by Haley Mlotek
Maybe you’re sick of discussing awful male directors. Or maybe you think there are male directors who are awful, but still need a defense based on the strength of their work, or even that they are misunderstood geniuses and not awful at all. You’ve seen the films and yes, you recognize the misogyny, the excessive violence, the homophobia, but you can recognize that without throwing away the gorgeous cinematography, the artful cadence of the dialogue, the contributions he’s made to the field of filmmaking. And so to heck with society’s puritanical standards of good taste, you’re just going to keep watching those Woody Allen movies and you don’t care who knows it.
Do you see what I did there? You had a ball and I kicked it over the fence just to make myself laugh. One day, maybe, we’ll call that “pulling a Verhoeven” — the signature move of the Dutch filmmaker behind an oeuvre of films alternately despised and beloved, deplored and valorized. Total Recall, Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man, and, of course, Showgirls. (The proverbial ball isn’t just a ball, either, but a real Verhoeven personality trait: in his biography of Verhoeven, Rob van Scheers explains that as a child, the director loved to do exactly that to his classmates.)
This week, the restoration of the reputation of director Paul Verhoeven is underway. The TIFF Bell Lightbox, the permanent home of the Toronto Film Festival, is running an entire series celebrating the films of Paul Verhoeven. According to Jesse Wente, the “Head of Film Programmes” for TIFF Bell Lightbox, the series is the result of popular demand. “We’ve actually been asked to do Verhoeven by our audience on a number of occasions,” he said. “With the new RoboCop film arriving this year, as well as the new critical thinking being done around his cinema, it seemed the ideal time to revisit this most diverse and remarkable career.”
Verhoeven’s films are notorious in every sense of the word. Mostly, they’re considered famous for being bad. Even the good films are notorious because of their association with Verhoeven. They’re often treated like their birth was some strange accident.
In his career, he’s made some of the most iconic films for two completely different countries: Holland, where one of his films won the distinction of Best Dutch Film of the Century (italics mine, obviously), and the United States of America, where he was one of the only directors to personally accept a Golden Raspberry Award.
This is not to make the case that he is beloved in Holland and hated in America. An entire organization was formed solely to protest the existence of one of his early Dutch films, Spetters. In America, the majority of his films were massive box office successes.
Paul Verhoeven has had almost all of his American films turned into sequels or remakes — most recently with RoboCop and Total Recall, and there are sequels to Showgirls and Basic Instinct — but Verhoeven was never personally involved with any of them. That’s the mark of an artist who has made something so powerful, something that resonates so deeply, it either has to be continued and exploited or it has to be contained.
The release of the RoboCop remake brought out many think pieces on the career of Verhoeven, the impact of his films, the greatness of his originals versus the lousiness of their current incarnations. Now comes Adam Nayman, a film professor at the University of Toronto and film critic for The Globe and Mail, with a serious defense and critical reexamination of Showgirls perfectly titled It Doesn’t Suck. Adam will introduce the screening of Showgirls at TIFF this Friday; his book arrives on April 15th.
Adam’s book is really wonderful, both for people who want to defend Showgirls, yes, but also as a book that believes film is a medium worth defending, not because it’s either too pure as an intellectual exercise or because it’s so viscerally pleasurable it transcends reason, but because a film can be both.
Showgirls has always been Showgirls. Once, that sentence meant that Showgirls would always be “Showgirls,” the quotation marks implying all the rote statements we were supposed to understand about the film: that it was a bad film, on the same level as other films that exist in quotation marks. But including Showgirls, and, by extension, the value of Paul Verhoeven’s entire career, in with these other “bad” movies, overlooks a really important thing: Showgirls is not a bad movie. Paul Verhoeven is not bad at his job as a film director.
The most important thing that Nayman points out in It Doesn’t Suck is also the simplest: “The attitudes towards Showgirls may have changed, but the movie has not. It has not been re-edited into a ‘Director’s Cut’ like Blade Runner or Apocalypse Now, to cite two examples of major (and majorly flawed) movies that have over the years required ‘rescuing’ from their imperfect original incarnations.” There are films that can be explained by overzealous editing or studio interference, but Paul Verhoeven has never made such a film. In honor of Verhoeven’s double PhD in math and physics, despite my limited understanding in both subjects, I’ve started to see the issue as this: critical reception becomes an unstoppable force. Paul Verhoeven is an immovable object. For the second time in Verhoeven’s career, they’re about to meet.
I’ve scheduled a personal crisis for myself. It’s penciled in for a few months from now, when I have the time to deal with such a thing, but this particular breed of personal crisis doesn’t want to wait. The clichéd emotions are creeping in: Did I ever even know who I was, I ask myself constantly. My tastes: Are they even really mine, or was I seduced by someone with a stronger (louder) opinion? Why do I like the things I like?
I emailed a friend who I knew would be sympathetic, and she said exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. “It’s like that Julia Roberts movie where she doesn’t know how she likes her eggs, Mystic Pizza. It is Mystic Pizza, right? She never figured out how she liked her eggs prepared, because she always just ate what her boyfriends were eating, and then she had to go and find out for herself how she liked her eggs. You have to figure out what you like to eat, and what nourishes you, and why, before you can move on and do anything else.”
She was right about everything. Except the movie was Runaway Bride. I saw it in the theater. I’m unclear if I should be embarrassed about that.
Here’s what I am embarrassed about: last month, in preparation for my scheduled personal crisis, I started a list called “Things I Like And Why.” This is, hands down, the twee-est thing I have ever done. Even as I was doing it I was scoffing at myself. I’m just a few ironically placed Lisa Frank stickers away from being written into “The New Girl.” But the list helps. The list forces me to ask myself if I like something because I enjoy it, or if I’m reflecting a received opinion, obtained from someone’s Twitter account, a certain well-known critic, a certain friend. The list is nourishing.
I met with Adam Nayman the day after I saw the latest RoboCop. The night before I had ranted, definitively, about the movie’s flaws to a friend. But when Adam asked me what I thought, I was automatically hesitant and guarded. I hemmed and hawed and said there was one thing that made me laugh and then went home to find out that Manohla Dargis had expressed exactly the opposite opinion in her review of the movie and so I wanted to die of embarrassment.
I’d like more than courage in my convictions. I want convictions made out of fucking steel. In this period of waffling, the best thing I can hope for is that if I wait long enough, every opinion will be vocalized.
Adam, however, is someone who has been holding fast to the same opinions about Paul Verhoeven since he was a teenager, and he’s not afraid to say it, write a master’s thesis on it, teach classes and publish numerous articles and now a book about it. Starship Troopers was the movie that began Adam’s career-long examination of Paul Verhoeven, but with the exception of Black Book and Tricked, Adam has not had the opportunity to professionally write about a Verhoeven film upon its release; everything has been written with time goggles.
“I was already, at age sixteen, watching Starship Troopers and recognizing it as satire,” Adam said. “I did write about it — a little review for myself — I’m sure I would cringe if I read it now. But I wrote more or less the same things I think now, that I appreciate the subversiveness, the sarcasm, and I noticed these things not because the film was so obviously different from anything else, but there was a subtle difference that made me notice the satire more. The movies made me feel slightly uneasy or slightly confused and that really counted a lot. If these films were more obviously subversive or aberrant, they would never be the kinds of commercial hits they are. Verhoeven’s genius as a filmmaker is that he delivers what the audience paid to see — he just delivers with what you could call an afterkick, or aftertaste. A poisonous flourish at the end where there’s a trace of criticism or sarcasm.”
In 2008, Adam wrote his master’s thesis specifically focusing on Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch films and Verhoeven himself. His argument was that the Dutch films, as well as Paul Verhoeven’s life story, could be read like a picaresque: a kind of dumb guy who rises through the ranks of a silly society, satirically exposing the hypocrisies of the social infrastructure they come across. “I was trying, I think successfully, to argue that not only did Verhoeven’s Dutch films engage with a picaresque motif of extremity, degradation, depravity, and violence, but they tend to favor picaresque narrative organization. They follow individual characters on these kinds of quests through society with some exceptions. I also tried to argue that Verhoeven is a picaresque figure himself, that his movement through Dutch culture had a very abrupt ending, he was kicked out and had to start fresh in America, where he had that same ascent in double time and with an even bigger level of success until he pissed off the wrong people. Or pissed off the wrong people the wrong way.”
Adam acquiesces that, of course, “the narrative would be a lot better if after Showgirls he literally had to get on the bus out of town… but he didn’t. He made Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, but as I try to argue in the book, his ascent, his idea that he’s worth investing in and rooting for within American commercial films stopped with Showgirls. You know, ‘he’ll never eat lunch in this town again.’ He had to restart in Holland, where the happy ending is the film Black Book, which I do think is a masterpiece — and is the most successful Dutch film in history.”
The lead characters in Total Recall, RoboCop, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man are in fact all examples of picaresque characters — “outwardly stupid and yet somehow kind of wild,” Adam said. “Verhoeven doesn’t fit the overly stupid type — all he has to do is talk to know how brilliant he is — but he also says and does stupid things, tasteless things, crass things. The cinema of Paul Verhoeven has an incredible amount of stupidity, but it is never stupidity that isn’t in some way attached to smartness. I would argue that to the death. It’s a lot easier to look at the films and to see the smartness in them then to look at them and not. I think you would have to be watching the film with your eyes closed to not see the smartness that I’m talking about in the book.”
That’s debatable. Many, many smart people have watched his films with both eyes wide open — people who were paid to watch the films and write about their viewing experiences, to be precise. But there is a kind of critical sandwich happening around Showgirls, for lack of a better term: On either side of Showgirls, you have respected film writers lauding Verhoeven for his keen satirical insights into American ideals of greed, corruption, technology, sex, gender, justice. Even when Verhoeven took on Alfred Hitchcock with Basic Instinct — a director one would imagine to be an untouchable target for satire — film and cultural critics alike applauded his dismantling of male paranoia, vanity, and other macho bullshit. The Camille Paglia commentary on the DVD version of Basic Instinct is a particular thing of beauty. Post-Showgirls, there are lots of critics who came fresh to enjoy Starship Troopers as Verhoeven’s futuristic skewering of Nazi propaganda in a galaxy far, far away.
But Showgirls exists in a very serious place for writers and reviewers. For some reason, the level of vitriol directed at Showgirls landed the film squarely in the realm of flop — especially compared to Basic Instinct, the $400-million box office hit heard round the world. The satirical elements were treated as “ifs”–like, if this is a satire, it is a bad one — or simply ignored. Anthony Lane, reviewing Showgirls for The New Yorker, wrote “There is not a whiff of satire in this movie.” John Waters, undisputedly an expert on “bad”-with-quotation-marks cinema, loved the movie — but because he believes “the writer and director, no matter what they say today, don’t appear to be in on the joke.”
When I saw Showgirls for the first time, it was meant to be one of those ironic viewings Naomi Klein writes about in No Logo — millennials and their irony, right? I had attended Toronto’s legendary The Rocky Horror Picture Show Halloween screening at The Bloor Cinema, seen Plan 9 From Outer Space in a high school writing class–I was ready for the next stage of ironically embracing “bad” films.
But even from the first viewing, I suspected something was up. There are things I don’t like about the movie, of course, things that make me hesitant to recommend it to a friend, let alone defend it in writing. But it’s clearly not incompetent. Showgirls has a story, character development, a basic narrative structure, high production values — everything you would expect from a studio made film. I wasn’t afraid to say this opinion to Adam because, of course, I already knew he agreed with me.
“Doesn’t that seem like the sane thing to say?” Adam asked, when I told him about my experience. “What’s insane are the reviews of the time, which I try to point out in the book. Like, you don’t like the acting, fine. You think the story is bad, fine. But it’s like people’s brains got sucked out. It is beautifully shot, superbly edited, the camera movements are so well choreographed… but if you start recognizing that, you have to start questioning your assumptions about the stuff on top. What’s more likely: That a movie so well made is accidentally atrocious, or is it all in some ways as carefully controlled as the rest of the filmmaking? But people just ignored that possibility altogether. You have these critics who I think would be really embarrassed by what they wrote, which was often, ‘The movie is atrocious and doesn’t have a single good shot,’ which is absolutely wrong.”
So the premise of It Doesn’t Suck — that Showgirls is a criminally misunderstood masterpiece — depends on our ability to change our minds. If money is any indication (in Hollywood, the only indication) the shift has already taken place. While Showgirls flopped theatrically, those ironic viewings have made the film one of MGM’s top 20 all-time bestsellers, with more than $100 million in home sales. Whether people are laughing at the film or laughing with the film might be irrelevant. People are watching the film. People are thinking about the film. And people are still reading about the film.
Before he became a film critic, Adam was a devoted reader of film criticism. Pauline Kael was a particular favorite, but embracing Verhoeven meant he had to leave a lot of Kael’s influence behind.
“Pauline Kael has a very seductive voice,” Adam said. “She was a brilliant writer of prose, but she didn’t care to understand that there was more than one kind of pleasure in watching a film. I’ve come to realize that taste-wise, not only does she not do anything for me, she was actually a bad influence. I don’t like the idea of seeing a film only once, for example. And Kael always claimed to not read other critics, but then she would use other critics as straw men and women…. I think it’s good to read what everybody says.” There’s a beat before he went on. “It also gives you more stuff to disagree with and more people you can secretly think are stupid. Which is fun.”
It is fun. Disagreeing about movies is a beloved social tradition — safer than politics and religion, more heated than observations about the weather. Everyone is a critic, but more than that, everyone, I think, has a critic inside them–a person whose opinions they’ve unconsciously adopted as their own, someone who they agree with so deeply that they act as their representative in normal life. Not in a plagiarist sense, necessarily. More like a hero or an idol that they emulate in their opinions, consciously or unconsciously, that they use to strengthen their resolve in their opinions. They exist in every field, from politics to music to books: The people we refer to in our Twitter wars and masters’ theses and dinnertime fights.
Defending Paul Verhoeven is a fun thing to do. For people who love film, and love fighting about film, he’s a litmus test for a certain kind of personality. I would say it’s for people who prefer a binary model within culture, a “good” thing to watch versus a “bad” thing to watch, and that blurring the lines is something that they just don’t enjoy. This isn’t a criticism of them–I like participating in something that’s just uniformly considered good as well. But there comes a time in everyone’s life where they’re just going to have to go out on a limb, examine the evidence, and make a call on their own.
It Doesn’t Suck relies, as so many books and essays and dinnertime fights do, on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on “Camp” as part of the defense in Verhoeven’s favor. “I hope I didn’t do her a disservice,” Adam said when I ask about her presence in the book. “You almost can’t not do her a disservice, because she’s so brilliant and her ideas are so complicated. You either have to summarize them in passing and just admit that you’re under-serving it, or you have to try to get on that same level. In which case my resources are more limited than hers. Susan Sontag invents the modern concept of camp, and she by her own admission has a hard time telling us what this is, and if Susan Sontag has a hard time determining what it is, what are we to do? Well, what we’ll all probably do is take up all kinds of different pieces of that essay and use them to illustrate whatever we want to illustrate when it comes to camp.”
The essay itself is, amongst other things, a list of exclusions–things that cannot be camp, according to Susan Sontag. What’s more, she asserts that pure camp has to be “naïve,” that camp that knows it is camp or is trying to be camp is unsatisfying.
“Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it,” Sontag wrote, and the fact that Verhoeven made Showgirls specifically to be satire seems more forgivable now, even if that excludes the film from being labeled pure camp. I would give anything — literally anything — to hear whether Sontag would include Showgirls on her list of exclusions, but all of us can only pick bits of her argument that we think best supports our own. Such as: “True, the Camp eye has the power to transform experience,” she wrote. “But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.”
The process of rating something by negation is unpleasant. I think that’s what Paul Verhoeven has done as a filmmaker. His films are, consistently, too close to the kinds of films they want to damage — they rely on an audience demand for a certain kind of movie (a movie about a cop that is a robot!) rather than an audience demand for a skewering of that movie. In Visual and Other Pleasures, Laura Mulvey points out that it can “only be through an audience’s knowledge of the dominant that the avant-garde could acquire meaning and significance. A negative aesthetic can produce an inversion of the meanings and pleasures it confronts, but it risks remaining locked into a dialogue with its adversary.” Or, at the very least, locked into dialogue with a film critic for The New Yorker. Locked into dialogue with every audience member.
Defending Paul Verhoeven is still unpleasant. I don’t consider Showgirls a bad film, but I’m defining bad technically here, on production values and the like, on the idea that this is exactly the kind of film that Paul Verhoeven wanted to make, that it effectively eviscerates the idea of Las Vegas as a family-friendly destination. I hesitate to recommend the film, because of the rape scene near the end of the film, something that no one ever warned me about before I watched the film for the first time — presumably it wasn’t as important as the hilariously bad dialogue I was repeatedly promised?
While I’ve heard, and agree with, the argument that the rape scene is meant to expose the hypocrisy of the Las Vegas machine, and by extension no less all of North America, there’s still this kind of macho aggression that doesn’t feel right to me. Paul Verhoeven, still kicking balls over every fence he can find, seems to be daring the viewer to sit there and take it. You think you know what a rape scene looks like? Maybe he also says it about the homophobia in Basic Instinct, the unbelievable levels of violence in Total Recall and RoboCop: I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you.
Adam told me he doesn’t want to meet Paul Verhoeven. “I think it’s the same thing I have with not listening to DVD commentaries of movies I like, because I don’t like being proved right. I don’t know what meeting Verhoeven would do. If he agrees with what I say, and it’s easy for him to do that because it’s praised, or if he doesn’t agree with what I say, that won’t change the movie or what I think about it. It really only has the potential for disappointment.”
Another beat. “I also think, and I’ll say this on the record, that he’s an egomaniac. He does not have a small personality, he’s not humble, and that’s why I think Showgirls humbling him is sort of satisfying for people.”
It’s true that Verhoeven, as a director who has been known for abusive tactics–screaming matches with Joe Eszterhas, deliberately misleading Sharon Stone about the lighting when she uncrosses her legs in Basic Instinct–has been taken to task in a very satisfying way. The aggression to Showgirls didn’t come out of nowhere. It was built up over a career of provoking critics and audiences, a foreigner coming into their industry and telling them what was wrong with their society. Like Verhoeven’s macho aggressive filmmaking tactics, the response was similarly macho and aggressive: “You think you know how to make movies? Satirize Americans? Depict a man coming in his pants? We’ll show you.” You can’t be included by excluding, like Mulvey said. Everyone has a line and when it’s crossed, they receive some arbitrary punishments. It seems fitting that Verhoeven, after years of smirking at Hollywood conventions, would be punished by an extremely straight face in every national newspaper.
In that Manohla Dargis review of RoboCop, she says every generation gets the RoboCop they deserve — “or perhaps desires,” a RoboCop that can speak to our feelings about machines and the sanctity of human life, capitalism, privatization, and so on. Perhaps every generation will now get the critical reception to Verhoeven films they deserve.
In his book, Adam explains why he doesn’t consider Showgirls a cultural Rorschach test. The film is too transparent, a mirror to what people already think. “If the viewer wants to see ‘a piece of shit,’ chances are that he will; certainly enough people did and still do. If the viewer knows how to look, however, then Showgirls’ magnificence will reveal itself as grandly and nakedly as a striptease.”
“I see 400 movies a year for work,” Adam told me at the end of our interview. “Most of them are neither masterpieces or abject failures. They’re all just sort of… fine. There’s a totalizing attitude in a lot of criticism. The idea that something might occupy the middle ground puts people off. For me, there’s no shame in saying that Verhoeven occupies what we’ll call the suburb just outside great art. He comes closer to the realm of great art than a lot of people, and he comes close pretty consistently. I tried to make both arguments, not that Showgirls is so much a masterpiece as it has truly incredible and endearing things about it. But that takes too long to say when you’re reviewing for a newspaper or a magazine. Especially when you have these kinds of extreme nudity, violence, you’re not going to have people be like ‘eh, two stars.’ No one wants to write a middling review because there’s no currency in that, you want to be the person who says it’s a masterpiece or you want to denounce it.”
And, I would add, you’d like to be the person who says it first — or at least as part of a chorus of like-minded people.
It Doesn’t Suck is the perfect book for people who like Showgirls. It will also be the perfect book for people who disagree, who are looking for a one-sided argument. The book is part of a conversation we’re all going to have with ourselves at one time or another. What do you like and why do you like it?