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It Doesn’t Suck

In his essay “Beaver Las Vegas,” critic I.Q. Hunter writes that “Paul Verhoeven’s lap-dance musical Showgirls is that rare object in cultural life: a film universally derided as ‘bad.’ No one seems to like it. At a time of alleged cultural relativism and collapsing standards of aesthetic judgment, Showgirls has emerged as a welcome gold standard of poor taste and worldclass incompetence.”1

It is a film that, previously universally derided as “bad,” is now widely suspected of being “good.” (It even received a single, lonely vote on that aforementioned Sight & Sound poll, from Greek director David Panos, who slotted it alongside Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror [1975] and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil [1958].)2 Film canons are built and guarded as sturdily as fortresses, but intruders sometimes slip through the back door. Once a ratified anti-classic to rank with the likes of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) or Valley of the Dolls (1967) on lists of the worst movies ever made, Showgirls has now become the beneficiary of shifting critical polarities, revered both at the “low” end of pop culture as a hardy cult favorite, and at the “high” end by academics as a critical fetish object. Its diverse defenders include feminist theorists, drag queens, old-school auteurists, and octogenarian superstars of the French New Wave, and there’s nary an apologist among them — because, as Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw reminded us in Love Story, love means never having to say you’re sorry.

The attitudes toward Showgirls may have changed, but the movie has not. It has not been re-edited into a “Director’s Cut” like Blade Runner (1982) or Apocalypse Now (1979), to cite two examples of major (and majorly flawed) movies that have over the years required “rescuing” from their imperfect original incarnations. It has not been re-released on DVD with a bevy of additional scenes lifted from the cutting-room floor, which might have implicated studio tampering or an overzealous editor as the cause of the film’s derided original version. It has been edited for television and home video, but only to trim the naughty bits: the film’s stately parade of both scantily and entirely unclad young women had finally earned Verhoeven the verboten NC-17 rating he’d managed to avoid for his previous boundary-pushing hits RoboCop (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992).

Showgirls has the same running time now that it did when it premiered on September 22, 1995: it is 131 minutes long (including credits), which makes it shorter than an average Best Picture winner from the 1990s and longer than any of its fellow Razzie Award winners for Worst Picture except for The Postman (1997) and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). It is still organized as a guided tour of pre-millennial Las Vegas in the company of burger-scarfing exotic dancers, tyrannical choreographers, callow rock stars, and coke-snorting hotel executives. It still features a trick brassiere, several runaway chimpanzees, and a scene about the professional ethics of applying ice cubes to a dancer’s nipples. And it still begins and ends with a young woman hitching a ride by the side of a crowded superhighway.

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Ben Wheatley

Ben Wheatley

Confusion and Carnage
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