Thursday Rethink: Review of It Doesn't Suck

Three Brothers Film marks the relaunch of our semi-regular feature, Thursday Rethink, by reviewing the new book from Toronto film critic Adam Nayman, It Doesn’t Suck. Nayman offers a “salvage operation on a very public, very expensive train wreck” – Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) – and essentially expands the concept we had behind Thursday Rethink to book-length format, offering counter-readings to commonly held critical canards and reexamining films dismissed too hastily. Expect to see further Thursday Rethink columns in the coming months.

We don’t usually, or I should say we haven’t yet, covered books about cinema at Three Brothers Film, but Adam Nayman’s entry for the new series, Pop Classics from ECW Press, is both an opportunity to re-think a much maligned film and to address the entire enterprise of critical re-evaluation in general.

Nayman’s slender volume, It Doesn’t Suck, offers a punchy overview of the critical reception of Danish provocateur Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls in 1995 and its subsequent re-appropriation as a piece of camp art in the nearly 20 years since. Nayman opens with a simple question: how did this film, once almost universally considered a “bad” film (Winner of the 1995 Razzie Award for Worst Picture), make the transition in its critical reception to becoming generally considered “good”? Prompted by a conversation with director Mia Hansen-Løve in 2012, in which she expressed her devotion to Showgirls, the author launches his case study of the film and a more general rumination on the matter of critical taste.

After first taking us through the production contexts leading to Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ second collaboration, following 1992’s Basic Instinct, Nayman offers a nearly scene-by-scene analysis of Showgirls, considering performances, tone, camera work, and themes. This is interwoven seamlessly with anecdotes regarding both the production and its pop cultural milieu, as well as a nice overview of director Verhoeven’s body of work including his lesser-known pre-Hollywood Dutch films. In doing this, the book nicely straddles a line between readable and dishy cultural criticism and formal film analysis.

Nayman’s book is at its best when it asks the most difficult questions, even if it can’t possibly fully answer them in such a short space (the book is 124 pages and will make perfect airplane reading). For example, how exactly do we evaluate a film performance? And what distinguishes a film that is merely bad from one that is purposefully playing with widely held conceptions of what cinema should be?

One of the most interesting things about Showgirls’ rehabilitation, which Nayman points out, is the fact that it has never been re-cut, re-edited, and that the film that is finding new fans today is the same one that screened in 1995. No Blade Runner-style director’s cut needed. It is a purer example of a film maudit that can’t point to studio-interference (whether through mandated edits or buried distribution) for its poor initial reception. For better or for worse, Showgirls is and remains the film that Paul Verhoeven wanted audiences to see. The question is, why were they so dismissive at the time? And what has changed since?

In the last chapter, Nayman quotes critic J. Hoberman saying, “There are a number of reasons to reconsider bad movies [...] The most obvious is that tastes change.” The observation that many of our beloved classics were not initially well-received is hardly news. See the subsequent rise of Citizen Kane and now Vertigo to the top of the pantheon via Sight & Sound’s decennial poll, which Nayman references in the first chapter. But the Hoberman quote goes on to say something far more germane: “trash itself is not without its socio-aesthetic charms.” In many ways, the purpose of Nayman’s book is to outline and argue for Showgirls’ trashy charms in particular.

His argument is compelling for a lot of reasons, including placing Showgirls within the wider body of Verhoeven’s work, nestled in between Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, and teasing out the specifics of the tone that the film itself takes towards its characters and the world of the film. Perhaps more perplexing is the fact that anyone ever took the film seriously in the first place, given the actual film in itself.

 Watching Showgirls in preparation for reading the book (I don’t think I’d ever seen it in its entirety, but its ubiquity as a mocked and reviled film and object of trashy interest persisted through my high school days in the late-90s), I found the film equally fascinating and distancing. Hilarious at times and also pitiful. Nayman does a good job of highlighting how singular Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as Nomi is. It’s easy to see why the aggressiveness and simultaneously childishness of her performance was so off-putting to people expecting a naturalistic, nuanced performance.

Nayman’s argument that Berkley’s performance is purposefully broad and extreme, at least in the intentions of the performance Verhoeven manages to coax from her, is easy to buy. Berkley imbues Nomi with a “desperate confusion” that at once makes her both a laughing stock and a deeply sympathetic character. One could easily craft a drinking game, and probably someone has, centered around taking a drink each time Nomi storms off screen in an angry huff or flies off the handle at the slightest provocation. One would be drunk in fairly short order.

But what equally works about the film is how it fits Susan Sontag’s notion of “Pure Camp” as being necessarily naïve. Rarely, if ever, is Showgirls genuinely sexy. It’s best aesthetically appreciated on a different level of evaluation, that of mockery if not outright derision. Even if Verhoeven knew he was crafting a biting satire of American culture, the best joke about the film’s original reception is the fact that it essentially mocks the drooling, whoring audience it baits into anticipating itself (i.e. those who go into it for the T&A). Nayman’s most astute critical observation may be his identification of the film as deeply divided against itself, just as Nomi is both a ladder-climbing striver, bent on destroying anyone in her path, and a deeply hurt individual who just wants to do her thing and dance; just as the always brilliant Kyle MacLachlan’s Zach Carey is both the worst kind of showbiz pimp, and a genuine love interest. It’s a mode that works in this instance and is consistent within Verhoeven’s larger body of work. After finally seeing the whole thing, I might rank it among my favourite of Verhoeven’s films simply for the purity of its vision.

In the end, Nayman seems mostly self-aware of the pitfalls of such critical revisionism that a volume like It Doesn’t Suck plunges into head on. The effect of this critical self-awareness however is to limit himself from making an overly grand critical statement, coming neither to praise nor blame, but rather outlining why someone could make the case for Showgirls. Though the strength of his argument keeps him from damning the film with faint praise, his title, taken from a repeated line of the film’s dialogue, seems to adequately sum up his final pronouncement on the film: Showgirls. It Doesn’t Suck.

It Doesn't Suck  (2014) is available from ECW Press now, as the inaugural volume of their new series Pop Classics.