Monday, August 31, 2009

Top 5 Top 5 Lists Related To, But Not Including, The Sting

Top 5 Films Starring Paul Newman:

1. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
2. The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)
3. The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961) & The Color Of Money (Martin Scorsese, 1986)
4. Slap Shot (Hill, 1977)
5. The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1994)

Top 5 Films Directed By And/Or Starring Robert Redford:

1. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
2. Quiz Show (1994)
3. Out Of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985)
4. The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984)
5. Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Top 5 Films About Grifters:

1. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
2. Six Degrees Of Separation (Fred Schepisi, 1993)
3. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
4. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz, 1988)
5. The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, 1997)

Top 5 Films Featuring Music By Scott Joplin:

1. Ruggles Of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935)
2. The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931)
3. Killer Of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)
4. Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)
5. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994)

Top 5 Films Of 1973:

1. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
2. Badlands (Terrence Malick)
3. Don't Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
4. Sleeper (Woody Allen)
5. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)

Links: The Sting

The original Variety review from December 12th, 1973.

An early draft of the screenplay is available at

Episode #259 0f Filmspotting includes the Sting on their Top 5 Con Movies.


Friday, August 28, 2009

The (Restless) Entertainer: Scott Joplin's Treemonisha

I wish I were Alex Ross.  That way I could write about classical music with some semblance of knowledge and authority.  Unfortunately I am about as well versed on this topic as I am with Nascar (or any other organized sport.)  With the help of Mr. Ross and his wonderful book, The Rest is Noise, which details classical music trends throughout the 20th century, I have been able to guide my untrained ear to certain artists and pieces within the field that tickle my particular fancy, like the atonal work of Bela Bartok.  But beyond that I'm pretty hopeless.

Whilst conducting a little research into a planned biographical sketch of ragtime composer Scott Joplin to coincide with this week's screening of the Sting where his music plays an Oscar-winning part, I discovered that Joplin was not only the preeminent writer of rags but also a composer of operas.  Who knew? 

About that biographical sketch:

Born outside Texarkana in the late 1860's to a laundress and her railroad laborer husband, an ex-slave who soon ran off with another woman, Scott was an industrious, studious child.  To keep the young boy and his five siblings occupied during the hours she worked, their mother Florence encouraged the use of her employer's piano.  Scott took to the instrument quickly and with the help of a German music teacher, steeped himself in the artform.  In the 1890's he relocated to Missouri and began playing piano in black gentlemen clubs, one of which was called the Maple Leaf, the name of Joplin's first and biggest hit.   Despite writing the best works in the ragtime field, Joplin never attained stardom during his lifetime. He toiled away composing pieces until his death at the Manhattan State Hospital in 1917 from complications related to schizophrenia brought on by syphilis.

With the rise of jazz, ragtime's popularity quickly waned and Joplin struggled to remain artistically relevant.  He had already been experimenting for some time.  The same year that he composed his first ragtime hit, "Maple Leaf Rag", Joplin created "Ragtime Dance", a six-minute theatrical work.  Four years later he wrote his first opera A Guest of Honor, all traces of which are unfortunately lost.  In 1907, as a last ditch effort to achieve artistic acceptance, Joplin threw all of his energy into creating Treemonisha, a semi-autobiographical opera set in the South in the late 1800's.  It follows the titular character, an educated and independent woman, in her attempts to steer her small town away from superstition and toward rationalism and enlightenment.  Joplin languished over the work for years, lavishing it with hints of ragtime, spirituals and folk songs, which along with its libretto's rendering of uneducated, Southern dialects and its all-black cast, makes Treemonisha akin to George Gershwin's celebrated Porgy and Bess.

Unfortunately Treemonisha, with its intellectual feminist hero, its blend of European traditions and American popular song, and its occasionally impenetrable dialect, was far ahead of its time.  Unable to find financial backing to mount a production, Joplin invested his own money to perform the opera one night at a Harlem rehearsal space in a piano-and-vocal-only format.  The production was a terrible disaster with a threadbare set and unpolished performances.  Many of the audience walked out before the opera's conclusion.  Bankrupt and emotionally crushed, Joplin soon spiraled into the depression that resulted in his hospitalization.  Subsequently Treemonisha disappeared for fifty years until ragtime's unlikely resurgence (thanks in part to the Sting), when the opera was rediscovered and performed to rave reviews in Atlanta in 1972.  Later performances from around the world finally solidified the genius of Joplin's masterwork, which resulted in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, awarded in 1976.

And how do I, classical novice that I am, find the piece???  I really like it.  Opera's still somewhat a struggle for me, but I think that's why I gravitate to pieces like this that throw in familiar popular forms to give me some common ground.  It's fun to hear the familiar ragtime stylings as an undercurrent to the grand performance.  Plus it's got dancing bears!  

Coincidentally this post took me almost the exact length of the opera to compose.  I type this sentence as the last minute of Treemonisha's joyous closer, "A Real Slow Drag" plays out. 

Completely unrelated post-script: As I am editing and affixing photos I'm listening to Harold Budd and Brian Eno's Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror.  Has anyone else noticed how Radiohead completely ripped off "Not Yet Remembered" for "Videotape" on In Rainbows???

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Coming Attractions: The Sting

Wednesday, September 2nd at 6:45 & 9:15.

Giveaways: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid DVD and a gift certificate for Rain City Video, respectively.

See you there!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Top 5 Top 5 Lists Related To, But Not Including, The Adventures Of Robin Hood

Top 5 Michael Curtiz Films:

1. Casablanca (1942)
2. Mildred Pierce (1945)
3. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
4. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
5. Captain Blood (1935)

Top 5 Claude Rains Films:

1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
2. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)
3. Lawrence Of Arabia (David Leav, 1962)
4. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
5. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

Top 5 Films Featuring Eugene Pallette:

1. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)
2. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
3. The Gang's All Here (Busby Berkeley, 1943)
4. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
5. Steamboat 'Round The Bend (John Ford, 1935)

Top 5 Films About British Royalty:

1. The Lion In Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968)
2. Chimes At Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
3. Monty Python & the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & terry Jones, 1975)
4. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989)
5. Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)

Top 5 Films Of 1938:

1. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
2. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein)
3. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. Jezebel (William Wyler)
5. Three Comrades (Frank Borzage)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Year Showdown: 1938 vs. 1939

The year 1939 is generally regarded as the greatest year in film history. But 1938, the year of this week's Metro Classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood, was a pretty great year for film as well. Let's see how these two great years matchup in our inaugural Movie Year Showdown (A top o' the hat to Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, for the format, by the way):

Best Picture Winner: Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You won the award in 1938, an amiable, sprawling comedy with James Stewart as a stuffy capitalist's son who wants to marry Jean Arthur, the daughter of an eccentric bohemian family. The resulting culture clash teaches everyone valuable lessons about life. In 1939, the award went to Gone With The Wind, one of the most enduringly-popular films of all-time, a classic melodrama about a headstrong and spoiled woman who manipulates and exploits everyone and everything around her in a single-minded quest for material comfort and the mustachioed man she can't ever really admit to loving until it's too late. The Capra film isn't as good as some of his other work in the period, and while Gone With the Wind is a bit overrated, it's use of Technicolor was revolutionary and the crane shot over the bodies littering the streets of Atlanta in the wake of Sherman's attack is far better than any image in You Can't Take It With You. EDGE: Frankly my dear, the Oscars got both these years wrong. 1939.

Swashbuckling-Adventure Films: 1938 features, of course, Michael Curtiz's The Adventures Of Robin Hood, wherein Errol Flynn leads a band of the poor, oppressed ethnic Anglo-Saxons against the villainous, foreign power Norman aristocracy. There is also Sergei Eisenstein's epic Alexander Nevsky, about the medieval Russian ruler who unites his country to oppose the invading Teutonic Knights in a none-too subtle foreshadowing of the WW2 fight between the USSR and Nazi Germany. 1939 has a trio of pro-imperialist adventures: Gunga Din and The Four Feathers (celebrating the British military's expeditions in India and The Sudan, respectively) and Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper as a British ex-patriate in the French Foreign Legion during their wars in North Africa. EDGE: Fight The Power with 1938.

Anarchic Screwball Comedies: Bringing Up Baby heads the list for 1938, with Katherine Hepburn as the lunatic socialite driving Cary Grant's mild-mannered paleontologist totally insane, and there are leopards. Howard Hawks's film is one of the greatest (and certainly zaniest) comedies of all-time. 1938 also features You Can't Take It With You, which is less crazy and gets a bit bogged down by it's self-important social message. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper and directed by Ernst Lubitsch is also a fine film. 1939 features Lubitsch's great Ninotchka, with Greta Garbo as a Soviet bureaucrat who melts and falls in love under the influence of decadent Paris and Melvyn Douglas. Claudette Colbert also stars in Midnight, directed by Mitchell Leisen, which is one of the finest and least well-known comedies of the era. EDGE: "I can't give you anything but love, Baby." 1938.

Foreign-Language Films: 1938 features the above-mentioned Alexander Nevsky, arguably Eisenstein's greatest sound film which features a rousing score by Sergei Prokofiev and a ground-breaking battle sequence on an imploding ice floe. There are also a number of highly regarded French films I haven't had a chance to see yet: Jean Renoir's La bête humaine and La marseillaise and Marcel Carné's Le quai des brumes (Port Of Shadows) and Hôtel du Nord; along with Leni Reifenstahl's Nazi-epic Olympia. 1939, though, has Renoir's The Rules Of The Game, one of my all-time favorite films, Carné's bittersweet proto-noir Le jour se lève with Jean Gabin and one of Kenji Mizoguchi's finest films, The Story Of The Late Chrysanthemums. EDGE: "The terrible thing is: everyone has his reasons." 1939.

British Spy Films: Alfred Hitchcock's last, and arguably best, British film was released in 1938, the spy comedy The Lady Vanishes, about, well, a lady who vanishes on a train and the one girl who remembers her and wonders where she disappeared to. 1939 features the first collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the greatest filmmaking teams of all-time with The Spy In Black, a film I, unfortunately, haven't seen yet. EDGE: "I don't see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people." 1938.

Gangster Films: 1938 features the apotheosis of the Warner Bros. gangster genre with James Cagney (giving one of his finest performances), Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids in Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces. 1939 tried to repeat the same formula, absent the kids, but with a larger historical scope and more romance in Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties and failed to top it. EDGE: "Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!" 1938.

Tearjerkers: 1938 has Bette Davis sacrificing herself to take care of Henry Fonda on a yellow fever quarantine island to make up for her unforgivable sin of wearing a red dress to a ball in Jezebel, Margaret Sullavan valiantly killing herself after all her friends sold all their worldly possessions to pay for her life-saving operation in Frank Borzage's Three Comrades and Cagney giving up his dignity on the way to the electric chair for the sake of the Dead End Kids in Angels With Dirty Faces. 1939 has Irenne Dunne not quite making it to the Empire State Building to meet Charles Boyer in Leo McCarey's Love Affair, Thomas Mitchell, Cary Grant and Richard Barthelmess risking life and limb to deliver the mail in Only Angels Have Wings, Charles Laughton made-up as the Ugliest Man Of All-Time rescuing Maureen O'Hara's Prettiest Girl Of All-Time from a Parisian mob in The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame, Jean Renoir and Jean Gabin's lifetimes of regrets in The Rules Of The Game and Le jour se lève, respectively, Robert Donat's brilliant performance as a schoolteacher who cares in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Laurence Olivier trying desperately to rise above his class in Wuthering Heights and Bette Davis sacrificing herself in Dark Victory and the love of her daughter in The Old Maid. 1939 also boasts two films the endings of which never fail to make me cry: the "You're a better man than I am" reading from Gunga Din and James Stewart's Lost Causes speech from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, my pick for the greatest film speech of all-time and greatest performance of all-time. EDGE: Our tear ducts will never go hungry again. 1939.

Overworked Actors: Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn team-up twice in 1938 (Bringing Up Baby and Holiday). Claude Rains stars in four films from 1938 and five in 1939. Bette Davis stars in four 1939 films. Errol Flynn stars in four in 1938. Henry Fonda stars in five films each year. John Wayne is in four films in 1938 and six in 1939. James Stewart has four films from 1938 and five from 1939. EDGE: 1939 might be the busiest movie year ever.

Overworked Directors: Jean Renoir has two 1938 films, Marcel Carné two in 1939. Michael Curtiz has five in 1938 with six in 1939. John Ford directed three films each year, but his 1939 output is as good a year as any director has ever had: Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach and Drums Along The Mohawk. EDGE: Always take Ford over Curtiz. 1939.

Musicals: 1938 features one of the last Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, the bizarre psychaitry comedy Carefree, which is their film with the fewest musical sequences. 1939 features a pair of great Judy Garland films: former Metro Classic The Wizard Of Oz and one of her best films with Mickey Rooney, Busby Berkeley's Babes In Arms. EDGE: it's almost unfair: 1939.

Westerns: In 1938, the genre was firmly entrenched in the B movie and cheap serial world. With Ford's 1939 Stagecoach, it became one of the premiere American genres for the next 30 years and John Wayne became one of the two or three most iconic movie stars in film history. Add to the fact that 1939 also features the great James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich Zen Western Destry Rides Again, and the EDGE: is unquestionably 1939.

Final Verdict: 1938 gave it a good shot, but 1939 pulled away at the end to win 7-4. Maybe next year!

Links: The Adventures of Robin Hood

A look into the making of The Adventures of Robin Hood comes from

An in-depth review of the movie courtesy of The DVD Journal.

Roger Ebert salutes the film in his wonderful series, Great Movies.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Walt Disney's Robin Hood Revisited

My most distinct memory of Walt Disney's Robin Hood does not actually involve the film.  On my first trip to Disneyland when I was five years old, I stood by dumbfounded as a costumed Friar Tuck ran into the women's restroom in Fantasyland.  I was too young to realize that the vast majority of the costumed employees were female, nor did I know how forbidden that emergency restroom visit was.  To maintain the meticulously crafted illusion, Disneyland stresses that employees in costume cannot, under any circumstances, break character when in the public's purview.  If you're going to puke or pass out, do it with the head attached. Something must have been seriously wrong with that fleeing Friar.

My impressions of the film itself are hazy.  I remember the archery competition and a tedious imprisonment scene but that's about it.  I haven't seen the film in at least two decades and I wondered how it would fare, particularly since my recent conversion to obsessive Disney nutcase (classic Disney films and Disneyland exclusively; I'm not vouching for Hannah Montana or G-Force.)  In honor of this week's Metro Classic, I decided it was time I took a trip back to the animated Nottingham.

Well, it's no Pinocchio.  It's not even an Adventure with Ichabod and Mr Toad (which is ridiculously underrated by the way.)  It's not that the film is bad, it's just kind of boring.  Robin Hood was the second feature made after Walt's death in 1966 and his absence is overwhelmingly apparent.  Throughout his career Walt Disney strived to create work that was fresh, exciting and new.  He quickly grew bored with doing things the same way twice.  Robin Hood feels like a patchwork of previous Disney films, which in certain respects it was.  The most obvious example is that of the character Little John who is a veritable Xerox of Baloo the Bear from the Jungle Book, the last film that Walt had input on.  The character is not only an identical visual reproduction but he also is voiced by the same man, Mr. Phil Harris.  Robin Hood also reuses animation from previous films, most noticeably during the "Phony King of England" dance sequence which borrows movements from the Jungle Book, Snow White, and the Aristocats

All of this repetition was a necessity of sorts because Robin Hood was given an egregiously low budget by the studio, another mistake Walt would never have made.  He continually put the studio on the precipice of bankruptcy to realize his dreams, whether it was producing the first animated short with sound, the first feature-length animated film, or constructing a theme park amidst miles of orange groves.  Even when he was following up these landmarks with more of the same, he experimented with storytelling (Fantasia) and picture (the majestic Cinemascope world of Sleeping Beauty.) These risks eventually paid off because Walt had a distinct vision and that is ultimately what derails Robin Hood.  The film feels altogether too safe.

There are some nice moments in the film.  I actually enjoyed the prison sequence this time around (which it turns out runs all of about forty seconds; I must have been a fidgety child) where the minstrel rooster plays a Kris Kristofferson-like ballad, "Not in Nottingham".  His song "Whistle-Stop" which opens the film is another nice tune.  I found the morbid prospect of hanging Friar Tuck refreshingly dark for a G-rated kids' movie.  And the final showdown, which involves a massive prison break and a Bandidas-esque (to coin a phrase) robbery, is exciting and fun.  Too bad there was an hour of meandering preceding it.

For the most part though the characters are one-note, the plot achingly repetitive and the animation threadbare.  There just doesn't seem to be much fun at the heart of Disney's Robin Hood, which is unfortunate for that is the one trait the titular hero personifies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Coming Attractions: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Wednesday, August 26th at 6:45 & 9:00.

Giveaways: Captain Blood DVD and a gift certificate for Rain City Video, respectively.

See you there!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Top 5 Top 5 Lists Related To, But Not Including, All About Eve

Top 5 George Sanders Films:

1. Voyage In Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
2. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
3. The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
4. While The City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)
5. A Shot In The Dark, Blake Edwards, 1964)

Top 5 Thelma Ritter Films:

1. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
2. Pickup On South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)
3. A Letter To Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949)
4. The Mating Season (Mitchell Leisen, 1951)
5. Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959)

Top 5 Joseph L. Mankiewicz Films:

1. The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (1947)
2. The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
3. A Letter To Three Wives (1949)
4. The Quiet American (1958)
5. Guys And Dolls (1955)

Top 5 Films Set On Broadway:

1. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
2. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
3. Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)
4. Sweet Smell Of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
5. 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

Top 5 Films Of 1950:

1. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
2. In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)
3. Harvey (Henry Koster)
4. Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini)
5. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis)

Monday, August 17, 2009

All About Bette

So, I've been watching a lot of Bette Davis movies lately. Until a few months ago, All About Eve was the only one of her classic films I'd actually seen all the way through. Since then, I've seen ten more films, all from the years 1938-1946, when she was at the peak of her stardom working at Warner Brothers. She seems to me a wholly unique kind of star, one who was more at home playing nasty villains or pathetic victims than effervescent heroines. Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, stars of Charade, on the other hand, are much more typical movie stars in that they never played unsympathetic characters. She is instead a darker, more extreme, less charming version of Katherine Hepburn, another star who specialized in strong, independent women (though this Hepburn, too, never played a villain).

What then, made her so popular? In these films, Davis plays a killer (The Letter, Deception, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life) a liar (Deception, The Letter, The Old Maid), a spoiled and selfish rich girl (Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex) and a pathetic wallflower (Now, Voyager, The Old Maid). This raises the complex issue of audience identification. Did the people who flocked to Davis's films in the 30s and 40s identify with her characters? Did they see themselves as the strong, independent-minded woman on the screen? Or did they despise her as the other characters in the films do: was she they star they loved to hate? Is this why the punishments the Davis characters must endure were so satisfying? In The Old Maid, she gives up her daughter to her pretty, blonde sister because she thinks that'll make the daughter happy. In Now, Voyager, she decides she'd rather raise Paul Henreid's daughter for him, rather than get him to divorce the wife he doesn't love. In Jezebel (as punishment for her horrible crime of wearing a red dress to a society ball) she's publicly humiliated (in one of the most gloriously demented scenes of the 1930s) and rejected by her fiancée, but still risks catching yellow fever to take care of him when he falls ill. We enjoy Davis's intelligence and willfulness, but we also enjoy seeing her punished for daring to have such outstanding qualities.

How many other movie stars provoke such a complex reaction? Certainly John Wayne in a few films when Howard Hawks and John Ford played him against type in Red River and The Searchers, respectively, but in those cases it's questionable that Wayne even knew to what end he was being used. James Stewart in his 1950s films with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann started exploring the dark side of his All-American persona, but still was never truly as villainous as Davis in The Little Foxes or The Letter. Bogart or Cagney might be closer, but they seem more limited than Davis, whether through lack of skill or opportunity, I can't say, and regardless of whether their gangster characters were morally upright, there was never any question that audiences wouldn't sympathize with them once they became stars.

This week we're playing Davis's crowning achievement, All About Eve. It's the most sympathetic character I've seen her play: as quick-witted and short-tempered as ever, but with a raw core of vulnerability that few actors would allow to be shown, dependent as it is on her own advancing age and declining good looks. It's a brilliant performance, one that earned her the ninth of her eleven Best Actress Oscar nominations (and of course she should have won).

Here's a ranked list of the thirteen Bette Davis films I've seen:

1. All About Eve
2. The Letter
3. Now, Voyager
4. Jezebel
5. Deception
6. The Little Foxes
7. The Old Maid
8. The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex
9. Dark Victory
10. Death On The Nile
11. In This Our Life
12. The Petrified Forest
13. Watch On The Rhine

And thirteen more I still need to see:

1. All That Heaven Allows
2. Mr. Skeffington
3. Pocketful Of Miracles
4. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
5. Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte
6. The Man Who Came To Dinner
7. Beyond The Forest
8. Dangerous
9. Of Human Bondage
10. Juarez
11. Three On A Match
12. The Star
13. The Great Lie

Links: All About Eve

Turner Classic Movies details the creation of All About Eve.

The always-awesome A.O. Scott has a video essay on the film at the New York Times.

The reliably radical Roger Ebert praises the film in his Great Movies series.

Dig it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aaron Campeau: In Defense (Kind Of) Of Showgirls

Aaron Campeau is a founding member of the Thursday Matinee Debate Team, a defunct cabal of cinematic criticism that despite its demise, continues to inflict wounds upon my fragile psyche.  He currently manages the Fremont location of Rain City Video, one of our fantastic weekly sponsors.  Aaron also plays guitar in the best band in Seattle and as of this week he is engaged to his sweetheart of many years, Emily, she too a battle-scarred Metro veteran.  Awww....

Showgirls is one of my favorite movies of all time. When I tell people this they tend to think that I am being deadpan in an attempt at humor (which, given my general demeanor, is not necessarily an unfair assumption) or insane (likewise.) Most people think of Showgirls as gratuitous, big-budget soft porn, a desperate attempt by a child star to break free of her wholesome image. Perhaps most resoundingly, it is seen as a monumental flop, Caligula for a new generation but somehow worse.

Film buffs tend to share the popular opinion of Showgirls, with the additional view that it marks the biggest (and perhaps only) dissapointment of Paul Verhoeven's career; thatShowgirls might be somewhat enjoyable for its camp value, but that the degree of unintentional humor is not nearly great enough to redeem such an enormous failing on the director's part. As you might have expected, I could not disagree more vehemently with this viewpoint. In fact, I believe that the humor in Showgirls is in no way unintentional, that it is Paul Verhoeven's most fully realized work of satire, and that it is perhaps the most hilarious practical joke ever played on Hollywood and the American viewing public.

I first encountered Showgirls at the age of 14. It was 3:00 A.M. on a Friday night, and it had just begun playing on Showtime. I'd heard about it, of course; Jessie Spano took her clothes off, for heaven's sake! I will admit that there was a part of me that wished it had been Kelly Kapowski, but the intrigue was too much to resist. What I witnessed was one of the worst pieces of garbage ever made. The story was beyond implausible, Elizabeth Berkley could not act her way out of a paper bag, and when a movie that has eroticism as its biggest selling point is incapable of being sexually exciting to a 14 year old boy, clearly something has gone wrong somewhere along the line. How was the man that gave the world Total Recall and RoboCopcapable of making such utter crap? How did a major studio give him a $45 million budget and allow it to make it through production? I knew very little about the manner in which Hollywood operated at the time, but I was fairly certain that NC-17 rated soft-porn was unlikely have much commercial success, especially considering that it was worse in every possible way than most straight-to-cable, zero-budget sexploitation.

I didn't really think about Showgirls again for a few years, until I heard that David Schmader was going to be doing his increasingly renowned live narration of the movie at the Capitol Theatre in Olympia. I liked David Schmader, I liked the Capitol Theatre, and I didn't have anything else better to do, so my girlfriend and I made a night of it. Schmader's ability to somehow make watching this abomination of cinema caused me to view things in a different light. In the years that followed, Showgirls became a staple of late-night camp movie marathons, a sick-day diversion and a surefire cure for a case of the blahs. Somewhere along the way, as I became more film literate, developed something approaching an adult sense of humor, and watched All About Eve a time or two, it clicked; Showgirls was exactly the movie that Paul Verhoeven set out to make.

Since he began making films for American audiences (and, to a certain extent, since he began making films at all) Paul Verhoeven has been attempting to produce the most deadpan, intensely biting satire imaginable. RoboCop was social commentary about our infatuation with graphic violence. It was a satire of mainstream film's obsession with assigning strictly delineated boundaries between right-and-wrong/good-and-evil and the justification of extreme measures to assure the triumph of "good." Total Recall was similar in its aims, with the added criticism of our fear of the foreign and unknown, as well as our irrational attempts to control the world around us. Basic Instinct was somewhat less bluntly satirical than Verhoeven's previous two efforts, but the "message" of the film, that infidelity and sexual exploration lead not only to personal loss but unimagined horror was clearly tongue-in-cheek.I do not believe that it would be unfair to say that the social commentary and satirical humor of Verhoeven's films were lost on large portions of the viewing audiences. Many people liked Verhoeven's films, but they liked them for reasons that were different than he perhaps intended. Luckily, this would not be much of an issue with Showgirls; no one liked it. In truth, it is easy to understand why -- taken in the abstract, Showgirls is a disaster.

If you would be so kind as to humor me, however, ask yourself this; what if the film's complete and total failure is the entire reason it exists? This is what I have come to believe. Elizabeth Berkley wasn't cast in the lead role because she was a fresh-faced beauty with the talent and desire to take her career in a completely different direction and shake the foundations of Hollywood in the process; she was cast because she was terrible. Kyle McLachlan's over-the-top smarminess wasn't a by-product of incompetent direction, it was necessary to complete the illusion that this film was not a total farce. I am convinced that the only reason Gina Gershon was given a role in this movie is because Paul Verhoeven needed someone else on the set smart enough to realize how funny all of this was.

Like many practical jokes, Showgirls is successful at least in part due to an element of schadenfreude; I honestly believe that Elizabeth Berkley thought taking the role of Nomi Malone would vault her to super-stardom, and the complete and total destruction of her career, writ large for the whole world to see, is paramount to the success of the ruse. That her career collapsed after Showgirls is, on a human level, unfortunate; if we are being honest, however, we must admit that it was going to happen sooner or later. That Joe Ezterhas was allowed to feel for a fleeting moment that anyone in the world took him at all seriously is to a certain degree quite sad, but then you remember that he is Joe Ezterhas, and you don't really feel all that bad anymore. Kyle McLachlan was made to look like a fool, but he is in no way capable of realizing this, so in this case no harm was done. (As an aside, I have great affection for Kyle McLachlan, but I also believe that this affection is largely due to McLachlan's willingness to make such an easy target of himself.)

The point of all of this is not to try and convince anyone that Showgirls is some sort of cinematic masterpiece, because clearly it is not. Nor is it an attempt to convince myself that a movie I enjoy so much is more noteworthy than it actually is as an attempt to save face; I freely admit to enjoying a great deal of total crap. I own a copy of Hustle & Flow on DVD. Maximum Overdrive shares space with Young Mr. Lincoln and F for Fake on my Staff Picks shelf at work. Sometimes a fellow feels like sipping a cup of tea and listening to Mozart, and other times he feels like imbibing something slightly more spirituous and jamming out to Beyonce. There is no shame in populist escapism.

There's something more to Showgirls, though; for most people the distinction might seem meaningless. If I do not disagree that the end result is a terrible film, do the director's intentions actually matter? In terms of entertainment value, perhaps they do not (although I would argue that watching the film with the belief that the results were intentional makes it a more enjoyable experience.) If, on the other hand, the goal is to honestly critique the film's artistic merits, I believe that they do.

Showgirls is not for everyone; this much should be obvious. It is gratuitously sexual throughout, shockingly violent in parts and ironically misogynistic. The success of the satire rests in large part upon the humiliation of the cast as a whole and Berkley in particular. Sensibilities and thresholds for prurient content are entirely subjective, and so it is understandable that many people will never enjoy this film. To dismiss its artistic value and assume that it is not worthy of discussion and recognition, however, would be a mistake.