For a while now, I’ve had this pet theory. It’s not exactly scholarly, nor is it particularly profound or original, but it goes something like this: the more you experience something, the more you come to like it, even if it’s pretty crappy at first glance.
Take music as an example. We all have songs that, against our better judgement, we’ve grown to like simply because we’ve heard them a lot. (“Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran… yep, listening to it as I write this.) There’s something to be said for the comfort that comes with familiarity, but I think there’s something else at play as well. With a song or another work of media, it takes people a while to get beyond the surface level, but once you do, you’re able to notice and appreciate all sorts of things that you never recognized before. In the case of a song, it’s almost as if you’re meeting a new friend for the first time; you spend the first few listens in the ‘getting to know you’ phase, becoming familiar with the rhythm, the lyrics, and the melody. Only after that are you able to catch the little things – an unusual rasp in the voice here, a cool bass beat there. And odds are you’ll come to like the song more than you did before, because you’ve gone past the point of simply listening to it and have instead started to interact with it on a critical level. This process can happen with any type of media – high culture or low culture, Beethoven or Beyoncé, Kafka or Ke$ha.
In my experience, the same thing can happen with an entire form of media, not just an individual text. If I watch enough movies, I start to notice things in ALL films that I would have never noticed otherwise. The viewing experience becomes richer, deeper. The more movies I see, the more I WANT to see movies – and talk about them, write about them, study them, and generally let them control my life. If I were a drug addict (and a Christian and a woman), I’d be Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions, carrying around a bump of coke in the cross I wear around my neck. Good thing watching movies and TV isn’t illegal.
With this in mind, here’s a simple paradigm that tracks the evolution of a film viewer from casual fan to total media addict. It’s surprisingly simple, deliciously deranged, and the explanations I present are more than slightly autobiographical. Allow me to introduce to you… the Wheel of Kyle MacLachlan.
If you need a refresher, Kyle MacLachlan is an actor who has been in everything. Like seriously. He’s been in high-art film masterpieces, multi-camera sitcoms, kids’ movies, serialized TV dramas, and movies that nearly qualify as softcore porn. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ll recognize the face. Kyle MacLachlan is one prolific bastard.
Stage 1: Introduction
So here’s the scenario. You’re a little kid (or maybe you’re just young at heart), and you’re watching the live-action movie version of The Flintstones. Kyle MacLachlan plays the dastardly Cliff Vandercave, the bane of Fred Flintstone’s (John Goodman) existence. He’s greedy, conniving, and Halle Berry drapes herself all over him at every available opportunity. He’s not someone you like, and you start to create an image in your head of the type of actor that Kyle MacLachlan is: smarmy, pompous, and great at playing one-dimensional villains. The way you see it, everything is on the surface level, both in his performance and in the film. No need to dig any further.
Stage 2: Apparent Confirmation
You’re an adolescent. As Batman would say, you’re starting to feel strange stirrings in your utility belt. (Seriously, Adam West actually said that in an episode of the 60s TV series. I’d link to a clip of it if I could find it, but suffice to say, the sight of Julie Newmar sometimes makes guys say and do strange things.) You’re flipping through the cable channels one night, and you come across Showgirls. There are boobies and buttocks all over the place, but somehow in the midst of your raging hormones you manage to recognize the guy getting a lap dance from Jessie Spano – hey, that’s the guy from The Flintstones! Indeed, Kyle MacLachlan is back, once again playing the villain. This time he’s Zach Carey, a greedy entertainment director for a swanky (and mostly nude) Vegas show. He is more than willing to play showgirls Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and Cristal (Gina Gershon) against each other to get what he wants (which is mostly sex). Another one-dimensional villain, and the opinion of him you formed in your youth is confirmed.
Stage 3: Education
You’re a bit older now, maybe in college. Your interest in film has started to branch out a bit – you’ve seen Citizen Kane and tell people it wasn’t boring (even though you secretly think it kind of was), you keep meaning to get around to seeing La Dolce Vita, and you just sat down to watch a movie your older friends tell you is awesome: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Hey, it’s Kyle MacLachlan again! Wait a sec… what’s that he’s just found? Is that a HUMAN EAR?!?
From that moment, you’re hooked. You’re fascinated by the perilous sexual chemistry between MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini. You watch in awe as a wide-eyed and maniacal Dennis Hopper threatens and intimidates him. You follow the plot’s mysteries through every twist and turn, all the while becoming totally transfixed by Lynch’s voyeuristic imagery and Oedipal themes (as Laura Mulvey argued). And you can’t believe that the same actor who played the one-note villain in The Flintstones and Showgirls was in such a great movie eight years earlier. Could there be something more there? What else might you have been missing along the way?
Stage 4 (The Final Stage): Reassessment
By this point, you’re a full-blown film fanatic. Heck, maybe you’re even a film student! You’ve actually read the Laura Mulvey essay I just casually (and pretentiously) referenced (“Cult etherworlds and the Unconscious: Oedipus and Blue Velvet”). You treasure the Criterion DVDs that litter your bookshelves. You feel like you could do your own audio commentary for Citizen Kane (and not even fall asleep while doing it!). You know who Abbas Kiarostami, Cesare Zavattini and David Bordwell are. And you watch movies like it’s your job – which, God willing, it will be one day.
So one day, you catch Showgirls again. Maybe it’s on TV, or maybe it’s in a film class. Woah, woah, woah… hold on there, champ. Why on earth would you be watching Showgirls in a film class? You don’t have a clue, but it’s setting off alarm bells. Either your professor is a serious pervert or you missed something the last time you saw it.
Boobies: still there. Buttocks: accounted for. You notice that the film was directed by a guy named Paul Verhoeven, who also directed such nudity-filled films as Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct. Those movies are clearly over-the-top, campy escapades that obviously aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Could Showgirls be the same thing? Is it bad… on purpose?
You watch closely – even closer than you did as a hormonal adolescent, if that’s even possible. The dialogue is still stilted and unrealistic, but that makes it kind of funny. Elizabeth Berkley’s not given much to work with, but she’s actually not a terrible actress. (Certainly better than Casper Van Dien, the lead actor in Starship Troopers.) And the sex scenes! Seriously, who swings their body and arms around like that? They’re patently ridiculous! No filmmaker could possibly give that kind of direction with a straight face… unless, of course, they’re doing it deliberately.
And there’s Kyle MacLachlan, as moustache-twirling a villain as ever (in spite of the fact he’s clean-shaven). His character is almost the opposite of his role in Blue Velvet: in Showgirls he’s an experienced manipulator, in Blue Velvet a naïve youngster. But there’s something in his eyes. This guy has worked with David Lynch. He knows quality cinema, and he clearly has all of the gears you’d want from an actor – strength, vulnerability, pathos, subtlety, exaggeration. It’s the last that intrigues you. Scholars call it ‘camp,’ and it oozes from Showgirls. Everything is way too over-the-top, including MacLachlan’s performance, but the results are kind of cool. Here’s your best guess: in spite of his reservations about the film, MacLachlan said “fuck it!” and went for it in all of its melodramatic glory. Because as the ongoing financial success of this film proves: if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. And with this revelation, it’s time to admit it to yourself: Showgirls is actually pretty awesome.
So there. At last, you’ve made it all the way around the Wheel of Kyle MacLachlan. From a place of dismissal,
your experiences as a film enthusiast have brought you around to a place of appreciation for a film as derided as Showgirls, just as film enthusiasts before you have made cult classics out of such awesome/awful films as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and the Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade (1933). As far as I’m concerned, the ability to appreciate a bad film is equally as important as the ability to appreciate a good film, and without your experiences as a film viewer you never would have been able to find value in the film’s campiness.
So in summation, what does the Wheel of Kyle MacLachlan really teach us? That sometimes, movies aren’t so different from a Ke$ha song – after a few listens, you can’t help but start tapping your toes.