If someone had told me in the late nineties that with Showgirls and Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven was going to accurately depict what lay ahead for American society in the Aughts, I'd have said they were fucking bonkers. Fast-forward to 2002, and George W. Bush's addresses on the War on Terror find him lit and photographed like Troopers' Sky Marshal Tehat Meru, and I'm inclined to agree. Troopers gets at the heart of how militarism and patriotism get conflated together, but what Showgirls does is altogether more unsettling.
When I first saw this epic, I was profoundly disgusted. Of course, six months later I was a die-hard fan, quoting it incessantly, and just under two years later I would be part of the short-lived attempt to turn the film into a new Rocky Horror experience at New York's Village East Cinemas. What changed in me was both a more thought-out appreciation of Verhoeven as a director and an understanding that his film was the most concentrated and perfectly realized broadside at American mythology I've ever seen. In Showgirls the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches archetype collides with the backstage drama of the '30s and '40s, and the whole mess is easily identifiable to anyone who has been watching movies with any diligence. The arc calls for gutter to glitter, with lessons learned and battles fought; we are all special, we are all Eve Harrington, we are all destined for greatness.
It's horseshit, of course, and at every step of the way we know it. Elizabeth Berkley's Nomi Malone is told time and time again that she is a talent and that she is a star, and it is readily apparent that she is not. I give full props to Berkley (who will always be Jessie Spano to me, anyway) for going with Verhoeven's vision of this character. She has demonstrated since then that she is a delightful comic actress, so we can proceed with the knowledge that Nomi must be an empty creation powered only by the machinations of the script.
There's something about this petulant trainwreck of a character that sticks in my mind. The corporate machinations behind the scenes, the weird blend of entitlement and cluelessness, the willingness to exploit at every step of the wayand, most tellingly, the fact that by the end of the story she hasn't learned a thing. Nomi is the prototypical ugly American. Watch how she turns the horrifying rape of her friend Molly into an opportunity to reinvent herself, or how her Machiavellian impulses behind the scenes at the Stardust Hotel's Goddess show (a/k/a Helmut Newton's Rites of Spring and Pleather) derail the lives of just about every major female character. But it's all okay, because she's destined to be a star.
Movies don't lie, and even if they do, if enough movies lie for enough years, it becomes the truth. Camp, as stated by Jean Cocteau and clarified by Philip Core, may be "the lie that tells the truth," which fits Showgirls to a 't.' Racial tension, class structure, the exploitation of alternative sexualities, shameless scheming, and the breakdown of decency all come together in its highly polished surfaces of chrome, glitter, and ludicrousness.
MGM's deluxe box set for this film is really something, featuring shot glasses, a deck of cards, and naughty party games. All this is merely extra, as the real deal is on the film's remastered DVD, which finally presents the film anamorphically enhanced. A commentary from the brilliant (but occasionally too quiet) David Schmader is the primary source of new fun, as is a selection of four script-to-set-to-film comparative montages (which feature Verhoeven at work on the set, in a fascinating reveal of the mind behind the mammaries). Less fun are the three supplements featuring the girls from Scores. The 5.1 sound mix remains top-notch, working your subwoofer like a pair of cheap pasties, revealing the depth and brilliance of former Eurythmic David Stewart's glorious Eurodisco score and the great song selection (Siouxsie & the Banshees' last recorded song, Prince's peerless "319," Killing Joke, No Doubt, etc.).
There's something delicious about the sad little epic of a crack whore struggling against her own nature toward fame, especially gussied up like this sublime box set. In the words of Gina Gershon's iconic Cristal Connors, "It's amazing what paint and a good surgeon can do."
♦ Timing killed 1981's Pennies from Heaven, Herbert Ross' adaptation of the Dennis Potter miniseries, on its initial release. Hitting theatres after the one-two camp punches of the strange and exhausting Village People epic Can't Stop The Music and the gleefully endearing ELO/Olivia Newton-John marvel Xanadu, the last thing audiences wanted was a dark and moody piece about what music can do for the lives of the destitute and abandonedmuch less a dark and vicious period piece that featured Steve Martin (at the top of his game) doing drama.
Nevertheless, almost 25 years after its release, Pennies from Heaven remains simply the finest American musical to come down the pike since the '40s. Next to its meticulous darkness, even Dancer in the Dark pales in comparison. Here glorious setpieces and musical numbers effortlessly segue (in one of the film's more astonishing conceits) into Edward Hopper paintings, even as the divide between the upbeat songs and the tragic lives of those who try and own those words grows greater and more stilling.
Bernadette Peters is luminousher "Love Is Good for What Ails You" number in her schoolroom is a marvel of choreography and creativity within a limited locationand slimy pimp Christopher Walken tap-dances the shit out of a bar in a dynamite sequence (and in his boxers, no less). But the movie is Martin's, and he will break your heart. Warner's DVD presents the film in its proper aspect ratio, as well as providing a commentary by critic Peter Rainer and a reunion special from four years ago that is a delight.
♦ Following up two blockbuster miniseries about mankind resisting fascist flesh-eating alien invaders (though without creator Ken Johnson, who has disowned the Final Battle miniseries and the whole of the television series), V: The Series ran from 1984 to 1985, much to this 9-year-old's delight. Too young for the intricacies of Star Trek at that point in my life, I took to its epic low-budget drama on a weekly basis, wanting to know what would become of the human resistance (led by former Beastmaster Marc Singer and whatever-happened-to Faye Grant) in their battle against the reptilian visitors.
The reptiles were led by glacial shakti Diana. She was played by the glorious Jane Badler (who owned every second of screen time she ever got, even when they tried to marry her off to some off-world lizard towards the middle of the run). In a move anticipating NBC's success with Fear Factor almost 20 years later, Diana somehow found time each episode to chow down on at least one new animal species.
V: The Series may have had no sense of continuity or consistency, but what it did have was crivits. Oh, the crivits. Introduced in a later episode, which dealt with a visitor-run concentration camp surrounded by sand pits, crivits were basically genetically engineered hybrids of squid, deviled crab, and volleyballs, but they fucked shit up in every episode they appeared in. Someone would always say, "That fence wouldn't stop a child, we can just walk right out of here"and then, before you knew it, with a gloriously gruesome sound effect and an all-too-familiar shifting of the sand, a bit player bit the dust. So V: The Series is why I never played beach volleyball. So until a Misfits of Science box set comes along, Warner's three-disc compendium of delicious 80s sci-fi will nicely fit the bill.