These days, Paul Verhoeven’s halls of mirrors get compared to Douglas Sirk’s: both romantic ironists, emerging from Nazi Europe, idealize the petty dreams of the proletariat and bourgeoisie as pulp abstractions (a man and a woman; the good guys and bad) to mark the discrepancies between liberating dreams and repressive realities, grade-school idylls and the genuine emotions people can feel for them. They film akin to telling the story of Don Quixote from Quixote’s perspective to play the beauty, bitter-sweetness, and idiocy of dreaming the impossible dream in precisely that order. They tell comic book lies and set them in drab realities to emphasize the fact.
That Verhoeven is the Verhoeven of Showgirls and Basic Instinct; the Verhoeven of Total Recall and Starship Troopers (and also Showgirls) seems closer to the hall of mirrors of Frank Tashlin incarnating capitalist fantasies as apocalyptic song-and-dance routines: both make an ass of a country’s ideals simply by staging them in Platonic Form, as genre.
In Tashlin, the key to a company washroom becomes the star of a mock-MGM musical; in Starship Troopers, an entire country devotes every action, thought, and second to destroying the enemy, anonymous insects (Verhoeven’s America’s vision of the any-enemy) who may or may not have sent “bug meteors” to destroy the earth. In one two-minute stretch of Starship Troopers, slaughtering bugs is treated as war by congress, research by scientists, family bonding by the homefront, and a next-level football game by teenage soldiers.
As usual in Verhoeven, any act of life is a playful form of sex-and-war sublimation, a fun, media-sanctioned dress rehearsal for fucking and killing; it’s an old Joe Eszterhas cliché Verhoeven makes new again by making his medium the media itself, a century of propaganda from Why We Fight to Ford Westerns to Beverly Hills 90210. But where those were PG fantasies of X-rated action, Verhoeven shows both to offer the full repercussions: as in Showgirls, part of his pop effect is to set up puritanical hokum (a team hooting and hollering over the hero’s crush on a girl) in scandalous contexts (tits flapping, ass-slapping, as they stand naked in the shower) till the dual American fantasies of monogamous bliss and flesh market fame—frontier vs. capitalist ideals—have not only made bosh of each other, but nearly stand in for one another as equally anonymous, homogeneous cartoon outlines of middle America. But as in Tashlin, it’s Verhoeven’s own proclivities for the pomp of flesh and blood that are fulfilled—in Flying Football, neon jamborees, vaginal bugs—to the point of parody.