Published Jun 15, 2020As of this year, it has been 25 years since Paul Verhoeven first unleashed Showgirls upon the world. Jeffrey McHale's energetic 90-minute documentary, You Don't Nomi, offers a detailed account of why critics, scholars and movie-lovers are still obsessing over this film all these years later, with all of its glitter, lip-liner and overacting.
McHale was first initiated into the world of Showgirls after his mash-up trailer, combining clips from the film with Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010), went viral. Soon after, he decided to channel his creative energies into an in-depth documentary detailing the seemingly endless facets of the Showgirls phenomenon.
In the opening moments of the film, critic and writer Haley Mlotek suggests that Showgirls' enduring popularity is rooted in the fact that people are still unsure of how to process a film so strange and flawed, yet so endlessly watchable. You Don't Nomi is narrated by a range of Showgirls lovers and experts, including: critic and programmer David Schmader, who provided the DVD commentary for Showgirls; film critic Adam Nayman, Toronto's own Showgirls expert, whose book It Doesn't Suck is perhaps the definitive Showgirls document; drag icon Peaches Christ, whose Midnight Mass film series has screened Showgirls countless times; film scholar Jeffrey Sconce; and actress April Kidwell, who played Nomi in Showgirls! The Musical!
Each contributor offers a unique perspective on the way that different Showgirls-related discourses feed into and intensify each other, as well as the tensions and contradictions present within such discourses. The film touches upon auteurist readings that contextualize Showgirls within Paul Verhoeven's career, notions of camp, the mechanisms of "cult" cinema, and the queer reclamation and celebration of Showgirls. The analyses of race, class and gender within the film make a good case for the idea that Showgirls acts as a microcosm for film culture as a whole. You Don't Nomi emphasizes the important fact that there is no single "correct" reading of the film, or of any work of art for that matter.
You Don't Nomi moves at a snappy pace, never losing its energy or entertainment value, much like Showgirls itself. McHale smartly organizes the film into three sections that mirror the organization of Namyan's book to tell the story of Showgirls' legacy: "The Bomb (Piece of Shit)," "The Cult (Masterpiece)," and "The Redemption (Masterpiece of Shit)." Leaning into the goofy spirit of Showgirls, scenes from Verhoeven's other films (Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) are woven in and edited to match up with the contributors' comments to make it look like the characters in these films are watching Showgirls, a nice comedic touch that smooths over the fact that none of the contributors actually appear on screen, but rather only in voiceover.
What makes the film entertaining and enjoyable is each speaker's obvious passion for Showgirls, and for discussing and analyzing films and film culture more broadly. As Nayman contends, Showgirls does not just deserve outright reverence or condemnation, but rather a balance of the two, wherein it is possible to celebrate its strange, campy pleasures and critique its odd artistic choices and blatant misogyny and racism. Analysis of the racism and sexual violence endured by Molly (Gina Ravera) would have been strengthened by the inclusion of Black scholars and critics, voices that are missing from what could have otherwise been a comprehensive account of this film and the culture and criticism surrounding it.
Overall, You Don't Nomi is an aesthetically polished, nuanced portrait of one of the most famously maligned Hollywood films of all time. The film strikes a perfect tonal balance between a celebration of Showgirls' "anti-realist" (to quote Jeffrey Sconce) pleasures and condemnation of its exploitative sexual violence, racism and misogyny. In examining the cultural and social context and impact of books, poems, stage productions and scholarly articles about Showgirls, McHale's documentary marks his own contribution to the canon of Showgirls ephemera, a body of work that astonishingly shows no signs of slowing down. (levelFILM)