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.


  1. Very reflective- I love what you said- 'Maybe it's just a rationalization for loving those films.'
    I seriously laughed out loud while reading this-- I love when you give links to Youtube clips of movies. When your reading the blog its easy to just skip over them if you don't want to see it- so in my opinion I don't think you could over use them...
    thanks for your thoughts

  2. good job... even though PotC was a good darn movie