Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Showgirls Doesn't Suck!" A Conversation with Author Adam Nayman

Ask anyone what they know about Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls and they’ll likely tell you that it’s a piece of crap — whether they’ve seen it or not. 

In 1995, the film was critically panned for its gratuitous nudity, offensive dialogue and horrendous performances, but over the past two decades, its seedy reputation has helped it achieve cult status. 

Showgirls is the story of Nomi Malone, a mysterious young girl (played by Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley), who seeks fame and fortune by dancing her way to the top as a Las Vegas showgirl.

Say what you want about Showgirls — the film has its staunch supporters. Last year, Toronto film critic Adam Nayman released his book, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, a passionate examination of the film that attempts to prove its unpopular claim.

I sat down with Nayman to discuss everything from Showgirls’ critical backlash, Berkley’s public shaming, and race politics in Hollywood.

TorontoVerve: Your love of film first began when your mother encouraged you to read Pauline Kael’s volumes of criticism. What was it about Kael’s writings that inspired you? 

Adam Nayman: Without knowing what a strong film critical voice was, I recognized that Kael had one. In her review of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, she had this curious line about Eisenstein. As a 10-year old kid, I had no idea who that was. I probably thought she meant Albert Einstein, but her review was compelling and argumentative enough to make me want to learn more. To me, that’s a sign of a really good writer. Kael also took a lot of shots at [filmmakers] and that was much of her appeal to film critics. She was often contrary and dismissive. I liked the confidence in her voice and wanted to get to that same place of authority and confidence.

TV: Why do you think your mom pointed you to film? 

AN: My parents were both journalists. I grew up in a very literary household. My mom really likes films by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) — that conscious and vaguely liberal American cinema that came about in the 1950’s and 60’s. I learned from my mom that movies were about life, politics and history, and how to ultimately understand them. My parents thought that films were entertainment, but also more. We never just put a movie on in our house, turned it off and went about our business. We would watch it, talk about it and argue about it. The books that we read, the music that we listen to and the films that we watch are things that we should try to share and discuss — instead of things that are just done without comment.

TV: What types of films were you drawn to as a kid?

AN: The two directors who were the primal scene of cinefilia for me were Spielberg and Kubrick. I still consider them both to be great. I probably like Kubrick more, but that’s because it’s fashionably adolescent to like Kubrick more. I respond more to his archness and his cruelty than to Spielberg’s earnestness and wonder, but when I was younger, I recognized that these guys were doing more than simply telling a story. They were also telling a story visually. They were making me feel smart by noticing what they were doing with the frame, colour and sound. In my adolescence, I felt that Spielberg was a dead-end. Not now, of course. Back then, I thought that I couldn’t learn a lot about other films through Spielberg. I was wrong, but Kubrick, on the other hand, became this incredibly open portal for me because his movies were older and had this stronger critical writing around them. Through Kubrick, I was able to learn about Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2) and Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon). Kubrick was one of those directors who really opened things up for me. Maybe between the ages of 9 and 11, I watched a lot of movies, but between the ages of 12 and 14, I learned a lot about movies. I learned about their history and criticism. I had all these ridiculous opinions, which were basically other people’s opinions that I read and felt should be mine. When I was 14, I wrote about everything I saw, and read as many reviews as I could about old movies. JAWS and 2001: A Space Odyssey are my two favourite films.

TV: So what was your fascination with Showgirls when it was first released?

AN: I was 14 when Showgirls came out and I was kind of interested in the sexuality of the movie, but I was more interested in why it received zero stars from Rick Groen in the Globe and Mail. I was also interested in the logistics of getting into the film because it was restricted. I wasn’t really a rebellious kid. I didn’t drink a lot or do a lot of drugs. At least not when I was 14. I thought that sneaking into Showgirls would be a nice act of defiance, and I did manage to get in.

TV: Since you brought it up. How did you manage to sneak into Showgirls?

AN: It helps to be tall and persistent. For the most part, ticket takers don’t really care. Maybe the movie was doing very badly and they were just willing to let anybody in. When I was 15, I once told a theatre that my friend’s younger brother was my son so he can get into Jackie Brown on Christmas day.

TV: How do you think Showgirls would be received if it were released now? 

AN: If Showgirls had happened now, it couldn’t happen the same way. It would be a bigger deal because Twitter and the internet would basically have all the set reports and all the bad reviews instantly. There would also be a re-evaluation of it within a day. There would be an article two days later: ‘what all the reviews got wrong about Showgirls.’ It’s amazing to see this incredible backlash and critical hit job go out on this movie in 1995. Certainly, the rebuttals or reprisals were still a long way off. I remember this movie being a news story because of the NC-17 rating. There were conservative people in Canada and the States who didn’t want to see Showgirls screened because they thought it was going to be pornographic. I think the reception of the movie proves that adult critics who are paid for a living to watch movies can’t deal with sex or sexuality without turning into 14-year old boys.

TV: I think you make a good point by bringing up the power of social media. In 1995, you could say that it was the film critics who, more or less, determined Showgirls’ losing fate. If Showgirls were released today, critics couldn’t compete with public opinion on social media. 

AN: I think that’s true. I think a lot of the recent praise for Showgirls is in proportion to how badly it was treated. If the film would have had more champions at that time, it would have been fairer because it’s clearly not a bad movie, but if there had been more supporters at the time, I don’t think that Showgirls would be as resonant now. If it had come out during social media, the response would have been more contentious in the moment. Harmonie Korine’s Spring Breakers had the exact response you’re talking about, but no one is going to care about that movie in 20 years. The need to discuss Showgirls now is because it had such a one-sided reception.

TV: What did your peers say when you told them that your first book was going to be a critical analysis of Showgirls?

AN: I think a lot of my peers were envious just because I was going to write on a film that wasn’t 200 pages long. This in no way is a slam of reviewers in Toronto because these people are my colleagues, but reviews aren’t really an analysis of film. You recap the plot, you say who's in it and you say whether you like it or not. If you’re one of the better critics in Toronto, you’re maybe able to do a bit more than that, but it’s a format restriction. It’s not the critics who are limited — it’s the format. Slate reviewed my book and said that I was a brave critic to say that Showgirls was good. I don’t really agree with that. It would have been brave to write this book in 1996. Today, in the film critical circles that I travel in, their response was like ‘of course. How has no one else done this already?’ This book is the exact kind of writing that’s being done in pop culture now. Short, packed, informational mini books, and that’s what the Pop Classics series is trying to do. I can’t wait to read Wrapped in Plastic: Twin Peaks by Andy Burns and I’ll be able to read it in a day.

TV: Kael believed that audiences could enjoy trashy movies, but they shouldn’t take them seriously or study them in school. How do you feel differently about Showgirls?

AN: I think that Kael's essay is great and very unhelpful. This might sound like I’m being uncharitable to a great writer, but she had no idea what she was really talking about in that article. She says that trash gives us an appetite for art, but when she wrote about art films, she, for the most part, is deeply dismissive, skeptical or suspicious. I can’t think of a worse critic on some of the major art films of the 70’s and 80’s. I think that’s because she didn’t see them or she just dismissed them entirely. She didn’t like Martin Scorsese when he started making art films like Raging Bull and she didn’t like late Kubrick because she found it too arty. Showgirls is so trashy that I’m not surprised that the pendulum swung back in its direction in the realm of analysis because the whole history of b-films, cult films and exploitation films have made a mark in the film industry. When Spielberg made JAWS, it was like a Hollywood studio making a 50’s monster movie. Showgirls has a lot of the features of a sexploitation movie, but it’s made by a Hollywood studio. I think that’s where a lot of the initial hatred and repulsion towards it came, but it’s also where a lot of the sympathy and critical interest in it comes from now. People want to say that Showgirls is some kind of satire from within the system or is subversive somehow. Those are not all things that I totally agree with, but there’s enough in the movie to make it worth talking about.

TV: You mention in your book that Showgirls was trashed by critics because of the success of Basic Instinct — a film that many hated. What would you say makes Showgirls a good film? 

AN: (Laughs) It’s funny because even though I wrote an entire book on that subject, it’s hard to say. I’m a believer of intentionality. I don’t believe in movies being read against their intention. I think that could only take you so far. I guess I’m auteurist. I believe that the director has a certain power in collaboration with others in that he or she is trying to get something across — whether it’s an idea, a joke or their sensibility. Maybe one of the reasons why Showgirls is one of the first movies that I ever wanted to write about is that there’s a huge case for the prosecutor and the defence. I think it’s outrageous and perverse on purpose, and hints on at things that are taboo. There’s also a lot in it that’s inept, misjudged and lacks ideological unity. More than saying that Showgirls is good or bad — I’m convinced, beginning with the title of my book and through the rest of my argumentation, that it doesn’t suck. Everyone was so certain of it being terrible. So what is that certainty being referred to? Is it anything that’s in the film or is it stuff that’s outside the film? Is it stuff going on in the culture or the film industry? What’s interesting to me is the film is about pleasure and spectacle, but not in the affirmative way. [Verhoeven makes pleasure and spectacle] look repulsive and ugly so that either makes Showgirls deeply hypocritical or it makes it very wise.

TV: In your book, you say that you see the ‘magnificence’ in Showgirls and that’s because you know how to look at it. How would you recommend haters to watch it to see its magnificence? 

AN: Well, spending $13 on my book is a good start (laughs). I think that you have to watch the film with some knowledge of the genres that Verhoeven is working in: classic musicals, backstage melodramas and Hollywood movies about Hollywood. I think keeping those things in mind is enough to activate the movie, but I don’t think they have to be front of mind because nothing could be worse than watching Showgirls and not letting yourself be entertained by its sheer outrageousness. I didn’t want to write a dry book and I don’t want to suggest that the movie should be picked apart and placed under a microscope, but why not watch Showgirls the way that people feel comfortable watching a film like Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill? [Like Tarantino, Verhoeven pays homage to many film classics in Showgirls, but unlike Tarantino], he is not actively annotating his film references. Verhoeven is not a Quentin Tarantinoish guy. He’s not nearly as pleased with himself for being clever like Tarantino is.

TV: It’s interesting that you say that because it wasn’t until Nomi exacts her brutal revenge against her friend’s rapist that I thought this is just like those avenging angel movies from the 80’s. Maybe if Showgirls was marketed as a modern day grindhouse film, it might have done better. 

AN: That’s really a smart observation you’ve made because that’s exactly what they did with Kill Bill. If you could talk to Kill Bill while it was going on, it would say that ‘I’m an avenging angel film, a kung fu film and a blackploitation film from the 70’s.’ Verhoeven doesn’t do that. In some ways the mixing of genres in Showgirls is quite audacious because it goes from being a 40’s musical to a Russ Meyer film to an avenging angel film, but it doesn’t change its style, and I find that quite remarkable.

TV: Did you see Berkley’s appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show when she was on Dancing with the Stars? After nearly 20 years, she was still visibly devastated by the negative press that she received from Showgirls. I even remember Gene Siskel going as far as saying that she wasn’t attractive in his review of the film. 

AN: I was trying to be very sensitive to Berkley in my book. The reason I’m trying to be sensitive is I can’t in good conscience really disagree with some of the assessments of her acting. I try to account for her performance rather than to condemn it or praise it. In her own words, I think that she was very damaged professionally by what happened. I think a lot of people took satisfaction with what happened to her because it seemed like she was being punished for wanting to be famous. She was a Saved by the Bell star who wanted to grow up. I mention this in the book and I think it’s one of my stronger points, but if Berkley had given as good of a performance as Sharon Stone did in Basic Instinct, maybe Showgirls would have been better received. I haven’t interviewed her, but everything that I’ve read about Berkley says that she is a very conscientious person. She started a blog [called Ask Elizabeth] to answer questions from young women, which is kinda self-promoting, but it seems that she’s quite compassionate. Of all the people involved in the movie, she would be the one that I’m most interested in hearing from, if she ever read the book. I know that Verhoeven and [actress] Gina Gershon are aware of the book. I have no idea if Berkley is aware of the book, but I know that people tweeted at her about it.

TV: There’s no subtlety in Berkley’s performance. It’s way over the top. Why do you think a great director like Verhoeven didn’t dial her performance down? 

AN: I actually think it was the performance that he wanted and since I think that Showgirls is amazing, that’s to his credit, but in other ways, it’s to his discredit. He took a lot of abuse from Showgirls, but it’s different than what she took. He’s a very arrogant guy, but he was humbled by what happened; however, he didn’t get the personalized, written venom that Berkley did.

TV: Have you seen Staying Alive with John Travolta?

AN: I have.

TV: I don’t remember much about it except that the Broadway show that Tony Monero (Travolta) was performing in was god awful. And since the success of the protagonist’s dancing career hinged on the greatness of the show, then it’s safe to say that Tony will end up flipping burgers. As uneven as Showgirls is, I believe that its Stardust show is not that bad. What are your feelings about the show? 

AN: That’s a great question because the Stardust show, Goddess, makes no sense. It starts in pagan times and turns into a 60’s biker girl show. It’s like an evolution of exploitation cinema in this kinda classy matinee show — only there’s nipples everywhere. I love the idea that the Stardust show is described as tasteful even though it’s the tackiest thing in the world. As to whether the show is good or not? The music was written by Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics — so whether you see that as an affirmative or critique of the show, that’s up to you, but your comment about Staying Alive is accurate. That’s one of the things that I don’t like about that movie. The Broadway show is so bad. I’m not sure if the movie knows that as consciously as we like to think it does, but you’re right - [Tony Monero] has no chance.

TV: I’m cynical when it comes to race and Hollywood. Nothing is ever an accident in film — especially when it comes to race. While watching Showgirls, I had to ask myself: why are Nomi’s only two friends Black? Are the filmmakers telling us that she’s this really great person who doesn’t see race or that she’s trailer trash? 

AN: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s tricky because there’s a sympathy that this movie has class-wise. Nomi is a victim of incest, child abuse and she’s a drug addicted hooker who lives in a trailer — that’s what working class means in this movie, but the movie likes all that stuff or seems to like it more. It’s only as the movie goes along that you see it ultimately has more sympathy for the person that Nomi really is than it does for her Goddess [persona]. You say that you're cynical, I think that the movie is cynical too. Often the most cynical things are sentimental and often the most sentimental things are cynical. I think that there’s something sentimental about Nomi having these Black friends, who she ultimately does right by. In fact, the real villains of the film are White men — even though the people who made the film are White men (Verhoeven & screenwriter Joe Eszterhas). One person once asked me ‘how would Showgirls play if Nomi was Black?’ You can play that thought experiment with almost any movie, but I think the sad truth is, if Nomi was Black, no one in this film would want to make her Goddess in the first place.

TV: It’s interesting that the Goddess understudy was Black. 

AN: Yes and notice that she doesn’t get the part. I don’t want to read into the film too much, but [during the Goddess show], the Black understudy slips on white diamonds and is lying on the stage in pain while Gina Gershon, dressed in white, ascends above the frame. [Race politics] is definitely there. Just looking at the poster, you wouldn’t think it’s a movie about race because it just seems logical that a big Hollywood movie is about a White girl, but it’s interesting that there are Black people in it who are totally, both by the machinery of the film and by the Hollywood machinery described in the film, pushed into supporting roles.

TV: Hollywood has already remade Verhoeven’s Total Recall and Robocop, and very poorly I might add (they left out much of his dark humour). It’s only a matter of time before they remake Showgirls. What do you think a Showgirls remake would look like today? 

AN: No one would ever remake something like Showgirls because it was such a failure. I think its lessons have been inherited by filmmakers who want to apply them in their own new movies instead of a remake. If a movie like Showgirls was remade, it would do very well. People would like it and want to praise and analyze it, but they’re not going to do a remake of it.

TV: In your acknowledgements, you say that your parents have always been proud of you -- even after you announced writing this book. What are their thoughts of the film? 

AN: The person who said nicest thing to me after the Showgirls screening at TIFF was my mom. She came up to me outside and said ‘that’s pretty good.’ She’s seen it before, but after reading my book and seeing the movie again, she felt that the movie was good, which is really sweet. I’m lucky that my parents and wife were all onboard with this. I’m sure that my wife, Tanya, never wants to hear me at a party talk about Showgirls again. Not because she doesn’t like it — she does, but she’s already heard the spiel enough times.

TV: Since the release of your book last year, has anyone told you that you turned their hate for Showgirls around? 

AN: I’ve gotten a few emails from people who said they’ve read my book and they kinda agree with me. With no malice, a couple of my friends and my prof said ‘no, not really. This is well written and entertaining, but it doesn’t hold together.’ I believe everything I wrote in the book, and I expressed myself as well as I possibly could. If people say that I changed their mind about the movie, that’s great. If people say that I didn’t change their mind, that’s equally fine. Whether I succeeded or failed, I feel like I did so on my own terms.

Buy It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls.

Follow Adam Nayman on Twitter.

Showgirls photos courtesy of MGM

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