One thing you discover if you live long enough is that people will try to convince you that horrible movies you grew up watching are not only good but misunderstood classics. This phenomenon has rehabilitated films like Flash Gordon, Batman Returns and The Phantom Menace with such fervor that you are driven to rewatch them despite knowing in your heart of hearts that your initial feelings will stand. These are bad movies. There might be a performance or sequence that stands out among the detritus but you finish rewatching more confused than when you began. It even becomes personal as if you lack something in your movie viewing tool kit that would allow you to perceive the importance so many others have read into these films. Such revisionist criticism has an entertaining if not quite convincing ally in You Don’t Nomi, a visual essay that begs us to revisit one of the most notorious critical and commercial flops: Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls.

Directed and edited by Jeffrey McHale, making his feature nonfiction debut after a career as a television editor, You Don’t Nomi is more than a documentary. The film in part examines Verhoeven’s career in the Netherlands and America, but more importantly, it is also an testament to fandom and its unique ability to invest creative work with knew importance. Mostly, this is a work about conversations between film historians, critics, performers and artists who have all kept Showgirls from crossing the cultural river Styx into obscurity.

For the uninitiated, Paul Verhoeven was on a hot streak in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that included Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct. The first two are cool and satirical science fiction romps, but with the latter he and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas reinvented the Hitchcock thriller and did everything the old master wished he could do with one of his famous blondes, embodied by Sharon Stone. Infamous for the fees he garnered for high-concept scripts and treatments, Eszterhas became the perfect partner for Verhoeven and they put their combined weight behind what they conceived as a story about American excess, an All About Eve with tits and ass: Showgirls.

The story follows Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkely), a small-town drifter who makes her way to Las Vegas. She is a stripper with dreams of becoming a showgirl at one of the big productions in town and fate lends a hand when she’s befriended by Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera). Molly works for Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) at the Goddess show housed at the Stardust casino. An introduction goes poorly, but Cristal is intrigued enough to bring her boyfriend and producer Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) to the strip club that employs Nomi for a rather athletic lap dance. Cristal is impressed enough to take Nomi under her wing and a story of backbiting and violence commences as Nomi loses her soul and gains it back or gains a soul and cultivates it in the denouement.

America was not impressed. Everything about Showgirls was outsized, especially Verhoeven and Eszterhas’ claims at profundity, but whatever message they were trying to express to America about its shallowness gets occluded by outrageously poor dialogue and performances that make cartoons look subtle. All the principal players were panned by critics and cultural gatekeepers, with Berkely shouldering the brunt of a near-universal opprobrium. But, like Star Trek and Rocky Horror Picture Show, a passionate fan base has kept the film alive and forced its reevaluation.

What McHale does to make his case for garbage or masterpiece is absolutely brilliant. Using his considerable talents as an editor, he places Showgirls in conversation with Verhoeven’s other films, splicing clips together to explore the filmmaker’s tendencies to investigate sexual violence, nudity and cultural mores, first in the Netherlands and then in Hollywood. Voices place Showgirls in its broader context and in more personal testimonials as a cause célèbre of the LGBTQ community and an empowering feminist tale. McHale never intercuts the speaker’s face into the film, filtering everything from pre-existing photographs, newspaper clippings or television interviews. While speakers championShowgirls, to see them would interfere with the reverence and deconstruction of image and artificiality, McHale’s unspoken thesis working in symbiosis with the bigger questions of his contributors.

The list of contributors includes Peaches Christ, who brought Showgirls to the Castro Theater in San Francisco for bawdy midnight screenings; Adam Nayman, film critic and author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls who breakdowns the musicals and motifs that influenced the film, Jeffrey Conway, author of the book Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas who has fascinating theories about the film’s place in the broader culture; and April Kidwell, a writer-producer-actor who reinvented Showgirls as a musical while crediting it as a means of dealing with her own trauma. Their perspectives run counter to conventional wisdom and force viewers to reevaluate this infamous cinematic debacle.

So, is Showgirls the work of misunderstood genius or merely a vacuous piece of stale erotica? It’s both, sparking joy and catharsis depending on the viewer. Still, that person might not be you. Revel in that. You never have to watch Showgirls again. It is undeniably an acquired taste, but You Don’t Nomi is a film to love. Watch it repeatedly to remind yourself that you don’t need to understand why someone might love something you do not. Conversely, realize that your love for a cultural artifact might not be transferable.

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