Monday, 9 April 2012

Just how bad is Showgirls, really?

Catholic doctrine says that on the day between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Jesus descended into Hell and led out from torment the souls of the virtuous pagans - the morally good people who had died before his coming. After staying up until 1 am on Saturday night to watch Showgirls from start to finish for the very first time, I know exactly how He felt.

I've tried to watch it before, but have never got more than halfway, largely abandoning it during the infamous pool-sex scene between a floppy-haired Kyle MacLachlan and a pneumatic Jessie from Saved by the Bell. As a result I've previously been spared the film's ending with its ridiculous doses of Deus Ex Machina and Isn't It Great We're All Better People.

The question is, just how bad is this film? It's become a Hollywood byword and shorthand for not just a turkey but the entire platter of stuffing, gravy and roast potatoes. As an unlikely cult film, can a modern feminist really watch it as either a satire on the misogyny of both the characters and their world, or as a piece of high-camp, harmless and glittery fluff  that's so bad it's good? Or is there really no saving the film from lines like "man, everybody got AIDS and shit"?

"There is no such thing as too much hair glitter, Kyle"
Whether the director of Showgirls knew exactly how bad a film he was making is a question film critics have never been able to fully answer. On the one hand, Paul Verhoeven has dealt in straight-faced political satire before in the Starship Troopers franchise, which  played an action-adventure as a fascist, hyper-masculine nightmare, cleverly skewering the gung-ho and emerging neo-conservative hawkishness in the American public.

On the other, he pulled a Smithee and had his name changed to Jan Jensen in Showgirls' TV edit, which saw digitally animated underwear added to several scenes. Did he really believe in his artistic vision so much he would not put his name to a bowdlerised version?

There are major spoilers ahead, but since nobody's watching for the plot, I don't suppose it matters.

The film is cheerfully amoral in its presentation of the tactics used by its protagonist to get to the top, even presenting what she thinks of as her few standards of decency as hypocrisy. Nomi Malone (see what they did there?) might be happy to strip and lapdance her way to fame, or seduce her boss and push her professional rival down the stairs but she reacts with arm-flinging horror when anyone calls her a "whore". Interestingly, Nevada is the one US state where prostitution is legal, so why Nomi is so shocked at the prospect of turning tricks is one of the film's many holes in characterisation. But what's this! It turns out that Nomi used to be a prostitute after all, and it's a life she thinks she'd left behind. Her outrage at the label is not a question of crossing a moral line or of dignity or self-respect, it's just that she wanted to escape and build a different persona - that of a woman who's now in control of her career.  But that doesn't matter because not even the star on whom she inflicts a career-ending injury is angry about it. It's even implied that Cristal got her big break doing the same thing. Seemingly anything goes in Vegas, even GBH.

You have no idea how long it took to find worksafe promo stills.
The presentation of the art of dance is problematic - or is it? Again, there are notes of satire but the presentation is jarring. There are hierarchies within hierarchies in Showgirls' Vegas. The headliner Cristal Connors says whatever happens at the Cheetah Lounge where Nomi works as a nude dancer isn't dancing, yet her own dance numbers are conducted almost fully nude but for body paint or in leather fetish wear.  The film's only voice for dance as a real art comes in the character of James, an Alvin Ailey trained dancer who thinks Nomi is too talented for a life in the sex industry. His character arc bears out the interpretation of the film as straight-faced satire. He himself is talented but works a succession of low paid jobs as a bouncer and hotel porter, presumably because there's little market in Vegas for modern ballet. Setting aside the critical observation that Elizabeth Berkley's dancing is genuinely atrocious, James wants her to star in his latest piece of modern dance, but of course it's about strippers. What else would a man so opposed to the sex industry and is yet a self-confessed sex addict choreograph a piece about? His work gets booed off stage and he decides to forget dance, and settle down with an ordinary job, get married (to a stripper he met in the previous reel. Of course.) and be a father.  The message here seems to be that if you want to make art, don't try and peddle it to the masses. Stay off-Broadway where you belong. That's a pretty bleak message, but fits with the idea of the film and its characters showing up the tastelessness of life in this version of the so-called Sin City.

I'm out of stills, so here is what came up
when I Googled "Most boring stock photo"
The film's sex scenes are eye-gougingly unerotic. Nomi bounces on Kyle MacLachlan's lap in the manner of a Russian wrestler going for a submission hold, and flops about in the pool like a landed haddock with her legs clenched around his... upper torso? I'm not entirely sure that male genitalia is located there.

Despite or perhaps because Nomi spends almost 20 minutes of the film entirely naked, the overhyped erotica is actually a turnoff and the horrible, sexist jokes spouted by the Cheetah Club's female Emcee are unfunny and crude, so does that mean the film is a comment on the sheer ridiculousness of the whole business?

I could buy all that, but for one scene near the end of the film which destroys all alternative interpretation for me. The one character with any moral compass or professional integrity is beaten and viciously gang raped after being lured to a celebrity's bedroom, and it has nothing satirical about it. It's done for pure shock value, and in plot terms is a hamfisted way of driving the final act of the departure of the protagonist from Las Vegas. We see the attack in ugly, bloody detail in a scene that if you find erotic, I  think it's time you unsubscribed from this blog. There's no plot reason for it either. It comes entirely out of leftfield with no artistic or character-driven reason, and even without foreshadowing unless you count the ugly production number in which Cristal's character is not only gang raped, she's then hypnotised/seduced/ randomly turned into a sub biker in leather underwear performing what's supposed to be steamy lesbian pas de deux. Just to make the rape scene even more exploitative and violent, it involves three attackers, all of whom are large, strongly built men and a small, slim victim. She's given no chance to defend herself or escape. Viewing the scene when juxtaposed with the earlier ridiculousness of the "sexy" dance routines is deeply uncomfortable.

Without the rape scene, Showgirls is a tasteless, glittery mess but if watched with a bottle of tequila just about passes for entertainment. With the rape, it enters darker and uglier territory, becoming exploitative of both the viewer and the performer. And if that's entertainment, I want no part of it.

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