Director Spotlight: Paul Verhoeven
by Barry Wurst
April 25, 2007
The timid need not bother with any film directed by Paul Verhoeven, one of the most forceful, flamboyant and no-holds-barred filmmakers in the world. This Dutch bad boy has created excessive, vivid, and jaw dropping visions of human decay and obsession, with the majority of his films displaying no timidity in portraying graphic gore and sexuality. Truly, most filmmakers will break a few taboos now and then, but Verhoeven's brash, seemingly fearless approach to crafting films, both small and grandly lavish, has never wavered. His films are often opulent, yet also cold and metal-slick, reflecting the theme of man falling prey to the fascism around him or the poison that resides in his mind.
April 24 - Paul Verhoeven
I almost wrote "the poison that resides in man's soul", but Verhoeven is as distinctly humanist as his films, though a few of them have been called religious parables. His films are not devoid of morality - they portray the downfall of men and women driven by their sexuality, or those allowing their insatiable needs for personal freedom to overcome their sense of wrong and right. As Verhoeven's acclaimed film Black Book finally makes its way across the US (after a blockbuster showing at theaters all over the globe), let's examine controversial and remarkable works of a true original.
Verhoeven first came on the international cinematic scene with his Soldier of Orange (1977), an effective, shocking WWII film starring Rutger Hauer, and Spetters (1980), a biker film that showcased Renee Soutendjik, a fearless femme fatale who would star in Verhoeven's next work, the much discussed The 4th Man (1983). Of these three early works, the latter is the one that made the most noise in the US, and it is a precursor to Verhoeven's later Basic Instinct. Starring Jeroen Krabbe as a man obsessed with a mysterious temptress (Soutendjik) who may or may not be a serial killer, the film is flush with disturbing violence, fluid, Hitchcockian filmmaking and frank, uncompromised depictions of sexuality. Like most of Verhoeven's works, it's so brazen that most will be turned off by it; yet, it gathered a following and made fans of world cinema anxious to see what this fearless Dutch filmmaker would come up with next.
Flesh+Blood (1985) followed and would be one of Verhoeven's least successful works (in every sense of the word). Starring Rutger Hauer as the leader of a medieval gang who rape, rob and kidnap the daughter of royalty (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the film lacks strong characterizations, any theme or point. It seems to exist only as an exercise in style (of which there is some) and excess (which there is oodles).
Verhoeven's next film would ultimately turn out to be his best. RoboCop (1987) has been called many things - the best comic book movie ever made not based on any comic, a definitive vision of a violent, corporate-controlled future, a mainstream biblical parable, "too violent" (by USA Today's Mike Clark), "the best science fiction film since Metropolis" (by rebel filmmaker Ken Russell), and a definitive depiction of soldier literally torn apart by the world he defended, searching for his own humanity where there was none to find. As you can tell, this is a bold, unapologetically earnest portrayal of right and wrong, depicted with broad strokes, with heroes who are square but righteous and villains who practically sneer (and worse) at the camera. The film is also a satire of the media (and the ineptitude of television programming), our inability to master machinery (witness the carnage of ED-209), and of film clichÃ©s in general. All this was in the script, but it took a maverick, like Verhoeven, to take what was great on the page and make it better, larger than life and stunningly poignant.
Lest I forget to mention that RoboCop is a thrilling action movie and viciously funny (as well as news-worthy: the violence nearly got the film an X rating!). Many saw the plight of Murphy (Peter Weller), a good cop who dies as a man and is reborn/rebuilt as the savior of Detroit, as an 80's Christ metaphor. Verhoeven actually wanted to follow RoboCop with his own film on the subject, Christ The Man, which, according to him, would've been a "loving and factual" depiction. Due to the controversy and box office failure of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, Verhoeven's film couldn't find support and was never made.
Instead, he turned to another science fiction story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", by Phillip K. Dick. A film of his intriguing short tale, titled Total Recall (1990), had been in talks for year and almost made a number of times before. Verhoeven took on the troubled project, made a massively expensive film (financing had been one of the reasons the film met demise in the hands of other filmmakers) and released it as one of the big summer movie attractions of 1990. The hype surrounding the project was deafening: at $75 million, it was the most expensive film ever made (until the $100 million dollar T2 opened the following summer), was Verhoeven's goriest and it was an enormous gamble for its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as well the brave studio who produced it, Tri-Star and Carolco). It all paid off, as Total Recall was a blockbuster hit, proved Verhoeven was capable behind the reins of a costly project and catapulted Schwarzenegger back to the forefront (after his prior action vehicle, the underperforming Red Heat, left some unsure as to the longevity of his career).
While Total Recall is exciting, well directed, ultra-violent and intriguing (all Verhoeven staples), the screenplay has some serious problems. Like The Matrix, it bounces back and forth between being thoughtfully existential and an unapologetic action ride, yet, the many who had a hand in shaping the much-developed screenplay ultimately mute and make murky the key elements of the story. The film's best scene, where Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is encountered in a hotel room by a doctor telling him to snap out of his dream state, was actually written by Cronenberg (and is a scene that survived his never-made interpretation). The film's first hour is compelling and its strongest - Verhoeven stages some riveting action and chase scenes but also keeps the story focused. After a solid build up (and following the hotel sequence), the tone is all over the place, as an initially satirical, witty and carefully unfolding story becomes broadly jokey, flush with action movie clichÃ©s and an exercise for action and (still impressive, Oscar winning) special effects. Even die hard fans of the film can't deny the following - the story has no punchline (though at least 3 climaxes), the big point of the finale (that Quaid's hand starts the reactor, as his handprint is the only one that works) doesn't come across and the whole thing just ends.
The enormously controversial Basic Instinct (1992) came two years later, though it got bad press the moment the cameras starting filming. Gay activist groups picketed, as they were angered that the film's collection of gay characters were all psychopathic murderers. Many picketers held up signs during the film's opening weekend that gave away the ending. Looking at it now, the outrage was justified (Joe Eszterhas' sleazy script was, like Silence of the Lambs, for a popular film that demonized it's gay characters, though, in truth, the hetero figures are just as bonkers!) but ineffectual, as the controversy only helped the film and the open-ended final scene doesn't really give you a clear answer as to who the real killer is. Looking at the film now, it is so over-the-top, it plays like expensive camp. The sex scenes and the sleaze that surround them are gratuitous, but the main plotline, an intricate whodunit with a variety of suspects, with a few exciting car chases thrown in, is pretty compelling. The film is well acted and crafted, and Verhoeven makes even the most mundane scenes (like a police interrogation) hypnotic.
After the huge success of Total Recall and Basic Instinct (and to a lesser extent RoboCop), Verhoeven became one of those hot directors who had first pick of any project and could get almost anything greenlit. Unfortunately, he decided to go with Eszterhas' pricey and idiotic Showgirls (1995) screenplay. To this day, Verhoeven claims he made a serious film from a serious script, a claim that falls apart two minutes into the movie. Before we recall the box office, audience and critical reception, it should be noted what a brave, bold move it was on Verhoeven's part to take this on (and UA/MGM's decision to distribute it). The film was intended to be rated NC-17 (which, of course, it received), FOR ADULTS ONLY (as the poster claimed) and boldly sexual, charting new territories in what could be shown in American films. It opened big on the same day as David Fincher's Se7en and beat it at the box office, where it was #1. It looked like the NC-17 rating was finally going to be accepted by the mainstream audience… and then it crashed in week two. Word of mouth silenced all the hype, critics trashed it and the first $40 million dollar stripper musical/drama became a worldwide laughingstock. Even those who chalk it up as a guilty pleasure can't deny what an amazingly awful film it is. Verhoeven gives the film a slick sheen, the dance numbers are entertaining and well staged and… well, that's about all that's good about it. It now has a following as a midnight movie cult event, a mock-a-thon along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (minus the reputation as a great movie).
It was back to the drawing board for Verhoeven and, as Cinefantastique (one of the best film magazines, period) pointed out, "Showgirls may have been the best thing to happen to Verhoeven for his fans". Why? He turned his back on overheated erotica and went back to science fiction. He once again found himself behind the wheel of a massive, lavish sci-fi action satire, from Robert Heinlein's novel, Starship Troopers (1997). True to it's reputation, the film works as an exceptionally sharp satire of a fascist regime (namely Hitler's) for some, while others don't see the spoofery at all and take the film as a straight-faced action movie. Despite some wooden acting and some knowingly campy moments (you can almost hear Verhoeven yelling to the audience, "Look! Coed showers!!"), the film is a smart, wicked jab at the militaristic, monstrous, but seemingly noble attraction that Nazism posed it's followers (which is also what Heinlein was getting at). The great looking cast is a visual reference to Hitler's oft-mentioned "perfect race" and the frequent television commercials are hilariously unveiled propaganda.
Yet, some only see this as Verhoeven's return to form as a sci-fi shoot 'em up, akin to RoboCop. Unlike Total Recall, which was clever but not smart, Starship Troopers (which, yes, it must be said, does deliver as a visceral thrill ride) is a cousin to "Robocop". The Giant Bugs (yes, they're meant to be stand-ins for Americans!) aren't the real monsters here - it's the bureaucrats, the corporations, the suits, the THEM, who put the troops to war. In Verhoeven's films there is always an evil force responsible for every heinous act in the foreground, but under the surface the evil is always orchestrated by man himself.
This concept is at the heart of his next film, Hollow Man (2000), which is all about how the allure of a scientific breakthrough can cause an already slimy individual to become a total monster. The set-up of the film is interesting, the special effects are remarkable (and equal the incredible f/x in the underrated Memoirs of an Invisible Man) and, for an hour, it looks like Verhoeven may have made one of his best films ever. While the theme remains consistent throughout (Kevin Bacon's cretin develops a homicidal god complex once he becomes a soulless, naked, invisible phantom), the direction the story takes is unfortunate. Initially an updated mad scientist film, and seemingly as good as The Fly, Hollow Man allows Verhoeven to go on a nasty tirade (rape, gore, explosions, gratuitous nudity) that betrays a promising idea. What begins like RoboCop ends as an overdone, summer slasher pic. Not a bad film and worth seeing for some, Hollow Man has so many elements that work (Kevin Bacon's dark performance, Jerry Goldsmith's score, individual set pieces) that its a shame it doesn't add up to a great film.
Hollow Man, despite being the #1 movie in America for two weeks and grossing over $70 million in the US, was a box office disappointment that cost a great deal more to make. Verhoeven backed away from Hollywood and, six years later, returned with the highly anticipated and acclaimed Black Book. His body of work continues to impress, not only because of how well crafted his films are but because, like all great cinematic stylists, he brings his personal sensibilities, themes and trademark stamps to all of his films. His films aren't for everybody but one critic's telling comment about Basic Instinct is also true about Verhoeven's film overall - "Everything You've heard is true".