Friday, September 26, 2008

showgirls, by paul verhoeven

So going into this week's Film Club pick, Showgirls, I was theorizing that its director, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, might serve as an analogue to Humbert Humbert (from last week's pick, Lolita). Both Verhoeven and Humbert, it seemed to me, are Europeans who are deeply fascinated with America, specifically America's crass, impulsive, trashy, and shallow aspects—in essence, the aspects of America that are the most distinctly non-European.

If you're interested in those aspects of America, there are two places that might prove especially fascinating, and Showgirls not only calls out those places by name, but it bookends itself with them. Here's a still taken from the first shot of the film:

...and here's a still from the final shot of the film, which you can hopefully read at this resolution if you squint:

So. If you start to think about Showgirls as something that's a commentary on America rather than a cynical exercise in audience titillation, it begins to become more interesting. Although if you want to do this, it might behoove you to ask: what kind of commentary is it, exactly? Is it a satire? Is it a critique? Certainly there are elements of the film that suggest this. It works, at times, as a cataloging of American grotesquerie and tackiness:

And our protag, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), is definitely a Dolores-Haze-like bundle of raw impulses and poorly-thought-out gestures. (Sometimes it seems like every encounter in the entire film ends up with her either storming off in a rage or wreaking some kind of violence upon someone.) Inasmuch as she is functioning a stand-in for American values more largely, there's unmistakably some element of critique there. But Verhoeven's critical interest seems to circulate more around the relationship between entertainment (particularly entertainment that features the use of the body) and prostitution.

We can see this if we look at how much of the film's narrative energy is spent examining the rivalry between the naive and impulsive Nomi and a more seasoned and worldly-wise showgirl, Cristal (played by Gena Gershon). This rivalry, at least initially, hinges less upon professional jealousy and more upon a difference in world-view: Cristal sees the spectacular display of her own body at a high-end casino (the Stardust) and Nomi's topless dancing at a low-rent club (the Cheetah) as basically different points on the larger continuum of prostitution, whereas Nomi sees dancing as a more noble pursuit, categorically different. In the end, it turns out that Nomi doth protest too much, and the film expends a lot of narrative energy repeatedly complicating or violating the distinction between entertaining-through-one's-body and whoring.

Along these lines, it should not surprise us that the character who is perhaps the most effectively satirized in the film is the representative Serious Artist, James. James is a young black dancer who sees dance as a Legitimate Art Form (he trained with Alvin Ailey, we're told), and who naively wants to use Vegas as the forum in which to put on a personal, avant-garde dance piece. In the end, his piece does get its premiere, but ultimately it's little more than a dressed-up version of the same old bump-and-grind:

Thought of thusly, the avant-garde or personal elements in James's piece are essentially forms of inefficiency—noise in the channel, slowing down the transmission of what is important (and saleable), namely, erotic content. If Nomi is a whore who won't admit she's a whore, then James is a pimp who doesn't know he's a pimp, making him the least effective and most strongly ironized character in the entire film.

So, ultimately, the film is critiquing Vegas as a machine that turns people into commodities, and there is a sharply-pointed implication that LA, the city towards which the film gazes in its final moments, operates in precisely the same way. (It's not hard to imagine Verhoeven thinking of acting as simply another point on the "prostitution" continuum, and (it would follow) locating filmmaking as simply another point on the "pimping" continuum.) The film's reaction to this is not rage, but rather a nearly nihilistic resignation: the fools of the film, the ones being satirized, are James and Nomi, the ones who believe that they're not implicated in this sorry state of affairs. If everyone in Vegas and LA is either a pimp or a whore, the film seems to be saying, then the only wise thing to do is admit it and carry on.

If we recall the predictable trajectory of Verhoeven's own pre-Showgirls career, which starts off with him making small art-house films like The Fourth Man (1984) and ends up with him making big-budget Hollywood films like Basic Instinct and Total Recall, it becomes easy to think that maybe Verhoeven had come to think of himself as something of Hollywood' pimp at this point in his career—a line of thought which makes it easy to read Showgirls as a very public way of "admitting it and carrying on." "Admitting it" and "carrying on" might not be the two wisest things to do in the span of a single film, however: although the film is totally willing to give the audience the erotic content that they presumably crave, it asks, in return, that the audience acknowledge Verhoeven as a pimp, Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon as whores, and (it would follow) the audience themselves as willing johns. Many filmgoers understandably might feel discomfited by this bargain, which may go part of the way towards explaining why the film failed at the box office. (There are also other, more obvious reasons, of course, many of which have to do with Showgirls simply not being a very well-made film, but these have been discussed amply elsewhere and don't require recounting here.)

No comments: