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David Schmader loves bad movies, but even he has his limits. Having become enamored of the Paul Verhoeven-Joe Eszterhas sleazefest Showgirls after watching it at the insistence of a friend, Schmader attended a screening of 2001’s Glitter, in the hopes that the campy Mariah Carey vehicle would turn out to be a “new Showgirls.” It wasn’t—he was confounded by the film’s 1980s setting and use of Robert Palmer’s “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On”—but the film at least provided a memorable theatrical experience. “There weren’t many of us [there]—10 of one group and 10 of another,” Schmader told The A.V. Club. “And 10 of us were there to cackle, and 10 people were there like ‘Shh! We’re trying to watch Glitter!’”
The screenings of Showgirls, Leonard Part 6, and other notorious cinematic stinkers hosted by Schmader, a Seattle-based journalist and stage performer, provide similarly memorable experiences. Like an academic counterpoint to the irreverent riffs of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or Austin’s own Master Pancake Theater), Schmader provides a running commentary on and a deep understanding of these movies’ multiple failures—giving them a second, legitimately entertaining life. Schmader will present Showgirls at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Dec. 8, but tonight, he’ll be at the theater for a screening of Purple Rain—a movie that’s by no means good, but is a hell of a lot better than the movies Prince made after it. In anticipation of the screenings, Schmader phoned The A.V. Club to talk about the terrible thrills of filmmakers drunk on their own power, why no one is surprised when a Jennifer Lopez movie is bad, and which recently released movie might be that long sought after “new Showgirls.”
The A.V. Club: What do you look for in a bad movie? Is there a rubric you follow?
David Schmader: The platonic ideal is always going to be Showgirls. I did a series of screenings up here a year ago that made think, “What does Showgirls have? It’s firing on all cylinders, but what are those cylinders?” Constant surprise—so many bad movies, you recognize how they’re going to be bad and they play themselves out. It’s why bad J. Lo movies aren’t fun, because it’s like “She’s a maid—and now she’s in love,” but there’s no surprise to it. There’s usually not an element of surprise and horror to the badness.
Bad acting, bad directing—hubris is the main thing, also. With Showgirls, these were people at the top of their professional game, at least. That was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood [Eszterhas]—he and Verhoeven were drunk with power after Basic Instinct. They had that weird Hollywood phase of glory where they were just pooping gold. And Showgirls was a part of it—there was so much hubris there that it wasn’t like picking on midgets. There’s no surprise when a B-movie or a Lifetime movie is bad—because the stakes aren’t so high.
And then the last thing is that magical je ne sais quoi. With Showgirls, it’s nauseating tonal shifts—they keep going between heartwarming and the foulest pornography ever.
AVC: On the hubris note, you’ve said previously that Madonna is flummoxed by her inability to conquer film in the same way she conquered pop music—do you see the same frustrations throughout Prince’s filmography?
DS: There’s a ton of similarities. They both had this pristine debut when they were still hungry and letting themselves get bossed around by professional directors, where they weren’t powerful enough where they were like, “I’m Prince, I get to direct!” or, “I’m Madonna, I get to choose who’s in the cast!” In Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna is delightful, and in Purple Rain, Prince is amazing. He had a director that was smart enough to say, “Just say things—we’re going to know you’re a band because you play music together.” And then once Purple Rain was a hit, he was mad with power, and we got Under The Cherry Moon, which was the opposite of charming. Same thing happened with Madonna—once we got to The Next Best Thing, she’s calling the camera shots, she has a swath of lighting across her head that shadows her neck in every single shot. And it’s just that Barbara Streisand thing where you have too much power, and no one’s there to say, “You look stupid.”
AVC: A lot of the movies you presented in your Bad To Worse series had a musical element. Are songs something that can prop up a bad movie and make it watchable?
DS: [Laughs.] Right off the top of my head, I think of Can’t Stop The Music—but Road House has a musical element to it as well. There’s something about bursting into song—it allows adults to humiliate themselves in amazing ways.
AVC: It’s hard not to humiliate yourself when singing a song like Rhinestone’s “Drinkenstein.”
DS: That’s where you get to see the depths of Sylvester Stallone’s bad acting, because he doesn’t even know he should just sing and be a bad singer in a charming natural way—he’s like “I’m going to sing bad.” And it turns into the outer space thing he does at the end of “Drinkenstein.” You don’t know the basic power of who you are. That one’s tough—oh, Rhinestone.
AVC: Are there any genres that immediately lend themselves to your type of screening?
DS: Stripper dramas. [Laughs.] It’s really across the board—celebrity usually has something to do with it. With the case of Showgirls, the celebrities were the director and screenwriter, which is weird and maybe part of its magic. But once you get someone beyond being able to be hungry for direction or hungry to get it right. And that’s the problem with Bill Cosby in Leonard Part 6, the Madonna movies, the Prince movies.
AVC: Is there any coming back from a film like this? Showgirls put Elizabeth Berkley’s career in a holding pattern, and destroyed any goodwill Verhoeven and Eszterhas had built up.
DS: Kyle MacLachlan always seemed like the biggest casualty, because he was just an art star at the start of the career. And he still has a career, but he never got the cache he had back when he was David Lynch’s Marlon Brando. And that’s the sort of thing that was a personal pain to watch in Showgirls—“Oh, you thought you’d be in a blockbuster just for fun, and look what it did—it stained you forever.”
AVC: Though he and Lynch did have the failure of Dune hanging over their heads.
DS: I know, and I’ve never seen Dune because I need to protect my romantic view of both him and David Lynch.
AVC: Have you seen any movies in the last few years that you’d like to add to your Bad To Worse canon?
DS: The Love Guru, but it was too, too awful. You can’t believe it—America liked Mike Myers? But that’s where it’s like, “I can’t do that. I can’t make people show up and watch The Love Guru. People are dying every minute.” I’m waiting for Burlesque. I got snowed out of a screening last night, but we’ll see if that falls into the Glitter category or Showgirls category.