Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls
A group of films in the last couple of decades have highlighted the perturbing underbelly of entertainment businesses through super-saturating and adrenalising their most loved qualities.
They offer a more concentrated version of our dreams, fantasies and desires. They place them under a microscope and, by doing so, push them gently to absurdity. They show us potential presents and plausible futures where what is now deemed excess will be the accepted norm.
Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven 1995), Demonlover (Olivier Assayas 2002) and Gamer (Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor 2009) take what we want from unrestrained entertainment (power, unlimited possibility, freedom for expression and exploration) shake it up and hand it back to us fizzing.
It is critical that what we are shown remains recognisable and believable for the exaggeration to work. If they do, they can sicken us as they thrill us. It is a fine line to tread, here finely trodden. We could compare them to the similarly brash They Live (John Carpenter), whose vision of a world under complete government control is too far removed and too jokey (purposely I’m sure) to make us stop and think.
The three films in question are, in different ways, about the commodification of people. They are about the image becoming untethered from its origin – the real. They are about a chosen profession (striptease vaudeville), a particular field (animated pornography) and a certain trend (video games becoming more ‘realistic’ and immersive) in which people give themselves to, or are lost within, an amoral web. We find that people are no less disposable or controllable than icons and avatars; exploiting, being exploited and allowing oneself to be exploited.
There is a sliding scale of agency for the human protagonists that moves from control to complicity, acquiescence and, finally, enslavement. Backstage politics and back-stabbing in Showgirls; power over pornography rights and over others in Demonlover; a struggle to keep one’s body and soul from the puppet hands of a grand game player/designer in Gamer. These are the battles that allow a climb or a fall.
These films say that the virtual or the escapist can change our attitude to the real. Everything is a representation of something else; an echo on a new plane. The image can replace the real. The problem with increased game realism is not that it will appear like real life but that real life will seem just like the game. These films play on the two meanings of the word “object” – something that is acted upon (1) can become a mere thing (2).
Only in Gamer does the main character gain leverage and is able and willing to extricate themselves from the milieu. Tillman is able to turn off the network that allows his brain to be at someone else’s fingerprints (for the purposes of a deadly video game with real live people controlled) and free the world.
In Showgirls Nomi witnesses bitchiness, selfishness, inhumanity and rape on the Las Vegas strip (expose yourself to get a place on the strip) yet, despite seeking revenge for the last, stays in the feverishly glamorous and seedy world. For her the exterior image is what matters : on the billboards, pumped pink and shiny through neon tube veins. Once she has conquered Vegas as the star of the show "Goddess", she emerges from her chrysalis to take the road to even greater stardom. The final image of a road sign directing her to Hollywood is an awfully dispiriting one, a kick in the guts to "A Star is Born" cliches.
In Demonlover Diane, no longer an executive playing with chips, becomes the slave to a teenage gamer, the victim of the next level of play: interactive sexualised torture. Skin pores, the pupils of eyes are reduced to pixels. It’s different when you are porn’s pawn and not its pimp.
These films imply that it is hard to get out of the system when hidden compulsions can dictate one’s ‘decisions’. Circumstances can make decisions compulsions. Tillman’s wife in Gamer has allowed herself to be controlled in a live game called “Society” to gain money. There, in society, she is more often than not subjected to violent sex. What more should we expect : she is an attractive woman at a man's mercy. Nomi, the face of Showgirls, is practically “forced” to step on others and turn a blind eye to degrading practice in order to reach her perfectly reasonable aspirations. Money, desperation and low self-esteem lead these people to market places where hierarchies, and we, as the drivers of the market, hold them and weigh down on them.
Gamer - A teenage boy controls a real man with real bullets
These films use fun, or the style of high-end low "trash" to percolate our defences. They exaggerate and extrapolate. Ultimately shown 21st Century’s possible destinations, the journey that had seemed so pleasurable sours and hollows, collapsing in on itself.
By the end we wonder what violent games, and our control over things that look like us, may do to us. We wonder how human images, that can be twisted and deleted, may alter us irrevocably. We wonder why people ‘willingly’ offer themselves up to exploitation and what it may mean to sit by spurring the flesh fair on. We think how the quest for fame at all costs may be anything but a sign of aspiration or a beacon of inspiration.
The direction in which our moral compass is set, or the extent to which we separate what is within the cinema from what is without, will determine the nature of the films. I believe that they rely on us to follow the path from excitement and titillation to disgust and disquiet. They can be seen purely, and perfectly legitimately, as an indulgent taste of the forbidden but they work best as efforts to bring together image and reality, fiction and reality, to show us what we may not want to see. They bring the distant viewer and player face to face with the consequences of his actions. Is this what you want? Then have it.
Lest we be reminded : the experiences and memories that we bring into the theatre mean nothing can ever truly be ‘just a film’.
Some critics may call those films that show people degraded “degrading” as if depiction can only condone. They may also call them “sick” for even touching upon such potentially sickening subjects. They call them “sexy” just because there is sex or nudity, without looking at how or why. They call them “guilty pleasures” but they do not appreciate or specify that the guilt is not at the quality of the production (they are superbly put together) but at the increasingly self-conscious pleasure we may derive from the troublesome things that occur on-screen. The films' high-mindedness is (necessarily) camouflaged.
Showgirls, Demonlover and Gamer manage to both celebrate themselves and question themselves.
They use the staples of lavish and lurid storytelling (what could be referred to as ‘Exploitation cinema’) to both royally entertain and subtly satisfy a vital aspect of much Exploitation Cinema : a mirror and commentary on emerging social trends (cf. George A Romero's zombie films). They are almost completely guileless, a lesson without a professor, satire (of megalomaniacs, C-list wannabes and Hollywood rags to riches conventions?) with barely a wink. In other words, straightforward not snarky, and never condescending.
Yes, these are films that really are studies of exploitation. Maximalist, outrageous, in-your-face, balls-to-the-wall films with a profoundly human(ist) bent.
Demonlover - Waiting to be abused by an unseen player