Wednesday, January 11


Vision Thing

Today marks the 10th Anniversary of the release of Showgirls in director Paul Verhoeven's Mother Holland, and it didn't take much prodding for me to be convinced to join the appreciation party happening right now in the blogosphere. Yes, I actually like this perhaps inherently misogynistic film that rates a measly 3.8/10 from imdb voters and a 16/100 score on Metacritic. I count myself among the growing number of cinephiles whose views at the very least fit under the umbrella statement, "It doesn't suck."

I first saw Showgirls in the summer of 2001 when I scored free passes to Peaches Christ's summer series of witching hour cult movies called Midnight Mass. Showgirls was the second film in the series, and unquestionably the most raucous evening of those I attended (I skipped 9 To 5). The audience was packed with drunks, butch dykes, drag queens, and a few of us token "normals" who maybe didn't feel quite so normal anymore. I had the distinct impression that my friend and I were the only ones who'd never seen the film before, especially when most of the audience seemed to be yelling half the lines of dialogue at the screen. It was clear that at least we'd stumbled into a true cult phenomenon, and indeed Peaches has screened the film to sellout crowds at least once every summer since 1998. Well, how can you not enjoy a film on a certain level when surrounded by enthusiasm like that? I even got into the spirit of the evening and at one point around the midway mark yelled out (something I never do in a movie theatre) in my most nasal geek voice, "Excuse me, I'm trying to watch the movie!" It got a laugh, but there was some truth in my mock complaint. It was fun but difficult to untangle my reaction to the film from my response to the audience's shouts and cheers. I remember thinking that the film had utterly failed at being sexy if that was the intention, but I had the impression that the sterile plasticity of the sex and nudity just might have been part of a grander scheme to satirize the American Dream. Though I hadn't yet read Charles Taylor's review of the film, I agreed with his premise that Showgirls is intentional camp. I had been exposed to the idea of Verhoeven as satirist (through Zach Campbell for one) before seeing the film, and I found myself agreeing.

Here come spoilers in case you're still a Showgirls virgin...

I was totally caught off guard by Molly's rape scene, though. It's a truly disgusting and shocking scene, and sharply contrasts the good-natured humiliation, back stabbing, lying, pimping and whoring that make up the bulk of the film. Perhaps I was reacting less to the film than to the way the Midnight Masses became so much more subdued for this scene and its aftermath, but it felt like a real miscalculation to suddenly change the film's tone so radically. It took exposure to insightful analysis by the likes of Eric Henderson for me to start to understand the function of that scene in the film, and to finally see Verhoeven's creation as something more than a fun but flawed film.

So when the call went out for participation in a Showgirls-a-thon, I was ripe to revisit the film on DVD, which I finally did last night. What follows are a few thoughts and questions, not coherently gelled into any kind of argument whatsoever.

1. I own the soundtrack on audiocassette (it features excellent tracks from likes of Killing Joke, David Bowie, and Siouxsie and the Banshees) but I'd forgotten that in her initial hitch-hiking scene, Nomi changes the music from Dwight Yoakam (who she mislabels as Garth Brooks) to a song not found on my tape for whatever reason. "Vision Thing," by one of my favorite bands of the late eighties and early nineties, the Sisters of Mercy, is a song about America's cocaine-fueled aggression and imperialism. Though we don't hear the beginning of the song (which starts off with the sound of a coke sniff) I'm sure that whoever selected it knew what Verhoeven was up to; it's no coincidence that the Bowie song that plays in the dance club is "I'm Afraid of Americans". Oh, and guess where the Sisters are launching their 2006 American tour on March 22? Sin City itself, where the streets are lined with the tossed-away hamburger wrappers left by Nomis of the world over.

2. Having recently seen Footlight Parade for the first time and being struck by the incredible speed of the first half of that film, propelled of course by the actor who personifies "rapid-fire", James Cagney, I have to say Verhoeven doesn't quite capture that feeling of intense organizational energy though he comes close a couple of times. I'm not saying he's even trying to. The 1933 Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley film Showgirls usually gets compared to is of course 42nd Street which is less fresh in my mind. But I definitely feel that Footlight Parade is worth a comparative look too, if only because the milieu seems somewhat more similar; aren't the depression-era girlie shows Cagney is trying to put together in that film some of the more apt equivalents to big Vegas shows like "Goddess"? And wasn't a big part of the appeal of Busby Berkeley's most lavish production numbers (like the ones in Footlight Parade) the feminine flesh on display, even if they never provided audiences the full frontal nudity required to bat eyebrows in 1995?

3. What kind of fantasyland is this where not only does someone suggest that Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul might star in "Goddess", but that the president of the hotel actually repeats the dismissed suggestion to the media? Or am I remembering 1995 inaccurately, with my post-Super Bowl, post-American Idol perspective clouding my sense of history?

4. What's with Cristal's underdeveloped Elvis fixation? Is there some character backstory or a key line that got trimmed out somehow?

5. Least-sexy sex scene in the film: Elizabeth Berkley flopping like a fish in the pool with her groin attached to Kyle MacLachlan's abdomen.

6. Spoilers again. That means you, mom; I know you haven't seen the film. Here's a wacky and/or trite interpretation of Nomi and Molly's relationship for everyone to point and laugh at. Let me know if this has already been proven or disproven somewhere I haven't seen (like in that Film Quarterly roundtable on the film that I still haven't read). Molly, who reiterates that she hasn't had sex in many a moon at the point Nomi comes into her life, represents Nomi's virginity (or born-again virginity if you will, since we later learn Nomi's a reformed Oaktown crack-whore). Though surrounded by wanton Vegas sexuality, Nomi's roommate remains chaste, ensuring that no matter what our natural-blonde heroine goes through in her escapades at the Cheetah club or with aspiring gynecologists by which I mean choreographers, her hymen remains intact. But when Andrew Carver and his gang force their camels through the eye of the seamstress's needle (sorry about that turn of phrase but I couldn't resist) it's as if Nomi has herself been raped. And though she gets revenge on the rapist, she also feels the blame and shame rape victims (I'm told) often do. Looked at this way, it seems that perhaps her departure on the road to Los Angeles is not so much a return to blind ambition but an escape from a community where she no longer can live in her own skin. Or is that what ambition always is anyway, an escape from our selves?

And here are some more coherently-stated cases for the film. The last link leads to still more:

Great post! I was trying to figure out which country star that was in the beginning (I knew it wasn't Garth Brooks). And that Cristal/Elvis thing is kind of weird--one wonders at what subplots and subtexts were in this film and were severely trimmed or deleted, because it's full of synchronicities, as you point out with the music (or, as Eric noted, with Prince's "319" and Cristal's hospital room) ...
Brian: Great stuff! I really appreciate your analysis of the rape scene (and Eric's too)-- that's the aspect of the film that still bothered me (I have a real aversion to rape scenes in general, whether thematically relevant or not, just on a basic threshold-of-pain level). But it was good to read you guys talking about it. I can't wait to get a spare second (tonight? tomorrow?) to dig in to all the great entries sure to come on this one, as well as finish my own. I've been chewing on the movie since Monday night, and it feels like I have a lot to talk about, but we'll see! My own post has been delayed slightly, due to commitments here at the office, but I'm about 2/3 done and should have something up today or this evening. Again, nice post, and thanks for the heads-up on this great blogospherian(?) idea. What's next, I wonder?
Brian, is your mom a film enthusiast? Do you share common film likes?
Zach, I was just thinking about it a bit more and wonder if maybe it's just that it would have been a majorly wasted opportunity to make a Vegas movie without any Elvis references, and Cristal became the vessel to carry them into the film.

Dennis, I'm excited to read what you have to say, even if it might not fall right on International Showgirls Day.

Girsh, the aside to my mom is more a joke than anything though I know she has peeked at this blog on occasion. We haven't watched too many movies together since I was a kid, but we did bond over our appreciation of the movie version of the Death of Klinghoffer, which I wrote a bit about a few months ago.
Brian: Re the move out of Vegas to L.A., I didn't really deal with it in my piece (rather hastily finished and assembled here at work, so I hope it's worth reading), but I rather like Taylor's assertion that Nomi has been, for lack of a better phrase, self-actualized through her experience in Vegas and that the journey to L.A. will take her to a place where she can put her newly found knowledge into practice and become a first-class whore, a notion that the movie satirically celebrates. I like Taylor's piece so much that I found myself struggling not to simply parrot its ideas, even when they overlappped with my own reactions (I'm glad I didn't reread it before seeing the film again!) Anyway, it's on, for better or worse! Viva Showgirls!
Talk about the teaches of Peaches. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Wonderful explication of your introduction to the world of Showgirls. And your read on Molly as a Nomi's good-natured sexual poltergeist is big, juicy cheeseburger for thought. Once I had settled on my 20 quotes, I was most surprised that Molly appeared in nearly as many quotes as Nomi or Cristal. Granted, she was setting Nomi up in most cases, but I think it bolsters your theory.
I think I already wrote a similar comment on another blogpost about The Rape, but I'm going to go into here because it relates. Molly represents many things here. Molly, unlike everyone else in the film, is a real person. She's not only good, but she's also very smart. She's the one, remember, who warns Nomi against going to the boatshow. Her rape then, while not seeming to follow logically (#1, she strikes me as too smart to get into this mess), serves primarily to show the fate of humans in a world populated by animals. And I'd approach Nomi's reaction to it from a different angle. I don't think Molly is, precisely, a symbol of anything. But she is a kind of wife to Nomi, taking care of her, devotedly excited at each step Nomi take sup the ladder, even if she feels betrayed at the end. If I'm right about what Verhoeven is saying -- namely that humans are no different from apes, acting out of instict and desire and not out of ration and the "higher emotions" -- then can't Nomi's revenge be seen as her way of reinforcing her own ownership of Molly? Like the alpha male of a chimpanzee tribe, she attacks the intruding male with every weapon she's got, sex and stilletos included.

the fact that so many people have a problem with the rape, in which Molly is reduced to the property of Andrew Carver, but not with the revenge scene (which is just as brutal and, in its own way, just as sexual) in which Nomi reasserts who own ownership of Molly seems ridiculous. Both scenes are vital to understanding Verhoeven's interpretation of human behavior, which isn't exactly pretty but isn't exactly wrong either.
Josh, mark me as one who found the revenge scene repellent. If it is less so than the rape scene, that is because it has those ludicrous high-kicking Bond-babe fight moves, and that is why I didn't mention it as standing out from the rest of the movie.
Thanks to everyone for their great comments! Joshua, I'm very intrigued by the idea of Molly being a kind of wife to Nomi, for a lot of reasons. It's not a new idea; the Midnight Mass crowd I initially saw the film with reacted to the two as, if not a married couple, at least friends-with-benefits. But seeing you spell it out seems like more ammunition for girish's Imitation of Life comparison; what I best remember about Sirk's film that I've seen but once, other than a few specific scenes, was my impression that Lana Turner and Juanita Moore were very much like a married couple. I'm not certain how it fits with my hare-brained theory but somehow it seems complimentary if that makes any sense.
It is complimentary in a sense, Brian. The "wife" in a sybmolic sense does represent purity, safety, comfort and home -- though not virginity exactly.

And I use the word wife specifically to avoid the Midnight Movie reaction to the lesbian undertones (of which there are virtually none. Nomi is much more interested in women like Cristal) but instead to indicate a sort of stable relationship. I think of the relationship of the nurse and the patient in "Cries and Whispers" which is not sexual but is spousal. The "husband" in the relatoinship needs the "wife" in order to survive, even if it is ultimately thankless and degrading to the wife (who in both cases is "the help" -- Molly sews up Nomi's g-string and the nurse, obviously, nures.)
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