Posted July 11, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in Features
 
 

Director Paul Verhoeven


As Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall gets a re-release this month, Jonathan McCalmont takes a trawl through the career of a Director whose visceral and uncompromising style has grabbed Tinsel Town by the cahoonas and refuses to let it go.

As
Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall gets a re-release this month, Jonathan McCalmont
takes a trawl through the career of a Director whose visceral and
uncompromising style has grabbed Tinsel Town by the cahoonas and refuses to let
it go.

When people talk about
blockbuster action movies, their minds naturally gravitate to the works of
sexless man-children such as Peter
Jackson
, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. The reason for this
strange cognitive bias is that most people feel ashamed about watching big dumb
action movies and so they need their violence to be not only bloodless but also
presented in terms of absolute moral simplicity. Spielberg always cuts to the
heroic working-class dad because cinema audiences need to know that their
yearning for cinematic carnage does not make them a bad person. Similarly,
George Lucas can neither shoot nor write a love scene because you can’t have
people falling in love and then shooting each other in the face. That simply
would not do.

Mercifully, contemporary
Hollywood has begun producing directors who are happy to break with traditional
cinematic piety. Directors such as Michael
Bay
, Zack Snyder and Neveldine/Taylor produce films that are
just as violent and spectacular as anything produced by Jackson or Spielberg
while also being sexually hysterical, hideously racist and grindingly
misogynistic. These directors make no apologies on your behalf: If you pay
money to see a film filled with action and violence, you’re looking to get your
palms sweaty and they will not stop until you are positively stewing in your
own juices.

One of the most influential
figures in Hollywood’s increasing reluctance to apologise for producing
brain-frying spectacle is the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s early directorial career was dominated
by works such as Turkish Delight and
Soldier Of Orange that won
prestigious awards as well as mainstream audiences despite quite clearly being
influenced by the wave of sleazy exploitation films that bubbled out of both
Italy and Germany throughout the 60s and 70s. In fact, Verhoeven’s willingness
to shock audiences and play around with sexual themes eventually landed him in
trouble when the controversy surrounding his coming-of-age movie Spetters prompted him to leave Holland
in favour of the American film industry.

In hindsight, the title of
Verhoeven’s first American production was almost a manifesto for the films that
would follow. Flesh+Blood is
violent, grubby, sexually unpleasant and as robustly un-sentimental as any
Hollywood film to appear in the mid-1980s. Well-received and moderately
successful despite its meagre budget, Flesh+Blood allowed Verhoeven to produce
some of the most demented and sensational films in recent cinematic history.

Robocop is an intensely
unusual film in that it spans a number of different genre traditions. On the
one hand, the lead character’s attempt to reconnect with his humanity after it
was stripped from him by a merciless corporation is profoundly evocative of
1970s American Sci-Fi. On the other hand, the mashed-up cybernetics and the
melting bad-guys are strangely reminiscent of the body horror techniques
pioneered by directors such as David
Cronenberg
in the early 1980s. While Robocop’s influences are easy enough
to pin down, the decision to draw upon these influences in the context of a
high-budget Hollywood action movie was Verhoeven’s alone.

Even more mainstream than
Robocop, Verhoeven’s next film saw him manacled to Arnold Schwarzenegger at a time when people still saw him as something
more than a hideous joke. Though perhaps less visually shocking than Robocop, Total Recall is far more violent and
sexual than most contemporary action movies. Indeed, pick any scene at random
and chances are that it will contain tits, swearing, freaks, body horror or
people being shot to pieces. Particularly unsettling is the way in which
Verhoeven blurs the line between sex and violence in the relationship between
Arnie’s character and that of Sharon
Stone
: First we see them making out, then we see them trying to kill each
other, then we see them flirting outrageously. Verhoeven perfectly captures the unhealthy energy between
the characters when Stone makes one last attempt at winning Arnie over by offering
to let him tie her up. Arnie’s parting shot that Stone should consider a bullet
to the head a divorce is not only intensely memorable but also entirely
appropriate given the couple’s messed up chemistry. People often forget that
Total Recall began life as a short story by Philip K. Dick. Like most of Dick’s writings, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is a trippy exploration of
the difficulties inherent in telling reality from delusion. Amusingly, while
Verhoeven clearly accepts this reading of the text and happily seeds the film
with references to the possibility that Arnie may be mad, he ends the film with
a demonstration of pragmatism that was forever out of Dick’s reach: Yes Arnie
may indeed by dreaming… but so what? The only things that count are what we can
see and feel and these things can neither be doubted nor denied.

Verhoeven displayed the same
decidedly flippant attitude towards source materials when adapting Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. In some ways quite
reminiscent of his early film Soldier of Orange, Starship Troopers tells of a
group of young people who are sucked into the gears of their futuristic
society’s fascistic war-machine. However, unlike many war films that stress the
problems and ambiguities of war, Starship Troopers presents war as the ultimate
arena of self-actualisation where clever people become masterminds,
underachievers becomes heroes and old friends become energetic lovers. Aside
from playing around with fascist iconography for comic effect, Verhoeven makes
inspired use of the tension between the message of the film (join the armed
forces and become a real person) and the reality of what we see on screen (in
the armed forces, hundreds of thousands of people die in terrible pain for the
most dubious of reasons). According to Starship Troopers, war is hell… but
don’t let the kids hear you say that or we’ll have to stop fighting!

While Verhoeven deserves full
credit for forcing mainstream audiences to embrace the shameless sensationalism
of Hollywood action movies, he also deserves credit for re-introducing sex into
the traditional thriller.

On paper, Basic Instinct is a police thriller
about a confrontation between a detective and a woman who writes books that
seemingly pre-empt real-life killings. However, rather than emphasising either
the police procedural aspects of the story or the psychological forces at work
in both the writer and the killer, Verhoeven forces our attention onto the
sexual chemistry of the confrontation itself. Like many of Verhoeven’s female
characters, Stone’s Catherine Tramell is a creature of remarkable fluidity,
constantly teasing, she adopts different fetishes and personalities as she
probes the men she targets: When she wishes to intrigue, she is aloof and
exotic. When she wishes to engorge, she is provocatively bisexual. When she
wishes to seem vulnerable, she is damaged. Stone’s performance not only
re-launched her career, it also buried that of Michael Douglas, a veteran sexual dramatist who comes across as
hopelessly old and hopelessly out of place in a world that positively overflows
with dangerous sexual energy.

Though quite rightly savaged
by the critics, Verhoeven’s Showgirls
is the logical conclusion of a train of thought that began with sex comedies,
continued with sexy dramas and reached its pomp with a series of high-budget
Hollywood action movies. Showgirls is a brutal indictment of a human condition
that finds joy in films such as Robocop and Basic Instinct. Set in the
supposedly glamorous world of Vegas showgirls, the film is populated by a group
of thoroughly unpleasant people who claw and bellow at each other in an attempt
to reach the top of whatever pile seems available at the time. The wretchedness
of the characters and the awfulness of their quest is beautifully reflected in
the fact that all the dance numbers look hideous while all the sex scenes are
about as erotic as infected toes. On paper, the film is quite obviously
supposed to have something of a Heart Of
Darkness
vibe but because the protagonist both begins and ends the film as
a profoundly horrible and morally bankrupt person, it is difficult to extract
much of a message from the film other than the absurd futility and narcissism
of attempting to lead a better life.

Taken together with the
exquisitely voyeuristic Hollow Man,
Showgirls and Starships Troopers constitute a brutal satirical assault on the
human condition and the cultural institutions set up to service it. The message
of Verhoeven’s films is that we are neither noble nor moral creatures… we are nothing
but absurd homunculi who get sweaty palms when we see someone flashing their
bits or cutting of someone else’s head.


Jonathan McCalmont