Thursday 11 June 2020

Stripping yarns: "You Don't Nomi"

To start, a confession: I've never actually seen Showgirls. Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas's flashy, fleshy erotic dancing saga opened on UK screens in early 1996, when I was but a guileless 17-year-old - in the eyes of the BBFC, too young to see it - and if the execrable reviews weren't offputting enough, further disgruntled word came through on the Monday after release, via an advance party of classmates who'd snuck into the movie on opening night. The angriest of the group had apparently stood up and loudly declared "That was bollocks" as the end credits began to roll, and then proceeded to spell out "bollocks", letter by withering letter, to mounting cheers from similarly miffed cinemagoers. An idea gathering pace in cinephile circles - floated on screen by Vincent Macaigne's huffy culture-vulture Arnaud in the 2014 drama Eden, set down in print by the more measured Canadian critic Adam Nayman's monograph of the same year It Doesn't Suck, and now taken up by this week's documentary You Don't Nomi - is that Showgirls is in fact a maligned masterpiece of sorts, and that it was every bit as misrepresented by first responders as the director's Basic Instinct or Starship Troopers. (Curiously, everyone seems to have got Verhoeven's Total Recall, which doesn't strike me as notably less ironic, nuanced or slippery, first time around - but then perhaps onlookers were reassured by the presence of Arnie punching and shooting people.) This revisionism appears to be catching on. As we speak, Showgirls' rating on the Internet Movie Database has swelled to a lofty 4.9 - almost half-mast! - sending it nearly a full point clear of the site's infamous Bottom 100. Give it another 25 years, and it may start to offer 1995's Best Picture contender The Shawshank Redemption a run for its money at the top.

The documentary's arguments have now been well-versed, and they'll likely be familiar to you if you've kept even half a toe in the circles the likes of Nayman and Arnaud run in. The full-frontal tackiness so reviled by critics and cinemagoers was intentional, another of Verhoeven's satirical comments on the gaudy excess of America (or just Vegas in particular); the revulsion a fundamentally puritanical response to the movie's borderline-explicit, NC-17 rated sexuality. (One valid observation: that erstwhile Saved by the Bell starlet Elizabeth Berkley, who so comprehensively reconfigured her screen image as the film's ingenue-turned-prima-donna Nomi, served as a pathfinder for later teen stars looking to break away from a squeaky-clean past.) These points demand close textural analysis, of the kind the dismissive first-wave critics were unwilling to provide, and which Nayman's testimony for the defence here once more works towards. Alas, director Jeffrey McHale is a little too slaphappy for that, preferring instead to cut in juicy highlights from the Verhoeven back catalogue (there are, granted, plenty to choose from), in a bid to link Showgirls to some wider VCU (Verhoeven Cinematic Universe) and to illustrate how the director got hammered in the US for what he'd been doing all along back in Europe. At best, the film stumbles over its own auteurism; at worst, it strays towards that dangerous cultism one often observes in young buffs, asserting that if all Verhoeven's other films were good, this one must have been good, too. (We need only look into the nearest bargain bin, and pluck out a DVD of 2000's Hollow Man, to invalidate that.) Whenever the thesis falters, McHale falls back on the lazy anything-goes line beloved of postmodern commentators: hey, it doesn't matter if the film was good or not, because it was eventually reclaimed as naughty, quote-along fun, this generation's Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film may not have needed to be any good; it may just be that we've become more enthusiastic and voracious consumers of rubbish.

The case You Don't Nomi comes closest to sticking is one that a few sympathetic critics at the time attempted, and which Nayman here consolidates upon, which is that Showgirls holds up as uncommonly lively rubbish: the kind of way-out-there, one-of-a-kind busted gamble that at the very least retains some novelty value in a marketplace increasingly given over to safe, focus-grouped corporate investments. The argument matters culturally, because Showgirls' critical dismissal and commercial failure was a major factor in depriving us of anything like an adult American cinema. After the erotic thriller boom of the late 80s/early 90s (to which Verhoeven's Basic Instinct had contributed), Hollywood moved on - or, rather, it retreated into a PG-13 box to paw ever more morosely through a thick stack of comic books. If you were just in the market for T&A, then of course the Internet was just cranking up; but for dramatised sexual provocation, we then had to look to the European arthouse - in the form of the millennium's New Extreme Cinema, in part an attention-grabbing response to online pornography - where sex was largely grim and punishing, an act carried out by bad men in darkened rooms, captured in grainy surveillance-cam flickers. With their rouged nipples, choreographed thrusting and outrageously glossy images, the clips McHale presents of Showgirls suggest something more expressive and theatrical, a then-flying Dutchman's attempt to bring sex out into the open: I was set in mind of that notorious bomb Caligula, another English-language opus by a European outsider that did as much as any film to end mainstream cinema's flirtation with sex at the back-end of the Seventies. Would I now want to watch Showgirls in its entirety? Well, it gets so heavily excerpted here that I almost feel I have - but I still don't think I've missed out on an essential part of any cinematic education; there's nothing quite as forceful in You Don't Nomi as my contemporary's agonised cry of B-O-double L-O-C-K-S. Take Showgirls seriously by all means, but it'd require a more rigorous critical framework than McHale's larky endeavour can quite bring itself to lay down.

You Don't Nomi will be available to stream from tomorrow.

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