"Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you." ~ Oscar Wilde
Sometimes I find myself idly scrolling through old text message conversations. Not regularly, I must add. In fact very rarely. More often than not it's due to a key word I’ve searched for on my phone turning up in an old text message and curiosity getting the better of me. The weird thing is I barely recognise myself in the texts - where’s the punctuation? or the passive aggression? The sheer fact that I texted in the first place is somewhat discombobulating since these days I barely text at all, as a result of the enforced solitude that comes with being in a writing phase. But I recently came across this brief conversation from a few years back and despite the inconsistent punctuation it seemed less dated than usual.
The film in question was Ridley Scott’s Legend, a film I do think about from time to time but not as often as Showgirls - a subversive neo-western/neon glitterfest featuring a wilfully defiant heroine, filmed on undigitised celluloid back when there was still a viable arthouse film industry. Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn't suck. In fact, there's a lot to admire about it. I see it as a flamboyant parable about the perils of being creative and ambitious, of trying your luck in a highly competitive, commercial environment and being torn between self-expression and giving the punters what they want ("Sooner or later you're gonna have to sell it").
Is it a satire, as some have claimed? I'm not entirely sure. While Paul Verhoeven has proven masterful with satirical material, chiefly Robocop and Starship Troopers, it's hardly Joe Eszterhas' specialism. His screenplay treads a fine line between earnestness and irony, clumsily at times, but I think that's part of its charm. It's certainly a lot of fun, with its shiny costumes and outrageously vulgar humour, and I'll admit to feeling nostalgic for that era of cinema when films with an independent spirit could be produced with A-list talent and craftsmanship. Showgirls playfully merges the big-budget (lip)gloss of late 20th century mainstream Hollywood with the camp, underground wit of John Waters. But I think the main takeaway for me is its liberating repudiation of an earlier Joe Eszterhas scripted fairy-tale.
The central message of Flashdance, enshrined in the lyrics to its theme song, is that 'if you take your passion and make it happen, you can really have it all' - a typically banal Reagan-era aspirational conceit. Alex Owens manages to have her cake and eat it, namely independence and a knight in shining armour. Whereas, at the end of Showgirls, Nomi Malone has sacrificed everything - fame, success, intimacy - for the sake of her sense of identity, her conscience even. In other words, she forfeits the world to gain her soul. This is the culmination of the film's Christian subtext - a recurring motif in Verhoeven's oeuvre of which I've written about before.
More superficially, within the context of the film's neo-western tropes, the finale places her in the tradition of lone gunslingers (Malone/lone - geddit?) who ride into town at the beginning of the movie, administer justice, then ride off into the sunset. So while Showgirls has, with some justification, been described as 'All About Eve in a G-string', it's also Shane (not that I care to imagine Alan Ladd in a G), and in that sense is fundamentally a paean to individualism, with the caveat that this comes at a price. I guess the moral of the story is: you can't have it all, but you can at least own yourself.