(Originally published in Traffic, February 1996.)
On September 22, the movie version of Showgirls opened in 1388 theaters across the country. In its first week it grossed $8.1 million; fourteen days later, it had retreated from 100 of those initial 1388 theaters, and its weekly gross had dropped to $1.8 million. In short time, it would disappear from theaters completely.
And yet, the Showgirls Web site that was put up to promote the movie's theatrical release is still going strong.
Call this one tiny shimmy-step-and-pelvis-thrust forward for the ascendancy of new media. And one tiny shimmy-step-and-hip-grind back for culture in general.
At a time when so many people are wrestling with how much the Web should or should not tolerate, at least one thing is clear: from a financial perspective, it has the ability to accommodate just about anything. Showgirls made its quick, no-encore exit from theaters because hardly anyone was showing up to watch its stultifying salad of tits, crass, and Hollywood-style redemption. Keeping the movie in all those theaters was costing MGM/UA and the theater owners money: there were advertising bills to pay, there were the costs of rent and equipment and employee wages.
In comparison, keeping content on a Web site costs practically nothing, at least from the perspective of a large corporation like MGM/UA. Indeed, if even just one area of a site (i.e. another movie that MGM/UA is promoting) is generating enough hits to justify the costs of maintaining a server and an Internet connection, then all areas of the site are relatively safe from the dangers of replacement.
With hard disk space going for something like twenty cents a megabyte, it would probably cost MGM/UA more to pay their Webmaster to erase the files from their server than it would to simply leave them on there. (Which might explain why they haven't bothered to remove a link to Movie Line, a site that lists showtimes for movies at theaters around the country. If the search engine that drives this site can find a theater where Showgirls is still playing, Yahoo might want to investigate its technology...)
And who knows? On the Web, Showgirls might actually be a money-maker. After all, its title neatly incorporates the Web's most reliable formula for generating hits so far: Show girls! To this end, the site features many images of naked women, and even a few downloadable Quicktime video clips. For moneyed libertines whose appetite for hand-crafted stripper breasts cannot be appeased with a half dozen pixelated images, the site also features a pitch for the Official Showgirls Book. On sale for $24.95, this collection of over 70 photographs offers a candid, behind-the-scenes look at the making of a project that will undoubtedly earn a place in the annals of erotica as a prime example of retro-Guccione soft-core. Unfortunately, the most likely candidates to purchase the book--Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven and Showgirls screenwriter Joe Eszterhas--have probably already secured free copies of it.
In addition to its mammocentric mentality, Showgirls has several other attributes that make it well-suited for the Web. One is its general lousiness: consider its tired Flashdance-without-the-sweatshirts storyline, or its star, Elizabeth Berkley, whose particular form of pulchritude is so static it compresses from the 24 frames-per-second pace of cinema to a single fixed image without any apparent loss of information...
In the movie world, this deficiency of content didn't work. On the Web, it does. That's because most people still regard the Web as a diversion, a time-waster. They don't want compelling content, because they don't want to have to focus on anything that strongly. It's more fun to just look at something for a little while, and then move on to something else.
The Showgirls Web site suits such viewing habits perfectly. Not only is the story not compelling; in its Web incarnation, it's truncated too. That is to say, what the site presents is not the actual story, but rather, a press release about the actual story. There is a summary of the plot, some brief character descriptions, and some brief bios of the actors and the director. None of this takes too long to digest. You read a couple paragraphs, you check out a photo, and then you move on...
And because the Showgirls Web site is essentially a press release, it also benefits from hype. Hype substitutes the P.R. writer's copywriting abilities (or lack of them) for acting skill or narrative; in this case, the copy that the writer generates is so mindlessly ejaculatory it is more ludicrous than titillating:
She initially settles for a job "dancing" at the Cheetah Club, a second-rate strip joint whose clientele are rarely interested in looking beyond Nomi's physical attributes and her overtly sexual lap-dancing.
Ummm, is there really such a thing as prim--or even subtly erotic--lap-dancing? Lap-dancing is, by its very nature, overtly sexual, so there's really no need to describe it as such. Unless of course you're desperate to lure customers to a movie that boasts little in the way of appeal except for its overt sexuality...
In a world comprised of corporate-sponsored moments, where the constant claims and promises of advertisers agitate our expectations to levels that can never be fulfilled, it seems that we may now prefer hype to actual content. After all, hype doesn't disappoint. Its pace is too fast, its duration too brief. The actual book or movie might bore you, but a blurb or trailer generally leave you wanting more. At the moment, the Web is a medium dominated by blurbs and trailers; in this respect, Showgirls feels right at home.
But perhaps what ultimately gives Showgirls rights to the best seat in the Web's metaphorical livingroom is the potential it represents in regard to the seemingly paradoxical pastime of interactive voyeurism. Consider this sentiment, taken directly from the advance publicity materials for the movie version of Showgirls:
The concept of a naked woman dancing privately for one man alone in a room captured the film makers' imaginations...
If this "concept" was truly the inspiration for Showgirls, it's hard to understand why the film makers didn't forsake celluloid altogether for the more appropriate world of joysticks and CU-SeeMe. It's probably just because these astute carnal provacateurs realized they were simply too far ahead of the times to fully capitalize on their vision--the technology it will take to deliver virtual Vegas ass into the laps of amateur Verhoevens everywhere is still a ways off...
In the meantime, the Showgirls Web site does give you an opportunity to "talk" with the movie's stars. Admittedly, this is a compelling feature. You keep wondering: are the series of non-answers, parrot-style echoes, and unwittingly apt nonsequiturs you get in reply to your queries evidence of the talk application's poor design, or are they the amazingly on-the-mark responses of vapid characters siphoned from the parched imaginations of Hollywood hacks?
The mystery of it all will keep you engrossed for at least ten minutes.
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