Interview: Adam Nayman on Why Showgirls Doesn’t Suck

Photo from Torontoist - Credit: Corbin Smith
Photo from Torontoist – Credit: Corbin Smith

Canadian film writer and critic Adam Nayman has joined me for lunch to tell me something I already know but that many others would probably be very wary of: that the critically derided Paul Verhoeven directed and Joe Eszterhas written 1995 sexpot epic Showgirls doesn’t suck. Well, I mostly understand it. While I don’t love the Elizabeth Berkley starring, Las Vegas set electric cabaret, I think it’s better than many gave it credit for and holding more than just a fervent cult appeal from people who like to giggle about the film’s more outlandish tendencies. Not much better, mind you, but still better.

It Doesnt SuckWhile Nayman is quick to point out that while he admires the film greatly, it still isn’t one of his favourite films. But he found enough in the film’s history and fabric to write an entire book in defense of its misunderstood nature. The appropriately titled It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls hits bookstores on April 15th and it represents the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work writing about a film that those outside of the midnight cinema crowd would be hard pressed to muster any enthusiasm for. But in the hands of Nayman, whose writing has appeared in the likes of Cinema Scope, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Film Comment, and who teaches classes on film on a regular basis, his work here represents the first ever serious critical assessment of film that was almost summarily dismissed, nearly ended the careers of all involved, and remains the only film to sweep the almost astoundingly irrelevant Razzie Awards.

We’re also talking about the film now because this Friday as part of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s winter long Paul Verhoeven retrospective, Nayman will be introducing a screening of the film (that’s almost sold out at the time of this interview’s publication) at 10:00pm. Nayman will also be on hand selling and signing books starting at 9pm at the Lightbox prior to the performance.

We chatted over lunch in a downtown Toronto sandwich shop about his personal experiences with the film, how the film and Verhoeven have been misread, questions about the film that he still has, and his ultimate goal for trying to reclaim the film’s reputation.

Dork Shelf: When you go to sit down and write a book about any film or to give a talk about it, and you’ve talked about Showgirls several other times even before the book, it’s something that at one point necessitated a viewing that really hammered home why the film stuck with you for so long. Do you remember which showing of Showgirls was the one where you realized it was going to stick with you?

Adam Nayman: Believe it or not, it was on the first watch, but the circumstances of that are kind of unique to me, personally. Like so many of the great, young male minds of my generation, I snuck into Showgirls in a screening in Toronto when I was 13. But I did it not even primarily because of any connection to the sexuality or nudity, but I did it because at that age when I had just started to do writing and was reading a lot of film criticism, I was intrigued to see why Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail had given it zero stars. My actual agenda in sneaking into Showgirls was because I was really interested to see what it is exactly that a zero star movie looks like. That was actually my thinking. Not totally, but mostly.

DS: I know I did something kind of similar by going out of my way when I was younger to go watch North, which was a vastly worse investment of my time.

AN: That’s a perfect example of what I was doing. To some degree when someone says “this is really bad,” there’s the curiosity to see how bad it could be.

Immediately while I was watching Showgirls, I was on my guard and on my way to figure out if it was good or bad. On the first viewing, it’s safe to say that I kind of liked it. I wasn’t particularly titillated by it, and since titillating a 13 year old boy isn’t hard and that wasn’t really what I got out of it, I guess that I had an intellectual attachment to it that predated or overrode any kind of pornographic intent that I ever could have gotten out of that. There are better movies for that both then and now. That was the biggest thing I could say about Showgirls is that the first time I saw it and with each subsequent viewing, I had always been watching it with an eye to why I enjoyed it and questioning why someone else might not.

By contrast, the first time I saw (Verhoeven’s) RoboCop, which I watched when I was about 10 or 11 on video and just thought “this will be good,” I enjoyed it simply because RoboCop was cool and it was exciting and fun, and I wasn’t really picking up on why that was such a smart, well crafted movie. If I had done a book that was similar on RoboCop I would have to have said that it wasn’t until two or three years later that I was able to really get to the heart of why I liked them. After Starship Troopers and after Showgirls and now that I’m a bit more of an auteurist and Verhoeven appreciation-ist, now I see how  RoboCop fits perfectly into his body of work.

But it’s a great question, because I think for a lot of us, our love for a film very often predates our ability to do something with them. But even Showgirls when I was dumb and in my teens was something that I knew I wanted to eventually do something with. I wanted to make something out of it.

DS: And since were from that same sort of background when we were growing up, I am going to assume that your first exposure to Verhoeven was from those initial American films he made after he came over from Holland: Total Recall, RoboCop, and Basic Insitinct. How did your viewings of those, and Showgirls, change when you saw and became aware of all the films he made in Europe prior to those?

Adam NaymanAN: Oh, they changed totally because he’s not a director who leaves a lot of things under the surface. He’s not a director that really hides, or sands off, or ties off his references. When you watch a film like Soldier of Orange and you’ve already seen something like Starship Troopers, it doesn’t take a lot of really hard insight to see that he’s basically doing the same things again. I’m sure for anyone who saw the Dutch films first and then Starship Troopers in 1997 it would be the other way around and they would just say Starship Troopers was Soldier of Orange.

Another good example of those similarities would be Basic Instinct and The Fourth Man. He had made Basic Instinct already, and when you go back and watch The Fourth Man as I did, it’s revelatory. But it’s also revelatory in that specific sense that the filmmaker chooses these resonances and repetitions, and while I think there are plenty of other filmmakers that you have to circle back to the earlier work, and with Verhoeven, I don’t think you see anything differently. Or you find yourself trying to invent some kind of bridge between the filmmaker and where they produced their films, but in his case I didn’t find it difficult at all to reconcile the Dutch work and the Hollywood work. He didn’t change. He just changed geographically and industrially. He never changed as an artist.

That’s one of the lynchpins for my argument about why I like Showgirls, because it’s the work of an artist who has remained true to his own principles, as opposed to a common critical opinion that seems to be held that this man who was once heralded as a satirist and a cunning social commentator and a film savvy artist that just became one of those sell outs. Even right after Showgirls he still made something along the same lines as Starship Troopers.

DS: I think now we’re finally at a point where critics are more open to accepting the sense of humour, smarts, and playfulness that Verhoeven brought to those American productions, especially something like something like Starship Troopers. Even Showgirls has some very purposefully funny moments. But the one thing that I’ve never been able to reconcile when it comes to Showgirls is that this is made from yet another Joe Eszterhas script that came after Basic Instinct and at times it kind of lapses into the same problems as that film, which even lower than Showgirls and just above Hollow Man is what I think is Verhoeven’s weakest film.

AN: You bring up a good point. I’m a big believer that tension is often a precursor to really interesting art. Sometimes it’s an artist’s tension with themselves, sometimes it’s with the material, and sometimes there’s interpersonal tension. And I think that the difference between Basic Instinct and Showgirls is that on Basic Instinct Verhoeven seems like he had to somehow prevail over the prudishness of Joe Eszterhas, which is just so funny to think about.

On Basic Instinct, Eszterhas’ script wasn’t as extreme as the finished product, and Eszterhas was a lot more atuned and unnerved by the complaints raised by the gay community and women’s rights groups that greeted the film. Verhoeven was the one who kind of said “Forget that. I want to make what I want to make.”

Showgirls finds Eszterhas and Verhoeven for the first time on the same page. That tension that I think between the two of them on Showgirls is a lot less obvious. The tension that makes Showgirls amazing to me comes from other places. It’s the tension between the material as Eszterhas and Verhoeven conceived it and their casting choices. There’s the tension between the material and the cultural climate that the film was released into. I think there’s even that interesting tension between what is essentially a backstage 1930s movie musical melodrama plot – which is, I am sure, how Eszterhas conceived it – and the decades old post-production code attitude of Hollywood where you can actually show girls. The whole thing of those early musicals is how sexuality was repressed through shooting, choreography, and innuendo, so I think people who liked those kinds of musicals saw Showgirls as a kind of increased license to show a reduce of artistic impact. But what one of the things I see about Showgirls is how it’s actually just like those films, but it’s set and released in a cultural climate where you can show what that sort of thing looks like. I think it’s fascinating.

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The reference points for me in the book when talking about Showgirls are 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and to some extent even though it’s later and not a musical, All About Eve, which Verhoeven used as his own touchstone when he talked about making the film. He always joked that the film should be titled All About Evil.

It’s funny because one of the things in the book is that I talk quite a bit about other directors. I talk a bit about Tarantino and his rape revenge film Death Proof – but I can guess you can also arguably say is the Kill Bill films, as well – are where he gets credited, and not wrongly, for annotating his reference. Critics go into those films sort of saying “Oh, of course.” When you go into the end of Death Proof, not only are you thinking about Vanishing Point or something like They Call Her One Eye or any number of titles. We’re cued to look for those things because that’s him.

What I notice about Verhoeven is that he’s hired to make films from other writers and other filmmakers, and because of that he doesn’t clarify or bracket off his references as much. But by the end of Showgirls, he’s not anticipating something like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but he’s calling back to the entire culture of 70s rape revenge movies. If you look back, a lot of the narrative architectural arrows point back to the 1930s. Basic Instinct was made under the netting of Hitchcock, but so was The Fourth Man, and both of those have healthy nods to Argento and De Palma. My point isn’t really so much insight as it is basic film criticism, but unlike Tarantino, no one will do the same for Verhoeven. Or at least fewer people would do it for him and just assume that all of his ideas here were bad and that they were formulated in a vacuum.

The short answer is that he’s seen as less of a part of an ongoing film conversation than someone like a Tarantino or in the way some European arthouse filmmakers who make the leap to other countries are talked about. And I think that’s an important way to show a greater appreciation to see something like Showgirls as a film that plays with itself in the context of and dialogue with a lot of American moves that Verhoeven really loves. And it shows the differences between those films and his updated versions of them. It shows some interesting places where the movies were necessarily different because they were his treatments of this material. It’s the same as RoboCop. If RoboCop did not look and behave so frequently and so often as many of the films that came before it, the places where that film is different would have a lot less impact.

DS: One of the things you touched on that kind of goes back to that Tarantino comparison that Verhoeven was a bit ahead of the curve on was casting. If Tarantino were to make a movie with this same cast, people would also be picking it apart and analysing it just as endlessly in terms of references. That extends to something like Basic Instinct or Starship Troopers, as well. These films would be heralded as something potentially brilliant.

AN: Exactly. (In Basic Instinct) Douglas is cast based on his past movies, and Stone is cast because she has almost no history. It’s a great combination.

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DS: But when you have someone like Elizabeth Berkely in Showgirls or Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards in Starship Troopers, people automatically start asking what the gag or what the joke is.

AN: Well, in Starship Troopers, the gag is a lot easier to get because the cast is a lot more uniform. Whereas a lot of the other actors in Showgirls are really witty, and that wit only serves to really place Berkely’s obliviousness into greater relief.

And she’s the hardest thing for me to write about. It’s complicated. The movie would not be the film that it is with a different actor, for better or worse. And I don’t think that someone could be worse or worse directed or at least worse handled than she is. Without her, I don’t think the film would be as bad as it was and there would be less of an impulse twenty years later to reclaim it as being good. For however well made and funny and smart it is, whatever it is has to do I think with her.

Part of that is that I find what she’s doing to be quite moving, and not in a condescending way where I pity her, but I find the idea of a film about a women who is ardently willing to enter into this showbiz world with very little realization of what the risks are to her and whose only way out is to assert herself and get revenge is a lot more powerful when put into looking all the ways that Berkely’s own career is the same way with a different ending. Whether it’s earned it or not or it’s believable, she wins in the film and says “I’m going to go to Hollywood on my own terms.” And Berkely didn’t do any of this on her terms. She did this on terms where she was told that this would make her is star in the same way that Sharon Stone was made a star, and I think she ended up being quite badly used, not just by the film, but she also became the easiest way for critics to get at the movie. I mean, Verhoeven and Eszterhas took their shots, too. They all did. But she got the worst of it.

DS: I think that people really wanted to look for what the blame behind the movie was, and for me if you’re blaming someone for the film being wonky it would be Eszterhas, and not necessarily the guy in charge or the person who has to act out this script.

AN: You could, but to me, and this is where we probably disagree… To me so much of what’s good about the film is Eszterhas’ screenplay. I think that Verhoeven treats it quite brilliantly at times. Some of his directorial choices are definitely running counter to what was written, but both the satirical and quasi-feminist architecture of that movie belongs almost entirely to Eszterhas, who ever since Flashdance has tried to write movies about women who come to realize that they have a certain amount of power, and it’s a power that was inside of them all along. That’s what Flashdance is all about. That’s what The Music Box is all about, where Jessica Lange learns to detach from her family history. Basic Instinct is pretty out in the open and doesn’t really need explanation in that respect. And in Showgirls, Naomi really seizes upon a certain aspect of her sexuality that she and everyone else is confused by until the end when she weaponizes it, beats the shit out of a rapist, and leaves on her own terms.

I find that those ideas and those concepts, as silly as they might seem to some, are what I really respond to in the movie. I think that in this case, Verhoeven and Eszterhas are nicely simpatico, because whatever you think of Verhoeven and his gender politics and his history with women on film, he has a history of strong, resourceful women who refuse to be victimized, and the ways in which they resist their victimization are often not politically correct.

Films like Spetters, The Fourth Man, and Basic Instinct, are an interesting conversation to have outside of this conversation. Spetters is probably the most interesting one because it’s the most sympathetic. Here’s a blonde girl who sleeps with other guys because she’s trying to get something. She doesn’t kill them, but she’s using them. In Fourth Man there are literally skeletons in her closet, and by the time you get to Basic Instinct, there’s no ambiguity if she’s a killer or not because she’s just a monster. But he makes a lot of strong women even within those parameters.

DS: I think the only way that Basic Instinct can even be seen as a good movie is because Stone is playing a character so magnetic that you want to see the villain win just because of what she has all around him.

AN: I actually kind of wrote the same thing in The Globe this morning about 300: Rise of an Empire with the case of Eva Green’s character in that film. I think she similarly resisted the ways in which her character could have very simply been exploited and instead she’s being exploited and kind of enjoying it, and there’s an interesting sight of pleasure in that movie with that. But you see, she in 300 and Stone in Basic Instinct both give off the air of really smart people who know they are above their material. Berkely in Showgirls doesn’t give off those signals, because she’s not and she doesn’t have the ability yet to resist that.

I think in Showgirls, she’s directed very manipulatively. I guess one of those things that even after spending a year writing about this movie that I will not be able to make up my mind about – and you probably wouldn’t even be able to even if you asked the parties involved – is her acting really what Verhoeven wanted? Part of me is convinced that it is and that the film takes a lot of its outrageousness and its cues from her and the film wouldn’t be the same without her. But Verhoeven is also a filmmaker who likes and isn’t afraid of failing. He’s not a director that gives in to bad reviews, or a director who likes losing money, or a director who can be heroic in any way. He’s a careerist, and he wants his films to succeed, and so I’m not sure that even though I admire him that I could go as far as to say that it’s a deliberately misdirected performance designed to create this strange tension that will redeem the film in a way that better acting wouldn’t have.

That’s a very “down the rabbit hole” argument. The book touches on the fact that the film is better for how bad she is or however far from what was being intended. But I don’t know if I can go so far as to say that’s the whole point. I’m not sure if that’s the point, but a movie like this doesn’t need to be great because it has a point, but because it’s greatness keeps slip-sliding all over the place and every time you try to put your finger on it, it keeps moving all over the place. I’m not sure that it’s GREAT, but I am certain that it’s NOT terrible, and with a film this extreme, what other argument is there? There’s so little middle ground in a movie like this. There’s nothing boring about it.

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DS: One of the things about this film that I find so fascinating, and this kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier with Busby Berkely musicals or even if we talked about something like Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, is that films about this particular kind of profession are hard to make because it’s almost impossible to describe just how absurd the job can get at times.

AN: Yeah! That’s a great point. Showgirls has, if you pardon me for saying so, a really kind of bourgeois, working class dialectic, which sounds silly to say, but it’s there. It goes back again to Eszterhas and Flashdance. It argues in a silly way that The Cheetah and The Stardust are the same place. The camaraderie of The Cheetah is much warmer, and as hideous as Robert D’avi’s character is, even he’s shown as kind of this country bumpkin dad that’s really happy to see his girl hit the big time, even though he’s naive to what “big time” means. Whereas The Stardust is just a hotel. It’s basically The Overlook. There are all kinds of ghouls haunting the grounds and it’s a place where good intentions go to die.

I think that’s Esztherhas’ sleazy liberal and Verhoeven’s sleazy-pervy liberal world view lines up, and I think they were carrying it through. I know when they were making the film, they claimed to have a lot of empathy and solidarity that they had with the second and third tier strip bars they found in Las Vegas, because in those places they found a certain microcosm of a larger society at work. It’s interesting that Verhoeven is a guy who always criticizes bourgeois and upper crust characters because he always makes his movies at the high end of the production spectrum. He’s a guy who made a lot of the decisions he made and a lot of the films he made to have the right to use these sorts of resources. So in that respect, Showgirls is no less hypocritical than thousands of other movies that came before that claim to be about the horribleness of decadence and wealth, but then choose to luxuriate in it. It’s the same with Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which is a movie that I bring up all the time in the Showgirls book.

So when you bring up the surreal nature of those kinds of jobs, I think Showgirls doubles down on it by making Las Vegas and the people in it so odd, and it tries to explain the awfulness of The Stardust by framing The Cheetah in these almost affectionately sweaty, working class terms. But it has no illusion about the job. Part of what’s great about the narrative of the film is that The Stardust is organizationally and in terms of its process exactly like The Cheetah. There’s no step up. The step up is entirely perceptual and entirely ego based. It’s doing the same job. The idea that you’re doing the same job that you had when you’re starting out means you can look at the film allegorically for show business.

DS: It definitely has the feeling of a writer and director working together after they have just made between them several films that grossed over a hundred million dollars each at the box office. It seems the result of two people that earned the right to have free and almost unchecked reign over a film.

Showgirls - F2AN: Well, one of the many things that I love about Verhoeven is one of his greatest contradictions. He is innately, almost biologically commercial as a filmmaker. He cannot help it, even when he was in The Netherlands essentially helping to invent Dutch art cinema where he was also criticized as being too commercial. His instincts are commercial and his budget requests are always high, and he really will do anything to get a rise out of an audience. He’s a mainstream entertainer, and yet he’s never made a film that seems at all compromised to the mainstream. If anything, it seems like the mainstream stretched to accommodate the kinds of movies that Paul Verhoeven wanted to make. RoboCop did not sit around politely and ask for a new industry standard. In a way, it created it. Basic Instinct took a quick look around at what was permissible in the world of the erotic thriller in the 1980s and it decided to go further. Starship Troopers is very skilful in disguising what it is up until a point, and once you realize what it is, you just have to deal with it.

What I love about this filmmaker is that’s he an unabashed panderer who never sells himself short. He will never compromise his own wiliness to pander, which is a strange, but really admirable kind of artistic integrity. I mean, usually, you say that a guy is a great artist because you’ll say he doesn’t pander at all and that’s how you know he’s a serious artist that won’t pander to the mainstream. Verhoeven panders directly to the mainstream and his wiliness to do it and his fearlessness and absolute lack of doubt about doing so to me makes him pretty close to a great artist.

Ultimately, he’s only maybe a great artist, and this might be the only time you’ll ever hear this comparison made, but he’s no more ashamed of who his is than Luis Buñuel was or fearful or anxious about what he gets off on, or what he likes, or what he’s trying to say. I think that they are closer than a lot of Buñuel fans would probably want to admit. I think that a double of bill, and this might seem silly, of Showgirls and Viridiana or of Keetje Tipple and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or Spetters and Los Olvidados could be revelatory. I don’t think there’s a higher compliment that you can give a filmmaker than to say they are in a conversation with Buñuel. I don’t think that Buñuel would have made Showgirls the same way he made it or the way that Jacques Rivette might have made it, but I really think that without deliberate reference or illusion that Showgirls can register with something like Celine and Julie Go Boating or with some of the Buñuel’s.

You can talk about all of these things together. I guess with the book, making that claim is silly. Indicating why this claim is within spitting distance is really the main reason I wanted to write this book. I can’t claim with a straight face that if the best of cinema is up here that Showgirls is up there with it. But it’s so much closer to the middle than the abject pit that it was placed in. It has so much further to be raised that I think it’s a labour worth undertaking.

DS: I had this conversation with someone the other day about those grandiose books of lists that say “1001 Movies You Need to See Before You Die,” but someone despite having the foresight to make that book has only created a book about what they believe probably the top 1% of cinema actually is. If you can make it into that list, I guess you have done well. Do you think Showgirls is at least in that kind of category in terms of how good it is?

AN: I think Showgirls is the top movie that I will see a thousand times before I die. (laughs)

I guess the catchall descriptor these days is “essential cinema.” I think it would easily be classified as something like that. Any film that becomes that much of a point in a cultural consensus is always worth seeing if only to help understand, confirm, debunk, or refine that consensus. Because I’m an auteurist I wouldn’t ever think I could see something as being a list of a thousand films to see before you did, but in terms of saying, “Here’s 50 people that you should take by the measure of their career.” And I think it’s worth taking the measure of Verhoeven’s career, and in that case it’s something people should see.

And I wanted to say, but since you’re also a film critic who really gets this in your writing, is that one of the things I wanted to do in this book is to talk about how this whole totalizing mentality that goes along with a lot of film criticism just doesn’t work. It never has. Just in the case of Showgirls, for instance, let’s just say that you find the film’s characters, dialogue, scenario, scenes, attitude to be bad – which is how a lot of people wrote about it in a paying job as critics, bad story, bad script, I don’t like it – but in order to fill out a set word count or to position itself along how film criticism exists in the mainstream, you have to say that the whole thing is bad just to justify panning it. That’s not their fault in many cases, but the fault of the format. I’m willing to fight the format. What you didn’t find then that I would be much happier to see now, is that you didn’t see anyone say “This is a beautifully shaped, written film with phenomenally evocative camera placement and exceptional editing that communicates narrative information visually, and it’s still bad.”

DS: It’s super hard to get people to respond to a mixed review because people with only a passing interest in film writing seem to have gotten their circuits crossed that everything has to be either entirely great or entirely awful.

AN: Exactly. That’s why this film is something that’s so challenging to write about. I don’t think that any of the things that I just listed about the movie are particularly bad. I think they are either good or at least interesting. But looking at the film as a critic, at least formally and aesthetically it’s fantastic. I don’t think there’s a badly composed shot or edit in it. It’s very good. That just wasn’t ever allowed to ever enter into the pan of the film. That’s a kind of clue as to why it’s reputation was so degraded. It wasn’t enough to say “This was a film that made me uncomfortable” or to even say that it was a film that someone could even assert any real intellectual superiority over. You had to say, point blank, that it was the worst thing ever. And there’s no such animal as far as I’m concerned, and I’m sure it’s not a movie that is this well shot, lit, edited, put together. In order to justify how much people had to denigrate the content, they had to denigrate the form. As soon as you’ve done that, there’s a real intellectual dishonestly that I guess you could say that I am denigrating the content over the form, but I’m not. I happen to LIKE the content and I happen to LIKE the form. I just have a hard time as someone who writes about film for a living to have to compare a film to something else like it. You can’t look at everything in like terms. It’s at least competently made. Of course it is. It’s a studio product.

And the flip side of all that is that I think some films are terrible not because they aren’t well made, but because they are. It’s a very, very low level example, but one that I hope is relevant, but Showgirls typifies that when people think something is supposed to be bad, anything short of total critical pile-ons won’t do. And that doesn’t work.