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Qualler Visits the (Cult) Classics: Showgirls

While this feature was minted a few months ago with the intention of covering my most favorite albums of the "aught" decade, I decided to throw a few new wrinkles into it. Inspired by Chris' buzzworthy take on The Single Finest Film of Our Generation, my weekend viewing of one particularly notorious film inspired me to take on that other side of cinema -- the cult classic. When one thinks of "cult classic", one's mind will likely drift to those "awesomely bad" movies, like Troll 2 orThe Room -- those that are so outrageously cheesy, poorly acted, and unintentionally hilarious. But generally, those types of films are so low budget and/or obviously put together by people with limited talent that it's easy to understand what truly went "wrong". When a film is outrageously cheesy, poorly acted, unintentionally hilarious, AND features a $40 million budget, AND was written by Joe Eszterhas, who at the time was Hollywood's most highly sought-after screenwriter, AND was directed by Paul Verhovean (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct) with such skill that certain passages reminded this viewer of obvious masterpieces of the '90s like GoodFellas and Boogie Nights, one has to take a step back and truly ponder what just happened on the screen. That film, my friends, is a little film called Showgirls.

In my Short Fiction Writing class in college, my teacher often harped upon the fact that most stories are either "come to realize" stories or "fails to realize" stories. Showgirls is the first story I have ever experienced in which the central character neither comes to realize, nor fails to realize anything. Fearlessly portrayed by Saved by the Bell's Elizabeth Berkley, the film's central character Nomi experiences a range of events, which, seen in fragments seem to go somewhere, but put together in a central narrative, actually go nowhere whatsoever. The opening scene is a thrilling cold open in which she hitches a ride with a stranger to Las Vegas, pulls out a knife, almost gets the guy to crash his car, and displays what seems to be a truly interesting and mysterious edge. Then her character actually gets to Las Vegas and...becomes a good girl. Out of nowhere, she vaguely references the fact that she has some real talent at doing nails and has hidden talent at dancing and just needs the right training and...then just starts professionally dancing. Then her character hints at the fact that she won't have sex with a man until she's really in love, and...then she sleeps with her boss when she gets promoted to a higher-class show. She hints at the fact that she has no family and, in fact, has a truly interesting scene where she goes through a job background check and reveals to the audience that her parents are dead, she doesn't know her social security number, and had a few prior arrests...and then nothing else really happens.

These kind of plot developments are incredibly frustrating, because I truly believe that this could have been a truly special film if screenwriter Eszterhas spent a few hours re-writing the script. My theory is this -- Eszterhas and Verhoeven walk into the MGM / United Artists studio with an outline to a film, the first true entry into NC-17-rated mainstream adult film, a film epic in scope, self-assuredly sleazy but perhaps smart enough to include a critique of America's materialistic and narcissistic culture, with a central anti-hero who demonstrates the central flaw in our quest for fame. It could be the pitched as the dance/rags-to-riches genre pic for the Grand Theft Auto generation. The studio heads love this, are ready to give these guys whatever they want, having demonstrated that they have the goods to deliver a big box office hit, coming off the success of Basic Instinct. Then, the guys get lazy. They keep talking about touching up the script...meanwhile, Eszterhas and Verhoeven kept putting off said touch-ups, not realizing that they had a total clunker outline of a script until they started shooting. By then, they realized the only way to salvage the film was to throw in random lesbianism, non-erotic erotic sex scenes, brutal, senseless violence against women, and dance scenes straight outta Flashdance (fitting, since Eszterhas also wrote that screenplay.)

A true shame, because the production value of the film is outstanding. One particular sequence, in which Nomi gets onstage at the Las Vegas Stardust show for the first time, is breathtaking (see YouTube clip above) -- the camera follows her up the stairs backstage and tracks her running frantically, chaotically, from a distance surely looking completely in control but from so close looking totally out of whack. I would even argue that the shot argues the famous tracking sequence in Scorcese's GoodFellas. Of course, the problem is that NOTHING BAD ACTUALLY HAPPENS!! This is pretty much the case with everything that happens. Nomi develops a rivalry with Crystal Conners (hammily played by Gina Gershon) that starts as mutual admiration, turns violent, and then ends with lesbianism (naturally!) She also sleeps with the boss (creepily and sleazily played by Kyle "Agent Dale Cooper" MacLachlan), almost gets fired from the Stardust show, and then...doesn't really have any consequences. The viewer keeps get stringed along, dazzled by the outstanding cinematography, entertained by the sleazy one-note characters (remember, if this was truly a genre pic, that would be a benefit!!), with no payoff in the end. None.

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, because if you consider yourself a pop culture conniousour, I strongly believe that you should experience the ending without advance knowledge. Needless to say...it's noteworthy. And is only going to cause you to think, "What the (*@$ were they thinking giving this screenplay a $40 million budget?" Saying the above things of course fails to mention the other notable things about the film, namely Elizabeth Berkley's strangely spastic dance moves, truly cringe-worthy dialogue involving breasts and dog food, references to things that are never followed up on, and more. I have a hard time calling this film a complete failure because of the things that make it so close to being a truly great film. And sometimes colossal failures are more interesting than boring failures. That's why I highly recommend, without a doubt, Qualler's first (cult) classic -- Showgirls.

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  1. Blogger chris | 2:34 PM |  

    Did you watch the uncensored version of this? Did you see Kyle Mclachlan's "special salute"?

    I'd love to watch this sometime. Scott Tobias's New Cult Canon column has a good article if you haven't read.

  2. Blogger qualler | 2:36 PM |  

    Unedited, of course -- on Skinemax!!! Yes Tobias' article was a clear inspiration to me -- thank you Scott!!

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