[This Saturday! As part of our "Vegas Highs, Vegas Lows" film series, and in conjunction with the exhibition Double Down: Two Visions of Vegas, we're screening Viva Las Vegas (1pm) and Showgirls (3pm). Not to be missed!]
Never have there been two films so ripe for reassessment as George Sidney’s Viva Las Vegas, and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Made thirty years apart, they both reside in that basket reserved for the culturally unsanctioned. Maybe it’s due to the stain of Vegas — that fata Morgana that has traditionally made the highfalutin see red. Now, in the true era of anything goes, in which the Vegas aesthetic has established itself as the norm, it’s just possible their time has come…
Why reassess an Elvis movie? ‘Cause this one’s so damned fun! There are a few decent Elvis movies. Viva is the only great one. The King is as close as the United States ever came to producing an autochthonous deity. The lack of a worthy consort might explain the fallowness of the rest of his cinematic terrain. In Viva, Elvis meets his match, Ann-Margret. The plot of this film is a pretext for their sacred union, bringing with it the promise of fulfillment to the magical kingdom of Vegas — that ultimate flowering, refinement, end-point of the American mythos. Elvis plays an up-and-coming race-car driver, always a dice-toss away from attaining the motor of his dreams. Ann-Margret is a young goddess on the unconscious make for the proper consort. Together they will play, flirt, bicker, argue, make up, as well as sing and dance the rock-n-roll over the course of eighty-five increasingly ecstatic minutes. They inhabit a world of widescreen neon, in which every desire is attainable, and every dream has merely to be fantasized, and it’s suddenly reality — all without repercussion. Yes, this is the true American Dream.
I believe somewhere in the pages of Cahiers du cinema in the 1950′s, a proto-French New Wave director mused on the revolutionary concepts he hoped to enact in celluloid: gone would be artificial notions of plot and character not derived from action. Film was about the eternal now. Each moment would create its own reality, its own urgency. Life would be experienced by the glance, the gesture, the drama of expressions across the face, from second to second, shot to shot. If a character desired to sing, he’d sing. If she wanted to dance, she’d dance. If angry, they’d shoot to kill. If lusty, they’d go to town… Desire, thought, and action would again be one — and paradise regained. Each scene would exist for itself, build to a new shuddering climax, then be dismissed, in an endless quest for the new now now now…
This article must have been amongst the earliest of its kind to be translated from the French, and transported to Hollywood, for George Sidney, prince of the MGM musical-comedy, apparently read it and instantly put its principles into action. As an example of this New Wave genre, it has never been surpassed. Sidney was just the man for the job, having built an extensive body of work poised somewhere between primitive surrealist and naive absurdism, which had a long history of sending the literati into uncontrollable spasms of collective horror and outrage, and of gracing the faces of the average Jane or Joe with smiles of pleasure. There is something seriously strange about Sidney’s work, an unhinged yet vital deliriousness, a quality emitting from some now deep-buried, disclaimed and abandoned fold of the American Grain, which, I must admit, I find intoxicating.
Jonathan Rosenbaum once proposed Gentleman Prefer Blondes as the capitalist Potemkin, but for me this title goes to Viva Las Vegas. Though Blondes is arguably brilliantly embedded with capitalist ideology, Viva cuts to the chase by offering an unsurpassable platter of delights for our ecstatic delectation. This is the field of argument to which capitalism is best suited. Examples of what’s on offer: Elvis performing “What I Say” in a sequence that gives both Ray Charles and Bruce Conner runs for their money, the most mind-blowing first date in cinema history (not counting Last Tango in Paris), and, at the film’s climax, the most viscerally exciting auto race I’ve ever seen in a movie.
But this film is far more than capitalist apologia, for its convulsive beauty contains a religious dimension — an ecstatic vision, a mystical union of opposites, Viva Las Vegas presents such a profoundly affirmative view of the American psyche, that it suggests it’s capable of (witness the “fate” of Cesare Danova) transcending death itself.
If Viva is Vegas as utopia, the Vegas of Showgirls is a dystopia worthy of Blade Runner, or Brecht’s Mahagonny. Ambition, manipulation, corruption, the quest for power — these are the issues on this film’s agenda. Though its Vegas is as beautiful as that of Viva (in a 1995 kinda way), this work is a large and bitter pill — ultimately to your benefit, but scary for those in search of a quick and easy tease.
Showgirls follows the exploits of Nomi Malone, a dancer who seeks to protect her integrity while crawling to the top of the Vegas food-chain. Young, vital, infinitely ambitious, yet willfully naive, charming but profoundly undereducated in all but a modicum of the street-smarts she desperately wants to shed, Nomi is a mass of contradictions, a woman in severe need of Reichian analysis, in which every element of being is treated as neurotic symptom. All of her talents and symptoms will come into play as she battles her way from strip-club nymph to full-fledged Goddess of show business on the Vegas strip. Arrayed against her is a virtual network of the devious and duplicitous, all of whom want either to prevent her from attaining her rightful pedestal in the Pantheon, or gain access past her g-string. As she powers her way through power-mad would-be seducers (club and show managers, a choreographer manqué, the reigning Vegas Goddess, a sexually violent Michael Bolton doppelganger), she comes ever-so-close to a confrontation with her own heart of darkness, but like America, to which her character is an analog, Nomi will stop at nothing to protect her remaining shreds of innocence. Over the course of the film, the trail of self-deception and chaos in her wake reveals a latter-day incarnation of Inanna, Sumerian Goddess of passion, war, and destruction.
Paul Verhoeven’s audacity is seen in the way he vacuum-packs contrary elements into seemingly irresolvable structures. Dealing in a largely heterosexual eros, but in a self-consciously high-camp manner, relishing ambiguity and reveling in primal force, proffering both satirical social critique and an appreciation for the permutations of undying archetypes, and working in a style marked for its mixture of raw garishness and cold European aestheticism, it’s no wonder the works are so often misunderstood. Their aim tends both above the head and below the belt.
The difficulty of these films is compounded by Verhoeven’s open embrace of that despised form, melodrama. This isn’t a problem for his macho melodramas — Robocop and Starship Troopers — but the mode has become somehow threatening when applied to a female world view. Showgirls refers back to the genre of “women’s pictures”, now for the most part sadly defunct, which dealt with troublesome emotions — hysteria, say, or unrequited love — and were often centered around sympathetic portrayals of outsider women. They served as societal safety valves, providing catharsis, allowing for an imaginative exploration of a realm of extravagant emotionality, touching parts of the psyche now repressed. This instinctive, working-class genre has lost its currency, due, in part, to the intertwining rise of PC strictures and upwardly mobile aspirations, and their concomitant code of rigid decorum. Guy Maddin, in a recent, spirited defense, said “melodrama isn’t true life exaggerated — that would be bogus. It’s true life uninhibited, just like our dreams.” And uninhibited emotion in the classically “feminine” mode just ain’t in fashion.
In dream-like style, Showgirls (like Viva) romps through other genres (musical, soft-core porno, over-the-top exploitation film, martial-arts action) as well, in the best meta-Hollywood manner, making for a narrative and dramatic short-hand in which complex ideas and feelings are suggested with ruthlessly efficient, effortless speed. Genre play in a film overloaded with painful realities is, in fact, the most transgressive element of this radical work — and the cause of the emotional gag-reflex it has so often inspired. Ultimately, Showgirls is a “women’s picture” made for men, and therefore disturbing to just about everybody.