Receiving ‘cult’ status can breathe new life into films that have fallen by the wayside, especially for the critically slammed or box office bombs. At the time of its release in 1995, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls was the critically slammed box office bomb of the decade; with the Dutch director to be the first to accept all of its awards at the Razzies. 20 years later, however, the film has become revered in popular culture as a staple in cult and queer cinema. You Don’t Nomi, directed by television editor Jeffrey McHale, explores the film’s cultural impact, its relationship to the rest of Verhoeven’s body of work, whilst dissecting the very nature of film criticism itself.
A quick refresher on Showgirls: written by Joe Eszterhas, who also wrote Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, the film follows ambitious and emotionally volatile dancer Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) on a journey from seedy strip clubs to Vegas showgirl stardom. But as You Don’t Nomi will tell you, you don’t know the half of it just yet.
As anyone that worships at the altar of Showgirls can attest, our relationship with this shiny piece of garbage is sentimental and complex. It stands on the shoulders of cult giants like Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest. Everyone remembers the first time they saw Showgirls, how it made them feel, and the responses from those around them when you shared these feelings. McHale and his contributors capture this by structuring the doc using and embracing the most common claims associated with Showgirls’ critical reception: Showgirls as a ‘Piece of Shit’, Showgirls as a ‘Masterpiece’, and Showgirls as a ‘Masterpiece of Shit’. The documentary itself is very much in the ‘Masterpiece of Shit’ camp, but takes ample time to hear out all the other opinions and ideas about the film.
And this film isn’t just for the ‘stans’, it’s for anyone who wants necessary criticism about film criticism itself, interrogating its rigidity whilst still remaining balanced. Critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker provides the film its dissenting voice as one of the original reviewers that panned Showgirls.
In addition to being his directorial debut, McHale demonstrates his prowess as a television editor by trade in visually driving the documentary forward without help from traditional modes like talking heads. He juxtaposes scathing reviews and news coverage about Showgirls’ controversial NC-17 rating with media circuses like that of Tonya Harding or the Monica Lewinsky scandal to illustrate the mid-90s obsession with women, sex and sensationalism.
McHale also inserts Showgirls into the worlds of Verhoeven’s other films to visually re-contextualise the film amongst the rest of his body of work. Nomi also doesn’t negate Verhoeven’s privilege as a filmmaker and how much it has afforded him to change the narrative surrounding his work. This also pushes the documentary’s narrative forward in this way since it relies heavily on audio interviews from his contributors. Interviews are accompanied by characters from films like Basic Instinct, The Fourth Man, Total Recall (1990) and Robocop (1987) watching parts of Showgirls or interacting with the film in someway. Supercuts of Verhoeven’s recurring symbols and motifs like mirrors, reflection, nails, and vomiting are also featured to illustrate how Showgirls is not one of his outliers after all.
Reflection and mirroring are throughlines that remained consistent throughout the entire documentary, much like in Verhoeven’s films. Spitters and Showgirls all share mirrors visually; all these characters The contributors make it a point to address not only how Showgirls told the story of the journey of its own making, but also how life and art continue to imitate one another in every other facet of the film’s shelf life. Notable examples are when April Kidwell from Showgirls: The Musical shared how Nomi empowered her journey to recovering from trauma, how Pollyann Costello became Nomi Malone parallels Berkley’s departure from her Saved By The Bell teen image, or how Nomi’s journey in Vegas parallels that of the queer experience; moving to the big city to chase your dreams and reinvent yourself.
You Don’t Nomi is not just a sweet love letter to Showgirls, it makes room for any and all opinions—and most importantly feelings surrounding Verhoeven’s 1995 extravaganza. It also never lets you forget to have fun with it. It invites you to check your inhibitions at the door, as the show is about to begin—just like what it says on the Showgirls poster.
You Don’t Nomi screened at LFF on Oct 2nd and 3rd
by Ariane Anantaputri
Ariane Anantaputri is an Indonesian stand-up comedian, and self-proclaimed Fast and Furious connoisseur. She is also a recent Film & Television graduate from the London College of Communication and co-hosts The Pod Charles Cinecast for The Prince Charles Cinema. Her favourite films include Showgirls, Death Becomes Her, and Synecdoche, New York. You can follow her on @arianeanindita on Twitter and Instagram.