moulin Rouge" the greatest musical of all time, it is one of the 15 best films in the history of cinema.

 
At 2:51 PM, Blogger Tim said...

What-what-what-what?

 
At 3:56 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Tim, don't tell me you fell for a patented Dash-piss-off move. (It is a piss-off move, right Dash?)

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I saw it as a shortcut for wading through the snark.

 
At 5:25 PM, Blogger Ben said...

My snarkmeter is off. Apologies.

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger Dashiell said...

i actually couldn't even sit through the first 25 minutes. my heart was beating too fast. i think it gave me heart disease.

 

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