Paul Verhoeven: A Tribute

We can’t think of any other director working in the mainstream today who even comes close to Paul Verhoeven. We’re tempted to put him in the same category as Jonathan Demme, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese, but his work stands totally apart. Like those directors, he possesses the rare skill of being able to survive in the world of big-budget filmmaking while still honestly expressing himself. Not that what he does is always one hundred percent wonderful (Hollow Man, anyone?). However, regardless of the script, budget, actors, et cetera, you always get a distinctly Paul Verhoeven movie. No small feat when you consider that since moving to Hollywood in the eighties from Holland, he’s always worked on big budget, popcorn-type fare.

 

For a fellow who doesn’t write his own stuff to be able to satisfy himself creatively while also keeping the studio happy (and usually making them a huge profit) is pretty unique. Unlike many of his contemporaries he doesn’t mute or tone down anything. If he’s going to show something, he shows something, violent or otherwise. He puts it up there as raw as the Motion Picture Association of America will allow. Another key thing about Verhoeven is the difference between the work he did in Holland and the work he’s done and continues to do in Hollywood. The films he made in Holland were smaller-budgeted, character-driven, and more than a bit on the artsy side, and they usually starred Rutger Hauer. The movies he makes in America are done purely for entertainment and geared toward a mainstream audience, but this allows him to be totally subversive on a massive scale.

 

Verhoeven, like Hitchcock, is great at hiding the subtext of a movie in plain sight. The best examples of this are in his amazing Starship Troopers (more on that gem later). Another of the many traits Verhoeven shares with Hitchcock is an ability to find the emotional truth in a scene through technical means—where he places his camera, how he moves it, how he blocks a scene, et cetera. All of these seemingly purely technical concerns come together invisibly, produce the desired emotional tension, and leave you responding to just the scene itself emotionally, without thinking, “Wow, what a clever shot.” Verhoeven uses the technical side of things to better display the heart of the scene. Whether it’s meant to be exciting or scary or whatever, he never loses focus or gets too caught up in the technique, thus winding up with a sequence where all you see is whatever complicated camera moves the director’s making (no offense, Robert Zemeckis).

 

So now let’s get to what we came here for. The following are some of Verhoeven’s jams chosen to illustrate his consistent yet diverse body of work.

 

Turkish Delight

 

Released in 1973, this is Paul’s first feature and it sets the tone in a big way for what's to follow. Our pal from Holland, Roel, told us that Turkish Delight is the country’s Gone with the Wind, the most seen movie in Dutch history. This movie is so Dutch that it’s like a really cool travelogue. With people on bicycles, great shots of the landscapes and canals, and numerous scatological references, this one practically oozes Dutchness. The Dutch Hercules Rutger Hauer plays a young artist with a fierce passion for himself, as well as his lady. The happy Bohemians spend long naked hours together talking about all kinds of things while Rutger draws and paints. Sound boring? Well, it is in parts, but this one is really worth watching for a few reasons. This is one of the great cinematic time capsules of the early seventies: the clothes, the hairstyles, and the totally “free” vibe that was in effect in Holland at the time. Hauer is really good, as is most of the supporting cast, who engage each other in some really great conversations about all things artsy. We’re also introduced to Verhoeven’s apparent feces fixation (something he keeps coming back to in later films). Imagine one’s surprise when watching this for the first time in mixed company to see Hauer actually pull one of his girl’s logs out of the toilet! He then calmly tells her that she’s been eating too many beets. What a buncha kooks. While we don’t feel this is Verhoeven’s best, this is a great place to start and a watershed film in terms of its mature handling of sex and relationship issues.

 

Spetters

 

This nice little movie follows three dudes with only three things on their minds: girls, motorcycles, and disco dancing! You could file this flick under “coming of age and beyond.” We open with a big-ass discotheque sequence in which our three heroes vie for the title of “Dutch Travolta,” set to the ecstatic sounds of Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. The guys then take their dates to some construction site for some post-boogie boot knocking. But alas, they can’t “rise” to the occasion due to “too much booze” (yeah, good one). This opening bit of realism sets the stage for what’s to come. We’re treated to a nearly epic story of three teenagers who’ve been pals since grade school and have many things in common. Most of all, they’re all obsessed with motorcross racing and specifically with the sport’s main man, Gerritt Vitkamp (Rutger Hauer). As time passes we see all of the boys go through major changes—some funny, some sad, and some rather nasty (one of the guys is only able to come to terms with his latent homosexuality when he’s gang-raped by some rockers!). A sure sign of an entertaining story is when the lead character (or characters, in this case) changes so completely during the natural progression of things. There’s just too much going on in this movie to go into all of the story points and whatnot. This is a brutally honest portrayal of growing up and figuring out who you really are while dealing with life changes, pressures from parents, et cetera. We’d rate this pretty high in Verhoeven’s oeuvre and suggest you peep it. Fun fact: spetters in Dutch means “grease spots” and in Dutch slang means a “bunch of cute guys.” Brooje kaas!

 

Flesh+Blood

 

Paul “the Dutch Oven” Verhoeven first displays his flare for over the top, hyperbolic, flatulent fantasy with this pseudo-sword and sandal epic. Verhoeven stalwart Rutger Hauer portrays Kronk, a take-no-prisoners, small-ya-later styled mercenary. He leads a rag-tag bunch of toothless, malodorous thugs and whores. The group is always at the ready to take any job for the right price no matter the right and wrong. It’s all about the guilders. They want to get paid in the shade and have dirty plague sex with nearly everyone. Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up early on as some sort of bratty, dethroned royal who gets captured and violated by most of Hauer’s clique, including Hauer (it is the Middle Ages after all). Well, if you haven’t guessed it, this movie is pretty raw and twisted. For goodness sake, we haven’t even mentioned Lyle Alzado’s bizarre role as a poncy Frenchman complete with pancake makeup, powdered wig, and fake mole. C’est la Verhoeven! Only the “Dutch Oven” could get away with this stuff. Naturally J. J. Leigh falls in love with Hauer (after all a good murderer/rapist is hard to find, right?), he reciprocates, they kill a bunch of people, make much love, and we fade to black. This nutty picture supposedly took some eight years to complete. However, we’re sure that seven of those years were probably spent in pitch meetings with Verhoeven trying to sell his idea to potential financiers. Imagine it: “Yeah, I wanna make this epic period movie filled with rapes, twisted brutes, smelly hags, graphic violence, and of course consensual plague-sex. I need three million!” A hard sell, we’d bet. But at the end of the day this movie got made and has garnered some cult status and does have some memorable sequences to boot.

 

This was the last film Paulie was to make in Europe. He moved to California and went on to direct an episode of the short lived HBO series The Hitchhiker. He then made Robocop, which was a critical and financial success. He was then trusted to work with the then biggest box-office draw on the planet.

 

Total Recall

 

One of the biggest moneymakers of 1990, this is a great example of Verhoeven’s ability to make a great popcorn movie-going experience with no bullshit or apologies. Verhoeven shares the rare distinction, along with James Cameron and John Milius, as the only directors that made an “Arnold movie” while also managing to make their own movie at the same time. In classic Hollywood style, this film was originally supposed to be directed by David Cronenberg and was to be faithful to Philip K. Dick’s original story (“We Can Remember it for you Wholesale”). Alas, as interesting as Cronenberg’s version might have been, the cachet fell through and it wound up being, in Cronenberg’s words, “Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to Mars,” which is pretty accurate. This is also one of the most obscenely entertaining movies ever. Take a manic ride with Arnold and the fine supporting cast! The competent line reading of Sharon Stone, the bald intensity of Michael Ironside, and the southern menace of Ronny Cox! Rob Botin, special effects man without peer, outdid himself again and created the last and greatest effects-laden movies of the foam latex age. Three-breasted mutants and mad amounts of gore! The plot, which is explained to us with a wink in one of the early scenes, is a semi-Hitchcockesque maze with a few nice twists to complement the relentless action and violence. The real reason this is such a watchable and fun movie is the tight directing. Verhoeven knows what he’s doing and making and he wastes no time getting the party started. The bit when Arnold (being chased and shot at by the bad guys) grabs the man in front of him on an escalator and uses him as a human shield only to toss his bullet-riddled carcass aside to be trampled by his pursuers is so over the top that it becomes comical. Speaking of comedy, we also get some of the best “McBain”-style one-liners from Arnold since Running Man. This one hits the ground running in the true Verhoeven way, and it never lets up. So leave your brain at home and let’s go to Mars with Arnold, yo!

 

Basic Instinct

 

Okay, so everyone pretty much knows this one. Michael Douglass is a slutty cop investigating a murder or murders, or whatever, and his prime suspect is an umm, who knows, an astronaut or something played by Sharon Stone. The ads for this promised kinky sex and murder but what it delivers is basically vanilla ice cream with a few pubes stuck in it. The big selling point when this came out was Stone’s leg-crossing scene, which even in the director’s cut is really fucking tame. We defy anyone to tell us they see anything. Natasja Kinski went full monty in Paul Schrader’s Cat People way back in 1981 and no one seemed to notice. Ah, that’s why God invented publicists. One of us ended up watching this on cable at four in the morning, desperate for some self-gratification. After all this is supposed to be erotic and all. It ends up being more frustrating then spending an evening in your girlfriend’s finished basement when you’re 15 with her mom frequently popping down. No fun! Stone’s repugnant performance has no trace of honesty and ends up being an absolute mood killer. Good thing her career’s finished. Douglass in his attempts to romance the Stone (we have become our fathers) gets himself tangled in her web of deceit and uninteresting plot twists. This is Verhoeven’s first teaming with bearded menace Joe Ezsterhas, the screenwriter who also brought us Jade, Showgirls, and lots of other nonsense. What passes for perversion in Eszterhas’s mind is laughable. Oh, this woman likes to kiss another women and (gasp) tie up men! While watchable, this could have easily been a straight-to-cable movie with William Katt and Shannon Tweed (Stripped to Kill 3I or something)—not so horrible, but way overrated. Verhoeven did his job the best he could but the script holds this one back. One positive thing is the performance of Newman from Seinfeld as the sweaty interrogator.

 

Starship Troopers

 

What a great movie. It works on two totally different levels: as a huge, exciting, effects-driven, sci-fi/action masterpiece, and as one of the most amazing cinematic explanations and explorations of the media propaganda that leads to fascism. First, the important thing: you can watch this movie totally for entertainment and it’s awesome; great space battles, great fight scenes, amazing computer animation, and everything you could want from a movie like this. But if this movie wasn’t so good in this way the message that it carries wouldn’t mean anything. This is a mainstream movie seen by the general public in great numbers, and it shows very unpretentiously how fascism develops and thrives, which is why it is so subversive. Many critics didn’t get it when this was released in late 1997. “Nazi Beverly Hills 90210” was the general consensus among most reviewers, but they missed the boat on what’s really going on here. One of the criticisms was that the lead characters in the movie all hail from South America, but no one looks the least bit Latin. This futuristic world of one people (ein volk!), mostly blonde and TV-star-looking wearing brown shirts and SS-influenced uniforms, was viewed as a stylistic choice and roundly criticized by the mainstream critical establishment. But you know enough yapping. Just watch it and make up your own mind. Aside from that, on a pure enjoyment level, this flick is so good. The giant bugs (or “beggs” as the heavily accented Verhoeven calls them on the DVD’s commentary track) are all amazing. These are probably still some of the best computer-animated effects ever. This film is just a big plus right down the line and our personal fave of Verhoeven’s American-lensed pictures.

 

So that’s just a few of big Paul’s movies. They’re all worth watching for one reason or another (as is even Hollow Man, for its incredible effects). Enjoy!

Contributor

John Woods

Woods is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.

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