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.
But if the more puritan-minded amongst us were able to see beyond the carnage- and cunt-fueled controversies, several other more universal virtues would become immediately apparent. First, Verhoeven is a master craftsman. Robocop creatively circumvents sci-fi's noirish visual clichés with brightly lit, wide-angle compositions that pop, creating a three-dimensional space into which the dynamic Steadicam plunges, whips around, doubles back, all in way that's so carefully coordinated with character movement you may not notice it. Or take the infamous interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, how the thrust and parry of the dialogue is mirrored in the staccato montage and smoothly gliding tracking shots. Or the stage performances in Showgirls. The combination of candy-colored mise en scene and the sheer athleticism of Elizabeth Berkley's performance yields a pure-cinema dance spectacle worthy of The Red Shoes.
Second, Verhoeven is extremely adept at storytelling, and his Hollywood works are models of classical construction. Total Recall is such an engrossingly propulsive story because the through line is ruthlessly economical—yet there's enough incidental detail and clever misdirection that it never feels mechanical. Add to that the ingenious conceptual coup, straight out of Phillip K. Dick, in which the Joe Sixpack protagonist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has the memories of an interplanetary adventure implanted directly into his brain, only to discover mid-procedure that his real memories have been wiped and that he really is a secret agent from Mars. Unless, of course, this is all just the preprogrammed dream. The Möbius-strip irresolvability of the scenario sustains both possibilities straight through the end credits, giving each scene a contrapuntal complexity that is, in the most literal sense, quite cerebral. As Arnold's character so eloquently puts it (in a film packed with many of his most memorable one-liners): "That's the best mind-fuck yet!"
But the double realities of Total Recall are more than a clever structural gimmick, they also constitute a self-reflexive narrative device: diegesis becomes discourse and discourse diegesis. Great fodder for a master's thesis, great fodder for masturbation (did we mention the chick with three tits?), Total Recall works on so many levels I'm starting to feel dizzy. Which brings me to the third point: Paul Verhoeven may be the greatest ironist Hollywood has seen in the last thirty years. The baroque erotic-thriller Basic Instinct self-consciously sends up the misogyny of classical film noir—allowing the criminal femme fatale to go unpunished while subordinating the hardboiled detective figure to the role of object in her antisocial sexual fantasies—while managing to be both genuinely erotic and undeniably thrilling. Starship Troopers has been discussed above, but let me add only that its straight-faced subversion of gung-ho militarism is a satire worthy of Swift's A Modest Proposal.
And as for Hollow Man... well, nobody's perfect.