Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Showgirls


Jaime Hernandez

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:

71 Comments:

Blogger girish said...

Though of course there are important differences, here are a few more similarities between Imitation Of Life and Showgirls: they're both social satires masqerading as melodramas; they both have uneasy camp followings; and a key character in both runs away from home, trying to erase her past by becoming a stripper and showgirl.

January 11, 2006 8:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Showgirls Blog Orgy:

--The eponymous Flickhead.
--Ben at The Whine-Colored Sea.
--Joshua at Fagistan.
--David at Drifting.
--Tim at Obsolete Vernacular.

I'll be posting more links as I find them today. Feel free to post your own here too.

January 11, 2006 8:43 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

This is amazing! Good post, G.--I was worried about you approaching the eleventh hour crunch!

Now onto read what everyone has to say...

January 11, 2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Flickhead.
This is sad, but I'm actually an incorrigibly eleventh-hour kind of guy. Have tried hard to shake it, but it just won't work.

January 11, 2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

Err... I'm shooting for Vegas time now. I'll read the orgy after I post in the next couple hours.

January 11, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

That's okay, Eric.
You've already written the single best thing on the movie that's on the web.
We can wait a bit longer.

January 11, 2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

We've got a skeptical Long Pauses entry here.

January 11, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

And Brian over here.

January 11, 2006 9:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And Zach himself.

January 11, 2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Aaron The Cinephiliac.

January 11, 2006 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

What a difference ten years can make. I think at the time nobody would have dared make the Sirk comparison, or if they did, would have their head handed to them on a platter.

I think you are spot on in your assertion regarding the critical distance of Verhoeven to the subject. This would be a far different film if directed by an American equivalent. Excellent think piece, Mr. Shambu.

What really struck me watching it late the other night was how very satisfying the ending was. (Save for the odd kismet of Nomi being picked up by the same driver.) No pat, easy solution. The rags-to-riches-to-rags thing really worked for me.

January 11, 2006 10:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Filmbrain. And to change the topic completely, have I mentioned that you have a great eye? "Jesus Is Coming Soon". Precious.

January 11, 2006 10:22 AM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

I screencapped that neon too!

(Done, by the way. I forgot if Vegas was Pacific or Mountain time.)

January 11, 2006 11:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Eric, you're somethin' else!

January 11, 2006 11:58 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

Happy Showgirls Day everyone! I'm a bit late (just woke up), but my entry is now up.

(And wow. Lots to read at work today...)

January 11, 2006 12:28 PM  
Anonymous nilblogette said...

If Showgirls Day continues next year, I hope we do costumes, or at least nail decals.

January 11, 2006 12:41 PM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

Awesome stuff all around. I've got to take my post-morning shift nap (sweet dreams ahoy), but I'll comment on the individual posts later this afternoon.

January 11, 2006 12:55 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Well, all I can say is, hats off to all of you. This was a great deal of fun to read, and the variety of perspectives made it really worthwhile (and it might all be enough to overcome my original aversion to the film and make me see it again). Bravo, chaps.

January 11, 2006 1:12 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Best. Day. Ever. (Trying to catch up and read, read, read.) Man, I try & guilt you into writing a post on Showgirls and not only do I get the post, I get all of this? Wow.

January 11, 2006 1:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Greencine declares:
Showgirls Blog Orgy Day.
Is this cool or is this cool?

January 11, 2006 1:45 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

And this collective mishegas could only succeed with a film that invites such a variety of opinions and reactions.

January 11, 2006 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Aaron Hillis said...

I'm glad that Prince song gets pumped through the Cheetah Club's sound system, because I'm definitely partying like it's 1995. Kudos for orgy-nizing this lovely insanity, Girish.

January 11, 2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Kudos goes entirely to y'all.

January 11, 2006 2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Showgirls is a masterpiece. Contrary to Girish, I think that it's hard boiled venomous realism is actually it's greatest strength. One has to only meet a few strippers or starlets on the verge to recognize that the type embodied in Nomi is not at all exaggerated. Verhoeven and Joe E. managed to put together a version of All About Eve, co-directed by Von Sternberg and Sam Fuller (see The Shanghai Gesture and The Naked Kiss to get into the right mental frame) with a chilling stylistic accuracy concerning our beloved pornodollar culture.

And Berkley is an inspired choice. A truly naked, frightening characterization. The only performance I can honesty compare it to, is the Duke's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. And that, is as high as the praise gets.

January 11, 2006 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Better late than never? Hope Girish's mom doesn't hate me for comparing Gina Gershon to her favorite American actress.

January 11, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Actually, I think the Stanwyck comparison is inspired.
As is the one with Sam Fuller.
But I must say that von Sternberg is one of the least realistic directors Hollywood has ever seen. (And more power to him for it).
Nice points, Anonymous.

January 11, 2006 4:32 PM  
Blogger Richard Gibson said...

Greetings from the UK.

Glad Girish and Flickhead got this going. Sorry I can't contribute as I haven't seen this film and couldn't get hold of a copy in time. Very interested to read a comparison to 'Imitation of life' which is a film I love.

Good idea, let me know if you guys do another synchronised post.

January 11, 2006 4:33 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

My favorite back-handed compliment of the day (from Parrallax View):
"mongst the other notes and dates in your diaries it may have escaped your attention that it is the 10th anniversary of the European release of Paul Verhoeven's genuinely notorious Showgirls onto our cinema screens. To celebrate, a cabal of revisionist bloggers have organised a series of tributes to what one describes as 'easily the most significant film of the 90s'."

Cabal! Best.

January 11, 2006 7:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow. Did any of you think when you rose this morning that you'd end the day as members of a revisionist cabal?

January 11, 2006 7:33 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Looks like Dennis has weighed in.

January 11, 2006 7:44 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

I'm proud to be a member of a revisionist cabal, especially when my preconceptions and expectations get so thoroughly ambushed as they did on Monday night when, inspired by this little movement, I revisited Showgirls. Such blindsiding doesn't happen very often, and even when it comes at the expense of having to admit what a lunkhead I'd been regarding the movie before, it's a bit of a thrill. Why, I may even go watch Hollow Man now...

January 11, 2006 8:08 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Before I forget, compliments on the choice of illustration.

January 11, 2006 8:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dennis, Hollow Man is the only American Verhoeven I haven't seen.
Have others seen it? Do they recommend it?

Thanks, Peter. It was almost 2 am last night when I went to bed. I didn't get a chance to draw the nude illo I was going to. But Jaime always hits home, bless his golden hands.

January 11, 2006 8:16 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

Hollow Man has some okay material, but is all around pretty disappointing (it starts off as really smart sci-fi, and has a really frightening rape scene that would have been justified had the film not then turned into a Friday The 13th rip-off in the last act). I remember sort of liking it in theaters, but by over the course of two vieiwings on a plane to Europe (it was that or Coyote Ugly - aka Showgirls?), I decided it was actually pretty bad.

January 11, 2006 8:23 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

And that's supposed to say 'aka Showgirls-lite' up there...

January 11, 2006 8:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the warning, David. I appreciate it.

Clearly, Ben isn't quite done with Showgirls just yet.
Here's his second post, in which he singles out his favorite French-subtitled line from the film.
Here's mine, courtesy Henrietta Bazoom:
"Elle a meilleure mine qu'une queue de 22 cm, et tu le sais."
Which translates as:
"She looks better than a 10 inch dick, and you know it."
Yeah, the metric system doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?

January 11, 2006 8:40 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Sean over at Bitter Cinema checks in.

So does Self-Styled Siren, who was said to have fainted when word reached her of this blong-a-thong. And now, reading her contribution, I feel like Robert Preston toward the end of Blake Edwards's S.O.B., applauding Julie Andrews for exposing her "sub-jects" with a shit-eating grin on his face.

January 11, 2006 8:44 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

That is the first time anyone has ever compared me to Julie Andrews, in or out of drag!

January 11, 2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Girish, this is such a great and thought-provoking post, that it makes me think I should really see the movie again ... and then I remember that rape scene, which I honestly think is the signal that this movie doesn't deserve the Sirk comparison. When Susan Kohner is left sobbing in a puddle next to the garbage, any trace of camp in "Imitation" evaporates for the horrified audience. When Molly is thrown on the bed in "Showgirls," it's also a horror, but it's fundamentally just another exploitative setpiece, stuck in to give the movie a little dramatic heft that it doesn't deserve. And, not coincidentally, to give Berkley a later chance to make like Bambi and Thumper in "Diamonds Are Forever."

January 11, 2006 10:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Campaspe--Did you get a chance to read Nilblogette, whom I linked to above? She discusses the rape scene in both her post and her comments.

IMO: There is however a difference of intentionality between Sirk and Verhoeven/Eszterhas. While Sirk was consciously making a satire, it's doubtful that it was the case with V&E (at least not perhaps to the same extent as Sirk). But Showgirls's stylization and exaggeration nevertheless make it not-so-hard for the audience to find satiric value in the film even if it wasn't all necessarily (and expressly) put there by V&E for satirical purposes: it emerges, so to speak, unconsciously. And this makes it a more complicated case than the Sirk film.

January 11, 2006 11:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say this is exactly backwards for me. Sirk isn't being as satirical as you want him to be. Have you read Tag Gallagher's White Melodrama piece on Sirk...? In it he makes a convincing case against the Revised Standard Version account of Sirk as cinematic nihilist/saboteur. And let's not forget Ross Hunter, a not negligible part of of the classic "Sirk Effect."

http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/36/sirk.html

And what's going on in Showgirls is beyond satire; it's a sulphuric critique of both the values represented by the film and its characters, and Hollywood's storytelling approach. It's completely POMO, and completely intentional. It's a hard case to make that Robocop and Starship Troopers are satiric and reflexive and Showgirls is unintentional.

January 12, 2006 12:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

No, I don't know the Gallagher piece.
Thanks, Anonymous. Interesting points to think about.
Not sure if you know the FQ roundtable on the film, but it suggests (forget which author now) that interviews with Verhoeven have made it hard to assess how much satire he actually intended. Might it be true that the film's champions (like us) actually think it to be a stronger satire than Verhoeven envisioned? (If interviews are anything to go by).
Also this film feels a bit different from Robocop and Starship Troopers, perhaps because of Eszterhas. And his only other film with E., Basic Instinct, can't really be a called a satire, can it?
Thanks for your points.

January 12, 2006 12:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Meant to say: "Might it be true that the film's champions (like us) actually think it to be a stronger critique than Verhoeven envisioned?"

January 12, 2006 12:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"And what's going on in Showgirls is beyond satire; it's a sulphuric critique of both the values represented by the film and its characters, and Hollywood's storytelling approach. It's completely POMO, and completely intentional."
I wonder what evidence you had in mind for this.
Much appreciated.

January 12, 2006 12:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Campaspe--More on "the rape problem" at Brian's, including Joshua's detailed comments.

January 12, 2006 8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What evidence..?

We're getting into an area that is highly subjective, because it involves certain concepts (irony, camp) that are widely misunderstood. It's clear to me that the basic impulse -- despite the fact that the film is very funny -- of Showgirls is serious. The film is a moral universe which is consistent and in some sense real. Verhoeven does not have a camp sensibility -- he is in his bones an old school european moralist.

Camp is a loving endorsement of the trivial as something moving and substantial. Camp is never venomous.

I think all Verhoeven is doing in Showgirls is laying out the consequences of certain contradictory "Thou Shalts" that inhere in American culture. If anything the spirit of Showgirls is close to Dreiser -- that of the patient, detached social observer. If you find blatant absurdity in Showgirls, it's because it is in the culture. And if you want to laugh at Nomi Malone, you do so at the risk of noticing that we are surrounded by her, that we might even be her.

Laughing with contemptuous detachment (the reflexive cultural sarcasm with which most people greet Showgirls) is in fact the stupid, naive view. I think that if one finds Showgirls worthy of contempt it is because there is no distance between your values and the cultural values displayed onscreen. Nihilism can only chuckle, and be entertained at Nihilism.

The film is also problematic because its secondary subject is the specific culture of misogyny. The easy way out of the film is to conclude that its misogyny is the only meaninful content. But Showgirls is an invitation to Misogyny, and its funny how often (the mostly male) critics indulge in misogyny to criticize the film and particularly Elizabeth Berkley. The film functions as a question -- not as an answer.

Again, to bring up the Searchers analogy, there are cinematic illiterates walking around who think The Searchers is a racist film, that it trucks in sterotypes, that it actively endorses the variety of racist viewpoints that its' characters give voice to. But it's the nature of serious art that it is never dismissable. And that is why we are still talking about Showgirls.

Finally one's attitude towards Showgirls hinges on what one feels about Elizabeth Berkley as an actress, and what one feels about the always masked Nomi Malone. To me, it is a performance of tremendous empathy -- not at all ironic. Berkley demands that we take this monstruous person seriously. And Verhoeven to his credit allows Berkley to maintain an frightening otherness in which our identification may go to empathy or frightening misogynist contempt. And this is precisely why I said earlier that she reminds me of Ethan Edwards. One cannot have a "simple" response to both of those characters.

January 12, 2006 11:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you for generously taking the time, Anonymous.
You bring up many thought-provoking points...

January 12, 2006 11:31 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Girish, via Flickhead and entirely too late - I realized what I should have been comparing this movie to. Not Sirk at all, but Nicholas Ray's Party Girl.

The interesting thing there would be that the Nomi parallel is probably not Cyd Charisse, despite those "where did THAT come from?" dance numbers, but rather Robert Taylor.

January 12, 2006 2:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sorry, Campaspe.
The Nick Ray and Party Girl comparisons are, while on the surface plausible, ultimately much less resonant for me. (And I love that movie).
I meant the Sirk comparison to provoke thought, not to be a systematic and literal one-to-one correspondence, but Nick Ray is much further away in my mind from Showgirls than Sirk.
Maybe we can spend some time hashing it out when we meet for lunch tomorrow, but on second thought, there is an ocean of other movies that would be equal contenders. I'm a little exhausted from the Showgirls debaucheries. :-)

January 12, 2006 2:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

One more word: Party Girl simply does not have the intensified, artifice-drenched mise-en-scene that the Sirk and Verhoeven do--it's a key aspect that links those two films.

January 12, 2006 2:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Campaspe, I've posted a reply at your site.

January 12, 2006 3:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Showgirls put a serious dent into my class preps this week. (New semester begins Tuesday.)
It'll be a busy working weekend.

January 12, 2006 5:09 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Just thought I'd mention that Vince Keenan didn't write about Showgirls yesterday. Wish it was as fun to read something that I didn't write.

January 12, 2006 7:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh Mama.
What a big beautiful list Acquarello's got.

January 12, 2006 11:27 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Hey, I know a veiled attempt at associating me with Showgirls when I see one. ;) For the record, that film actually ranks as one of my unintentionally shortest watched films, even shorter than Flashdance. I think I walked out after 20 minutes.

January 13, 2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"I think I walked out after 20 minutes."
Tsk Tsk. Ye of little faith, A. :-)

January 14, 2006 12:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I still can't get over the fact that one of the best jazz groups working today also keeps a rocking (or should I say swinging) blog.

From a great post on Dave Brubeck:
"Hey, we are Bru fans over here in The Bad Plus. Why not? He won't win any "most deeply swinging pianist" awards real soon, but some of his famous melodies are catchy. We relaxedly file him alongside Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick or Quincy Jones' "Walking In Space" and enjoy."

January 14, 2006 10:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jaime Weinman in a post entitled "Me Like Feminist Movies":
"I remember that when I was in high school, I was fashionably anti-feminist. I say "fashionably" because this was the early '90s, the height of a particular kind of political correctness, and it was becoming fashionable, in response, to talk about how much feminism sucked."

January 14, 2006 10:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Our good friend Tuwa's eclecticism spills over happily in this great post comprising music (Nellie McKay and Maxwell mp3's), a movie review and a touching autobiographical piece.
Tuwa, you must've missed blogging when you were away.

January 14, 2006 10:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, I've been linking to this site Overheard Lines for a while.
Here's some unsolicited advice on how to read these posts for maximum effect.
Read the dialogue first.
Then read the blog post title.
(I'm such a nerd).

Okay: here's one.
And here's another.

January 14, 2006 10:40 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Thanks for the mention, Girish. Yes, blogging is one of many things I miss when I go away. It doesn't happen often, though.

January 15, 2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

When I was a kid growing up, there were two kinds of "certificates" awarded by the Indian Censor Board to movies: U (for Unrestricted) and A (for Adults-Only).
I can remember only a handful of films being awarded an "A" certificate, and they were always accompanied by a great storm of scandal that raged nationwide for months.

I get a call from my mom this morning.
[in a serious and slightly concerned voice] "Girish, since when did you start getting interested in [cough] Adults-Only films?"
"Umm, since I've been...an adult?"

January 15, 2006 10:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You're welcome, Tuwa.
Nice to see you back.

January 15, 2006 10:11 AM  
Blogger phil said...

girish, nice work here with the synchroblogging...you will go officially go down in internet history. they will write and update entries on Wikipedia about you for years to come.

;)

January 15, 2006 1:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Phil, I hope you've shaken off the bug and are ready for a night on the town. Or at least a good Italian meal.

January 15, 2006 4:21 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

The whole discussion reminds me a little of Dan Dorman's discussion of craptastic films. I haven't seen Showgirls in such a long time that I'm not commenting on this one. I'm not sure it's all that good, but I think the Sirk comparison is a fair one.

But if this is a legitimate discussion, surely we can examine Starship Troopers (1997), which can either be seen as a callow sci-fi movie or a sly send-up of the fascist subtext of Heinlein's novel.

January 18, 2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yes, Pop View, I'm a great admirer of Starship Troopers.

January 18, 2006 3:36 PM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

Amazingly, ran across a Starship Troopers reference today, as Andrew O'Hehir interviewed Eugene Jarecki on his new documentary Why We Fight:

As I told Jarecki during our conversation in a New York hotel, I still think he needs to see Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi fascist satire "Starship Troopers," the last film to rip off Capra's "Why We Fight" series. The further we get into the bizarre unreality of 21st century America, the more I think "Starship Troopers" explains it all.

January 19, 2006 3:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for the interview, Pop View. I hadn't seen it.
I liked the Jarecki film, so it was doubly nice to see the interview.

January 20, 2006 4:48 PM  
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