Full disclosure: Some years ago, I worked at The Stranger with the marvelous essayist and monologuist David Schmader. We both left that weekly paper in 2015, he moved to El Paso, Texas, and we haven’t talked much since.
On July 9, Schmader brings his improbably wonderful “Showgirls with David Schmader” (his annotated screening of the catastrophically bad, painfully misogynist movie about the back-stabby world of Las Vegas strip clubs) to The Triple Door, but more on that in just a moment.
During our days at The Stranger, I silently thought of him as the paper’s conscience. In a room full of funny people, he was routinely the funniest — but his wicked humor was always tempered with a profoundly compassionate undercurrent. Schmader’s superpower was to not immediately go for the most caustic barb, but locate the sad absurdity of human folly and make jokes that were somehow, in a feat of intellectual ambidextrousness, both unbelievably funny and touchingly humane. In short, Schmader is a virtuoso tragedian wearing comedy camouflage.
That, I think, partly explains why his “Showgirls” — in which he shows the film and gives eviscerating commentary — started as a lark 22 years ago and has become a beloved national phenomenon.
If you don’t recall, “Showgirls” was a sparkly, $45 million stink bomb that landed in America’s lap in 1995, courtesy of director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (fresh off their critically hated but box-office darling “Basic Instinct”) with help from their enablers at MGM Studios. It was almost universally reviled and a new film-world adjective — “‘Showgirls’-bad” — was born.
Schmader first saw “Showgirls” in 1999 at the urging of a friend (a female friend, if you’re curious) and realized “Showgirls” wasn’t just garden-variety trash. It was a special kind of trash, an accidental comedy full of lessons about misogyny, masculine Hollywood arrogance and how something so essentially ugly can look so beautiful.
At the urging of another friend, Schmader screened the movie with his commentary — film criticism as performance, and vice versa — at the Northwest Film Forum. That sold out, so they scheduled another. People lined up around the block. Other cities wanted “Showgirls,” too — an underground sensation was born.
Instead of dispatching lawyers to squash it, MGM invited Schmader to record an official commentary track for the 2004 special-edition DVD release. Perhaps more impressively, Schmader was flown to Ontario to perform “Showgirls” at a wedding — not at the rehearsal dinner, not at the reception, but immediately following the vows.
Let that be a testament to the genius of David Schmader: He can take horrible, offensive source material; mock it mercilessly; and create something two people in love want to share with their extended families on what is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives.
That’s the back story. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
What is “Showgirls” to you?
Its accidental comedy is the big thing for me. You could never be that funny on purpose. It’s a miracle, one of the great comedies of cinema, all made by mistake! You needed to have the hubris of Hollywood and access to that kind of money — that’s what makes “Showgirls” so sparkly and terrible.
They (director Verhoeven, screenwriter Eszterhas) had a huge hit with “Basic Instinct,” which critics hated but still made a ton of money — which made them weirdly powerful. They were like: “We know better!” So they chose to spend all that capital on “Showgirls.” I mean, the cinematographer of “Showgirls” (Jost Vacano) was also the cinematographer of “Das Boot”! Serious, European cinema!
They had the greatest film workers, huge amounts of money thrown at it. And that hubris is such a part of the joy — it looks so good. It’s beautiful. The cinematography is great. The costumes are great. And then what comes out of their mouths, and the plot twists, are where it goes so wrong. “Showgirls” comes at you with a million-dollar look and then you’re like: “Oh, this is filled with garbage!”
Why does “Showgirls” have such sticking power? You’re in the 2019 documentary “You Don’t Nomi,” which suggests we can’t quit “Showgirls” because we still don’t fully understand how we can be attracted to something so flawed. Do you buy that?
I’m not a big fan of any one theory. I love hearing every theory, and I’m so glad “You Don’t Nomi” rounds them all up. But for me, it’s just a trippy thing that people liked for a million different reasons. Some people really, really like it, identify with the struggle of Nomi (the main character, played by Elizabeth Berkley) and want to take that Nomi journey. Which is wild.
Then the drag queens love it — it’s canon for camp and drag. If you’re going on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it’s part of the syllabus. But the idea that anyone’s going to crack the code — no, they just made a really weird movie by mistake and it has tons of fascination.
Has the way we read “Showgirls” changed? Does it look different after #MeToo, or Trump?
Yeah, the most interesting recent twist is watching it after the #MeToo movement. It’s definitely going to affect thinking about the workplace where those scenes of degradation were shot. And there were things in the Harvey Weinstein story that kind of mirrored the garishness and awfulness of “Showgirls,” where you’re like: “Oh. OK. It’s not as cartoonish as I thought.”
This is a benefit for Planned Parenthood — have all your benefit performances of “Showgirls” been for women’s causes?
Yes. Taking this misogynist movie and making it raise money for women’s causes has always felt terrific.
Is there anywhere you want to perform “Showgirls” but haven’t?
There’s this thing in El Paso that’s been here forever called the Fiesta Drive-In — an “adult” drive-in. It’s way out in the desert, the screen faces away from the road, so there’s no kid-peekin’, but my dream is to do it there with Bluetooth audio to the cars. It seems possible — they showed the trashy VH1 Mötley Crüe documentary so I know they’re open to camp. It used to be far, far, far out of town but now sprawl has placed it right next to a church.