Friday, March 18, 2011

Paul Verhoeven: The Most Intellectual Man in Hollywood

          "Life is a comedy for those who think... and a tragedy for those who feel."
-Horace Walpole

          Going by that Walpole quote, Paul Verhoeven may very well be the greatest thinker in Hollywood. Not because he's shown particularly intellectual ideas, or because he's made any kind of amazing progress in terms of film language or style, but because he never, ever falls into the "no, really, I'm important" category with his work. 
           In fact, I'd even go as far as to say that he has never dedicated anything self-important to celluloid in his entire career. On purpose. And I'm going to prove it. 

    "No, Really, I'm Important": The Category
              You remember the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Or the first Matrix movie? What happened to those sequels that made them so (arguably) unwatchable? 
             Well, other than everything. 

            The first films had a humor to them. A charm. The plot of Pirates relished in its absurdity, and it didn't try to overly explain any of its points in order to validate its silliness. Of course, the pirates turn into bone in the moonlight, that's what is happening. The fight scenes were wacky, Johnny Depp served his purpose, the story went on. 
           The Matrix was inventive and fresh, yes, but it was also really, really watchable, never taking itself too seriously. There were intentionally, hilariously blunt references in the dialogue: "You'd better buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye" and "Let's see how far the rabbit hole we can go." The film is one long ode to fantasy, science-fiction, and graphic novel references. And people seem to forget just how much humor is in that movie.

          And then there are those sequels. 

         Runtimes balloon well over two hours. Edging to three. Going from average musical scores that indicate charm and escapism to choirs and sonic booming drama. The plots get incoherent and self-important. The budgets explode. The trailers turn into seizure inducing displays of every possible effects shot and plot point. Basically, the movies crank up the drama and lose the funny, light tones that got them famous in the first place.

       Case in point: The Star Wars prequels.

       Financially, it makes perfect sense. You want to make your product as self-important as possible. I mean, it did cost over $200 Million. And it does need to make twice that to really see a profit (even though it makes no sense). Lowest common denominator wins. We want the epic choirs, the epic visuals, blah epic blah. It all needs to be multi-medium. We need the books, the video games, the soundtracks, the graphic novels, the television spin-offs.

       Oh yeah, and a movie that resembles very little of what I loved.

And what does this have to do with Paul Verhoeven? Everything. 

          Once upon a time there was a land called the 1980's / 1990's. This is a land sometimes referred to as "back when Paul Verhoeven was rich."
         In this land, before The Phantom Menace killed us with its choirs and (see above), we had films like Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Robocop, and Hollow Man. I bet you're thinking to yourself, "wait...all of those movies have sequels."
       Why yes, yes they do. But Paul Verhoeven has never directed a sequel. Ever. I can't say the same for those previously mentioned trilogies...(I realize that Pirates 4 is directed by musical man; not part of the trilogy). 
       This man gets in there, does his job, and goes home. He tells the story he was meaning to tell, with that charming escapism we all love, wraps it up, and moves on. Brilliant. Perfect. Finally a guy who knows when to stop. But that's just a little nugget of his intellectuality. We're talking about his quality, here, too.

Yeah, I'm bringing Freud into a Verhoeven fight
The Uncanny

       Freud wrote an essay on the uncanny in 1919, stating that it is a place that is familiar, yet strange; homely, yet repulsive; a paradox. Like a comedy that includes the deaths of every person in South America and a scathing critique of modern news (Starship Troopers), or a horror-comedy about the absence of privacy in the digital age (Hollow Man), or, of course, a meta-narrative about the absurdity of the MPAA (Showgirls).
      Maybe I'm giving the guy too much credit. But probablly not.
      What other director would make huge, tentpole budget films that are essentially jokes about huge, tentpole budgeted films?
      I mean, look at Robocop. Watch this scene and tell me how I'm supposed to feel. Is it funny? Kind of. Is it horrifying? Kind of. Is it uncanny?
      You get the point.
      All of Verhoeven's films have scenes like this. Horrible murders that act as punchlines. But a punchline to what? What is the send up? Is the send up the very movie that you are watching? Is there a larger joke at play? The editing of Starship Troopers is just flat out wacky; the whole thing feels like one long commercial. The racial commentary of Total Recall is mixed with fun one-liners. The progressive sexual politics of Basic Instinct are muddied by everything Sharon Stone does in that movie. What is going on?
      He must be doing that "hold a mirror up to society" thing that artists like to do. But he also doing that bending the truth to fit your agenda thing. And we are left with some films that a lot of critics really hate and a lot of fanboys really love. The fanboys love the action, the "screw you! Bennies" of the world, and the critics hate those things. The paradox doesn't satisfy both parties, unfortunately. Not at first.
     Now, after twenty years, Verhoeven has finally found the respect that he was looking for in his heyday. It seems like it took him making a straightforward agenda-throwin' film to get critics to look at him as anything but a dude that likes group shower scenes (11 in his career. I counted) and buckets of blood.

The Guilty Pleasure
      If you look at any of his films today, it's hard not to see Verhoeven playing with conventions and throwing complicated signals at the viewer, but back in the day, we didn't have self-important sequels sucking the life out of our brains. We had lots of films that played for the escapist crowd. What us snobs call Guilty Pleasures. They're fun, Captain Ron types of movies. Movies that do everything they can to give you a good time. We complained that they existed, and now we complain that they're disappearing.
Now we're stuck with people like me sitting around and whining on the internet about the things they're nostalgic about never returning to the silver screen. We grew up with these guilty pleasures. Now that we're older, we are finding all these lovely little messages. Maybe it's a rationalization for loving those films.
     And trust me, most 20-25 year olds grew up sneaking Paul Verhoeven films to their rooms to catch the blood, one-liners, and shower scenes that made our parents so angry and those movies so good. And we love those movies to this day for the same reasons. However, in the process, we've gotten a nice little agenda from a director who took an unusual liking to the uncanny.

I guess.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Grown Ups: Scarier than Forrest Gump? (Or: How I got everyone to tell me to lighten up)

Their shirts are all the same. Just like their cinematic output. 
          A few months ago I addressed some deep concerns I have with Forrest Gump. Namely, the film's horrifying implications and its supernatural ability to attract most demographics proved too much for me. Some people agreed, other people called it drivel, and others still just got confused. While I particularly like several elements of Forrest Gump, some of the acting and the photography, I found its gooey center to be somewhat disturbing. I've been asked many, many times to revisit that article and explore the film in a more precise way. 

          Tuff Mustard, we're moving on. 
          Because today we're going to be talking about Grown Ups. I must say, this is a movie I don't really respect any part of. The scenes just luxuriate in their self-indulgence. It is clearly a movie that was made because these actors felt like hanging out with each other, going to water parks, and having fun. And sometimes they forget to entertain their audience in the process. That being said, there are a couple of jokes that work fine and the movie isn't really trying to be something important or special. It's not really doing anything offensive. 

          Or is it?

          While Forrest Gump seems to indicate that the audience is better off not studying or trying to be special in any way, Grown Ups seems to be reflecting ideas and opinions that run rampant through a majority of the comedies, commercials, and television sitcoms of today. What's interesting about Grown Ups is the way in which it embraces many, many of these problematic social ideas and displays them not only as normal, but as light comedy. 

Look at that smug little grin.

          They're a couple?
          Case in point: look up a picture of Kevin James and then look up a picture of Maria Bello. Do you think this marriage would happen? Lets just say that it does. They love each other. Do you not think that their dietary regimens would be the same? What about exercise? Do you believe that this woman would allow the person she loves to be that unhealthy when she is clearly as healthy as she is? 
          I guess you could say that it might be an unhappy marriage, or a marriage made for money, but the film goes out of its way to show us how truly in love this couple is. 
         The point I am making is that men are allowed to be overweight if they're funny, but women have to look like Maria Bello. 
         Adam Sandler's wife is played by Salma Hayek. 
         Chris Rock's wife is Maya Rudolph, who was pregnant at the time of filming (marking the third time I've seen her play a pregnant woman in a movie while being pregnant in real life), and seems to be the only suitable match in the film. 
         Not only does this movie perpetuate the idea that women have to be rail thin and beautiful while men can be fat, but it also perpetuates the idea that men never grow into adults. The men in this movie all act no older than twelve years old with their fart jokes, penis jokes, total disregard for responsibility, and inability to cope seriously with traumatic events. We are treated to a scene where all the male protagonists pee in a kiddie pool. Right before Steve Buscemi is nearly killed; only for the men to react with laughter. The wives, on the other hand, all act as if men are the great burden of the world. They mother everybody in the film and are the sole sources of adult and responsible behavior in the film. 
          In other words, the men only act foolish and the women only act responsible and irritated. Why can't male and female characters just act like normal people in these comedies? Do the filmmakers really believe that the genders have these sole traits or do moviegoers just accept these untrue projections? Either way, it's scary how much this movie embraces these ideas. 

Pain and Caricature
          In the world of Grown Ups, it's funny when a man ends up in a body cast. It's also funny when a man falls thirty feet from a rope swing, nearly killing a bird and probably breaking every one of his ribs. It's also supposed to be cute when a little girl gets in a car and wrecks it. In the first five minutes of the movie. With no context other than there is a little girl driving a car around. This poor parenting is never addressed. 
          Slapstick can be funny at times, don't get me wrong. Chaplin is the obvious favorite as well as the Stooges, and when done right it can be pretty hilarious. But when you've got a movie that is supposedly set in the real world, while simultaneously showing us horrible depictions of freak accidents, we get confused. Pain is funny? No, and that concept is downright scary. 
          As far as caricature goes, I won't go into too much detail, but lets just say that the character of Mama Ronzoni played by Ebony Jo-Ann is an extremely racist depiction of an old African-American woman. Between her constant abuse of her son-in-law, her accent in relation to the accents of her family members, her horribly taken care of feet, her farting, and her admittedly male (in the world of Grown Ups) characteristics, it's safe to say that this movie is throwing everything it's got at this particular image. And the image is never once flattering. 
          Such blatant racism in a movie so recently made, especially used in a comedic way, is extremely disturbing. 

Chris Rock laughing at the size of Rob Schneider's career.
          This film is not raising up a mirror to help us work through our problems. It represents our problems. We are seeing a film that is trying desperately to be funny and escapist and light, but what we are really getting is a view of the world that just should not exist in a modern setting. In a way, this movie is a relic. A relic of all of those things feminists and activists have tried to get rid of for years. And the public is buying it wholesale. 
           If the message of Grown Ups is not scary to you, then you are not me.