ReFramed No. 15: Paul Verhoeven's 'Showgirls' (1995)
This week, the ReFramed crew attempts to redeem Paul Verhoeven’s universally misunderstood cult classic, Showgirls
Jordan Cronk: Well, Calum, this was inevitable. But you know what? I can't think of a more appropriate title to feature in the pages of ReFramed than Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas's subversive 1995 cult classic Showgirls. In many ways this film embodies exactly what we're trying to accomplish with this column, and that's to encourage reexaminations of misunderstood and unfairly neglected cinema. And in that sense, Showgirls is the quintessential misunderstood film of our time.
Let's begin with a bit of contextual information, though, as it is all but mandatory when discussing this great piece of earnest, satirical filmmaking. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has had a storied and unique career in the Hollywood these past 25 years, but it's important to note the series of early films he made in the Netherlands throughout the 1970s. While none of these are probably standalone masterpieces, they do document a vivacious, committed visual stylist and a unique strain of sexual provocation that would reach its, um, climax, in the early-to-mid-'90s with Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a pair of thematically rich, bold, and uncompromising works he made at the peak of his Hollywood visibility.
Both have reputations they've had to and failed to live down, but it's interesting to note the legacies of each film and the level of acceptance general audiences have with works of this nature. When satire is couched in a homoerotic, highly stylized thriller or, more commonly in Verhoeven's work, in the trappings of the sci-fi genre (see Robocop; Total Recall; Starship Troopers), viewers can easily interpret political and sexual texts from a remove, allowing them the opportunity to guiltily enjoy the surface pleasures of each story without ever needing to engage the subtext, all under the guise of traditional Hollywood entertainment wherein women are either mothers, martyrs, psychotics, or whores—easy caricatures to hoist expectations and wish-fulfillment narratives onto.
I'm obviously already aware that you also greatly admire Showgirls, but I'm wondering about your history with the film, Calum. If it's anything like mine—which is to say, teenage-curiosity-turned-critical-fascination—then this film has become something of a line in the sand when outlining the modern Hollywood narrative. In short, there was before Showgirls and there was after Showgirls, and say what you will about the movie, but no filmmakers have gotten away with so much under the watchful eye of big budget studio filmmaking in the sixteen years since.
Calum Marsh: Oh, I agree. And let me just begin by saying that I'm really pleased we've found our way to Verhoeven and to Showgirls in particular, because I think it's just as important to seriously reevaluate popular Hollywood films as it is to highlight completely obscure ones -- and there are few popular films more in need of reevaluation than this one. As far as my personal history with it goes, I'm in the same boat you are: as with most of Verhoeven's American films, its scandalous exterior made Showgirls extremely attractive to me as a teenager, and seeking it out seemed to me a kind of taboo but unavoidable adolescent rite of passage.
Of course, now it's obvious to me that their appealing vulgarity is just a front, and that why their surfaces are appealing is central to the meaning of each of Verhoeven's films. It just takes a bit of critical distance to discern that, and the ease with which you can ignore it is the reason for his overwhelming popularity with American audiences -- they don't notice that their tastes are being attacked rather than validated.
I admire all of Verhoeven's American pictures, but Showgirls has always struck me as the most interesting of the bunch, if only because it's the most vehemently disliked by critics. It seems quite strange to me that while many mainstream critics were discerning enough to glean the satirical bent of both Robocop and Starship Troopers, practically nobody would accept Showgirls as anything other than a half-baked, totally amateur erotic drama. Even audiences refused to approach it as straight-forward entertainment, assuming its comedic aspects to be unintentional and therefore necessarily bad. It swept the Razzie awards (and apparently found it odd that Verhoeven himself appeared to accept the award for Worst Director), was brutally panned by just about every major critic in the world (Metacritic lists it as 16/100), and to this day, despite having developed a widespread cult following, it holds a dismal 4.2 rating on the IMDB. Seemingly everyone hates Showgirls, and if they don't it's probably only because they find it campy and amusing.
Which reminds me: I strongly dislike that this film has become a cult classic on the grounds that it's unintentionally funny. Though I hesitate to be some kind of spoil sport for those who find it hilarious, I just don't think redeeming its "badness" as kitsch is fair -- and in fact not only do I think it's a misreading, I think it undermines better, more serious readings. Of course, it's incredibly trendy to like bad movies ironically, and demanding that things be taken seriously is about as uncool a sensibility as one can adopt. But 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, which bores the hell out of me. It's easy to watch the movie and just laugh a little, I guess, and I'm not advocating it as a masterpiece for its treatment of traditional drama. But there's just way too much going on in this film to allow irony to overtake it entirely.
So, Jordan, I really hope you weren't about to say that you only like it ironically.
Cronk: Oh, absolutely not. I think it's a great film, period—full stop. I mean, it's certainly one of those films where it's easy to see why it has the reputation it does, but in relation to Verhoeven's filmography it makes perfect sense. I honestly do think it has something to do with the genres Verhoeven plays around with, because by and large a film like Starship Troopers is just as ridiculous and unbelievable as Showgirls. This is a fable, a morality tale, a Hollywood satire, not an exposé on the backstage environments littering the seedier ends of the Vegas strip. This much seems clear to me from the outset.
When Nomi Malone (played with a scary sort of dedication by Elizabeth Berkley, whose performance I'm sure we will touch on shortly) is picked up hitchhiking on the outskirts of Vegas, the dialogue between her and her driver is so arch, so bluntly stupid that it can be disorienting. Nomi speaks of her dreams and ambitions, puts her trust in the first guy she meets, and soon suffers the first of her many setbacks on the way to the top of the showgirl pyramid. It's the classic rise to fame narrative that audiences so blindly accept when the edges are sanded off and the actors mime their way through, hitting every last performance note.
The film moves at a furious clip, one farcical visual gag, melodramatic breakdown, and churlish sex joke after another—all things that critics of the film lay at the feet of Eszterhas, who truth be told, establishes patterns and subconscious connections within the narrative so subtly that it's easy to simply get caught up in the forward momentum and gaudy exterior of the film and ignore the thematic implications being explored. That tempting exterior I speak of is all courtesy of Verhoeven, of course, who, not to be too crass or anything, absolutely directs the shit of this movie.
This is muscular, brutal filmmaking. Compositionally it has few peers from the era, and the way Verhoeven reflects his heroine’s motivations, desires, and emotions in her surroundings is extraordinary. There should be classes taught on the stylistic intricacies and brute force trauma of many of this film's best sequences. I find it hard to believe that a film so masterfully shot, edited, and designed could be so negligent with the actual narrative, which is one of the main reasons I've never bought this as the disasterpeice many claim it as. Furthermore, nothing in Verhoeven's oeuvre would lead me to believe that he could make a one-off piece of garbage like so many would have us believe. I suppose it comes down to Verhoeven's predilections and desires for each individual film.
When he goes completely serious he un-coincidentally ends up with unqualified masterpieces like Black Book, but when he—unfortunately for his critical standing, more often than not—assimilates genres and attempts to deconstruct archetypes, people resist the advances. Maybe I'm a cinematic masochist, but I enjoy these bludgeoning, infectiously entertaining fables that Verhoeven has built his Hollywood career on. And I think deep down most critics do to, but it can be difficult when confronted so earnestly.