Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ruminations on Paul Verhoeven and Black Book

Like many people my age my first steps into the world of director Paul Verhoeven was as a pre-teen in the form of RoboCop. My parents, especially my dad, were pretty liberal in what they allowed me to watch after I turned 9 or so. I got to see Beverly Hills Cop when I was 9 -- I think that was the first R rated movie I'd seen in the theater. But compared to RoboCop, which came out two years later, Beverly Hills Cop might as well be Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!. It might have simply been my dad pulling a fast one on my mom, she refused to let me see Aliens when that came out, but there I was 11 or 12 years old watching a guy who just snorted coke of a hooker's tits getting his knee caps blown off.

People often refer to Terminator as a touchstone for the violent action movies of the '80s, citing its ridiculous body count. Well, as many people who may have been shot in Terminator, the opening 15 minutes of RoboCop, with our protagonist getting everything short of defecated upon (Verhoeven makes up for that aplenty in Black Book) is more brutal than all three Terminators combined. Taking a cue from Blade Runner (I think 90% of the movie takes place at night), he created a bleak near future that's overrun with violence (or that may just have to do with it taking place in Detroit), and it's his unflinching camera that still feels a bit shocking even seeing it today. There's no quick jump editing, there's no soft lighting or diva actors, it's all nasty grime and body fluids and you feel just about anything violent can and might happen.

What separated Verhoeven and RoboCop at that time, besides the unflinching violence -- and it’s something he continued to use as a sharp tool, is his use of satire. He would work again with writer Ed Neumeier again with the subversive Starship Troopers which also used darkly funny commercials aimed towards children and absurd news footage to reinforce a view of a future filled with fascism and violence as entertainment. Pretty sly.

RoboCop was followed by Total Recall. In the pantheon of Schwarzenegger movies, it’s pretty good. At the time of its release it was definitely one of those movies where the special effects were enjoyably impressive and the violence and gore was still surprising. All the kids loved the scene with Arnold yanking that tracking beacon out of his nose, using that dead guy as a human shield and pounding the shit out of Sharon Stone. And as far as Philip K. Dick translations go – well, it could’ve been a lot worse. It wasn’t as gritty or bleak as RoboCop, but there was still a certain amount of intelligence and winking cynicism going on behind the big budget sheen.

And that takes us to the one-two punch of Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas seem like a natural, winning combination. Both are talented, idiosyncratic Hollywood outsiders who like to subvert the art form and have a healthy predilection for sex and violence. At first their goals seemed simple – a mind twisting neo-noir serial killer movie with a whole lotta sex. Worked like gangbusters and made everyone involved superstars.

Basic Instinct works on many levels – there's the actual mystery that lies at its center and it was 1992 so the t & a and sex stuff was actually something that every teenager didn’t have at the click of a mouse -- not to mention that sex was a good portion of what the movie was about. Basically, it succeeded at delivering cheap thrills while at the same time being an impeccably shot, suspenseful, first rate thriller. It was like a perfect storm of conditions coming together to form a pop culture superfecta. The stars aligned and it spawned years of direct to video and Cinemax soft core fodder.

What made Basic Instinct worked goes right to the point of what made Showgirls a relative failure. The central story to Showgirls couldn’t be any less interesting. Well, I suppose it could, but then I doubt it would qualify as a “movie”. But anyone who bought the wonderfully sleazy Showgirls box-set will tell you that the movie didn’t fail completely. Quentin Tarantino said something to the effect that once Elizabeth Berkley pulls the knife out you realize Verhoeven has made the most gloriously expensive exploitation movie ever. It's trashy, poorly acted nonsense but it's disturbingly watchable and entertaining on the basest of levels.

When one movie suddenly makes you the most powerful writer/director team in Hollywood, you know your next one will probably end that reign just as quickly. No one stays on top for more than a couple years in Hollywood – the happy endings are reserved for the movies. So three years after Basic Instinct, Showgirls really looks like Verhoeven and Eszterhas taking any goodwill they might have garnered and throwing it back in Hollywood’s face while having a nice long laugh. They were never going to make that prestige picture or that demographic friendly PG-13 blockbuster. Instead they were going to spend millions of dollars showing off just how much they could get away with. Say what you will about the finished product but it’s nothing if not exactly the movie Verhoeven set out to make. It's one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made. The only shame is that Verhoeven may never be able to shake off the notoriety that came with the release of this movie.

Paul Verhoeven had been making movies for close to 30 years before he made Showgirls. His 1980 Dutch movie Spetters was his last movie made in the Netherlands (before his return with Black Book) and it cemented his reputation as a generation's spokesperson for sexual liberation and as the guy who made Rutger Hauer an icon and sex symbol. After Showgirls he was now the butt of a joke. He returned to sci-fi with Starship Troopers and while it was largely a successful movie I think it marked the beginning of the end for Verhoeven and Hollywood. That end took the form of Hollow Man. To be fair, I've only seen bits and pieces of Hollow Man (the same goes for his first Hollywood picture Flesh + Blood) but it recently got a "directors cut" so maybe I'll take a look at it one of these days, but the general response what either a luagh or a shrug. It seemed someone had finally stepped in the way of Verhoeven, the end result leaving a lot of fans feeling like this was diluted, neutered Verhoeven.

It was the last we'd see of the man until just this past year. He'd returned to his Dutch roots and came up with a historical, "based-on-true-events" WWII picture called Black Book filled with sexy espionage and plot twists. The general response from critics were positive and seemed to trumpet a bold return to cinema from one of their favorite wild cards. But for some reason I can't generate much more than a mild "ok". Part of me chalks this up to recently seeing Army of Shadows another movie that deals with resistance fighters and daring escapes from the clutches of the Gestapo. I know it's wrong to compare a Verhoeven movie to a Melville movie but adding a strong female center, some healthy doses of nudity and a few gallons of fecal matter to the dutch version of the same story doesn't add up to much.

It's not that it isn't an interesting story (or even the same, really) -- in Black Book we have a Jewish woman in hiding, Rachel, played by Carice van Houten who gives a wonderful performance. In an effort to get herself and her family to safety she ends up witnessing the Gestapo gun down her family and a boat load of other refugees. Through some of her family's connections she ends up with an opportunity to help the resistance and get revenge on the people who killed her family. This leads to her actually infiltrating the Gestapo headquarters and falling for the man in charge. This of course leads to some problems.

The tone is very melodramatic, which could work, the movie is shot beautifully in a way that reminds you of the romantic war movies of the past (just look at the poster), but often times it's overbearing and weighs down the movie. The same can be said for the number of plot twists. In a movie like Basic Instinct, it's fine, it's fun, throw them at me. The mystery part of Black Book only starts to gain momentum in the final third of the movie (and it's not a short movie at about 2 1/2 hours) and by this time I'm ready for the thing to wrap up and instead it's throwing these red herrings at me and I couldn't really care. Part of the problem is that you're waiting for over an hour for people to figure out something that is obvious to the viewer in the first 30 minutes, while the other part is the absurd heights of preposterousness that it goes to. By the end of the movie I'm really wondering if by "based on a true story" means that yes, there was a war, and yes, there was a Dutch underground resistance.

Maybe it's because I'm not used to Verhoeven taking himself this seriously or shedding his satirical edge, maybe it's because I don't know his earlier Dutch film work, but for all the beautiful shots and performances I couldn't get past the cliches and soapiness of the movie. I don't want to be the guy who says I don't like it when a director goes out to do something outside his norm, and that's not really the case here, I think this is perfect material for Verhoeven to excel in and I'm sure it was a personal film for him, but it all falls flat for me.

A Verhoeven picture should not be dull. I believe that is the main point of this dissertation. And until Black Book, that was the rule. For all the naked van Houten, twisteroos, head wounds and cauldrons of poo, the end result is a while lot of nothing new. Verhoeven always excels in new -- producing something you've never seen before -- something that sets trends. While he's supposedly lining up a remake of Topkapi (that will be under the guise of a sequel to the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, natch), I'm not exactly thrilled, but I'm in full belief that it will be a return to the fun/inventive Verhoeven. Lord knows the guy can pull off a hot-damn heist picture.

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