FILM REVIEW – YOU DON’T NOMI. A documentary by Jeffrey McHale. With Adam Nayman, David Schmader, April Kidwell, Jeffery Conaway, Peaches Christ. Unrated, but contains profanity, nudity and graphic sexual content. 92 minutes.
Onan the Vulgarian
“Showgirls” is the worst movie I own. I’ve seen it upwards of half-a-dozen times, but I assure you not for any reasons of prurient interest. Despite its ubiquitous nudity the NC-17 extravaganza is one of the least erotic films ever made, unceremoniously exhibiting so many bare boobs you might as well be looking at the actresses’ elbows. Its centerpiece is a hyper-calisthenic sex scene in a swimming pool so inadvertently hilarious I can’t not think of it and giggle whenever I see someone reeling in a fish. “Showgirls” isn’t so-bad-it’s-good, either. It’s is so bad it’s terrible, and at 128 minutes, is punishingly overlong. Yet director Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 T&A craptacular remains a captivating cultural document, a movie inexplicable from so many angles you can’t help but keep re-examining it to try and understand exactly what the hell happened here.
Jeffrey McHale’s fine documentary YOU DON’T NOMI takes a prismatic approach to the “Showgirls” phenomenon, following the film’s disastrous initial release and eventual resurrection as a cult fetish item. Positioning it as the third panel of a camp classic triptych that began with “Valley of the Dolls” and continued with “Mommie Dearest,” McHale borrows a page from one of the great movies about movies, “Room 237” in avoiding talking heads, relying entirely on archival footage, voice-over narration and artfully manipulated clips from not just “Showgirls” but also the entire Verhoeven canon, picking out patterns and precedents. It might sound like a joke, but this is actually a rather thoughtful and enlightening piece of film criticism.
A grab bag of cinema scholars and snark artists contribute to the running commentary, to my mind the most valuable insights coming from Toronto film critic Adam Nayman, whose excellent 2014 monograph “It Doesn’t Suck” explored the formal properties of “Showgirls” in rigorous detail. His arguments here are illuminated by McHale’s smartly edited excepts from the film, demonstrating an incredible level of visual sophistication exhibited by Verhoeven and his longtime cinematographer Jost Vacano with a complex photographic strategy of mirrors and thematic doubling, which is nonetheless put in service of one of the most inane screenplays ever penned. “Showgirls” is a movie that’s simultaneously smarter than you’d ever thought it could be and dumber than you can possibly imagine.
Now the extent to which it was always intended to be terrible has been a subject of debate for the past quarter century, a mystery plumbed in the documentary. Upon every viewing I am perplexed anew at how a movie so carefully framed and staged for the camera can also feature such rancid dialogue and embarrassing performances. (I’ve always guessed the answers here have a lot to do with “Joe Eszterhas” and “cocaine,” though McHale’s movie takes a more charitable line of inquiry.) Is “Showgirls” secretly a savage satire of American excess and we all just missed the point? Or rather is it exactly the kind of crass, lurid spectacle the storytellers are only pretending to indict?
(My own research into the matter has proved inconclusive. A couple of years after the film was released, I was working at a video store and co-star Kyle MacLachlan came to my register. An excited regular requested that he autograph a copy of “Showgirls” on VHS. When asked why he’d signed on to the film in the first place, MacLachlan shrugged and said something to the effect of, “I was a big fan of the director and every day at work I was surrounded by naked women.” Sometimes things are just that simple.)
So again I must defer to Nayman’s reading, endorsed strongly in the documentary, that despite powerful claims on both sides of the argument “Showgirls” is neither “a masterpiece” nor a “piece of shit,” but rather both at the same time: “a masterpiece of shit.” Most terrible movies are quickly forgotten but “You Don’t Nomi” convincingly argues that “Showgirls” has endured for 25 years because of its continued ability to bafflingly be two things at once. It’s like Schrödinger’s skin flick.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.