Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Leftover Thoughts on the Films of Paul Verhoeven

I'm on Paul Verhoeven overload, or, Verhoeven-load, lately.

After revisiting some of his films and reading Paul Verhoeven: Interviews for an article at Sequart I've had his films on the brain. Here are a few leftover odds 'n' sods, just some random observations about an underrated filmmaker. 

A recurring theme throughout his career is how often critics seem to misinterpret his work. This seems an especially common reaction to his Hollywood films. How did so many critics miss the point of the scathing satire in Starship Troopers? Some even deemed it a pro-fascist work. I suppose when you skewer fascism and the military industrial complex as well as Verhoeven does here, many viewers will simply take it too literally.

Similarly, Showgirls was panned during initial release and dismissed as trash. If they'd looked any deeper than the film's surface aesthetic—past all of the nudity—they'd see it's an age-old cautionary tale that somehow avoids passing judgment on its characters even as they use and abuse each other to further their careers.

Showgirls is high camp, as a film set in the world of Vegas strippers should be. The actors embrace this lunacy, none more so than the film's star, Elizabeth Berkley. The movie's critical lashing seemed to torpedo Berkley's film career before it even got off the ground. It's hard not to see that as sexist when you consider the actors in the torpid Magic Mike were certainly not shunned for playing male strippers. This is a starring vehicle for her, as her character Nomi carries us through the film on her journey, as she scratches and claws—and let's not forget, strips— her way up the ranks. Berkley goes in all with the camp overtones that Verhoeven establishes, whether its gyrating on stages, lasciviously (and hilariously) licking poles, or engaging in an absurd pool sex scene with a very game Kyle MacLachlan that has to be seen to be believed. That sort of off-the-wall approach is why Showgirls lives on as one of the more popular cult classics of the last two decades. Repeat viewings of it only enhance your enjoyment of the wild ride Verhoeven's taking us on.

In the book of interviews, Verhoeven talks about his vision for RoboCop as a Christ-like figure. It's that sort of allegorical storytelling that underpins most of his work, including in his big Hollywood films. Total Recall is all about there being no one "real" reality, and Verhoeven structures the film in such a way as to leave it open to interpretation: is it reality, alternate reality, dreams, or some combination of all three?

One of the more salacious stories that is returned to over the course of the interviews in the book regards that infamous scene in Basic Instinct. You know the one: the Sharon Stone interrogation scene. Apparently, Verhoeven wasn't completely open with Stone about his intentions to include that now-notorious leg-crossing, upskirt shot of her in the scene. Stone was livid when she saw how much it revealed of her at an early screening. Certainly, Verhoeven mislead her, and you can understand why this would break an actor's trust in her director. Soon after though, she came around to agreeing with Verhoeven's notion that it was the best shot for the scene, that it works artistically. She also recognized how that one scene made the film such a cultural touchstone, one that lives on today in numerous parodies and references.

One last thought. It occurs to me now that I can mark my growth during the release of many of Verhoeven's big Hollywood films. RoboCop? Geeky adolescence. Basic Instinct? Geeky teenage wasteland. Showgirls? Geeky college wasteland. His films were a huge part of my existence back then even if I never really gave them much thought beyond the surface. Even then, though, I could see that they were a too strange for big Hollywood productions. There was something weird about each one of them, something that made them highly memorable. Only as an adult did I start to see Verhoeven's usual themes emerge in most of these films: reality vs. unreality, identity, agency, corruption, free will vs. determinism, and so many more.

Verhoeven has been around long enough to see the inevitable critical reevaluation, but it's still good to see it happen. His films are not perfect but, they're uniquely true to his own cerebral visions and always highly entertaining.

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