Wednesday, July 29, 2015

THE CINEMA OF PAUL VERHOEVEN TOLD THROUGH IMAGES & STILLS: PART ONE (*SPECIAL GUEST BLOGGER JOHN CRIBBS*)




I try to take these elements out of life that I have detested or admired and put them in a movie, be it violence or sex. I think there's no 'why.' It's just the man I am, and it comes from the inside. It's something I just do - Paul Verhoeven 


Next year we'll get to see the first new Paul Verhoeven film in a decade. After years of being frustrated by reports of Beast of Bataan, The Winter Queen, The Paperboy, Legend of Conan and Jesus the Man all falling through, news of the upcoming Isabelle Huppert-starring Elle, his first French-language film, is invigorating to say the least. It signals a new stage of the 76-year-old director's remarkable career, one that's seen Verhoeven play the role of internationally-lauded Dutch wunderkind to a bumpier if no less ingenius run as big budget Hollywood provocateur.

The miracle of Paul Verhoeven might be that his best movies are meticulously balanced contradictions. He's a moralist and a sensationalist, a humanist and a misanthrope. He presents sex as erotic yet sleazy, violence as deplorable yet thrilling. Many of his films play as both systematic genre fodder and subversive attacks on systematic genre fodder. The 4th Man is one big fat parody of psychological thrillers, yet I dare you to find a smarter or more effective one. It's as easy to enjoy Starship Troopers as a rollicking, straight-forward space adventure as to appreciate its brilliant satire of military jingoism and U.S. foreign policy.

But while scholars struggle to separate the pedestrian from the erudite, the one consistency in his work is Verhoeven's interest in what makes us human. Whether it's what frees his characters from the restrictive society of Turks Fruit and Spetters, the fascist umbrella of Soldier of Orange and Black Book, or the corporate mechanizations of Robocop and Total Recall, Verhoeven's greatest contradiction is his secular portrayal of the human soul, which he sees as spectacularly transcending the mundane even while remaining achingly vulnerable. It's these conflicting representations - the body and the disembodied - that allow for a clearer understanding of the cinema of Verhoeven.

(There's no good place for this to get mentioned, but this article is just as much a tribute to Gerard Soeteman, whose collaboration with Verhoeven marks one of the great longtime director-screenwriter teams in the tradition of Roman Polanski/Gérard Brach and Luis Buñuel/Jean-Claude Carrière, and Ed Neumeier for his amazing work on Robocop and Starship Troopers.)


- John Cribbs, THEPINKSMOKE.COM


THE BODY
Turks Fruits
When you pull off the skin, the whole thing is exposed, as you can see in my films. The scene may be revolting, but what it proves to me is the transitoriness and total worthlessness of the human body: a collection of flesh, bones and muscles. An inferior entity. - Paul Verhoeven 

In Verhoeven's films, the body is a dangerous thing. It's the reason many of his characters are targeted, either for the flesh parades of Keetje Tippel and Showgirls or as commodity for corporations, walking meat to throw in the grinder a'la Starship Troopers or reworked into the cold, efficient tool that is Robocop. For the same reasons, the body is also a weapon. Murphy's mechanical makeover turns him into an immaculate instrument against the same corrupt system that restructured his anatomy; likewise, Rachel Stein's more cosmetic restoration into leggy blonde "Ellis de Vries" in Black Book allows her to strike back against oppressors responsible for wiping out her previous identity. At the end of the day, the body is what Verhoeven's characters are left with; how they use it and how others abuse it is what defines them.



SEXUAL ASSAULT 
This is a touchy subject to bring up, but one that is absolutely vital to understanding Verhoeven's work: his depiction of sexual assault. In the early films especially, his approach seems almost offensively flippant. In Turks Fruit, Erik's way of breaking through the emotional barrier his sadistic mother-in-law has built around Olga is to force himself on his sleeping wife until she responds to him, literally a rape scene you're meant to cheer for (or at least generally approve of). Virginal Keetje Tippel's transition from naïve child to womanhood is marked by her playfully producing shadow puppets on the wall only to be interrupted by the silhouette of an erect penis, and subsequent assault by her amorous boss. Infamously, in Flesh + Blood, chaste princess Agnes allows herself to "get into" her defilement by Steven, effectively seducing him so that he'll protect her from being gang-raped by the rest of his outlaw crew (subsequently she falls in love with him). And in Spetters, violent gang-rape awakens Eef to his tenaciously closeted homosexuality.

It's not hard to see why this "rape as epiphanical healing" angle might be considered offensive: even in the case of Showgirls' most gritty and unsensationalized depiction of sexual assault (the gang rape of Molly), the event arguably leads to a positive outcome, as it abruptly sobers Nomi to the reality of her descent into the cold, conspiratorial world of exploitation.* And in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Verhoeven states he would have opened his intended film about the life of Jesus with Mary being raped by a Roman soldier. Which makes perfect sense: what's a better case of violent sexual assault resulting in something "positive" than a rape leading to the birth of the messiah? Further clouded by the fact that lead males Erik and Steven - and later Nick Curran in Basic Instinct and Sebastian Caine in Hollow Man - are the ones committing the sexual assaults, what exactly are we supposed to think about all this?

Needless to say, Verhoeven is staunchly anti-rape. But he also accepts sexual assault as an ugly reality, one even more common in the historical eras represented in Keetje Tippel, Flesh + Blood and, yes, the time of Christ. To obscure this fact would be dishonest, the kind of censorship utilized by the government of Starship Troopers when the smart bug is "raped" by the giant phallic prod at the end of that film, to hide who the real invaders are. In Verhoeven's films the body is constantly under attack, and rape being the most literal form of bodily assault is represented in all its ugliness. Again, it's the reaction of the individual and how they move on from the assault that determines their character.

Verhoeven's upcoming film Elle is reportedly a rape-revenge movie (based on a book by the writer of Betty Blue), so I think it's safe to say he's still exploring these complicated ideas late in his career.


Actor William Shockley, who plays the creep who gets shot in the junk by Robocop during an attempted gang rape, also plays Andrew Carver, the sleazeball celeb who gets the shit kicked out of him by Nomi after initiating the gang rape in Showgirls, making Verhoeven the only director I can think of to have a "go-to rapist" for his films.

Basic Instinct 
Flesh + Blood
Hollow Man
Hollow Man
Robocop
Showgirls
Soldier Of Orange
Spetters
Starship Troopers
Turks Fruit



EMASCULATION
Part of what compels Verhoeven males to sexual assault is the threat of emasculation or castration: the older, damaged Nick Curran feels dominated by virile young Catherine Tramell, so he engages ex-girlfriend Beth in rough sex, just to give one example.** Often the threat is merely imagined, like the paranoid Gerard in The 4th Man, but it becomes very real in the case of Rien in Spetters, paralyzed from the waist down and unable to perform. One Verhoeven visual that always sticks out for me occurs during a New Year's party in the middle of the "Robocop coming into consciousness" POV montage: a no-doubt inebriated female scientist leans down and gives an immobile Murphy a sloppy kiss, smearing lipstick across his field of vision. Forced to endure this, Murphy has become an embodiment of this anxiety, the loss of masculinity. The anxiety isn't always insubstantial: a weapon-of-choice for strong females in Verhoeven's films is an intimidating phallic blade, good for turning the tables on unsuspecting creeps and brainwashed secret agent "husbands."


** I'd submit that the male characters also feel emasculated by Verhoeven's undermining of his own adreniline-infused action scenes, but that's a more complicated topic we won't go into here.


Basic Instinct
Business Is Business
The Fourth Man
Robocop
Robocop
Showgirls
Turks Fruit
Robocop
Spetters
Total Recall



FEMALE BODY 
If anybody knows Paul Verhoeven for anything, it's the "flash" from Basic Instinct. There have been more iconic film images over the years, but very few have managed to impress themselves upon the minds of filmgoers with quite the blunt efficiency as when Catherine Tramell parts her legs for a split second and decimates every fragment of macho posturing in that testosterone-heavy interrogation room. Gratuitous? Perhaps. Dominating? Absolutely. Verhoeven has great respect for the power of the female body and its potential proficiency: his last film Black Book is all about a woman strong enough to turn her perceived vulnerability into strength, and characters in every film from Wat zien ik to Showgirls use their natural assets to turn towering he-men into trembling puddles of insecurity. I don't think there's much need to defend the tastefulness of nudity in the director's films, since almost all shimmers of skin are in service of the person showing it.
Basic Instinct 
Black Book
Flesh + Blood
Showgirls
Total Recall


PUBLIC HUMILIATION
Since Verhoeven's characters use their sexuality against society, society strikes back with humiliations that are largely sexual in nature. The subjects are often stripped of their clothing (Starship Troopers, Black Book) or forced to endure some other form of sexual defamation, like Erik being forced to watch his wife seduced by another man in front of everyone they know in Turks Fruit. Usually it's carried out by those closest to the hero: the police turning on Robocop, Ellis' own countrymen disgracing her in Black Book - no collective can be trusted. Again it's all about characters inverting the assault to eventually turn bodily abuse into personal strength: Nomi Malone is shamed on stage by being instructed to apply ice to her nipples during her audition in Showgirls, only to later apply lipstick to them when she's dressed up for her seduction-revenge. Public humiliation is sexual assault perpetrated by the majority to crush the individual, and like the rape victim it's up to the individual to not let it break them.
Black Book
Keetje Tippel

Robocop
Showgirls
Soldier Of Orange

Spetters

Starship Troopers
Turks Fruit


STIGMATA
Of course, the commonly-accepted escape from a broken body is via a transcending spirit. But Verhoeven doesn't buy into salvation; in his mind it's a fantasy that undermines the ordeal of very real suffering. Verhoeven's interest in religion (which I'll get to in Part II) is specific to the passion of Christ and his suffering on the cross. Hence, lots of hand wounds. In Robocop, not only is Christ-figure Murphy's right hand very methodically targeted and blown to smithereens during his "crucifixion" - later, when his fellow cops turn against their savior, there's a very specific close-up of his new android hand being shot as well. Others inflicted by similar wounds are typically supporting, almost peripheral characters (Keetje's co-worker at the dye-works factory, Steven in Flesh + Blood, Pvt. Ace Levy) who seem like flawed individuals at first but endear themselves to the audience via humility reached through noble suffering.
Basic Instinct 
Flesh + Blood
The Fourth Man
Keetje Tippel
Robocop
Robocop
Starship Troopers


BROKEN BODY
Similar to fear of emasculation, loss of control is akin to death. Very few of Verhoeven's characters recover from it, particularly Rien in Spetters, whose future as a champion motorbike racer is instantly dashed by an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down; finding no salvation through spiritual healing, he's trapped inside his physical prison. Just as quickly as Rien was rising in his community, he's cast aside. The fact that OCP can turn Robocop off, literally freezing his body, is demonstrative of Verhoeven's theme of the individual stifling under an oppressive controlling order.
Flesh + Blood
Robocop
Speeters
Turks Fruit
Hollow Man
Total Recall


HEADSHOTS
Since Verhoeven's violent deaths are often squib-happy affairs with chests exploding in a barrage of gunfire, a bullet to the head is a rare and interesting thing. Sometimes the murder turns out to only exist inside the shooter's head, like the fantasy killing that opens Turks Fruit and the three significant deaths via headshot in Total Recall, a film about "opening your mind," which may or may not actually be happening (and more like than not isn't). The headshot demises of Nilsen in Basic Instinct and Smaal in Black Book are treated as mysteries where the audience doesn't see the face of the killer (in the case of Nilsen I'm not sure it's ever 100% determined exactly who shot him), suggesting the destruction of a person's mind to be the most cowardly of all violent acts.
Basic Instinct 
Black Book

Starship Troopers
Total Recall
Turks Delight



WAVE OF MUTILATION
Anyone who's seen Starship Troopers knows that those who die instantly of headshots in a Verhoeven movie are the lucky ones. He likes to take most of his poor characters apart a piece at a time, often anonymously in his war movies (Soldier of Orange, Flesh + Blood, Starship Troopers) to show that, in order for the larger body of the government to succeed, the smaller parts of the soldier's body is scattered amid the scorched earth. The vulnerability of the flesh is never more evident than when it so easily, and miserably, falls to pieces.
Flesh + Blood
The Fourth Man
Robocop
Soldier Of Orange
Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers
Total Recall



GORE

If somebody falls, it’s not just 'bang' and he's dead. I always thought it was so bad to die, and it's part of my, let's say, criticism of this universe, that it is so extremely violent. To a large degree, it is me roaring against creation. - Paul Verhoeven 

When he made his splash in Hollywood, Verhoeven became the latest action director to have his work fall under scrutiny for its excessive and graphic violence (his case certainly wasn't helped by the director joining forces with Caroloco in the 90's). While the action of Robocop and Total Recall is expertly crafted to be as thrilling as possible, the over-the-top blood and guts draws a visual connection to moments in his earlier work: Keetje Tiippel selling her body for the first time while her pimp-mom watches a butcher carve up a slab of beef. The three stripped pig bodies that represent the hapless pigs-to-the-slaughter husbands in The 4th Man. Whether the body is destined to be sold on the street, mauled by a lion or blown away by ED-209, in the Verhoeven world it's treated like cheap meat, stripped of the soul that Verhoeven seeks in all his films.
Basic Instinct 
Black Book
Flesh + Blood
The Fourth Man
Hollow Man
Keetje Tippel
Robocop
Soldier Of Orange
Starship Troopers
Total Recall



ROAD ACCIDENTS 
When Verhoeven characters place their fragile bodies in or on moving metal, only bad things can occur (unless of course the one driving is already made of metal, hence the many serene Monte Hellman-helmed second unit shots of Robocop cruising the Dallas - sorry, Detroit - highway at dusk). What's weird is that a grisly scene involving a vat of toxic waste during the climactic gunfight in Robocop refutes Spetters' suggestion that being paralyzed from the waist down is the worst possible result of a vehicular collision.
Basic Instinct
The Fourth Man
Robocop
Spetters
Total Recall
Turks Delight



 SKELETONS 
Sometimes, Verhoeven likes to literally pull off the skin to remove the flesh + blood and see what's underneath, and to reveal one of the concepts that interest him the most: the body without a soul. This fascination is obviously what interested him in directing Hollow Man, although it couldn't really sustain a full film - the concept was always more interesting when examined briefly within the movie.
Hollow Man
Keetje Tippel
Total Recall
Turks Delight



FOOD 

Filming is a basic necessity of life. Something like eating. - Paul Verhoeven 

Food is the stuff of life, what keeps us going, and what we put in our bodies is of particular interest to Verhoeven in his study of what makes us human. Any given sustenance can be condemning, as the plague-ridden water that poisons the outlaw gang in Flesh + Blood. It can also be literally life-saving, like the chocolate Ellis scarfs down to counteract an insulin overdose in Black Book (a moment that recalls condemned cancer patient Olga gorging on Turkish delight) and Hauser hiding a tracer in some chocolate and feeding it to a rat to shake off his deadly pursuers in Total Recall. And speaking of sweets, stuffing fancy chocolate in her mouth marks Keetje's transition into high society, just as horse eyes and dog food-synthesized croquettes stand for the figurative scraps thrown to the lower middle class outsiders of Turks Fruit and Spetters, respectively (of course, dog food can also make certain champagne-swilling showgirls nostalgic for their more honest pre-glam roots).
Black Book
Business Is Business
Flesh + Blood
Keetje Tippel
Robocop
Showgirls
Spetters
Starship Troopers
Total Recall
Turks Delight
Turks Delight



HOMOSEXUALITY
Another area that polarizes Verhoeven's audience is his depiction of gay and bisexual characters: is it sensitive or sensationalized? It's certainly a heterosexual view of homosexuality - fascinating, exotic, even perceived as predatory - and the gay rights activists who famously picketed the production and screenings of Basic Instinct may have had a slightly more justified response than those who objected to William Friedkin's Cruising (although to be fair, it was written by Joe Eszterhas). Which isn't to suggest Verhoeven is insensitive or intolerant towards gays: his recurring image of same-sex couples on the dance floor is always intensely erotic, and as bizarrely as Spetters refers to homosexuality, it's unflinching in its depiction of gay trysts.
Basic Instinct
Flesh + Blood
The Fourth Man
Showgirls
Soldier Of Orange
Spetters



GENDER NEUTRALITY
Despite the director's heterosexual viewpoint and the very clear line in the sand he draws between aggressive females and frustrated males, there's a hint of equality suggested by his females with male characteristics (androgynous Christine in 4th Man, butch Lewis in Robocop) and males with female characteristics (the crossdresser of Wat Zien Ik, Quaid's disguise in Total Recall). On the other hand, the unisex locker room of Robocop and unisex shower of Starship Troopers are two examples of one of Verhoeven's ultimate concerns: such sexless interaction is considered natural in a reality where human bodies are mere commodities rather than living, lusting husks of human energy.
Business Is Business 
The Fourth Man
Robocop
Robocop
Starship Troopers
Total Recall
Turks Delight

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