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Daily Reads: Paul Verhoeven Says ‘Showgirls’ Is ‘Anti-Erotic,’ Ryan Murphy’s Mean Girls, and More

Daily Reads: Paul Verhoeven Says 'Showgirls' Is 'Anti-Erotic,' Ryan Murphy's Mean Girls, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Paul Verhoeven Remembers “Showgirls” on its 20th Anniversary. 
In September of 1995, United Artists released a film with a budget of $45 million and a NC-17 rating into theaters, and it was a box office bomb despite its promise of non-stop sex and nudity. Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” didn’t fare well critically or commercially in 1995, but in 2015, it has become a full-blown camp cult classic, with critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and filmmakers like Jacques Rivette arguing its brilliance. In Rolling Stone, Verhoeven remembers “Showgirls” and its production fondly in honor of its 20th anniversary.

We had already done a lot of research. We spent weeks and weeks going to Vegas and talking to everybody in the sex industry, if you want to use that word — the choreographers of the big shows, the producers, the lap-dance girls, the dancers in the big shows. We interviewed about 30 or 40 people, and a lot of the things that you see in the movie came directly from these conversations. Even the storyline was partially taken from those interviews. We continued working on the script, with the idea of taking it in the direction of something like “All About Eve.” Probably the biggest change was the addition of the Molly Abrams character [played by Gina Rivera], the friend that Nomi makes in the beginning of the movie. The idea was to have a girl on the side who helps her. I have said this in several interviews, but in retrospect I think it would have much better to have done something similar to “Basic Instinct,” more or less: a murder mystery in Vegas. And it would have been easier for audiences to go to a movie where there was abundant nudity — which was probably too difficult, in general, for the American public. In “Basic Instinct,” there are very, very long sex scenes, which aren’t there in “Showgirls.” Because it was a thriller, the idea that Sharon Stone could kill him during sex was always an element of protection. So we could show sex and nudity much longer than normal, because there was another element there — the element of threat. But the sexual elements of “Showgirls” are extremely limited; it’s more about the nudity. If you make a story about a lap-dancer who becomes a showgirl, I think nudity is obligatory. It followed the storyline. But I wouldn’t call that sexual. I would say “Showgirls” is more anti-erotic than erotic.

2. Ryan Murphy’s “Scream Queens” Continues His Brand of Cockeyed Social Satire. 
Last night, Ryan Murphy’s horror-comedy “Scream Queens” premiered on Fox to divisive reviews. Much of the mixed critical reception can be attributed to creator Ryan Murphy who’s humor and writing have brash quality to it that audiences either love or hate. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explores Ryan Murphy’s perspective and his brand of “cockeyed social satire.”

At the Television Critics Association press tour in August, Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays a frustrated dean trying to wrangle an out-of-control sorority in “Scream Queens,” a mashup of a sorority drama and a horror premiering on Fox tonight, asked if she could talk a moment about creator Ryan Murphy’s approach to satire. “We are the actual people that say the horrible things,” Curtis said. “And actually, we say what people think. You know, we all live in this protected bubble where we’re all trying to behave and look a certain way. And the thing that’s so brilliant about this show is it strips away, it flays the imagined behaviors of human beings, and it actually shows, I think, what people really are, which is inherently dark, inherently unhappy, and angry, frustrated human beings, who are trying so desperately to hold it together. And what’s so fun about this show is that everything you think about every single one of these characters, you don’t know…about anything. Because everyone here is wearing a mask. And this show peels off those masks each week, and it’s brilliant.” It was an explanation that crystallized for me why I often find Murphy’s shows so frustrating, even as I recognize his singular vision and crisp aesthetic style. Ryan wants to be a satirist, rendering bigotry and sanctimoniousness ludicrous, and therefore harmless. But his true sympathy is with his vicious sorority girls, his homophobic mothers, his tyrannical cheerleading coaches, and the campy, brazen, often deeply unhappy women at the heart of his shows. And Murphy’s real gift isn’t to destroy them, but to get inside their minds and understand how their ugliness works, where it comes from and how it might be possible for them to move beyond it. Murphy has a style of dialogue that’s as distinct and snappy as Aaron Sorkin’s, and much of it’s dedicated to viciousness, some of it very funny. If we laughed at the Archie Bunkers of the world — Murphy reveres Norman Lear, the creator of “All in the Family” and other socially conscious sitcoms — the alchemy of Murphy’s dialogue is often to get us to laugh along with the ugly, racist, homophobic things his brutal blondes sling as casually as a “hello.” Listening to Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the fascist cheerleading coach on “Glee,” summon a group of students by declaring “Santana! Wheels! Gay kid! Asian! Other Asian! Aretha! Shaft!” may reveal that she’s a racist, but Murphy can’t help but give her enormous flair and the kind of deranged self-confidence that carries through to viewers at home. Sue may be obnoxious, but she’s every bit as talented and disciplined as she actually believes herself to be. Watching Jane Forrest (Ellen Barkin), a conservative Ohio resident who is horrified when her granddaughter (Georgia King) agrees to become a surrogate for a gay couple (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha), grouse “Would you just look at all the money these homos spend on decorations? It’s like they’re being paid per sin” does show off how she buys into stereotypes. But Murphy gives Jane great little suits and great one-liners.

3. “Sicario,” “Jurassic World,” and the Meaning of Box Office Averages. 
Despite the existence of the Internet and a collective understanding that a film’s artistic success isn’t tied to the profit it makes, there’s still a persistent belief that a film “wins” or “loses” based on its opening weekend box office numbers. But though the big opening weekend number gets all the play, another number that’s just as important doesn’t get any play: the size of a film’s rollout. Vulture’s Kevin Lincoln explains the meaning of “box office averages” through recent films like “Sicario” and “Jurassic World.”

At this weekend’s box office, “Sicario,” the superb pitch-black drug thriller from Denis Villeneuve, earned one of Hollywood’s more esoteric distinctions. In limited release, “Sicario” grossed a total of $390,000 across six theaters, or $65,000 each — the best per-screen performance of the year so far. Based on its present company in the top ranks of that data point, this honor could be a harbinger of beautiful, gritty things to come, a nation transfixed by Josh Brolin’s flip-flops and the way Benicio del Toro manages to act, excellently, with his eyes only 40 percent open; or it could be the movie-industry equivalent of a horse coming fast out of the gate, then spending the rest of the race eating flowers near the infield. Let’s crunch some numbers! Opening weekends tend to be the story when it comes to a movie’s box office, for very obvious reasons: If a release hits hard from the word go, it makes up its operating costs in a big chunk and gains momentum for a long stay in theaters. There’s also the matter of word of mouth: The more people who see your movie early, the more who can evangelize for it, traveling the world in sandals and robes to preach about the glories of “Minions.” The five biggest openings of 2015 have also been the five biggest movies of 2015, though in slightly different order, and the two with far and away the biggest openings — “Jurassic World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” — are far and away the biggest movies. But one number that often doesn’t make it into the conversation about openings has to do with the size of the rollout, and it gives us an interesting glimpse into the way people go to the movies. A film is considered in wide release if it hits 600 theaters or more. That number can go as high as 4,000-plus screens, with this year’s widest releases belonging to “Minions” (4,301 theaters), “Avengers” (4,276), and “Jurassic World” (4,274). While all three of these films were dynamite performers, a debut of that breadth by no means guarantees success: “Fantastic Four” opened on 3,995 screens and made $25.6 million, giving it a per-theater average of $6,429. That kind of average is not good enough for a movie of that size: Just two movies in 2015 have made more than $100 million after opening to a per-screen average of lower than $10,000, “Spy” and “Trainwreck,” and both benefited from terrific reviews and word of mouth. (It should also be said that “Trainwreck,” at $9,530 per, barely missed this bar.)

4. “Seven”: The Violence of a Cinematic Hellscape 20 Years Later. 
Another film is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week: David Fincher’s true directorial debut that’s not an “Alien” sequel: “Seven,” the seven deadly sins-inspired serial killer thriller starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. Though the film inhabits a dark, grisly world of unparalleled horrors, the film itself isn’t actually that violent. But it feels violent. Over at the Audiences Everywhere blog, David Shreve explains through shot analysis and visual illustration what makes the film feel so violent even though it depicts little actual violence.

There are less than 20 gunshots fired in David Fincher’s 1995 film “Seven,” each exchanged between David Mills and John Doe. If you don’t count Detective Somerset’s late face slap, there is only one wounding act of violence committed onscreen. It’s an oft-shared description offered by cinephiles and aspiring screenwriters and critics: “Seven” is, in the most basic sense, a non-violent film, even as watching it feels like a very violent viewing experience. For most of its run-time, “Seven,” which this week celebrates its 20th anniversary, is a noir-serial killer thriller built around already murdered corpses rather than murderous acts. Yet, this basic quantifiable description feels misleading to anyone watching or re-watching the film, anyone caught within or recently escaped from the spiraling trap of the film’s increasingly unsettling, malicious scenes. “Seven” is widely credited for displaying influence from prior detective films and inspiring several films of comparable serial killer concern, but few films in either comparative line have less character violence and yet even fewer give as distinct an impression of having witnessed something truly violent. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has stated that the initial draft for “Seven” was heavily inspired by his unhappy experience living in New York City and, particularly, his commute from Astoria, Queens to Manhattan. Fincher’s cinematic translation of the script seems to be mindful of Walker’s influencing mood, as the director constructed a film in which his central characters are psychically destroyed by the nightmare-scape of their unnamed city before they are even given a chance to destroy one another. Which is why describing “Seven” as a “non-violent” movie only works if we narrow the conversational definition of violence to specifically denote a hateful, physically wounding act brought upon one character by another. A broader and more useful definition of the term would include the smaller assaults Fincher commits upon his characters and viewers in his first (and, I would offer, best) successful work. Because that definition helps us understand that “Seven” is a very, very violent film. It goes beyond the implied hyper-violence of Kyle Cooper’s opening credit sequence or the disturbing anecdotes shared by both detectives, who recall the details the way others might recall a dream (It’s a bit strange that Mills can’t recall the name of his murdered partner, right?). It’s more than the multiple rain-soaked, slow moving car sequences wherein the windows display faceless victims and blurry arrests. Even worse than wailing sirens, cries, gunshots, and train-induced vibrations that interrupt every scene that takes place in safe domestic areas. “Seven” stands in measurable contradiction to the rest of Fincher’s highly-stylized filmography as an exercise that is wholly lacking in style. The cinematic presentation, through Darius Khondji’s camera, is a carefully articulated hell, where production design and framing ignores utility, balance, and intuition to disorient and, at times, attack the viewer’s movie-informed perspective.

5. Film Festivals, Social Issues, and First World Guilt. 
Every year, film festivals are packed to the gills with socially-conscious films that are designed at least in part to remind the audience that there are real problems in the world that go beyond the mere trivialities of the film industry, and that it’s important to be aware of these problems and possibly do something about it. But when you see enough of these films, that pang of consciousness slowly wears off. At Christianity Today, Kenneth R. Morefield writes about these type of films and the limitations of “awareness.”

My ever-gnawing fear at such events is that these prestige movies raise our consciousness for an hour or two and then are quickly forgotten. They might even speed the process of allowing us to forget by convincing us that we have done…something. We’ve watched a film, informed ourselves, told our neighbor, shed a few tears. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to give the artists themselves a pass. Sure, some probably gravitate towards theses prestige projects as a shortcut to awards or recognition — but I suspect most are sincere. And they have made a film. I also used to give myself a pass, arguing that as a journalist I helped get the word out so that others could have their consciences pricked and their awareness raised. But I find this line of thinking increasingly unsatisfying. It makes my relationship to the art strictly professional, not personal — and I think I would continue to watch even if I couldn’t write, or wasn’t paid. But to what end? I realize this is a question that extends beyond these sorts of films and touches on the larger question of what functions any art serves in society. We can, and do, continue to make aesthetic arguments about art with which I agree, regardless of the content of the art itself. For example, as a believer in Christian disciplines, I think practice listening to anyone, including artists, is never without some benefits. But those are answers better suited for a classroom seminar than a mid-movie existential, professional panic. How was I going to make it through the second half of this movie, much less move along to my next screening when the lights went back up? Here are three fumbling attempts at an answer. First, I thought about one of my wife’s more regular admonitions to me: don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. In a perfect world, or a better one, or one that I was better in, I might be able to spare more time and invest more energy in the poor that are always with us or the suffering that are always making demands on our time, attention, and pocketbooks. It should be obvious (and I hope not controversial) to any Christian viewer that the needs of the world outweigh our capacity to help. The only way to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed is to withdraw completely. That response is neither Biblical nor realistic — but it’s our impulse. There is a reason why one synonym for “entertainment” is “diversion.” If our only use of the arts is to consume escapist fare, if our consciences ever stop pricking us, then I think we are in danger of something greater than compassion fatigue: compassion neglect.

6. Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration” Transports Audiences to a Simpler Time. 
Christopher Guest’s most recent feature film “For Your Consideration,” a Hollywood satire about three actors whose uncompleted performances in a new film are supposedly garnering award-season buzz, feels like it came from a different time and place altogether even though it was released nine years ago. Over at Oscilloscope Laboratories’ Musings blog, Charles Bramesco explores our media-saturated 24-hour entertainment cycle through the prism of “For Your Consideration.”

A thriving cottage industry has sprung up around the public’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for baseless speculation over the outcome of the Academy Awards. Attribute it to the primal urge to determine victors and losers or the deep-seated satisfaction of cataloguing quantifiable factoids, there’s no denying that anticipation of the Oscars has long since eclipsed the Oscars themselves as a source of entertainment for pop-culture junkies. Publications hire writers for the sole purpose of covering the awards beat in specific (though this is not an intrinsically bad thing; Mark Harris has consistently run insightful, marvelously-written coverage of the Oscar race at Grantland), and the cycle never sleeps. Whereas the buzz for the stars of “Home For Purim” begins to build in the months directly prior to the big night, Oscar speculation has spread to cover the entire calendar. Post-show wrap-ups now coincide with articles trumpeting a first look at the projected contenders for next year’s proceedings. And the criteria for what does and does not validate the awards theorizing has also changed radically. Higgins’ PR agent specifically notes that the earliest suggestion that Marilyn may have gold in her future comes from an anonymous commentator who had visited the set and seen dailies from the unfinished film. In the ceaseless maelstrom of blind guessing that dominates awards discourse today, full verdicts are handed down based on proof as slight as casting announcements or vague plot summaries. Reading the tea leaves to divine which pictures might push the right Academy buttons has expanded from an arcane ritual to a business large and profitable enough to assert itself as hard science. “For Your Consideration’s” impression of the Oscar frenzy communicated quite a bit of hustle and more than its fair share of bustle, but next to the self-devouring hydra of modern entertainment journalism, it looks downright adorable. The film’s datedness makes itself known even more apparently through the characters’ relationship with technology. Watch any work of entertainment centered around the biz of show and a high-powered agent character is bound to turn up, and when that happens, he or she will be invariably glued to his or her earpiece and cell phone. The ability to remain up-to-date on the slightest shift in the winds of buzz is an absolute must for anybody working in Tinseltown in the year 2015. The 2006 of “For Your Consideration,” however, marks a vital crossroads in the Hollywood status quo. It takes place in a year where the computer was moving from a geeky novelty to a necessary tool for everyday workflow, and many of the (decidedly middle-aged) characters run the risk of getting left behind. Higgins’ clueless publicist fumbles with a simple mouse-keyboard setup like a chimp with a soldering gun, fascinated with that which he can’t possibly understand and slightly fearful that he may hurt himself. The word “web site” sticks in the characters’ mouths with an alien sort of discomfort, a foreign concept they’ve got to chew on and get comfortable with.

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