Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trash and Art: Interview with Film Critic and Author Adam Nayman on Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls

There has probably no movie from Hollywood that has been so reviled and eviscerated as Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995). Having already established himself in the Netherlands as their resident l'enfant terrible in films like Spetters (1980) and The Fourth Man (1983) for their explicit sexuality and violence, Verhoeven would come to Hollywood in the Eighties to continue drawing moustaches on sacred cows in racy thrillers like Basic Instinct (1992) and SF satires like Robocop (1987). But if those films were hugely popular for their outrageous daring, Showgirls, a film about a drifter, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who hitchhikes to Las Vegas to find fame and fortune by climbing from stripper to showgirl, was greeted with a tsunami of raspberries (including the 1995 Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture).

In the subsequent years, Showgirls has been reassessed, but often in the way Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) gets redeemed, by embracing its badness as a form of pleasure. Film critic Adam Nayman in his book It Doesn't Suck. Showgirls (ECW Press, 2014), however, isn't interested in acclaiming it for its badness, or in heaping empty superlatives at an unappreciated masterpiece. Nayman's vastly entertaining and probing book gets to the core of the prickly undercurrents that upset so many viewers and critics at the time (and even touches on areas that could continue to start arguments today). 

Adam Nayman is a Toronto film critic who has written for The Grid and writes for The Globe and Mail. He is also a contributing editor to Cinemascope. Along with writing about film for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Film Comment, Cineaste and Reverse Shot, he also teaches film studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. Nayman is also a programmer for the Toronto Jewish Film Society.

Unlike myself, who saw Showgirls as a professional film critic back in 1995 and experienced the hate first-hand, Adam Nayman became a critic long after the hailstorm, which is where we began our interview.

kc: You once told me about the frustration you felt discovering an iconic film that previous critics had already deemed a masterpiece. You said it made it harder for you to see it clearly with your own eyes. In Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, we have the opposite where most critics reviled the film. In that light, how different was your experience coming to this movie?

an: That's a really good question. I was motivated to see the film as a teenager more because of its bad reviews – including a notorious notice by Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail – than its supposedly prurient content (though of course for a 14-year-old boy that stuff has its appeal too). It's always tempting to position oneself with or against a certain critic or critical faction, and in writing a book about Showgirls, it was impossible to not take its disastrous reception into account. I've still yet to find a very persuasive and wholly negative review of Showgirls; the pans seem rather clueless to me, while the more qualified critiques – the ones that acknowledge either its satirical project or its evident technical skill – are far more valid even if the verdict is bad.

Adam Nayman on Showgirls: "I don't think that the case on Elizabeth Berkley's badness is at all closed."

kc: Well, your book on Showgirls kicks off a new series being published by ECW Press that looks at pop culture classics – What do you think warrants Showgirls as a pop classic?

an: It's always hard to define a "classic," though one of the criteria that I think matters is longevity; calling something an "instant classic" is good marketing copy but also a contradiction in terms. (I know that some movies or books or albums do feel like classics right out of the gate, which is why it's tough to be hard and fast about these rules, but for what it's worth I try to avoid saying so in print at least.) So with Showgirls you have a film that's now been in circulation for basically 20 years – enough time to take the long view on what's in it (its storyline, characters, filmmaking choices, etc) and also what's happened around it (the bad reception; the various attempts to reclaim it in different wings of film studies and fan culture). From this vantage point it looks like a significant, period-defining film in a lot of ways – the end of the early Nineties vogue for studio sexploitation and the kickoff point for big-budget movies being sold by their own distributors as camp hoots (MGM wised up right when the film hit VHS and DVD and condoned the "so-bad-it's-good" approach to watching it). So I don't think I was being merely provocative when I proposed such a conspicuous "failure" for a series about "pop classics" – though being provocative always helps a little bit with a book proposal.

kc: On top of being provocative, you provide a sharp and funny rendering of Showgirls and its history. You also delve quite perceptively into the career of its director. Given his work before Showgirls – such as Spetters, The 4th Man and Soldier of Orange – do you think Paul Verhoeven's sensibility is as recognizable in Showgirls as in his previous Dutch films?

an: I'd say so. I talk about this at length in the book but basically to me Verhoeven is a guy who can't help but cram as much salacious and confrontational material as possible into his movies – his artistry emerges not in spite of these bad-boy tendencies, but often in thrall to them. Verhoeven's brazenness and satirical tendencies should endear him to critics but because he's not always politically correct – as in the gleeful gay-bashing scenes in Spetters or the entire plot and dramaturgy of Basic Instinct – he pisses people off on both sides of the spectatorial divide: not just the dodderers in the moral majorities (in the US and the Netherlands) but also those writers who prefer that auteurs toe the liberal line. I don't think that the content of Verhoeven's films is worth celebrating in and of itself but the lack of piety and abundance of comedy bring him closer to Buñuel than some fans of the latter might like to admit.

Director Paul Verhoeven 

kc: Besides pointing out his irreverence and lack of piety, I also like what you do with the idea of mirrors and how Verhoeven uses this device to both reflect and create a doubling of what we see and experience –What do think his purpose is in doing it?

an: I think the purpose is just what you said – to create a doubling of perception that's perfect for a film that's simultaneously very smart and very stupid. (I quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald in the book on the notion of being able to entertain two thoughts at the same time; I think a lot of scenes in Showgirls do that, and that the critics who simply saw brainlessness weren't using their own grey matter very strenuously even though that's their job). Verhoeven isn't the first or only director to use mirrors as a motif in his work (they're quite beloved of Stanley Kubrick, who is one of Verhoeven's heroes) and I think they're a great moviemaking device since they create multiple planes and levels of imagery on the screen. Showgirls has a lot of great mirror scenes; my favourite is the first time Nomi comes to see Cristal in her dressing room, where the staging and framing makes it seem like two separate scenes are playing out – the one between the characters and the one between their reflections.

kc: When I saw Showgirls, it seemed to me to be in that grand and tawdry tradition of Hollywood melodramas like The Valley of the Dolls – even musicals like 42nd Street – so I was shocked to find the reviews so vicious at the time. What do you feel inspired the strong and angry reaction to Showgirls?

an: As I say in the book, the guys who made Basic Instinct weren't going to be treated very nicely in their next movie, no matter what it was; Verhoeven and Eszterhas had just made a lot of money making a lot of people angry and the knives were out for any future collaborations. I'd also say that even though Showgirls came out a year after Pulp Fiction (and Quentin Tarantino went to bat for the movie in the press, saying that he loved it) it didn't benefit from the resultant critical vogue for postmodern analysis. For instance, in the same year, you had films like Se7en and The Usual Suspects, which, whatever their respective virtues and faults, were constructed self-consciously out of spare parts from older genres (detective pictures, gangster pictures). Those films – and others, from Memento to Far From Heaven to Boogie Nights to even the likes of Con Air – were routinely praised for their "intertextuality." Showgirls is, as you suggest, an intertextual work – it draws from the films you mention and many others, mainly vintage Hollywood musicals and melodramas, even All About Eve. Where Tarantino and the directors who came after him got a lot of credit for their cinephilic filmmaking, Verhoeven's references were not rewarded; whether it's because critics weren't familiar with 42nd Street (which is possible), or didn't want to connect those deceptively chaste, strenuously repressed productions with the licentiousness of their late-Nineties update is hard to say for sure.

Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone

kc: Much of the anger around Showgirls was directed towards Elizabeth Berkley, the star of the film, even though I can't imagine the film working without her in the role. Although in pure acting terms, I'm not making a case for her delivering a good performance, but she has a quality that is consistent with the genre Showgirls finds itself in. How essential do you think she is to Showgirls?

an: The movie would simply not be what it is without her; and since I think the case can be made that it's a great film then that reflects positively on her acting (a case maybe of the ends justifying some technically impoverished or otherwise wobbly means). I tried very hard to be fair in the book to an actress who took so much shit for her performance; my point isn't that she's good but that it was very easy for male critics to project disgust and condescension onto a 21-year girl who, if nothing else, seems to have done exactly what her director wanted. The question of whether Verhoeven actually really did get the performance he wanted all along – an oddly erratic and pliable turn in a movie about a young woman who doesn't know better and gets exploited in the showbiz machine – is very much open. I don't think that the case on Berkley's badness is at all closed.

kc: While much of the film is consistent in its use of melodrama, a rape scene late in the film has a completely different tone that has drawn much attention, and you soberly delve into it in your book – How essential to Showgirls is that scene and the more brutal, realistic tone he brings to it?

an: That scene is in some ways the key to the whole film – it takes a certain possessive, resentful misogyny that's been percolating beneath the surface of the story and unleashes it – behind closed doors but ending out in the open, where a roomful of partygoers is suddenly (but only momentarily) chastened by the revelation of a rapist in their midst. It's a truly hideous sequence and I have friends – Showgirls fans –who say that it compromises their enjoyment of the movie as a whole; I see where they're coming from but I also think they're advocating for the willfully partial enjoyment of a wholly integrated work – and the rape scene is a big part of Showgirls' design. The identity of the rapist is established well before he enters the film – he's a male pop singer who functions as the sort of mass-culture idol Nomi wants to be. He's representative of the delusions that Nomi (and even the more practical, worldly Molly) are encouraged to believe about Las Vegas and while his appearance at the end isn't surprising it has a horrible inevitability that is sort of revelatory. The rape reveals things about several of the film's characters: it confirms that Kyle McLachlan's promoter is not just a sleaze but a moral imbecile; it hints that Molly's kindness and optimism is a defect in a city so debased; it gives Nomi a chance at redemption (and to put those high-kicking dance moves towards a higher purpose). It's not an easy scene to watch but it's crucial to talk about if you're going to take this movie seriously.

A scene from Starship Troopers (1997)

kc: It's curious to me that Verhoeven comes to America in the Eighties, not long after the age of the director, which was in the Seventies. He then makes 'personal' films using the impersonal material that, by then, was dominating commercial movie-making. Do you think imposing his personality into works like Robocop and Basic Instinct also set him up for the backlash of Showgirls?

an: His personality, as you say, is all over those Hollywood movies; it's in the post-Showgirls work too, like in Hollow Man's rueful self-portrait of a brilliant creep disappearing into the ether (not the "death of the auteur" but the idea that he can indulge himself even more freely once he's receded into the background –like Verhoeven as forced to do after the flop of Showgirls). His personally impersonal movies, if you will, split the difference between the stuff that attracted power players like Spielberg and Lucas to his work (they both invited him to Hollywood) and the stuff that ultimately distinguished him from their company: Star Wars may have trapped its characters briefly in a trash compactor but Robocop dunks a villain in toxic waste and has him run over by a car, the impact of which causes him to explode. And Spielberg's aliens in Close Encounters have nothing on the arachnids in Starship Troopers – a movie that is sort of the anti-E.T. The personality in Verhoeven's Dutch films was aggressive, abrasive, borderline-abusive and utterly fearless, and eventually he hit a wall – not artistically but in terms of pissing people off. The same thing happened in the US after Robocop and Total Recall led to Basic Instinct and Showgirls – note that the backlash occurs when the excess is sexual rather than viscerally violent. In this way, though, Verhoeven actually resembles Spielberg (and Lucas) a lot – his success was comparable to theirs and anybody who has that much success always gets taken down a peg at some point. He recovered really nicely with Black Book, his return to the Netherlands (and to Dutch history/complicity in World War II) but he's been stalled since then; I hope that in his seventies he still has a couple more good outrageous (and outraging) movies in him!

kc: Your book is filled with both sides of the argument around Showgirls where it can suck, but doesn't suck, creating yet another doubling. Do you think the argument for, or against, Showgirls is ultimately unresolvable?

an: I took inspiration for my book from a scene in a script by Mia Hansen-Love; the movie will likely be out this fall. In it a group of friends argue back and forth about Showgirls in one character's apartment and fail to get anywhere – the most peaceable of the lot proposes a compromise wherein the movie is neither great nor terrible, but is still recognizable as an auteur work. That's more or less where I fall on Showgirls as a whole though I think it has so many great things in it – and so many things that were so much better than they were recognized for being in the first place – that my "split decision" is more like a victory on points (like the one Apollo Creed got over Rocky Balboa the first time out). I'm much more interested in nuanced arguments as to why a thing is good or bad than people yelling "masterpiece!" or "piece of shit!" at each other; I hope I've made the argument in It Doesn't Suck that Showgirls doesn't suck – and also that it means something different to say that about an abject failure than, say, a big hit. I might also love to write a book about Robocop, for instance, but it would make no sense to call it "It Doesn't Suck."

kc: In her essay, "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael said that "trash can give us an appetite for art." In the spirit of doubling, where Showgirls is concerned, do you think art can give us an appetite for trash?

an: I definitely think that art can give us an appetite for trash – and also that art itself has an appetite for trash. The roots of the novel – of basically the key literary mode of the last two hundred years –are in picaresque fiction, which privileges cacophony, sensation, prurience and disunity; the picaresque spoofs the capital-R romance, and out of that spoofery – that critique of idealism and perfection –comes the novel (and with it some of the great works of art in human history). I think that some of the greatest film artists had a bottomless appetite for trash, including Jean-Luc Godard, who dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures, and Kenneth Anger, whose Scorpio Rising reinterprets youth-exploitation movies in visionary terms. The other way of answering the question is to say that enough "cultural vegetables" (to use an incendiary term attributed to Dan Kois, who criticized Andrei Tarkovsky in Slate in a silly piece and barely lived to regret it) makes you want to eat "junk food." I'm sure that's to some extent true but I've always been a proponent of a balanced diet – art and trash, sometimes in the same serving. And that's why I've always found the films of Paul Verhoeven especially delicious – even when they leave a bitter aftertaste (or are totally tasteless in the end).

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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