September 23, 2020

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Schlocky bomb or high-camp classic?

Documentary aims to redeem Verhoeven's Showgirls

When entire documentaries get made about feature films, the operating premise is that the movie being discussed is worthy of a feature-length evaluation.

Take Rodney Ascher’s 2012 doc Room 237, which examined nine different theories interpreting Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or the 2017 film 78/52, Alexandre O. Philippe’s painstaking deconstruction of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In You Don’t Nomi, director Jeffrey McHale proposes that there’s more than meets the bulging eyeball when it comes to Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, a 1995 soft-porn melodrama that reteamed Verhoeven with Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. It tells the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley, fresh from the high school sitcom Saved By the Bell), a weirdly feral dancer who comes to Las Vegas and climbs the career ladder from strip-club peeler to casino headliner.

Verhoeven (RoboCop, Black Book), never the most restrained of filmmakers, dials up the emotion, action and sexuality so loudly, the whole film became an exercise in self-defeat. The drama makes you laugh, the production numbers make you cringe, and the sex is so calculatedly provocative as to be anti-erotic.

Grade Five Films</p>

Grade Five Films

So, no, not a fan.

But the critic’s opinion will always be subjective. McHale assembles a few critics and writers who suggest the film deserves to be reconsidered for its post-release successes. In its bomb aftermath, it became a kind of high-camp touchstone for the LGBTTQ+ community, and not because of its girl-girl sex scenes. Rather, Nomi’s story arc mirrored the specific experience of gay men, rejected at home and seeking to create a new family in the big, bad city.

Also, the movie’s sustained, hysterical tone put it on a short list of show-biz melodramas with maximum camp appeal, including the potboiler Valley of the Dolls and the Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest. And indeed, when the appropriate clips are put together, all three films might be mistaken as the work of a single madman auteur.

Clips of campy drag restagings of Showgirls by one Peaches Christ look like tremendous fun (including free lap dances for any attendees who purchase a large popcorn).

The critics include David Schmader, the guy who first hosted midnight screenings of the film and ended up supplying sardonic commentary for the special edition DVD a few years back. Testifying for the defence is Adam Nayman, author of the book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, which apparently posits that Showgirls, like other Verhoeven films, was a cutting critique of crude capitalist culture, and not an example of it.

Grade Five Films</p>

Grade Five Films

McHale, by the way, does not employ typical talking-heads footage of his commentators, reasoning that footage from Verhoeven’s entire body of work is more visually interesting. He’s not wrong.

The documentary might not change your mind about the overall film, but even the most hard-hearted critic can’t deny McHale has included a redemptive note in its story of April Kidwell, an actress who played Nomi in a campy stage musical based on the film. Kidwell is absolutely hilarious in the footage from the show, but her backstory is heartbreaking: She was the victim of a rape, and her subsequent battle with PTSD came close to destroying her. When she got the role, it proved to be therapeutic, especially when you recall how the character of Nomi avenges a rape in the climax of the film. It helped her come back.

Alas, there was no such redemptive arc for Berkeley, whose career was basically ruined by the film, even though Verhoeven took full responsibility for her over-the-top performance.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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