I’ve always prided myself upon my imperviousness to the critically commonplace, but I’ll admit that they got me this time! For thirteen years!
And I would still be in the dark if visiting friends hadn’t set my sights Verhoeven-ward once again, by instigating a Starship Troopers
double-feature over the weekend.
I got so excited about this pair (especially the glorious Heinlein ad-slap-tation) that I announced my intention to watch everything the man has done, since coming to America in the mid-’80s. “Not Showgirls though, right?” my friends inquired. Of course Showgirls! How could I skip that one? I wasn’t expecting to like it–but I did think that it would at least fit with the theory that the Dutch director’s entire career in Hollywood constitutes some kind of meta-critique of the culture the industry serves/helps to create…
Well I’m tossing that theory out the window. Forget meta-critique–the films themselves offer the purest critique you will ever see. Even purer than Motime fave Grant Morrison’s The Filth, because Verhoeven really dares to produce exploitation films that vibrate on a plane SO closely in tune with the worst in the culture that you could very easily fail to find your way into the anti-chambers (and I DO mean anti–, not antechambers, no matter what my word processor says!) they contain. And most people have done just that. Failed.
Where to start with Showgirls? Well, first off, I’d say, the All About Eve comparisons have to go. I understand them. Even considered them. But they can only lead you astray. This is NOT a critique of “ambition” or “show biz shallowness”… Those have been completely acceptable targets since the dawn of Hollywood–a part of the whole “the rich and powerful have problems of their own” strain of thought that keeps the capitalist treadmill rolling, despite the inequities it breeds.
What to compare it to then? My choices would be Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky’s Body and Soul (1947) and Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971). The earlier film is a classic noirish expose of capitalist exploitation, as seen through the prism of the fight game, which grinds up the bodies of the poor boys it feeds upon. It features incredible performances by John Garfield and Canada Lee–both of whom would be destroyed during the “Second Red Scare”–and I love it–but I’ve always been disappointed by the popular front humanism (saintly working class mother, neighborhood solidarity, the very idea of a “soul” existing apart from an exploited “body”) that dulls its critical edge. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, has this rep for being an ultra-cool satire that drowns the viewer in the crocodile tears which are the life’s blood of do-goodery and moral/ethical thinking. (and I suppose it IS that–but it’s ALSO an ultra-cheezy paean to the prerogative of the “sensitive artist/intellectual” that is no less sentimental than a fuckin’ Julia Cameron self-help guide).
Verhoeven’s film goes so much further than either of these predecessors. If you want a REAL comparison–you might want to check out Richard Wright’s Native Son. Think of Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi as Bigger Thomas, and you’ll begin to see the movie aright. Shallow? Violent? Unable to tell friend from foe? Yes. Yes. Yes. Patriarchy creates its own form of lumpenproletarian.
Is the dialogue terrible? I’m never sure what people mean when they say this. It’s not erudite? (how could it be?) It’s not realistic? (fuck off!–to paraphrase Marx–artists have done a decent job of describing reality in the past century or so–but the point is to CHANGE it) It’s not appropriate? That depends upon what you think the movie is. Reviewers are shocked by the stupid lines. “It must be nice not to have guys coming on you every night”???? That’s supposed to be heartwarming? Yes. Yes, it is. (supposed to be) And no. No it’s not. (why should it be? What resources can these people call upon in order to create that special moment that audiences seem to want?) All of the <> scenes in this film expose the ways in which seemingly-sophisticated viewers are looking for exactly the same things that a movie-of-the-week specializes in serving up. I happen to think that the script serves the narrative perfectly.
And what IS the narrative? Well! It’s the story of a soulless wreck of a human being who begins the film with a confused idea in her head about the way to salvation/empowerment/”a soul” and ends the film on a DIFFERENT confused route (leading out of Las Vegas) to the same never-never land. Along the way, she comes as close as she is capable of coming to two other people (her roommate and the woman she supplants in the show)–although, in both cases, this happens too late and can’t lead to anything that anyone could confuse with anything that is actually good. Like Body and Soul, Showgirls presents us with the ultimate survivor–a person who, for whatever Satan-given reason, has been granted the power to survive in ANY environment… Unlike the Rossen film however–Showgirls strips that power of all glamourous/inspirational/heartwarming qualities… John Garfield walks away from the fight game arm-in-arm with Lilli Palmer. Elizabeth Berkley makes good her escape in a cowgirl costume, holding a knife to the throat of the once-and-future dick who first brought her to Sin City–from a place, we later learn, that was worse than ANYTHING we see in the film itself… And she’s clearly headed back to the same dismal place. It’s called the world we live in. There’s nothing else. And no safe place to view it from. Verhoeven satirizes the half-smart satirists that give the genre a bad name (in my book, at any rate). Nathanael West would have loved this film. And so do I.
I could go on–but I need to eat!
good afternoon friends!