“We’re still talking about Showgirls because we’re not done with it. I don’t think we’re done with it because I don’t think we’re figured out what Showgirls means as a film.”
Jeffrey McHale’s You Don’t Nomi, the first of two documentaries about Paul Verhoeven’s infamous 1995 flop, hit VOD/BluRay today and it offers a surprisingly honest and thoughtful discussion about one of the most notorious studio releases of our time.
After scoring big with 1992’s Basic Instinct, Dutch filmmaker Verhoeven re-teamed with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance, Jagged Edge) to create what was meant to be an eye-opening, NC-17-rated look at Las Vegas and its shadowy entertainment underworld, but instead were met with empty theaters and abysmal reviews ($20 million gross against a $45 million budget). Lead actress Elizabeth Berkley’s turn as Nomi Malone, a young drifter who quickly ascends from stripper to local stardom, was immediately met with derision and her career never really recovered. Ultimately, Verhoeven and co. had the last laugh – the film eventually became one of MGM’s highest grossing releases with over 100 million in video sales and rentals.
What does all of this mean now? You Don’t Nomi unpacks 25 years of baggage and drama while exploring the film’s triumphant second life as a cult classic, but also allows room for the possibility that it’s a stone-cold work of art that the public and critics got totally wrong. Unlike Jeffrey Schwarz’s forthcoming Goddess: The Rise and Fall of Showgirls, McHale’s documentary doesn’t include anyone involved with the original film production – it’s more of a who’s-who of Showgirls stans with a lot of passionate feelings, like San Francisco drag legend Peaches Christ and April Kidwell, star of Showgirls! The Musical!
You Don’t Nomi smartly eschews the conventional talking heads format and instead uses clips from both Showgirls and other Verhoeven films to accompany what’s being described by the narrators. McHale explores the claim put forth in Adam Nayman’s It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, where the author says there’s three possible reads of the film: it’s either a piece of shit, a masterpiece, or a masterpiece of shit (both at once). Using the expressionist imagery, the callbacks to old MGM musicals and Verhoeven’s employment of mirrors and other camera tricks as examples, Nayman and others make a strongly convincing case that a film that once was thought to be utterly terrible is now “widely suspected of being good.” The whole thing is far from impartial and clearly on the side of the defenders, though McHale does give its critics plenty of time to make their cases – topics of the misogyny, racism and the overall cynical nature of the film are all thoroughly examined.
The most interesting stretch questions Verhoeven’s artistic intent, and whether this was meant to be an earnest depiction of Vegas life, or instead a tongue-in-cheek satire about sex, fame and American excess. This immediately raises the question as to whether or not the film can be enjoyed as “camp,” and the answer is “fuck yes.” McHale and Nayman bring receipts in the form of Showgirls: Portrait of a Film, a fabulously pretentious book penned by Verhoeven that fully proves the filmmakers were dead serious about the whole thing. Whether you think it’s shit or champagne (or champagne with shit floaties), You Don’t Nomi makes it abundantly clear that we’ll never be fully done talking about Showgirls.
You Don’t Nomi is out now on all major VOD platforms via RLJE Films