It’s interesting that at almost the same time, two documentaries are seeking to reevaluate heavily criticized films that went on to become seminal texts for the queer community. Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen’s illuminating film Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street takes a slightly different approach focusing less on the unsung merits of Freddy’s Revenge than on its complicated relationship with star Mark Patton, who disappeared from the public eye for decades. Meanwhile, director Jeffrey McHale sort of wants to have his cake and eat it too with You Don’t Nomi, a film that wants to celebrate the humanistic qualities of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, a movie that one scholar astutely calls “a masterpiece of shit.”
Despite the absence of modern-day interviews with cast and crew members, however, McHale skillfully assembles a portrait of the film’s shifting reception in popular culture both by its makers and the audiences who have embraced it over the past 25 years – both for the unique space it occupies in cinema, and for what some seem eager to project upon it.
The one thing no one can seem to agree upon, at least now, is what Verhoeven and his cast actually intended with the film, a high-pitched melodrama that touches on some thought-provoking ideas but mostly traffics in being nakedly, and emptily provocative. Footage collected from interviews that took place in 1995, the year of the film’s release, all of the way up to 2017 throw Verhoeven’s goals into repeated question, and a revolving door of academics and experts alternately sing the film’s praises and condemn its makers for sensationalizing subject matter that deserves to be treated more seriously. Stuck in the middle of this quandary is the film’s avatar-cum-sacrificial lamb, Elizabeth Berkeley, whose performance is either an embodiment of what makes it terrible or a rosetta stone unlocking its greatness.
For what it’s worth, I think “masterpiece of shit” gets the film right – which is to say, it is extraordinarily well made, and it’s also a piece of shit. Scholars make some compelling arguments about its intentions to thrust a mirror in the faces of moviegoers about the ugliness of the world, and to create multiple depictions of femininity that would test conventional comfort levels. Others effectively observe how brutally and cynically it portrays race, sex and sexual violence, and perhaps fairly question the awkward, disorienting way that it transitions from camp to seriousness. They’re all right. From this, the greater lesson emerges that every movie has a biggest fan, and they’re no more or less right than that film’s biggest critic. Showgirls simply makes this argument more vividly and interestingly given the controversy and critical reception it’s had since it was initially released.
Further to that end, You Don’t Nomi makes an earnest and I’m sure well-intentioned attempt to showcase the film’s therapeutic effect on actress April Kidwell, who bravely talks about working through her own undoubtedly painful experiences as a survivor of sexual assault by performing not once but twice in roles inspired by Berkeley, including as Nomi in Showgirls The Musical. Though her story is powerful and affecting, it strays from academic to anecdotal, and as powerful as it is to hear how much the film helped her work through her own traumas, it doesn’t make a stronger case for the movie. Especially given the persuasive criticisms lobbied by female critics in the documentary about how wrong-headed its depictions of female empowerment, rape and revenge are -an interpretation reinforced by the footage revisited in the film.
Again, however, the cult that has arisen around Showgirls feels like an increasingly unique phenomenon in an era when movies like Sharknado are designed from inception for so-bad-it’s-good status, and certainly it’s always a rewarding experience to discover how an underserved community reclaims art, even in some cases ironically, as an essential text. You Don’t Nomi is, ultimately, a fascinating intellectual exercise that will test your love for (or hatred) for the film, and it might expand and elucidate your view of Verhoeven’s body of work. But if nothing else, it definitely reinforces an irrefutable cultural truth – namely that the difference between art and trash is always in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes it takes a decade or two to tell them apart.