Saturday, August 24, 2013

Showgirls (1995)

WHO: Elizabeth Berkeley stars in this.

WHAT: Showgirls was the first film rated NC-17 by the MPAA to receive a wide release in US theatres. It flopped, and signaled to major studios that they needed to make sure their mainstream theatrical releases went no higher than 'R' (though these days 'PG-13' is more customary), and ever since the NC-17 rating has been essentially relegated to films aimed solely at the art-house or home video markets. 

But in the meantime, Showgirls has become a cult phenomenon in those markets, screening to enthusiastic fans as a midnight offering in the former, and being frequently re-published in increasingly elaborate DVD packages for the latter. Not only has it found a growing fan club, it's also become re-evaluated by critics and academics and even highbrow filmmakers like Jacques Rivette. I hate to name any review as 'definitive' but I have to admit that I pretty much consider Eric Henderson's masterful 2004 write-up for Slant to be just that. Here's a sample:
Gleefully inspiring audiences everywhere to challenge conventional definitions of "good" and "bad" cinema, Showgirls is undoubtedly the think-piece object d'art of its time. It is Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas's audaciously experimental satire-but-not-satire, an epically mounted "white melodrama" (to borrow Tag Gallagher's description of Sirk's early, less mannered, and more overtly humanistic comedies of error) and also one of the most astringent, least compromised critiques of the Dream Factory ever unleashed on a frustrated, perpetually (and ideologically) pre-cum audience. Many things to many people, and absolutely nothing to a great deal more, Showgirls's proponents and detractors still square off, digging nine-foot trenches in the sand (some planting their heads therein instead of their feet) and lobbing accusations of elitism and anti-pleasure. It is perhaps one of the only films to bridge that critical gap between Film Quarterly (which hosted a beyond extensive critical roundtable on the film last year) and Joe Bob Briggs.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Castro Theatre at 8:00.

WHY: I've already related on this blog my story of experiencing Showgirls for the first time. Since writing that piece, I attended two more screenings of the film hosted by Peaches Christ, the last two held at the Bridge Theatre before the annual summer party moved to the Castro Theatre in 2010, with an according ticket-price hike and shift from midnight to prime time. I have to admit that my Peaches Christ devotion dried up around the time of this venue move. I attended dozens of Midnight Mass presentations at the Bridge in part because they were fairly inexpensive and didn't conflict with other potential Saturday evening plans. The Castro shows were said to be better-choreographed and more spectacular (thus deserving of their extra cost) but I found it hard to get motivated to attend one. It may not have helped that the films selected to fill the Castro have to skew more toward mainstream mass-appeal- true oddities like William Castle's Strait-Jacket or Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 have to be passed up in favor of more well-known films like Mommie Dearest and Purple Rain. (Although a 2013 development of including documentaries like Paris Is Burning and - up next October 12th - Grey Gardens in the program rotation is certainly welcome.)

But tonight's 16th presentation of Showgirls feels like the right time to rejoin the annual tradition. I finally attended my first Peaches Christ presentation at the Castro this summer, helped along by a return to a midnight time slot and lower ticket prices (courtesy Frameline). It didn't matter that the movie screened, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, didn't become a new favorite, or that the on-stage interview with actor Mark Patton & cinematographer Jacques Haitkin was more awkward than Peaches' interviews I've seen conducted at the Bridge (including Mink Stole, Mary Woronov and Cassandra Peterson). The over-the-top, highly-polished, exquisitely costumed and cast stage show that opened the presentation was worth the ticket price alone. It may be hard to believe that  seeing a Freddie-faced and fedora'd drag queen in a form-fitting orange-and-grey-striped sweater wreak havoc with her claws while lip-synching to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" would be one of the most thrilling live performances I've seen in a long time, but it's the truth. And I'm realizing that, as elaborate and entertaining as the Bridge Theatre Showgirls stage shows got, they'll surely be handily topped by a company that can make full use of a stage built in 1922 for dancing usherettes (such as future Best Actress Academy Award-winner Janet Gaynor). It's got to be the closest thing to being in Vegas next to actually going there!

For those seeking more intellectual stimulation, tonight's screening can launch an in-cinema study of the history of "adults-only" rated movies over the next few months. A good deal of landmark X- and NC-17-rated movies are coming to local theatres in the near future. In just a few weeks, Salo and Arabian Nights screen as part of the Roxie's contribution to this Autumn's Pier Paolo Pasolini celebration; both films will be repeated in October as part of the Pacific Film Archive's full retrospective of the director's work. The PFA is also showing the recent NC-17 sensation Killer Joe in a William Friedkin series (he'll be in attendance at the September 21st screening). 

I've also been tipped off to the titles involved in an all-35mm series of non-pornographic X-rated films  expected to play Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in October through December: Midnight Cowboy (in case you missed it this past week at the Castro), Last Tango In Paris, Fritz the Cat, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Bad Timing, and Henry & June are all expected to screen as part of this series, and provide a pretty good cross-section of films that have become classics despite (or perhaps in some cases because of) an adults-only rating. Hopefully healthy audiences too young to have experienced these when they originally appeared in theatres will turn out to see them in a cinema setting. There's a few on the list I've never seen at all and will definitely be making a priority.

Finally, the Castro's Coming Soon page indicates a few titles that make interesting contrasts to the aforementioned MPAA-"scarlet lettered" titles. Whether re-cutting a movie in order to change an initial NC-17 rating to an R, as Paul Thomas Anderson did with Boogie Nights (screening September 28th), or simply declining to submit a film for a rating at all, as with Paul Schrader's The Canyons (screening with Abel Ferrara's Dangerous Game Sep. 11), there have always been options for filmmakers trying to release films containing adult themes, even if each of them involves its own set of drawbacks.

HOW: Showgirls screens in 35mm, with an extensive live stage show performed beforehand.

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