Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is seen by some as the epitome of how Hollywood destroys true artists. After having made four of the most successful films in Dutch history, Verhoeven was lured to Tinseltown mid-career, and he has never made another film as personal or penetrating as his 1983 masterpiece, The Fourth Man. Second only to James Cameron as King of the big-budget action pic in the 1980s and 1990s, Verhoeven produced a string of box office hits (and critical flops) from Robocop (1987) to Starship Troopers (1997), with time out to make one of the true clunkers of the ’90s, Showgirls (1995). But there is a continuity between his European and Hollywood careers, traceable to his profound feel for Hollywood action genres.
Born in Amsterdam right before World War II, Paul Verhoeven’s childhood was indelibly impacted by the Nazi invasion and occupation of his homeland. His fascination with gore stems from that period, his parents reporting that he would go out to the shot down planes and stare into the faces of the dead pilots. While earning his PhD in mathematics and physics at the University of Leiden in the early 1960s, he made a couple of short films for his own amusement. In fulfilling his military obligation upon graduation, he was assigned to the Marine Film Service of the Royal Dutch Navy. The Marine Corps (1965), a 23-minute documentary he assembled in celebration of the tercentenary of the Dutch Marines, was honored with the Silver Sun, an award for military films, from the government of France.
Verhoeven returned to civilian life dedicated to directing, and his first feature film, Business is Business (1971), was a sexy and comic memoir of a streetwalker and a big hit in the Netherlands. The appeal of his next two features, Turkish Delight (1973) and Katie Tippel (1975), remained confined to European audiences. But his episodic story of the Dutch resistance, Soldier of Orange (1978), made a big splash internationally. Following up that big-budget historical epic with a gritty dirt bike flick called Spetters (1980), Verhoeven was building a stock company of sorts, prominently featuring Jeroen Krabbe, Rutger Hauer (whom he took great pride in discovering) and Renee Soutendijk.
The Fourth Man was his breakthrough in the U.S., and is one of my favorite films, a mixture of film noir fatalism and supernatural forebodings that may or may not be figments of the alcoholic protagonist’s imagination. Jeroen Krabbe has the role of a lifetime as Gerard, a bisexual writer who is drawn into the web of a thrice-widowed femme fatale named Christine (a red-hot Soutendijk). Gerard travels to a beachfront community to give a talk to the local literary society, which Christine directs. He spends the night with her, and she offers to be his patron. Discovering that Christine is also involved with an attractive young man named Herman (Thom Hoffman), Gerard remains with her to get to him. Plagued by vivid dreams that depict three slaughtered carcasses being drained of blood, with a place reserved for him as the potential fourth victim, Gerard uncovers troubling details about Christine’s first three husbands, who all died under mysterious circumstances. Then Herman arrives from Germany and the triangle is complete (but not for long).
Critics who think that it was Hollywood that spelled the end of Verhoeven’s creative career need only look at Soldier of Orange, a fairly conventional historical tale, and Spetters, a testosterone laced thrill fest, to realize that the now-arthouse classic Fourth Man was the anomaly, and that he always was an action director at heart. Spetters, a low budget contemporary slice-of-dirt-track-life, brings a ragged sense of excitement to its subject matter, and Verhoeven’s long collaboration with director of photography Jan DeBont (who later went on to direct Speed ) came to fruition here. Rutger Hauer was superb as the dirt bike champion everyone wanted to emulate (or sleep with), while Renee Souterdijk once again radiated sexual energy as a hash slinger with ambitions for better things.
Verhoeven could have continued on as the most successful director in the history of the Netherlands, but he longed for Hollywood success, and made the move as soon as he could. Hence, his next film was a Dutch-U.S. co-production, a gruesome tale of the Middle Ages called Flesh + Blood (1985). Reuniting with Rutger Hauer (who had made Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982] in the interim) failed to rekindle the box office magic of their earlier collaborations on the Continent, and Verhoeven’s future in Hollywood was very much in doubt.
Totally re-inventing himself, he hit the jackpot with Robocop. Having always loved sci-fi as a kid, Verhoeven relished the chance to envision a dystopic future Detroit where the legal order has broken down so thoroughly that the cops needed robotic assistance. Robocop is one of the most fun (and graphic) superhero movies ever made, extrapolating present trends into the near future and commenting on our media-driven culture in the process. It also helped make a star out of Peter Weller, whose deadpan personality fit his mechanical role to a “T”.
Capitalizing on this success, Verhoeven cannily continued in the same pop sci-fi vein with Total Recall (1990). More philosophical than its predecessor, Recall kept the action level high (it is, after all, an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick) while introducing a brain-teaser out of the Philip K. Dick short story that was its source. If we are essentially our memories, then who do we become if they can be erased, and replaced with a whole new set? Sharon Stone plays Arnold’s kickboxing wife (or is she just an Agency plant?), and Ronny Cox reprises his Robocop role as the big bad guy pulling all the strings.
Both of these blockbusters featured state-of-the-art special effects, as befits big budget science-fiction. But compared to the Star Wars films that preceded them (and the heavy Joseph Campbell readings of the trilogy as embodying primal myths), Robocop and Total Recall were breaths of pop-sensibility fresh air, frenetic rather than wooden, with the latter offering as much to chew on as a good Twilight Zone episode. Both had a comic book quality that many other films have reached for since, and few have realized as effectively.
Basic Instinct (1992) was Verhoeven’s homage to Alfred Hitchcock, right down to the lush orchestral score and thriller scenario. But Verhoeven’s work could be far more sexually explicit than Hitchcock’s ever was; Instinct probably couldn’t be made in today’s embattled Hollywood. While Sharon Stone provided the audience with the most notorious crotch shot in cinematic history, it was the sado-masochistic scene between Michael Douglas’ detective and his psychotherapist/lover Jeanne Tripplehorn that really lit up the screen. Both Stone and Douglas were at the top of their games and relishing their genre-defined roles.
Roger Ebert groused about the last scene, which showed the ice pick under Stone’s bed and tipped us off that she was, indeed, the murderess. His complaint was that the movie made it impossible to tell up to that point whether she did it or not. She could just as easily have been innocent of the murders in question. But that is precisely why the scene is so exhilarating. We need to know whether she did it or not, and our worst suspicions are confirmed. We also leave with the distinct impression that the detective probably knows this as well, and is along for the thrill ride anyway.
Basic Instinct holds up a decade after its initial release, and long after the furor it created in both the conservative and the gay/lesbian communities died down. The initial sex scene between Douglas and Stone is as explicit as anything ever filmed in mainstream Hollywood, yet it is crucial to their relationship, and as far away from pornography as one can possibly imagine. Stone joins a long line of powerful femmes fatale in the history of cinema, and Basic Instinct is one of the few classics in the neo-noir revival (Body Heat [Lawrence Kasdan, 1981] is the only other one that comes to mind).
I remember going to the old Lido show at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas with my Dad in the late ’70s. The show had an air of unreality about it, and was surprisingly unerotic for an extravaganza that featured two dozen women over six feet tall with their breasts hanging out for all to see. It is perhaps because Showgirls so perfectly captures the Vegas milieu that it was such a bomb. Its tepid Dionysianism was unarousing (save for a brief Elizabeth Berkeley dance on birthday boy Kyle MacLachlan’s lap), and its borrowings from All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) were only to the detriment of the imitator. After three smash hits in a row, a Paul Verhoeven movie lost a great deal of money, due in no small part to writer Joe Eszterhas’ inflated fee, and the extravagant production numbers that featured Berkeley and the luscious Gina Gershon.
Undaunted, Verhoeven took on his most ambitious project yet, a sprawling version of Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi classic Starship Troopers. He fashioned a space western with a punch, complete with our heroes being surrounded in an abandoned fort (albeit this time by monstrous insects), and the cavalry coming to the rescue in the nick of time (in a shuttle craft). Satirizing the gung-ho recruitment films he used to make for the Dutch Royal Navy, Verhoeven sketched out a Spartan society where men and women fight and die side by side (it kind of reminded me of Plato’s Republic). Only service in the military earns one citizenship in this society, and with it the right to vote and hold office (as well as a greater likelihood of being permitted to have children). Starship Troopers is a sweet roller coaster ride of a movie, with hokey acting, wondrous special effects (the first invasion scene is breathtaking on the big screen), and a real sense of humor. You haven’t lived until you see television’s Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris) do a mind meld with the brain bug in the climactic scene. I hadn’t had that much of this type of fun since I used to watch the old Flash Gordon episodes on Sunday mornings before going to Mass.
Risking being stereotyped as a sci-fi director, Verhoeven’s next (and most recent) film was a variation on the old Invisible Man theme. Hollow Man (2000) is a run-of-the-mill mad scientist movie with Kevin Bacon as the egotistical researcher who experiments on himself and gets more crazed the longer he fails to make himself visible again. Maybe it was the casting (neither Bacon nor Elisabeth Shue are favorites of mine), but Hollow Man comes up as empty as its name, although it did reasonably well at the box office. Enlivened only by Verhoeven’s usual masterful touch with special effects, Hollow Man crucially lacked a protagonist as sympathetic as Claude Rains was in the original Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933).
A case can be made for Verhoeven’s career being in decline of late that has nothing to do with his choice to come to America. Two comparative failures out of his last three efforts (the only films he has made in the last ten years) bespeak a damming up of the creative juices. His oeuvre is rich and varied, evidencing a remarkable ability to work effectively within genre conventions. From arthouse comedy to European existentialism, dystopic sci-fi to neo-noir and Las Vegas glitz, his best films demonstrate a feel for the pulpy pulse of pop culture, while not being averse to giving us a little to think about in the process. Still, Ingmar Bergman he ain’t.
Yet, as the recent release of Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002) makes clear, making sci-fi films that are both fun and thought-provoking is no small accomplishment. Lucas could learn a thing or two from Paul Verhoeven (and from fellow European Luc Besson and his candy colored lollipop, The Fifth Element , from which Lucas stole the sequence where Anakin jumps out of the speeder after the alien assassin). Philip K. Dick is (posthumously) one of the hottest writers in Hollywood at the moment, what with the success of Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) and all, and I can only hope there is another of Dick’s stories around for Verhoeven to direct and put himself back on top of the heap.
The Marine Corps (Het Korps Mariniers) (1965)
Business is Business (Wat Zien Ik) (1971)
Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit) (1973)
Katie Tippel (Keetje Tippel) (1975) also known as Cathy Tippel or Katie’s Passion
Soldier of Orange (Soldaat Van Oranje) (1978)
The Fourth Man (De Vierde Man) (1983)
Flesh + Blood (1985)
Total Recall (1990)
Basic Instinct (1992)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Hollow Man (2000)
Nathan Abrams, “ ‘Are You Still You?’: Memory, Identity and Self-Positioning in Total Recall”, Film and Philosophy, Volume 7, 2003
Roger Ebert, review of Basic Instinct, included in the Microsoft CD-Rom Cinemania ’97
Mary M. Litch, “Skepticism and Total Recall” in Philosophy Through Film, London and New York, Routledge, 2002
James Monaco, “Robocop” entry in The Movie Guide, New York, Perigee Books, 1992
Joanna Schmerz, “On Reading the Politics of Total Recall”, Postscript, 12, Summer 1993
Chris Shea and Wade Jennings, “Paul Verhoeven: An Interview”, Postscript, 12, Summer 1993
J. P. Telotte, “What You Can’t See Can Hurt You: Of Invisible and Hollow Men” in Steven J. Schneider and Daniel Shaw (eds.), Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Horror Films, Lanham MD, Scarecrow Press, 2003
J. P. Telotte, “Verhoeven, Virilio and ‘Cinematic Derealization’”, Film Quarterly, 53, Number 2, (2000)
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Too Much Bacon: what’s visible in Hollow Man by Michael Cohen
Compiled by Albert Fung
Paul Verhoeven .net
A fan site “all about a unique director”.
The Paul Verhoeven Fan Page
Another site dedicated to Verhoeven.
A piece on Verhoeven.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to several online articles on Verhoeven and his films.
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