RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A documentary about the fall and rise of 1995’s Showgirls, a film that still holds the record for the number of Razzie wins, yet also a film that developed a major cult following and became loved and celebrated by many, some for its badness, and some because – horror or horrors – they think that the film is actually good….
Here on HCF we have something called ‘Guilty Pleasures’ where one of us watches and reviews a film that we either admit is pretty crap but can’t stop enjoying over and over again, or that we think is unfairly maligned. Howard The Duck [first category] and Exorcist 2: The Heretic [second category] are two personal examples off the top of my head. I’ve done more of these than anybody else, which probably means that I like more bad movies than anybody else on this website. We don’t tend to do them as often these days owing to the number of screeners that come in, but every now and again I try to get one in. Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s campy, boob-filled semi-remake of All About Eve, is one obvious candidate that I keep intending to do. It’s about as ‘cult’ as you can get, and I do rather like it very. Yet I keep on passing, something that’s strange seeing as I did the same director’s Basic Instinct way back when this website was in its infancy. Why is this? Why do I always end up reviewing something else? It’s a question that I’ve never really thought about, but only several minutes into the new documentary You Don’t Nomi, I was able to answer my own question. I still, after all these years, have no idea whether it’s a good film or a bad film. Take the lead performance by Elizabeth Berkley that ruined her movie career. It’s hilariously and sometimes inappropriately over the top, yet there’s a peculiar conviction about it. Or the reams of strange and almost surreal dialogue which help place the film in a weird alternate reality, some could say not far from a David Lynch film [Showgirls isn’t really that far from Mulholland Drive in my opinion]. Or the fact that a movie with so much tits and asses never succeeds in being erotic, at least for myself and it seems most people who see it. I will always remember the late critic Roger Ebert’s comment which is one of my favourites of his: “It contains so much nudity that the sexy parts are when the girls put on their clothes”.
This conflict is at the centre of Jeffrey McHale’s documentary, which traces Showgirls from its terrible critical and commercial response to a film which had fans flocking in droves to revival showings and which even inspired a stage musical, while more and more people came out of the woodwork to say that it actually had considerable merit, Quentin Tarantino [surprise surprise] being one of them. While it does tell a story of fall and redemption, You Don’t Nomi handles its subject a little differently to most movie documentaries. Usually you get a lot of talking heads inter-cut with clips from movies, events etc., but here we never see the contributors as they talk unless it’s archive footage from Verhoeven, Berkley and so forth. I can’t decide [well this is about a film I can’t decide on so I guess it’s appropriate] if this is a nice change from the norm, or something that doesn’t quite work, something which was detracting from the experience of watching because the name of who is talking only occasionally appears on screen and I was sometimes not sure who I was listening to because some of the voices sounded rather similar! There’s also a lot of very clever editing, also by McHale, to admire. We get lots of the expected clips from the film in question, but also lots of bits from other Verhoeven films which often repeat motifs [e.g. Naomi being sick leads to scenes from several other films of people throwing up] and which are sometimes even inter-cut with footage from Showgirls. An early moment that I really admired was Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall looking at bad reviews of Showgirls. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was just from one film. As well as showing McHale’s skill at putting this kind of stuff together, it also shows that he’s not just studied Showgirls but Verhoeven’s whole oeuvre, and is able to properly place Showgirls within it, and show it as being made with some thought and personal investment, even ir there are probably many Verhoeven fans who consider it to be an aberration in an otherwise good career.
A female voice-over introduces matters: “To put it very simply to start, I think we’re still talking about Showgirls because we’re not done with it. I don’t think we’re done with it because I don’t think we’ve figured out what Showgirls means as a film”. I do think that one can easily lump the film in with all those cult favourites which some people adore while everyone else either just considers those adorers to be mad for liking such a crap movie or, in the opinion of the lovers, just doesn’t “get it”. The cinema is filled with countless examples. But there’s no doubt that it’s a film that’s very hard to work out even for many of its lovers. What was its intention? What was it trying to say? For goodness sake even its director can’t seem to decide whether he intended it as a serious drama [which co-star Kyle MacLachlan also claims] or not. MachLachlan and others can be seen in old footage, but the unseen folk we listen to are author of the book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls David Schmader, drag performer Peaches Christ who has organised and hosted loads of popular screenings, Jeffrey Conway who adapted Showgirls into a book of sestinas, April Kidwell who starred as Nomi in Showgirls: The Musical, and film critics and professors Hayley Mlotek, Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Susan Wloszcyna, Adam Nayman, Jeffrey Sconge and Jeffrey Conway. Throughout, the battle as to whether this film is great or crap is fought by this lot. One quickly gets the feeling that McHale is on the: “Showgirls is good” side, and therefore more time is given to praising it not burying it, though considering the terrible reviews it got that’s no surprise and was totally fine with me. And there are some amusing differences of opinion, like when Schmader goes on about mirror imagery and themes, and then Shulgasser-Parker replies:“Mirrors? Is that the big greatness of this”?
We see lots of 1995 clips from people on TV criticising the film and snapshots of awful reviews, then hear a bit about Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who said that Showgirls was about: “Moral values and spiritual choice”. If you say so mate. I was impressed that the Verhoeven section raced through not just his Hollywood efforts but his earlier Dutch work which I’ve always felt hasn’t been appreciated enough [some more reviews to do for HCF one day then]. I can only agree with him when he says that “Sexuality is a part or our lives, we should not be afraid of it” – but then I’ve always loved the guy, from his wonderfully enthusiastic DVD commentaries to his turning up at the Razzies to accept his award for Worst Director, something shown on this documentary. I can’t agree with Schmader when he says that Forrest Gump now seems like a terrible film [but I never saw the supposed genius of the empty American Beauty so I’m virtually with him on that one], but his claim that Verhoeven’s satirical, wry look at American culture was widely accepted and liked when focusing on violence but not when sex became the primary take, is telling. When I reviewed those awful 50 Shades films, I wrote that their commercial success would hopefully lead to some quality films for adults dealing explicitly with sex or sexuality being made, but sadly that has not come to pass. We also get some discussion on Berkley and her odd but undeniably compulsive performance that probably drew more flack from critics in 1995 then anything else concerning the film, sometimes to the point of unnecessary meanness. Even here we get observations like: “Even the way she holds her thumb is like Nomi came to earth and looked up hitchhiking in a dictionary and then tried to do it”. But the difference is that the person delivering this remark likes, and even sees merit, in this! It’s so incredibly refreshing.
The herd mentality of critics is shown when we’re told that much criticism of Showgirls claimed that it was ugly looking and badly made technically, neither of which is true if you actually watch it, and it’s cue for Schmader to heavily praise many aspects, some may think too highly – but he clearly believes in what he’s saying and visual examples are well chosen. The evidence certainly backs up what he says about recurring motifs in the movie, and things like that weird sex scene, the rather dismissive use of black people, and the rape which many find out of place [I think that it’s an important scene, but discussion of this and some of the things I think Showgirls is about I will save for a review of the film proper] aren’t shied away from even if they’re not gone into in detail. One commentator links it as part of an ultra-camp trilogy with The Valley Of The Dolls and Mommie Dearest, and we’re told that many gay men identify with Showgirls. Rather movingly, Kidwell informs us that acting in the musical, clips of which are shown, empowered her after a terrible time in her life that included full sexual assault. And it’s great to see footage of Berkley happily introducing a fairly recent showing, though I’d have liked to have heard her current thoughts on Showgirls, as well as ones from other folk connected with it including Gina Gershon who probably delivers the best performance in it. But if they were asked and didn’t want to do it, then you can’t blame McHale. Perhaps more disappointing to me was there being no coverage of the actual making of the film, stories from the set etc. I bet there are tons. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the shooting of this one, and I don’t just mean because of all the flesh [honest] – though we do get to see some interesting behind the scenes clips.
I have the feeling that the Showgirls expert [which I’m certainly not, but I’ve got to find that book now] won’t learn much here, but they will certainly thoroughly enjoy. As a movie lover who has written about most kinds of films but who especially loves defending stuff which is largely unloved, I got a real kick out of seeing a much-derided film being discussed in such detail and being appreciated, even if I’m still not entirely convinced as to its overall quality despite being certainly alerted to some positive things which I either hadn’t noticed before or had done so only in a subliminal manner. Similarly to Troll 2, it does seem to me that the majority of the fans who go to showing after showing attend primarily to have a laugh, though of course there’s nothing wrong with that. For me, a truly dreadful film is one that does nothing, that doesn’t provoke an emotional response at all. Showgirls certainly does a lot even if I’m not sure what all those things that it does actually are, and it definitely gets strong reactions. You Don’t Nomi doesn’t really answer the big question that it poses, even if it’s clear where McHale’s sympathies lie. But maybe it’s good that it doesn’t finish with a definitive: “Yes, Showgirls is a masterpiece”, and instead lets the viewer make up his or her mind. One thing that I’m sure of though – it’ll probably make you want to go and watch the thing now. Or it will at least make you ponder a little on this barmy piece of cinema that probably wouldn’t even get made today and certainly not from a big studio with a big budget [we really do live in boring times for ‘major’ movies] – and maybe think:“Ummm – maybe so-and-so have a point” – even if just for a minute.