Documentary chronicles our obsession with a masterpiece of shit
On September 22, 1995, a $40 million softcore melodrama about a Las Vegas stripper opened in multiplexes around the country. And bombed. Hard. Showgirls, a glitzy, bawdy reteaming of Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas became the whipping post of ’90s cinema, inspiring a slew of radioactive movie reviews and winning seven Razzies, including Worst Picture. But over the past 25 years, fans keep mushrooming anew under the cover of its long, supposedly shameful shadow. Is this sleazetastic cautionary tale about a 19-year-old girl struggling with Sin City’s temptations actually a masterpiece? Or is it just a piece of shit? Or is Showgirls–wait for it–a masterpiece of shit? You Don’t Nomi makes a solid, if unimaginative, case for all of the above.
“Thrust it! Thrust it! Thrust it!” hollers one of the crass choreographers at a topless revue. This is the kind of movie where people spit and vomit on each other, if they’re not shaking their tits and ass or reminiscing about eating Doggy Chow. “Must be weird not having anybody cum on you,” somebody says almost wistfully. Unapologetically tacky or poignant comedy? Or a cliché-ridden remake of All About Eve? You be the judge. Showgirls is a Choose Your Own Adventure of critical deconstruction.
Know me. No, me!
Documentarian Jeffrey McHale’s cheeky cine-essay gets its name from Elizabeth Berkeley’s ingenue dancer Nomi Malone. One cultural critic makes the case that Nomi’s name is a pleading polyvalent pun: “Know me,” “No me,” and “No…me!” The film also points out that her character’s real name is Pollyann Costello, literalizing and accidentally validating why so many people keep calling the wide-eyed Nomi a Pollyanna. These semantic tics, the kind of superficial insights that launch a thousand college lit papers, only confirm Eszterhas’s shallow profundities. Do not expect the writer behind Flashdance and Sliver to be subtle or deep.
YOU DON’T NOMI ★★★(3/5 stars)
Written and Directed by: Jeffery McHale
Running time: 94 min
Verhoeven is a different case. Over a febrile, six-decade career that spans genres and language barriers, the Dutch director time and again has used his films to push buttons and challenge cultural norms. In the stretch when he had access to Hollywood money, Verhoeven created Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, making some trenchant statements about dystopic humanity and American ideology under the guise of seriously strange, uncomfortably funny, baroquely violent sci-fi. With Basic Instinct, he also made arguably the kinkiest box office hit since Last Tango in Paris. His latest film, the lesbian-nun biopic Benedetta, was slated to premiere at Cannes this year and is now waiting until 2021 for its Coronavirus-free debut. The still-active octogenarian is a satirist, a self-admitted pervert, and a thrill addict. He’s also a wit, and not at all a hack.
In the months leading up to its original release, Showgirls suffered from lascivious expectations and knives-out schadenfreude. There was even a bit of genuine curiosity: can a sexually explicit movie actually be explicitly serious? Can audiences, specifically the pretend-puritanical but secretly horny audiences in America, actually sit through a movie with hella sex and not be uncomfortable?
The birth of NC-17
Philip Kaufman tried it five years earlier, somewhat successfully, with his 1990 Anaïs Nin biopic Henry & June. That critically admired, limited-release film earned the very first NC-17 rating from the studios’ self-regulating censor the Motion Picture Association of America (once known as the MPAA, now just MPA). The MPAA had originally created the X rating in the late ’60s to identify films with adult language and themes, along with explicit nudity and/or violence. Midnight Cowboy was originally X-rated, and won the Oscar for Best Picture. But porn films soon co-opted the label and embraced it as a marketing tool, doubling down with the seemingly even more extreme but essentially meaningless rating XXX.
By the late ’80s, the post-VCR, pre-internet film industry wanted to make steamier movies but felt stymied because X had become such a scarlet letter. Along came NC-17, and the hope that high-minded filmmakers could explore darker themes without titters from the balcony. Sure, that means we would get movies like Abel Ferrara’s wildly disturbing 1992 cop flick Bad Lieutenant. But we would also get Showgirls.
What a wonderful product of its schizophrenically prudish/lurid time. I remember seeing Showgirls on opening night and having a blast. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was far from a disaster. It was fun, and it was Verhoeven! What did you expect? Many years later, I came out of the very first Cannes screening of Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Afterwards, an older French lady walking down the street asked me if it was any good. “It’s Gaspar Noé!” I told her. Normative categories like good and bad are kind of irrelevant.
That question begs a more holistic ask: do we see movies only because they’re good? What does that even mean? For the vast majority of viewers, a good movie is one that does an exemplary job meeting their expectations. Sounds pretty safe to me. Satisfying? Probably. But definitely not challenging.
Some people call Showgirls campy, and invoke Susan Sontag’s definition that it’s “failed seriousness.” I disagree. If anything, Sontag’s definition itself is a failure of imagination. She’s assigning seriousness to a limited bandwidth and talking about a failed attempt to stay within the norms of what a culture deems serious. How do you reconcile a maximalist like Verhoeven? There’s no way anything he does will stay confined in that framework. His work rarely does.
Why are we drawn to movies?
The filmmaker has since embraced the critical resuscitation of Showgirls as a campy film, and suggested that was his intent. But, according to You Don’t Nomi, Showgirls co-star Kyle MacLachlan publicly testified that, during its production, the film’s cast and crew considered it a hard-hitting drama with outsized emotions and not some laughable exercise in excess. That said, how do you reconcile Berkeley’s absolutely singular style of acting, an explosive fists-and jabs display of unbridled, anxious exaltation which one critic described as an “extraordinary and bizarre performance”?
At the heart of You Don’t Nomi is a simple question that’s never really illuminated: why are we drawn to movies? There is quality, there is trash, and then there is the ineffable. Films are a collaborative process, and they’re also very much a product of their societal time and place. So many creative influences converge during the making of a movie, and then during its public exhibition. Authorial intent is not just a moving target, it’s also arguably irrelevant.
“I think we are propelled by ideas and motivations that are often beyond our consciousness,” writes Verhoeven in an ill-fated but oddly revealing Showgirls companion book that You Don’t Nomi quotes at length. “We cannot pin these hidden drives down…it is as if there is no ‘real’ reality. There are many realities.”
Films are also reclaimed by future viewers, who repurpose them for their own specific, niche realities. Did German film director Douglas Sirk think that his mid-century movies of sexual and emotional repression would be so embraced by Queer gender studies? Did Victor Fleming have any idea that he was making The Wizard of Oz for Stonewall-era gay men?
Showgirls has expressionistic flourishes taken directly from drag-queen theatrics, so it’s no surprise that drag queens were the first to embrace it. The film falls well within their own conscripted notions of “quality.” It’s very “gay” in its own way, just as much as it’s also the product of a straight white misogynistic men who not only revel in all the excess nudity but also throw in a tone-deaf rape scene for good measure. Let’s just say the film has broad appeal, just as much as it broadly repulses.
You Don’t Nomi doesn’t use any interview footage, instead excerpting generously from Showgirls while also cleverly repurposing scenes from Verhoeven’s oeuvre to comment on that footage. The same technique worked wonderfully in Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s shrewd rabbit-hole dissection of the obsessive fandom surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The two films would make a dynamite double-feature, especially since the subjects of both were considered critical failures and box office disappointments which grew to have passionate popular followings. What do critics know, anyway? Not much that doesn’t change with the times. Although the most honest ones will always agree: the best movies defy explanation. And start a conversation that only grows.