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.

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