Paul Verhoeven is a student of T-shirts: Rewatching Showgirls...Again
Updated: Nov 2, 2019
Now recognized as a camp classic, this once-panned genre mash-up is the filmic embodiment of Las Vegas in form, content, and its dedication to a surface-level aesthetic.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls just turned twenty-four years old last month. The infamous cult trashterpiece is without-a-doubt the Dutch director’s most misunderstood film. More recent reassessments of the movie recognize it as a Las Vegas-sized gamble that has paid off in DVD sales—the largest in MGM’s history. While notable critics such as Roger Ebert later recanted their negative knee-jerk reactions to the film, many of the early reviews were not exactly wrong on the merits. The acting, the dialogue, and the plot are unparalleled in their lack of depth, but as Verhoeven has more recently explained, this camp “stylization” was the point. It crystalized the cultural experience of Las Vegas as an aesthetic, through a multisensorial onslaught of Baroque filmmaking practices.
The story is a simple one. Nomi Malone is a dancer with a dream – to become a Las Vegas showgirl in a topless revue. Scrappy and resourceful, she works and sleeps her way to the top, to ever-so-briefly star as the lead in the Stardust Casino production Goddess. Nomi stops at nothing to capture her sought-after role, even pushing her nemesis, the star dancer Cristal Conners (played by Gina Gershon) down the stairs. This familiar show business storyline about a determined young understudy and the calculating star whose role she hopes to eventually steal was by that point a Hollywood cliché immortalized in films such as All About Eve (1950). Verhoeven’s version is an unfulfilled redemption story of naked ambition (pun intended), its protagonist pushes forward in spite of the sordid past that she fights fiercely and sometimes violently to leave behind. As the film’s ethos suggests, if Nomi is going to make it, it will only be on her own uncompromising and ruthless terms.
Like the gratuitous, choreographed violence of Robocop and the over-the-top army-recruitment advertisements in Starship Troopers, Showgirls signals its identity as a work of sometimes-below-the-radar satire in the way that he works on the different meanings of surface. Many of Verhoeven’s films—particularly his highest-grossing movies made in the United States—are each in their own way a treatise on some aspect of the superficial. There is a Dutch word that can perhaps describe his directorial approach: Stofuitdrukking, a term typically reserved for painting, which describes the physical materiality of the medium and the way that surface qualities can take on an expressive character. In this technique, attention to textural complexity becomes the goal in and of itself, such as an artist’s treatment of multiple illusory textures in a still life. Verhoeven’s filmic stofuitdrukking manifests itself in his trademark exquisite camera work, the proliferation of glowing screens and advertisements for fictitious products, and the empty, beautiful vessels that he casts to act in his films.
As an “erotic drama film” Showgirls is genre-ambiguous in a way that has resisted easy classification within the film industry. Considering its second life as a cult classic, the movie was perhaps unintentionally destined for the small screen, with the added humor of the animated bikinis that would make it passable for cable-television runs. For this reason, the casting of Elizabeth Berkeley seems almost too on-the-nose. Despite the fact that Verhoeven never watched Saved By the Bell prior to directing the film, Berkeley’s performance as Nomi channeled some of the actress's more melodramatic moments from her turn as Jessie Spano, such as the infamous “caffeine pill freak-out” scene in which her character overdoses on over-the-counter pep pills while trying to balance dance practice and her math homework. Having just come off of a squeaky-clean primetime television show made for children, Berkeley’s casting in Showgirls also created a proper scandal at the time of its release. Yet it is hard to understand how someone as well-versed in American nudity taboos as Verhoeven wouldn’t have foreseen how an erotic musical starring one of Screech Powers’s costars could be a box-office and critical failure. An open question remains as to who was—and more importantly—who is in on the joke?
As a native of The Netherlands, Verhoeven had the privilege of his cultural remove to see with clear-eyed vision certain base aspects of American society that he depicted in his Hollywood films. It would be entirely too reductive to claim that Showgirls made some kind of statement about “America” writ large. If this film embodies anything, it is the essence of Las Vegas, or at least an idea of the city held by an outsider. The conspicuous consumption embodied in the lush green golf courses in the Mojave Desert and its major industries fueled by hedonistic pleasure-seeking could only be born in a country that celebrates capitalism as an end to itself, and in a city where mobsters like Bugsy Siegel could realize their fantasies of manifest destiny on its infamous strip.
Like Vegas, Verhoeven’s Showgirls is all veneer, with as much substance as the massive billboards and neon-covered signs often identified with the city. These were the same shameless, grotesquely ornate decorations that architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi wrote about in their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, a seminal text that established some of the major principles of postmodern architecture. What Brown and Venturi appreciated about Vegas was that its advertisements were refreshingly forthright; they never tried to be anything that they weren’t. Showgirls also gives the audience exactly what it came for, despite any pretensions they may have had to elevate the NC17 rating to a higher art form.
In the vein of Venturi’s postmodern billboard-inspired architecture, which combined together modernist purism and Victorian-era traditionalism, Verhoeven’s mash-up of genres, brought together pre-code backstage musicals, 1980s dance films, and softcore pornography makes a mockery of historical styles while also slyly paying homage to them. Instead of riffing on lintels, arches, and gabled rooves, Verhoeven reduced the components of filmmaking into references to themselves. Everything in the film, from the dialogue to the character development, particularly their inexplicable motivations, is unnaturally paper-thin. The overwrought dance moves exist in a continuity with the exaggeratedly “feisty” behavior of the protagonist. On a stylistic level, this commitment to superficiality ironically helps to hold the film together.
Of all of the underdeveloped subplots, the relationship between Nomi and the bouncer from the Crave Club named James (played by Glenn Plummer) is particularly conspicuous in its one-dimensionality. Although drawn from a bevy of common film narrative tropes, the development and motivations guiding the characters’ interactions verges on the absurd. When James invites Nomi to dance only to be kneed in the groin, a fight breaks out, resulting in his firing and landing her in prison. As puzzling as it might seem, something about her bizarre, raucous moves at the club inspired James to not only post her bail, but also to choreograph a dance for her. This is where the film veers into the territory of the romantic dance film genre of Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing. He reminds Nomi that she deserves better than to be a Vegas Showgirl. In keeping with a number of other characters in the film, James likens everything to prostitution, a reference to “selling out” that becomes so diluted that it means nothing and everything. What exactly he aspires for her, however, is never defined. If the number that he choreographed for her is any indication, then it appears that with the help of Nomi, James had hoped—much like the film itself—to raise the lap dance to a higher art form.
On two separate occasions in the film James describes himself as a “student of T-Shirts,” referring to his reliance on brief two-word mass-market platitudes to make sense of life. As if speaking on behalf of Verhoeven’s approach, this comment points to the larger project that the director has extended to his viewing audience. Trying to find wisdom in banal aphorisms is not so different from the experience of seeking some kind of substance beyond Showgirls’s facile surface. One need not look beyond Verhoeven’s stofuitdrukking, to see his bold, ambitious, cliché-heavy, and sometimes-cynical vision of a Las Vegas.