Monday, April 27, 2009

Revengers Tragedy

No gods, no masters, and so no budget—Alex Cox does Thomas Middleton’s seventeenth century play on the cheap, moving its bloody tale of intrigues in an Italian court to a decaying futuristic Britain. The plot of this flawed but funny anarchist farce is too labyrinthine to summarize, but once the knives come out and the poison starts pouring everything simplifies rather quickly. The important thing is that Cox nails the core of the story, even though the early scenes do drag and he fumbles with some of the finer points of his adaptation—details of the dystopian setting are underdeveloped, and the skimpiness of the futuristic trimmings begs the question of why they were even necessary in the first place. Were modern times simply not grimy enough for this cutthroat tale? But Cox is attuned to the subversive (if not downright seditious) possibilities of Middleton’s play, turning its parade of deposed dukes into a vituperative satire of a corrupt ruling class seeking power as its own end. Vindici, the titular tragic revenger, best summarizes this political philosophy when he says, “Great men were gods if beggars could not kill them.” By these terms, the film is rapturously godless.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The phrase “bad movie” entices me, much like how a piece of shit entices a fly. But it isn’t the allure of awfulness that draws me closer—it is the near limitless possibilities contained behind that ambiguous word, “bad.” When someone dismisses a movie as bad, the judgment seems categorically objective: the movie is an irredeemable failure, absolutely beyond redemption.

But in reality, bad movies are often quite interesting, even rewarding and sometimes well-made cinema. The badness that has incited the audience is often not a matter of technique or style, but morality—the film is bad in the sense that it is perceived as evil, an affront to the viewer’s values. And that brings us to Showgirls, as confident and complete an assault on good taste as has ever come out of the self-deluding whorehouse that is Hollywood.

The plot plays out like a diseased, degenerate version of All About Eve: a desperate young star sets her sights on fame at any cost, moving from naïve innocent to jaded star, only to discover that the climb to fame is merely prelude to a precipitous fall. Except whereas All About Eve focused on the more respectable world of theatre and was thus rewarded with a bucket of Oscars, Showgirls employs a more sordid Las Vegas world as vehicle for its satire on Hollywood and thus earned a comparable assortment of Razzies for its impudence.

Which is unfortunate, because the film possesses a caustic honesty more potent than any tasteful (i.e., neutered), Oscar-winning satire. The film pulses with contempt—for Hollywood and for its audience. A glancing familiarity with the film’s reputation might make it seem like cheap titillation dressed up in big-studio gloss, but sex has rarely seemed so ugly and joyless as it does in this movie, which only shows the act as a means of transaction for money or power. This is brutal subject matter, but I find it hard not to be a little taken by the audacity of director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

That’s not to say this is an easy film to appreciate, and Elizabeth Berkley’s lead performance might be the biggest stumbling block in this regard. She plays Nomi, the seemingly innocent young wannabe who comes to Las Vegas dreaming of becoming a star but reduced to stripping at a place called Cheetah’s. As the result of a particularly fiery lap dance with Zach, entertainment director at the Stardust (played with an expertly deadpan sleaziness by Kyle MacLachlan), she gets an audition. Cristal, the star of the show (Gina Gershon, who is so commanding at times she threatens to crack open her tight-lipped smile and swallow Berkley whole), takes an interest in the budding starlet and develops a love-hate relationship tinged with lesbian innuendo, which progresses through a series of incomplete seductions and backstabs until Nomi realizes her only chance to become star of the show is to, um, push Cristal down a flight of stairs.

As a character, Nomi can be difficult to take with her lack of anything that might be considered an inner life. This isn't to say she doesn't have secrets (she hides a past as a prostitute that she spends much of the film denying) or a personality of sorts, but she seems capable of only expressing herself through exaggerated gestures, as opposed to inflections of speech or expression: this is not a quiet performance. For an extreme example of this tendency, just look at an early scene between Nomi and her roommate Molly—the only way Nomi seems capable of expressing anger and frustration is by violently (and somewhat comically) stabbing her straw into her soda and then spilling French fries all over the table.

Of course, as a hooker-turned-stripper-turned-showgirl, carnality is Nomi’s key asset, and Berkley obliges by physically throwing herself into the role with all the conviction of someone hurling herself off a cliff. The suicide metaphor is deliberate; Berkley herself might beg to differ, but her career came to this film to die. If the intention of the film is to show how the entertainment industry uses women as if they were interchangeable slabs of meat, then the collapse of Berkley’s career after this film seems to prove its point. This is one of the most troubling things about the entire film: if Berkley had gone on to a successful career, the film might have simply become an inconsequential footnote to a larger story instead of the climax. For Showgirls to succeed, its star had to fail.

More bluntly put, Verhoeven is implicated, and I think he likes it. This may be a satire of the way Hollywood exploits women, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a discreet, academic dissertation on the subject. Verhoeven rejects any possibility of tastefully telling this story and instead plays up the crassness of the tale; scenes like the over-the-top sex scene in the pool feel like a mockery of the audience’s craving for a little bit of titillation.

Verhoeven meets depravity with depravity, not trusting to any notions of art. For those looking to defend him as an artist, Verhoeven offers the ambivalent subplot of James, a dancer who takes an interest in Nomi. The man is convinced of her talent, even if she lacks knowledge or training, and he tries to convince her to perform in a number he has created specifically for her. She refuses, but he forges ahead and debuts the act at a small club where it is quickly booed off stage. “Bring out the real dancers!” someone shouts. The boorish audience is portrayed with some contempt, but the film also has a disingenuous air of “Well, what did you expect?” After all, given the choice between actual strippers and an arty simulation of same, is it any surprise what most people choose?

But it’s only in the third act that the film really goes after the audience. Those who have been chuckling along derisively at the film will have to contend with the rape of Molly, a spectacularly ugly scene by any standard, which disturbs any attempts to treat the whole film as a glib joke (incidentally, those Showgirls drinking games don’t seem to acknowledge the scene, but I like to imagine it provokes an awkward, guilty silence when it comes up). In a film in which the audience has essentially been egging on the sexual exploitation of the actresses for its own gratification, this rape is Verhoeven’s biggest attack on viewers—he takes the desires of the audience to their greatest extreme and visualizes them, if only to throw those desires back in our faces.

For final proof of this, just consider the scene where Nomi—remade as a fierce avenging angel—seduces Molly’s attacker and then proceeds to beat the living shit out of him. The camera constantly shifts to his perspective, uncomfortably aligning the audience’s viewpoint with that of a rapist and in the process equating the violation of voyeurism with the violation of rape (one could easily milk an entire graduate thesis out of this, assuming it already hasn’t been done). Conceptually, this is almost too obvious, but at this point criticizing the film for a lack of subtlety would be absurd.

(This perspective shot also calls to mind Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, another striking film about a reformed prostitute who enters a strange town, suffers at the hands of its residents, and then leaves after having proven herself superior to the amoral hypocrites running the place. That film begins with an incredible scene of prostitute beating up her pimp, which Fuller films from the pimp’s perspective as the prostitute whacks the side of the camera with her purse. As an assault on the audience, this is comparable to Showgirls, even though Fuller’s overarching vision is ultimately more empathetic than Verhoeven’s scabrous cynicism.)

Nomi’s revenge against the rapist is the sort of victory that seems empowering on the surface, but offers little real change or improvement in this vile system. In fact, she ends right where she began, hitching a ride out of town, heading towards Los Angeles where a larger, crueler whorehouse awaits her. Nomi’s actions start to seem more like futile retaliation against a system stacked against her—cathartic, but of no real consequence.

Is there any hope in the midst of such bleakness? Is Verhoeven nothing more than an embittered misanthrope, taking out his disillusionment with Hollywood upon the docile, unsuspecting audience, which all too readily falls into his trap? "We all gotta be a prostitute sometimes" might be the best summary of the film's worldview, which essentially says that all entertainers, itself included, are whores, and by implication, we the audience are johns. In such a vision, the only character growth possible becomes the self-awareness of acknowledging one’s own debased position in this system. Or perhaps, more optimistically, to simply reject this system entirely—a possibility not entertained by any characters in the film, although I like to think it is at least open to the rest of us.

A film this odious can only be reckoned with in one of two ways. The first approach is to embrace the film as pure camp pleasure, celebrating its every exaggeration and absurdity as signs of intentions gone awry—“a seriousness that fails,” as Susan Sontag writes in “Notes on ‘Camp’”. This approach essentially dismisses everything caustic and upsetting in the film as accidents caused by filmmakers too inept to actually mean any harm. Given the rather deliberate offensiveness of much of the film, it is a generously forgiving audience that can approach Showgirls on these terms—camp is also a “love for human nature,” according to Sontag—but it also takes a bit of willful blindness to not be bothered when someone spits in your face.

Treating the film as a so-bad-it’s-good spectacle might be worth a few laughs, but it’s also a shield from the more unsettling spectacle of Hollywood as a rumbling volcano requiring a steady stream of nubile, scantily clad (but not necessarily virgin) sacrifices. By now we’ve long since reached the point at which everything subversive about the film has been co-opted by the marketplace—which in this case means the release of a special edition DVD including drinking game, shot glasses, and two stripper tassels to pin on a nude poster of Berkley.

No, I prefer a second approach to Showgirls, which is to assume Verhoeven and Eszterhas are making a very deliberate film, no matter how vile and ridiculous it might seem. And I mean it—those drinking games might leave you buzzed, but treating this film as a sincere response to modern culture will have you reeling for days. Even when the dialogue seems offensive and stupid, take it as intentionally offensive and stupid, including that infamously inane dialogue between Nomi and Cristal about how nice it is to have nice tits.

Tempting though it may be to assume that this is merely erotic dialogue gone astray, recall that the bulk of the audience has come to the film expecting to ogle those very same tits. The crass yet banal dialogue makes a mockery of the audience’s own lechery by voicing the very thoughts running through our heads and rendering these thoughts loathsome and insipid. Understandably, audiences don’t much appreciate this treatment, but to suggest this is a failing of the film itself misses the point. Oh, poor monster—why hate the mirror?

Sunday, April 5, 2009


It’s tough out there for an action star, isn’t it? Things used to be you could just pop off a quick ass-kicking adventure every year and make a decent living at it, but Hollywood seems to have cut back on these modest little genre pictures in recent years—too narrow a demographic appeal, I imagine, and just not enough return on investment. But suffer the Van Dammes and Seagals, the Lundgrens and Stallones? Where are the muscle-bound lunkheads of yesteryear?

Well, if this film is any indication, they’re out there somewhere being subjected to the humiliations of a steadily diminishing fame. JCVD features Jean-Claude Van Damme playing a fictionalized version of himself who must sit through a child custody case in which his films are used as evidence against him. Even worse, after going to the post office to pick up a money transfer (his bank account is frozen), he stumbles onto a hostage drama. To the outside world, it appears that Van Damme is responsible for the hostage taking, a confusion that the real robbers readily exploit. The incident becomes a media circus, with Van Damme’s fans on the street cheering on their hero and his parents begging their son to release the hostages.

This all sounds better in concept than it actually is, but the film still manages to offer some amusing—if not particularly profound—insights into fame. For instance, there is a running gag about how everyone prefers Van Damme in his films than in real life (people comment on how short he is, and a garrulous cab driver declares him to be nicer in his movies). The joke even extends to other people—outside the hostage taking, someone observes that a local reporter is much better looking on television. The simple fact of appearing on a television or movie screen instantly elevates our perception of a person.

The film never really pursues these ideas very far, nor any of its other ideas for that matter. The media circus around the hostage taking suggests the possibility of an antic farce on celebrity and hero worship—there’s a nice, mild surrealism to lines of dialogue like, “Jean-Claude Van Damme’s robbing the post office! I need back-up!”—but this potential goes untapped due to the underdeveloped supporting characters and tepid resolution of the hostage crisis. The sad-sack life of Van Damme suggests a more ruminative drama about the disillusionment of fame and celebrity as a trap (either as hostage or in prison, Van Damme spends much of the film confined and cut off from the world); unfortunately, the film’s combination of deprecating humour and flattery caters to Van Damme’s self-pity instead of providing genuine insight into his persona.

Van Damme still deserves to be recognized for a rather engaging performance, which feels looser and more relaxed than one might expect. At the same time, I have trouble accepting the centerpiece of Van Damme’s performance—a teary, one-take monologue in which he defends himself against undefined detractors while trying to appear sympathetically vulnerable. It’s perhaps the closest the film comes to some sort of emotional honesty with its protagonist, which makes the calculating performance that much more unfortunate. You can see the contrivance behind each motion and expression—he underlines every emotion in a way that is almost academic, as if he were pulling all of this from a textbook somewhere. Yes, it’s impressive that Van Damme can actually act, but how much more impressive would it be if he didn’t have to call so much attention to it? The scene occurs outside the world of the narrative in a film studio with cameras and equipment behind Van Damme—the setting broadcasts the moment’s supposed reality, but the man’s every studied twitch suggests otherwise.

Is the film mocking Van Damme here? Or merely indulging him? The cheeky score often plays like a parody of action film music, making it difficult to take serious when mournful strings play behind Van Damme’s supposedly soul-bearing monologue. If the whole thing is a joke, then why not this as well? Director Mabrouk El Mechri seems to vacillate between mocking and worshipping his subject, and this confusion means the film never really amounts to more than a few funny scenes and an intriguing premise. And none of this is helped by El Mechri’s relentless hyper-stylization of everything, which distracts without actually adding anything to our perception of events. The most you could say for the director’s use of sepia tones, for example, is that it suggests nostalgia for a bygone era of action heroes. But given the film’s immense self-regard, it is more likely just nostalgia for itself—a fond reminiscence of its own cleverness, long since faded.