When Matisse did a portrait of his wife with a green stripe on her nose, they said: But people don't really look like that. When Duchamp painted a nude descending a staircase, they said: But people don't really walk like that. When Sirk made an ardently emotional soap opera about a white actress and a black maid, they said: But people don't really talk like that.
Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) reminds me of the movies of Douglas Sirk, especially his voluptuous farewell to Hollywood, Imitation Of Life (1959). Here's the key to both films: glorious artifice, and blithe rejection of verisimilitude. They cry out: Down with realism!
Both movies are melodramas, and make stupendous use of color. They are made by Europeans who started their careers at home and then moved to Hollywood. Sirk worked mostly in the melodrama genre, but Verhoeven, like Fritz Lang before him, is drawn to thrillers and pulp. What all three share — and being a foreigner, I keenly empathize with this sentiment — is a certain distance from America and an abstract vision of this endlessly fascinating and maddening country. In Imitation Of Life and Showgirls, Sirk and Verhoeven take simple stories with solid, uncomplicated outlines and, having cleared away the clutter, proceed to focus with precision on their grand American themes of choice: race and class for Sirk, ambition and show business for Verhoeven. A few other observations:
Showgirls has a wonderfully push-and-pull dialectical strategy going for it. Eszterhas pares down the story and avoids any great character development. He consciously erases character background and depth ("Where're you from?" "Back East." "From where back East?" "Different places.") Verhoeven takes the opposite tack, cranking up the visual extravagance and style, out-Vegas'ing Vegas. Both Eszterhas and Verhoeven contribute, separately and in diametrically opposing directions, to moving the film away from realism.
Has the transactional basis of our market-driven society (and more specifically, the entertainment biz) been translated to personal terms as bluntly and tersely as this? "You are a whore, darlin'". "No, I'm not." "We all are. We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see." And then, in the same companion key, this lucid piece of anti-hypocrisy: "I'm not a whore." "No you're not. You're going to be a big star."
The movie works as camp but only partly (try watching the horrifying rape scene in that mode.) It is also a show biz satire with a dark ending: Nomi is a character we are forced to identify with (isn't she in every single scene of the film?) and yet she's unsympathetic and mercenary, qualities that only propel her onward and upward. Now there's a morality tale for you.
This ice-cold melopornorama, remarkably un-erotic for all the flesh on display, withholds pleasure from the audience. Could this refusal of pleasure be another reason why the film is hated so? And sex is not the only cold activity in the movie. So is its analogue, dancing. In fact, they both sound interchangeably unexciting: "Higher! Not that high. Stay in sync. One-two-three! And thrust it, thrust it, THRUST IT, COME ON, THRUST IT! AH! Ok, that's enough! Thank you, ladies."
UPDATE: The SHOWGIRLS BLOG ORGY also includes, in alphabetical order:
- Aaron at Cinephiliac.
- Ben at The Whine-Colored Sea.
- Brian at Hell On Frisco Bay.
- Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren.
- Darren at Long Pauses.
- David at Drifting.
- Dennis at Sergio Leone & The Infield Fly Rule.
- Eric at When Canses Were Classeled.
- Joshua at Fagistan.
- Mubarak at Supposed Aura.
- Peter at Coffee Coffee And More Coffee.
- Sean at Bitter Cinema.
- Tim at Obsolete Vernacular.
- Zach at Elusive Lucidity.