Base Instincts: Verhoeven in the USA
Weekend midnights at the IFC Center, January 8-February 20
The intergalactic military epic Starship Troopers may be the most analytically exacting critique of Fascist aesthetics this side of Susan Sontag, but for director Paul Verhoeven “the essence of the movie is really young kids fighting giant bugs.” It’s a characteristically smartass description of his slyly subversive blockbuster, but what makes the gloss so funny is that it’s also perfectly sincere. Buzzing with armies of CG insects and enough high-school drama for an outer-space spin off of The O.C., Starship Troopers is at once an anti-imperialist allegory and a mindlessly satisfying piece of schlock.
And therein lies the brilliance of Paul Verhoeven, the bastard son of Jerry Bruckheimer and Bertolt Brecht. By the time he came stateside in the mid-80s, the Dutch-born director had become the most infamous auteur in Netherlands history, a reputation that began with the box-office bonanza of Turkish Delight (a character-driven study of amour fou cum hardcore fucking) and built steadily to his international breakthrough The Fourth Man (an overheated symbolist psychodrama about a hard-drinking, bisexual novelist whose new girlfriend may—or may not—be a husband-slaying sociopath). Graphically sexual, aggressively irreverent and politically incorrect, Verhoeven’s films managed to piss off pundits from across the European political spectrum while attracting enthusiastic audiences in droves. And though the American works would abandon his signature stylized naturalism in favor of an ironic deconstruction of Hollywood clichés, his bad-boy provocations would whip up more outrage and excitement than ever.
Since crossing the Atlantic, Verhoeven has worked within extremely commercial genres: a medieval swordplay epic (Flesh+Blood), a neo-noir police procedural (Basic Instinct), a star-is-born showbiz drama (Showgirls) and four science-fiction films (Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man). For viewers weaned on the family-friendly storylines of the Lucas-Spielberg school of fantasy filmmaking, the most distinctive aspect of Verhoeven’s unusually adult fables are their outrageous shock effects:
The ritualistic gangland murder in Robocop. The mutant prostitute with three tits in Total Recall. The flash of Sharon Stone’s snatch in Basic Instinct. The entire 131 minutes of Showgirls. In one unforgettable scene of Flesh+Blood, a mercenary soldier (Rutger Hauer) attempts to rape his former employer’s daughter-in-law (Jennifer Jason Leigh); but refusing to play the part of helpless victim, the young girl matches his sexual aggression, takes control of the erotic encounter and somehow manages to effectively rape him. It’s the most jaw-dropping “meet cute” in the history of movies. Could it be a coincidence that the style of blocky, concrete architecture so pervasive in Verhoeven’s science-fiction works is called Brutalism?
Though such moments were reflexively dismissed as gratuitous in the mainstream press, the sex and violence in Verhoeven’s films is always integral to the narrative. When Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas enjoy the “fuck of the century” in Basic Instinct, the pornographic pleasures of the scene are also a function of character development (the power dynamics of being on top) and plot (is she about to stab him with an ice pick?). And while Verhoeven’s theater of cruelty may be more explicit than Americans are used to, what really offends the traditionalists is that he routinely portrays sex without love and violence without honor. The reassuring sentimentality and heroic righteousness of Hollywood entertainment is implicitly critiqued in Verhoeven’s morally ambivalent universe, obsessed as it is with the Jungian shadows that can never be fully exorcised.