ReFramed No. 15

Paul Verhoeven's 'Showgirls' (1995)

by Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

29 November 2011


Two simplistic ways of approaching 'Showgirls'...

Marsh: It’s a relief that you agree—I can get pretty vindictive when defending this film’s intentions. I think essentially there are two simplistic ways of approaching Showgirls, both of which are misguided: on the one hand, there are those who see it as a straight-forward failure, a big-budget Hollywood spectacle as poorly executed as it was devised; others, though, see it as kitschy, unintentionally hilarious B-movie, a guilty pleasure in the tradition of cult favorites like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Neither approach really works, though the latter at least knows to laugh a little. Because of course so much of Showgirls is indeed funny, just not in the accidental, so-bad-it’s-good way its midnight audience believes.

If you spend some time looking up user reviews and message board discussions of this film, you’ll find some opinions as bizarre as any of its professional notices, 99% of which oscillate between earnest contempt and ironic celebration—in almost every case, it’s called either a genuine failure or an unintentional success. I think you’re right that it’s easy to see why people reach either of these conclusions; it’s just a shame that more people don’t. Because I think once Showgirls clicks as the complex satire it is, it’s a much more enjoyable experience overall.

Reading reviews of the film from the time of its release is pretty amusing, by the way. Time Magazine blasted it for a “gross negligence of the viewer’s intelligence”, the Los Angeles Times decreed it to be “dehumanizing”, and the Washington Post, best of all, called it “a coarser, dumber, smuttier remake” of Flashdance. You’ll notice a recurring motif in these articles: there’s an insistence that the film itself is stupid, and egregiously so. It’s amusing that a film this subversive would be lambasted for stupidity, of all things, but I suppose that’s the risk when you attempt to bury high-minded satire in outwardly “trashy” genre fare—people will almost inevitably fail to see past the surface.

Not that it doesn’t have its defenders, mind you.. The Nouvelle Vague master Jacques Rivette wrote effusively of Showgirls, arguing that it’s “the best and most personal of Verhoeven’s American films”, describing it as a film “about surviving in a world populated by human garbage”. This is much closer to how I feel about the film, and I think it’s a much more fair and accurate description of a film that’s been laughed off for more than a decade and a half now. Do you think it’s possible, Jordan, for the film to be properly redeemed, or has its ironic, midnight-movie revival doomed it to a legacy of badness?

Cronk: Unfortunately I don’t think it can ever be fully redeemed in the eyes of mainstream audiences, though thankfully a few critics and thoughtful defenders have attempted to come to its rescue over the years (in 2003, Film Quarterly actually dedicated a panel discussion to the film). I just feel there are too many retroactive hurdles the film would have to jump to get back into widespread good graces at this point. Beyond the obvious characteristics in storytelling we’ve described, there’s the fact that Elizabeth Berkley was never really able to seriously work again after the film, which as far as I’m concerned is a travesty—rarely have I seen such a dedicated, full-body performance from a young actress.

People seem to get that Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLauchlan are having fun with these portrayals, but few if any people give Berkley the credit she deserves for throwing herself so un-ironically into this role. You can see the gradations and intricacies of her performances as the film moves along, as she goes from naive, star-struck stripper to arrogant, vindictive showgirl to vicious has-been celebrity out for blood. I doubt there are many actors that would be willing to take on such a taxing role, and even fewer who could pull it off. Do you have any thoughts on the various acting styles put forth in the film?
Marsh: Well, I’ve seen another, nastier theory posited about Berkley’s performance in the film: Verhoeven was putting her on, tricking her into thinking that Showgirls was the film debut opportunity of a lifetime when he knew full-well that she wouldn’t be taken seriously for it. The idea, I think, is that Berkley would embody the repugnant corruption and moral bankruptcy of late capitalism so wholly and seriously that she’d be destroyed as a performer in the process—which, even if it wasn’t the intention of those involved, was still the end result for her career. Which makes Berkley herself a tragic figure, in a way, and makes her performance exceptionally brave, if not formally perfect. But for a film that’s interested in deconstructing this quintessentially American mythology of success, presenting its lead actress as a kind of ideal manifestation of that mythology seems like a clever way for the film to criticize its own machinations.

I think that all of Verhoeven’s films are to some degree about the way cinema functions as both a reflection of and contributor to national and commercial ideologies, and Showgirls is no exception: it provokes visceral and emotional reactions in its audience that it subsequently seeks to underscore or undermine, and if the result is a sense of discomfort or embarrassment in the viewer it’s because the movie makes us aware of what it’s doing. If it’s excessively crass and vulgar, it’s because it wants us to examine our own impulsive desires to relish crass and vulgar experiences; it provides us with the trash we want and then encourages to think about why we want it (or don’t, as the case may be).

The really crucial element for me, here, and what I think is the most obvious sign that Showgirls shouldn’t be taken as merely ironic and funny, is the surprisingly intense rape sequence near the end of the film: most viewers, regardless of whether they find the film so-bad-it’s-good or just plain bad, find the scene out of place and objectionable, and in a way that differs drastically from the more frothy and good-natured objectionable content which precedes it.

But that’s exactly the point: the scene is so jarring and direct that it forces the audience to confront its desire for the on-screen sex, and to realize (hopefully) that the eroticism throughout the film is itself insidiously misogynistic and oppressive, if less brutally so. It’s almost as if Verhoeven is responding to an audience’s demand for sex with an uglier, more outwardly horrifying version of the same, which is a bold and contentious thing to do.

Cronk: Indeed. The whole third act of the film really turns the experience on its head. The rape scene is brutal and another example, I believe, of the film’s serious intentions, even when taking this solely as a satire. It’s even more cruelly ironic on the part of Verhoeven—who, just to respond, I have heard tricked Berkley into thinking the role would be something other than what is has turned out to be, though no one’s letting on about this little theory, so I guess we’ll never truly know; in any case, it works—to on the one hand give the audience what they want (i.e. sex) so forcibly only to eventually set Nomi back on the very same course of self-destruction that brought her to this point. Showgirls is circular, literally ending how it began, and is not very optimistic as a result.

Is it sad that Nomi has learned nothing through her whirlwind journey to fame, or is it depressing that audiences want her to fail again, if only to re-experience the sensual delights of her rise, neglecting the hard truths of rape, victimization, and betrayal in the process? In this sense, the character of Nomi is a symbol—which works further in legitimizing Berkley’s performance; anything too self-conscious would really have not worked—both of our romantic views of stardom and as manifestation of a typical audiences guilt for encouraging this behavior for sheer entertainment value. It’s when one really digs into these complexities that, like you say, Showgirls really begins to reveal other dimensions and becomes a more honestly enjoyable experience while still remaining the surface level pleasure product that it can also works as, for obvious reasons.
Marsh: I think it has a lot more depth if you’re willing to approach it that way, in the very least. And because of the complex relationship the audience is forced to have with the tone of the film—which shifts jarringly from campy and fun to brutal and serious—its satire is ultimately more nuanced than other, less complex works of this kind tend to be. It’s also more straight-forwardly entertaining as a result, because it allows its surfaces to be both ridiculous and the subject of its own piercing ridicule—which is to say that we’re encouraged to take pleasure in what it depicts, so long as we’re willing to take a sobering look at the implications of that pleasure.

Of course, serious conversations about films as ostensibly low-brow as Showgirls are themselves rarely taken as seriously as they should be, or are else shrugged off as needlessly pretentious—I bet there are people reading this who’ll accuse us of reading into it too much. You know, we’re either elevating authentic trash to the level or art or reducing an unintentional camp masterpiece to something requiring analysis; either way, not everybody will agree with us that Showgirls deserves critical redemption. But I hope that we can encourage a few people, at least, to take another look at what Verhoeven’s wrought, and to think about what he might be saying with this. I’d like to think there’s more to it than corny lines and lap dances.

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