The multi Razzie Award winning Showgirls is as fervently revered as it is reviled. It has spawned a stage musical homage, legendary interactive screenings hosted by drag queen Peaches Christ and even a book of verse. But those who love it aren’t blind to its flaws, including filmmaker Jeffrey McHale whose documentary exploring the film’s initial critical reception and evolving legacy, You Don’t Nomi is released on demand and digital on Tuesday June 9th.
McHale’s genius mashup of the audio from the trailer for the Oscar-winning Black Swan and images from Showgirls went viral nine years ago. Watch it here:
Ahead of the release of You Don’t Nomi, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann and filmmaker Jeffrey McHale put on their finest Versayce and sat down over some fresh doggie chow to talk the queer appeal of Showgirls, which reaction to the film surprised him the most and the importance of placing the movie within the context of Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch and American work.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on You Don’t Nomi. Last night I revisited Showgirls for the first time since seeing it at the cinema when it was originally released. My husband is completely obsessed with it, and quotes it all the time, but I’d only seen it once before. I was entranced by it this time and can understand what his obsession, and yours, is with is now! When did you first encounter the film and what was your initial reaction to it?
“I saw it quite some time after it came out, I was a little too young to see the theatrical run. It was about ten years after its release and it had already become a queer cult classic by then. I was with a friend and we were hanging out at his apartment in Chicago that night and Showgirls came up in conversation and he was like ‘what, you haven’t seen it?! We need to watch it immediately!’ And he explained ‘it’s so bad, but it’s amazing’ and I had a very similar reaction to a lot of people that I spoke with, where it was like I just couldn’t believe that this was a movie. After the first five minutes I didn’t want it to end. It was just insane. It was just one of those things where I thought how did I miss this? How did they make this? What were they thinking?!”
You mentioned that Showgirls had already become a queer cult classic by the time you came to it and it definitely has a lot of gay fans! In the documentary you include the Peaches Christ drag show screenings that have been going on two decades, which look like a lot of fun. How queer is the film itself would you say?
“I guess the existence of it is a little queer in itself. The response to it is something that we can identify with; this thing that is rejected and then queer audiences embraced it and said ‘well, alright if you don’t want it, we’re going to take this and make it our own’. So I think that the response to it and the rejection of it play a lot into it. And then just the insanity of it; it’s absurd, it’s vulgar, it’s beautiful, it’s offensive – there’ are a lot of layers that I think queer people respond to. I think one of the interesting things was exploring that on a deeper level when I spoke to Matt Baume. He had a great analysis about Nomi Malone’s struggle and her journey which we specifically identify with as queer people; leaving her small town, following her dreams and using her sexuality to pursue her passions, and whether you agree with him or not it’s an experience that some of us can relate to.”
And what about elements like Nomi and Molly living together. They make a point of saying they’re just going to be friends before they move into together, but there’s not much space in there, maybe just one bed.
“Yes, Molly just keep emerging from a door, so who knows!”
Then with Nomi and Cristal there’s that sexual tension throughout and the kiss between them. Is there an explicitly queer reading from that point of view as well?
“Yeah, it’s hard to say that these are queer characters. Paul Verhoeven has said that sexuality is more about power than it is about passion or intimacy. But you do have those threads that feel and look queer.”
This is your first feature documentary, did you set out with a particular thesis in mind and look for opinions to fit within the framework to back up your thoughts, or did you just cast the net wide looking for as varied opinions as you could find?
“I was obviously a fan of the film, but I didn’t want to gush over it for ninety minutes. It was really important for me to work in dissenting voices and opinions, and people who could speak to the faults of the film. I think that those opinions and experiences are valid, especially with something like Showgirls. But what was interesting with a lot of the experts I spoke with who still spoke critically about it, said that they enjoy it for A, B and C, but have issues with certain parts of it too. It was harder to find critics who didn’t like it back in the day who still don’t like to participate, but luckily I was able to find people who were interested in being a part of it.”
One critic whom you include, Susan Wloszczyna, gave it two and a half stars when it was first released which was, comparatively, a glowing review. So on the other side was it hard to find someone who gave it quite a positive review at the time to speak to now?
“That’s true, she was the only critic currently on Metacritic where it’s in the green, so there she is just sitting up there by herself! And then Barbara Shulgasser-Parker was the other critic from The San Francisco Examiner who I spoke to and she also gave an interesting opinion about the film. When I first reached out to her she responded a couple of days later with five long paragraphs of thoughts it, a film that she hadn’t put one thought into since it came out. I really appreciated her take on it and even she said it’s extremely watchable, that it’s watchable because it’s so bad, so she could see the value in the entertainment of it.”
Could you talk a bit about how you set Showgirls in the context of Paul Verhoeven’s other work. Why was it important for you to do that?
“That was just part of my own journey with this process, I just went back and started watching all his other Dutch films because I truthfully hadn’t seen them. I only knew his American films like Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and so my mind was blown when I went back and saw them and I was like ‘has anyone else noticed all these connections that thread back to Showgirls?! And so I wanted to find a way to create a new subplot, where Paul Verhoeven’s films and the characters’ experiences connected to my contributors and the characters in Showgirls, and kind of have this world where they are all talking to each other. If you really look at Showgirls, I think part of its allure, what makes it so fascinating, is because of his other films. He’s had so much success, so you have to look at the whole picture.”
I haven’t seen any of his Dutch films and your exploration of them in You Don’t Nomi really made me want to watch them.
“Oh, yeah, you have to check them out!”
I know you have an editing background, could you say something about your approach to editing You Don’t Nomi?
“Yeah, it was hard to figure out where to start with everything because it wasn’t clear cut. It’s not like a traditional documentary. I knew I wasn’t going to be telling the behind the scenes and the making of Showgirls, there were all these other layers and commentary and threads that I was pulling. I approached each scene and thought as a standalone idea, and then took those pieces and eventually moved them around and midway through the editing process the structure revealed itself. That’s when I was like these pieces all fit into the different stages of the afterlife of the film: ‘the bomb’, ‘the cult’ and ‘the revival’. And then connecting Adam Nayman’s theories to that I thought was just was perfect.”
When you were doing your research which opinion about the film most surprised you?
“The most surprising was April Kidwell. I had expected all of the opinions about the film that I got, but having such a human experience through April who has dealt with tragedy in her own life and used this character to overcome that on a therapeutic level, I found that really inspiring. That was something I didn’t expect and I think that’s the heart of documentary, it’s the heart of film, it’s just using that strength and moving on.”
What would you say is your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, music, artwork, play, or person? Someone or something that’s really resonated with you over the years and why? Or Something current.
“It might be cheating to say two?”
No, you can have as many as you like.
“I hadn’t really focused that much on documentary work when I started out. When I was a kid it was all narrative, then when I went to film school I started taking documentary classes and my mind was really opened up to The Times of Harvey Milk and Paris is Burning. Seeing those two queer documentaries at that time in my education was impactful, I was really drawn to them and they made me think maybe this is something I could do.”
By James Kleinmann
Jeffrey McHale’s Showgirls documentary You Don’t Nomi is on demand and digital Tuesday June 9th 2020.