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April 4-10, 2007

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Cult Leader

Thrash Dance: Paul Verhoeven has a new World War II movie, but 'Showgirls' was his first experience with bombs

By Steve Palopoli

PAUL VERHOEVEN'S new film, Black Book, gets a limited release in the United States today, on the heels of some of the best reviews of his career. It'll be interesting to see how it plays here, since Verhoeven has shown the unique ability to produce blockbuster hits in America out of subversive films. It's why he's my favorite crafter of Hollywood pop—there's always something going on beneath the glossy surface of his movies that undermines or even directly contradicts the narrative. He seems to have never met a genre he didn't want to sabotage.

Granted, most Americans failed to grasp Verhoeven's social satire in RoboCop or his outright hatred for his source material in Starship Troopers—being Dutch and having lived through World War II, he has an anti-fascist streak a mile wide, and he clearly relished ripping Heinlein's boot-licking novel to shreds. Mainstream audiences embraced those films even when they didn't "get it." But this guy does everything big, and when he finally delivered a bomb in 1995, it had enough payload to blow him into bad-movie history.

Pardon me for a moment while I do the unthinkable and actually defend Showgirls. Conceptually, it could have worked as another genre-fuck. It's a parody of the 1967 Jacqueline Susann film Valley of the Dolls, which was itself a ridiculous version of 1950's All About Eve. So already you've got an issue with the law of diminishing returns. The solution devised by Verhoeven and scripter Joe Eszterhas was to make this the sleaziest good-girl-corrupted-by-showbiz-dreams film ever. Vegas here represents the empty triumph of the American Dream: you can have a certain meaningless, talent-free fame if you're willing to put out sexually for those both above you (like Kyle MacLachlan's power-player Zack) and below you (the audience that drools over Nomi at every show). As a cynical equation of ambition with prostitution, it's not a bad idea.

At least you might think that until you actually saw Showgirls. The atrocious camp begins with Eszterhas' panting, sweaty script. This guy has only had one good plot idea in his life, and he used it on Jagged Edge and then used it again for Basic Instinct! Amazingly, Showgirls wasn't even his worst film—that honor goes to 1998's Burn Hollywood Burn, his brain dead attempt to satirize the movie industry. Showgirls may be so bad it's good, but Burn Hollywood Burn is so bad it's depressing.

Then there's Verhoeven's direction of Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi. Berkley is to Showgirls as Faye Dunaway was to 1981's Mommie Dearest—namely, a gnashing, flailing, totally out-of-control scenery chewer who elevates it to the not-very-coveted level of so-humiliated-by-the-mainstream-it's-got-to-become-a-cult-film. Showgirls is definitely Mommie Dearest's heir apparent in that regard—its following is hooked on it because they have so much fun laughing at what they're not supposed to. I think we can all agree there hasn't been a movie as unintentionally funny in the 12 years since.

In light of that, it should be no surprise that Showgirls has built a cult purely on the strength of its awfulness. Bad-movie purists will tell you most of today's filmmakers are either too savvy or too mediocre to make a classically bad movie. There must be so much ego, self-delusion and almost naivete involved that the creative forces behind it are willing to push their epically inappropriate vision to the screen before the bean counters can smooth, recut or shelve it. Verhoeven and Eszterhas were able to do it because they had amassed an enormous amount of power by the mid-'90s. They lost most of it on this debacle, but I love that Verhoeven showed up at the Razzie awards to accept his Worst Director prize. The film won a record eight Razzies, by the way.

Ironically, now that it's viewed primarily as camp, all the bad choices in Showgirls seem like the good ones; that is, the ones that make it fun to watch again and again. I wonder if there's a certain validation in that for all of the people who worked so hard to make it suck. Probably not. I'll tell you one thing: the sky's the limit for Showgirls as a cult film. As Tony Moss says in the film: "I'm erect. Why aren't you erect?"

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and the name of your favorite 'Showgirls' line here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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