Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Flesh + Blood: The Films of Paul Verhoeven which runs from January 24th to April 4th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
“I’m going to get you the best meal in town!” Cut to Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), exotic dancer, eating a hamburger. This is Verhoeven’s satirical artistry, a quality of his film that critics either misunderstood or had no taste for when it was first released. One would expect a high class meal if it’s to be called the “best”, just as one first expects high art for a film to be considered great. Verhoeven challenges our understanding of high and low culture by saying, well, honestly, hamburgers are the best! In many ways, Showgirls is a McDonald’s hamburger: it may not be good for you; it may not be pretty; it is deplorable for many reasons; but it still might be the tastiest meal. Just as the actor is assumed to sincerely enjoy the hamburger, Verhoeven says that even indecent “low-brow” filmmaking can be the best if we choose not to come into the picture with rigid criteria for what makes a film acceptable. The film thus challenges critiques, satirizes Hollywood, and is at once a denigration and celebration of both high and low culture. The question is: does intentionally making a bad film, as a form of satire, make it good?
The film thus challenges critiques, satirizes Hollywood, and is at once a denigration and celebration of both high and low culture.
In recent years, Showgirls has been reclaimed by some as a brilliant maybe-masterpiece. Most notably, Adam Nayman, who contributes to The Grid, The Globe and Mail, and Cinema Scope, has completed a critical study of Showgirls entitled It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls. He will be introducing the film, attempting to shift the viewer’s critical perspective, at TIFF’s Verhoeven retrospective on March 14. A group of cinephiles who believe that Showgirls is one amongst many brilliant films that have been neglected for their indecent sensibilities have also attempted to shift one’s critical perspective. Known as vulgar auteurism, this newly termed critical perspective suggests that there are certain filmmakers, such as Paul Verhoeven and Paul W.S Anderson, whose films pattern thematic and aesthetic continuities, making their films traceable in the same way that auteurism suggests. In this way, it’s really no different from auteurism, since both theories believe that the director is the sole creative driving force behind a film. It distinguishes itself from this theory by celebrating filmmakers whose works have been misunderstood and too easily tossed aside. They suggest that critics have vilified these works for the wrong reasons, and those indecent and grotesque images, which are consciously realized by a virtuous director, are evidence of powerful, affective filmmaking rather than unacceptable ostentatious filmmaking. In fact, they seem to value ostentation in that it can be a valuable and powerful means for creating satire.
A long take tracking shot opens the film. It is one of many which Verhoeven employs throughout. It is quite clearly a signature move, one which supports his auteur status. His camera movement often circles the characters. It doesn’t quite break the axis of action, but instead changes the axis, forming new spaces for the diegesis. This movement is quite fluid, with characters sometimes entering and exiting the center of the frame to interact on camera in real time—without cuts. Verhoeven’s choice to do this not only lends the film energy but disorients the viewer enough so that each individual image is accentuated even if the shot has yet to but cut.
For Verhoeven, every image must be vibrant and piercingly affective. While poetic films tend to transcend the narrative by attending to metaphysical space, Verhoeven absents narrative tropes to identify the objective world. He doesn’t wish to transcend objects but to show them in their material thingness as honestly as possible, whether it is an object of great beauty or great disgust. Nomi throws up; a car almost hits her: this form of affective cinema, which can be likened to the work of Neveldine/Taylor or Paul W.S Anderson, is defined by impulsive actions and motives. It is certainly ostentatious, but for these filmmakers it is highly self-aware. Ornate things like blood and piss and blow jobs—as well as dialogue about these things—are celebrated for their power to stir the emotions or raise the viewer’s scopophillic pleasure.
For Verhoeven, every image must be vibrant and piercingly affective. While poetic films tend to transcend the narrative by attending to metaphysical space, Verhoeven absents narrative tropes to identify the objective world.
Regardless of whether these images are backed by satirical content, they remain sensible only to the lower more primal faculties of the physical and empirical. In these ornate images of breasts, vibrant colours, and close-ups, there is little content for one’s higher faculties. These images are repugnant for they cause one to become hyper-sensitive to pleasure of the lower—perhaps immoral or indecent—faculties. For Verhoeven, one should not reject images that arouse these thoughts or emotions; one should instead revel in it.
Years ago, the Hays Code said that film should stimulate the higher senses. It should help us become better people. In other words, it should deify, and it should raise the spiritual or intellectual aptitude of the viewers. If great film requires this capacity, Showgirls is not a great film. Showgirls does anything but enhance one’s moral standing. But perhaps it is because of these old fashioned ideas that people have come to misunderstand Showgirls for the indecent, trite, cliché-ridden garbage it was first said to be
Now, looking at the film directly, without regard for whether indecent images can be valuable, the narrative and content of Showgirls is quite boring and uninteresting. This is regardless of whether one is repelled or enamoured by the images. Moreover, despite knowledge of Verhoeven’s satirical impulses, one cannot deny that the narrative is poorly developed or that scenes are completely unnecessary. For example, the entire presence of James Smith (Glenn Plummer), a random black dude that shows up a couple times to stir emotions not related at all to the film’s main plot, is completely worthless. Despite a few good jokes, there is no cause or motivation behind his presence, and even if one called this part of Verhoeven’s satire it is not enough to justify how boring and unnecessary it is. The satire is just not that powerful.
In another example, the scene where Nomi and Cristal (Gina Gershon) talk about doggie food and tits while sharing a bubbling glass of champagne is intentionally dumb, but the satirical aspect of consciously presenting a dumb conversation and reveling in its stupidity does not in any way validate the scene. The same could be said of the scene where the image of two preppy little clean-cut kids is juxtaposed with naked women. This challenges our sense of high and low culture, but it does not validate the absurdity or pointlessness of the scene.
There is no doubt that Verhoeven is an auteur and that Showgirls is carefully constructed. However, this doesn’t excuse the poorly structured narrative or unnecessary plot points. Moreover, vulgar auteurism, as a critical perspective which celebrates Showgirls, offends our artistic sensibilities. If we are to value images of a grotesque or indecent nature simply for their visceral power or affective capacity, then there is nothing uniquely artistic about an image of aesthetic beauty. That said, since one’s tastes expands in breadth due to the broadening of experience, perhaps taste for this film requires overcoming one’s resistance to vulgar images and concepts. In a sense, they can be beautiful, and perhaps the ideas held by vulgar auteurism do not challenge our favour for beauty but serves to accompany it. Even so, Showgirls, whether tasteful or not, is still not greatly enjoyable.
[notification type=”star”]65/100 ~ OKAY. In many ways, Showgirls is a McDonald’s hamburger: it may not be good for you; it may not be pretty; it is deplorable for many reasons; but it still might be the tastiest meal.[/notification]