Showgirls (1995)

This review doesn’t link in with any theme weeks (except a very old one that I did for ‘films about filmmaking’, which this tangentially is). It’s rather because the London Film Festival starts next week and my first film is You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about Showgirls that I hope will be illuminating about its long legacy, as it comes up on 25 years old. I will be trying to post regular updates from the Festival in between other theme week reviews.


It’s difficult to imagine, looking at some recent reviews by cinephiles on Letterboxd (at least those of them that I follow), that this was considered one of the ne plus ultra turkeys of its year — not a financial disaster perhaps, but certainly a critical one. It’s fair to say most of Verhoeven’s films have been underappreciated or just flat out misunderstood by critics and audiences upon their release, but it’s equally hard to say that in this case it was all misplaced. After all, it does feature some truly dreadful acting and a fairly limp script (albeit with some, perhaps unintentional, zingers that have probably aided its long gestation as a cult classic).

Still it very much has now been rehabilitated and it’s just as well, because there’s a lot going on in this film worth talking about (and not just being pointed and laughed at, as many contemporary responses seemed to prefer to do), even if its thematic throughline — the seemingly endless exploitation, carnality and corruptibility of American capitalist society — is hardly original. In fact, this is very much in the territory of filmmakers looking with poisoned self-regard at their own art, a form which stretches back further than Peeping Tom (1960); I’m pretty sure that even as cinema was first being formulated, there were directors being cynical about its artifice. Of course, overlaid on that is the artifice of Las Vegas, the perfect setting for such a story (again, hardly new), and the power dynamics of the sex industry. But while men in positions of power hardly get let off the hook here, neither does anyone else — not least women of colour, who seem to bear the brunt of the violence. Indeed, aside perhaps from Molly (Gina Ravera), the costume designer friend of aspiring star Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), nobody acts with anything approaching a moral compass, and everyone is on the grift. And those like Molly who do have morals get punished for them in the end.

It’s a coruscating film, at once flashy in its style and pointed in its criticism. The characters in the film aren’t the only ones getting punished, for so does the viewer, because the film at every level resists being easily loved: for every sharp thematic critique comes something lascivious and exploitative, a Me Too story heaped with a side of misogyny, because that’s just how the American Dream is packaged. It’s how it came in 1995, just as it does now, and so it’s a film that hasn’t lost any of its kitsch-drenched melancholia.

Showgirls film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writer Joe Eszterhas; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Ravera; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 26 September 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999 and January 2002).

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Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015).