Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Vision Thing


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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?