"It doesn't suck."
—Nomi Malone, six or seven times, throughout Showgirls.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
How is it possible for a film to go so spectacularly wrong at every turn? I remember the days preceding the release of Showgirls. Anticipation was high. Director Paul Verhoeven was in the midst of a soaring career, having helmed the sly sci-fi hits Robocop and Total Recall, as well as the incendiary Basic Instinct. His partner in Instinct crime, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, was a mostly respected Hollywood scribe, having penned such earlier hits as Flashdance and Jagged Edge. Their chosen Showgirls star was a former TV-sitcom teen, a goggle-eyed beauty unafraid to shed her innocent image and flail around nude for an entire movie. Showgirls promised to be a truly adult American film, a fearless, mature work of art—a step up the evolutional ladder from Basic Instinct and the first real test of the recently minted NC-17 rating, which promised to revolutionize Hollywood and elevate the film industry to a more respectable, adult realm.
The day Showgirls oozed onto screens, that dream vaporized like so much sweat misting from the writhing body of a pole-dancer. Much to my personal dismay, the film obliterated the potential of the NC-17 rating, staining it with an odious, prurient glaze that's still there to this day. Studios and distributors and chain videostores and newspapers and suburban moms are deathly afraid of the NC-17 tag, due in part to the offensive and skanky loathsomeness of Showgirls. Thanks, Paul and Joe! You guys rock! As if in punishment, Eszterhas' film career pretty much tanked after the movie's crash-and-burn debut (although he's found success in the book trade), and Berkley found herself the target of derisive laughter around the world, finally moving back in with her parents as if to hide. (She's since found some success in bit parts in better movies.) Verhoeven, remarkably, emerged fairly unscathed, perhaps laughing at himself and shrugging Showgirls off, and went on to deliver one of his best films—the big, satiric Starship Troopers. Of course, he also made another prurient disaster, Hollow Man, and still he retains his audience's respect.
Showgirls is a towering achievement in poor filmmaking. There's a strange movement afoot to bring this stunningly bad movie some degree of cult respectability, to lift it out of the quagmire where it has deservedly festered since it premiered to boos and guffaws, but that's all just wishful thinking on the part of mentally imbalanced individuals who crave attention. Aw, hell, I'm just kidding. Mostly. Showgirls, after your first viewing, really does become an entertaining exercise in How much more ridiculous can this film get, scene by scene, moment by moment? As you watch each amazing scene go by, it's like the movie is imploding in upon itself, every brash line delivery and every kicking-and-screaming fit fueling its journey into belligerent camp. This is a film that gets in your face and defies you to think it's anything but a ferocious and brilliant work of sordid art. It wants to entertain you, it wants to shock you, and it wants to arouse your body and your mind. And, oh my, how it sucks.
I see Showgirls exemplified in the spastic, Elaine Bennis dance that Elizabeth Berkley commits to film the first time we see her moves. She's all jerks and rhythmless struts, a rutting, sweat-sheened woman seen through the eyes of a misogynist. That's Nomi Malone (Berkley) out there on that dance floor, twitching and shaking that booty, and throughout this film, her moments of rage and frustration and joy and melancholy will all have the same convulsing energy. She makes nothing but mistakes in this film—she's a whining, contemptible, spoiled brat, and she's our heroine. And the film loves her. She arrives in Las Vegas with nothing to her name, and on the sheer power of some mysterious allure, she sets the town on fire, working her way up from skanky strip bar to a fabulous and extravagantly implausible headliner act dubbed Goddess. Hatefully, she lies and cheats her way to the summit, screwing the boss (a weirdly coifed Kyle MacLachlan) and injuring—Tanya Harding-style—the bad girl star, Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon, all sneer and drawl). But goddamn, she has enormous talent, as anyone except us can see. You need only consider the words of James Smith (Glenn Plummer), a struggling choreographer who knows what he's talking about: "You burn when you dance." Showgirls is a loving character study of a raging, vicious, calculating bitchwhore. Ya see, darlin', that's what makes it so great.
The film, in keeping with the rest of Verhoeven's filmography, is unsubtle. It's aggressive in its attempts to entertain you. You can practically see him behind the scenes with Eszterhas, using the camera as some kind of blunt instrument, braying their misogynist sensibilities at you, spittle flying. They've crammed the screen so full of nudity and kink that it becomes sexless. After a few minutes, you're deadened to the sheer number of breasts. You're laughing at Eszterhas's frat fantasies, in which naked, heavily made-up women have nothing to talk about except their nude bodies and their nails. The dialog is stunning in its depravity and its distance from reality. And yet, you can't look away from the screen. You take in the words and actions of these bizarre characters eagerly, if only to watch them pitch relentlessly forward into the fate of this doomed endeavor.
I also liken Showgirls to Vegas itself. It's a big, greedy, neon thing, flashing its gargantuan tits at you, smiling so wide and hard that you can hear its teeth grinding. There's greasy, sweaty mascara all over its broad face, trying but failing to conceal the ugliness underneath. There's something about the aggressive artificiality of Vegas that Americans adore. We swarm there by the millions, like fat bees searching for that elusive honey. Similarly, we're fascinated by this movie's loud absurdity—epitomized in its acting, its directing, its writing, its set-pieces, and its style. And, if video rentals are any indication, we're finding ourselves increasingly fascinated. Which is probably why we have this lavish special-edition DVD in our laps. So, give in to the allure. Go ahead and buy it. In retrospect, it's a lot of stupid, loud, trashy fun.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
MGM presents Showgirls in a very good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. The image is nicely detailed, but in some shots, I wanted just a bit more fine detail. Even some close-up shots suffer from the slightest degree of softness. Sharpness is generally fine, lending the image a pleasing depth. The colors of this image deserve special mention—they're lurid and vivid, completely accurate to my memory of the film in theaters. I noticed no bleeding, and I found skin tones to be accurate.
The transfer does contain a degree of mild edge enhancement. The halos are worse in some scenes than in others, but they have a noticeable omnipresence and seem to affect the level of fine detail. I also noticed, in just a few scenes, shimmering moiré patterns—particularly in clothing.
A direct comparison with the previous long-available barebones release boasts obvious improvements if only because the older release wasn't enhanced for widescreen TVs. However, the new transfer seems to have been struck from the same source print, which is generally clean, with only minor debris. Detail is much better, with fewer compression artifacts. A few years will do a lot to a DVD image.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is quite involving and immersive. Bass is strong and tight, and surround activity is enthusiastic. Dialog is mostly clean and accurate, but I noticed occasional clipping in shouts and screams. Distortion also comes into play during other high-end moments, such as explosions. But this is a full-bodied track, particularly so during the stage productions, which erupt into a crash of heavy sound. Throughout the track, surround activity is strong, bleeding from the rear speakers in the form of crowd noise, traffic sound, flying burger wrappers, and—above all—the score.
This seems to be the same mix that the previous DVD contained.
You also get French and Spanish stereo mixes, along with the same language options as subtitles.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The Showgirls V.I.P. Edition is an interesting phenomenon. It's admittedly a lovingly produced box, glossy and hilarious. Just opening the package provokes sleazy laughter. I slipped off the outer cover, much like peeling silky panties down shapely thighs, and beheld the infamous image of Nomi half-revealed in black and reclining in sultry repose. The art adorns a sleek, black-and-crimson box, announcing itself as a "Limited Edition Boxset." Lifting the lid reveals red-velvet innards housing two Showgirls shot glasses, a deck of lurid Showgirls playing cards, a flimsy black-foam Showgirls blindfold, and a series of large-format cards, on which you'll find several games (mostly of the drinking variety). One of the games is called Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl, and for that you get a super-airbrushed Nomi poster, along with a pair of flimsy but humorous pasties (they're secreted away beneath the playing cards). One of the cards also contains a few Showgirls Fun Facts. And, of course, there's also a DVD in there.
The single disc contains an array of mildly entertaining features, but I was disappointed to find that the features were virtually devoid of input from the film's cast and crew. This Showgirls could accurately be dubbed a "fan's edition," because the vast majority of these extras are presented from a third-party point of view. We get a self-proclaimed Showgirls aficionado providing a commentary, a couple of strippers commenting on the film's "realism," and a large collection of assembled trivia in the form of a subtitle track. Not much else. It's fun stuff, to be sure, but I regretted the seeming notion that everyone involved with the actual making of Showgirls wanted to distance themselves from the film.
First up is "The Greatest Movie Ever Made" A Commentary by David Schmader, Including Video Commentary by Girls of Scores on Cheetah's Club. Schmader is a rabid fan of the film, calling it "the most misunderstood work of art in the 20th century." He says, "We're in for the two-and-a-half greatest hours of our entire lives." So, you know where he's coming from. He's also got a somewhat professional interest in the film, having hosted a series of annotated screenings and studies of the film in Seattle. Based on the success of those screenings, MGM contacted him to contribute this odd track. Schmader has a fun, smirky sense of humor, and his comments are definitely tongue-in-cheek, but he just doesn't talk enough. Often, you'll hear him say things such as, "This scene is so good, I'll shut up for a second." Except that the "second" turns into long minutes in which he might moan ecstatically at onscreen action or blurt things like, "Oh my God." Too often, he watches the movie or laughs along with us when he should be talking. But I did get a lot of enjoyment out of this track. The Video Commentary by Girls of Scores is available (by way of a stripper icon) over only the strip-club segments. Two dancers appear in a picture-in-picture box, commenting on the realism—or lack thereof—of the stripping and the atmosphere of the club. Their comments are sorta fun, but I found myself wanting to return to Schmader's comments.
The 5-minute Lap Dance Tutorial Featuring the World-Famous Girls of Scores is a not-terribly-arousing little piece starring Nulsa and Heather, the same two girls featured in the above video commentary. They give you a practiced, scripted step-by-step tutorial that ends up being more of a boring advertisement for Scores than an enticing look at the stripper's art. There's some mild nudity, some snippets from the film, and a few shots of the two dancers doing their thing. It's all very tame, and it's directed at women wanting to please their men—you know, the thousands of women who will be buying this set.
Next is A Showgirls Diary, in which we get our only glimpses at Verhoeven at work, as well as our only behind-the-scenes material on the disc. The feature is divided into four segments: Scene #7/8 (3 minutes), Scene #19 (2 minutes), Scene #30 (3 minutes), and Scene #43 (2 minutes). One scene is from the beginning of the film, and the remainder involve dancing and stripping. Clicking on each selection takes you to a brief fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes snippet showing shooting, script snippets complete with rough Verhoeven sketches, and final-scene comparisons.
The Trivia Track is your typical pop-up video type subtitle track. It offers a steady stream of mostly stupid "facts" but also a good amount of humor. I found myself laughing quite a bit at some juicy behind-the-scenes gossip and clever trivia and wordplay. It's a track that's not afraid to make fun of the movie, and I wonder if it would have been so toothy had the cast and crew been involved in the set. Sure, it's got a lot of what you might expect—stripper facts, Vegas trivia, cast tidbits—but it's also got terrific, hilarious stuff such as ironic Saved by the Bell humor and gems like "There's still an hour left of the movie."
You also get the film's Trailer, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.
Finally, under Other Great MGM Releases, you'll find a 1-minute MGM Means Great Movies trailer, as well as brief sneak peeks at The Great Escape Collector's Edition and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Collector's Edition DVDs.
Gone from the previously released DVD is a 5-minute EPK featurette, which would have been a welcome addition here, if only because of its unintended humor.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
I gather that Verhoeven is open to the notion of recording a commentary over this film. I would also like to hear from Eszterhas and Berkley and Gershon. Why aren't they here? Surely, they have a sense of humor about the whole endeavor and can poke fun at themselves. No? Well, it's our loss, and their nonparticipation truly hinders this otherwise fun release. I suppose we'll have to make do with this fan-focused edition until Criterion wakes up to the potential of Showgirls. Image and sound quality are above average, and the supplements are mostly (if mildly) engaging, making for a commendable, library-worthy DVD set.