FilmJuice have just uploaded a piece I wrote for them about the films of Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop, Total Recall, Showgirls and Basic Instinct.
Regular readers of this site will know that I have a marked fondness for unpopular blockbuster directors like Neveldine/Taylor, Michael Bay and Zac Snyder. Part of what drives my fondness for these directors is their willingness to set aside human values in pursuit of absolute spectacle. All of these directors use violence and action to entertain their audiences but they also use sexuality and fascistic imagery in a way that many directors are reluctant to do. My view on these directors is that one cannot defend Big Dumb Blockbusters like Avengers or Spiderman whilst turning one’s nose up at films like Transformers 3. Summer blockbusters are in the business of pushing buttons and to have your buttons pushed is an inherently dehumanising process. The difference between directors like Bay and directors like Spielberg is that Bay is completely unapologetic about what it is that he does. He makes films for the sweaty masturbating homunculus in all of us:
When people talk about blockbuster action movies, their minds naturally gravitate to the works of sexless man-children such as Peter Jackson, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. The reason for this strange cognitive bias is that most people feel ashamed about watching big dumb action movies and so they need their violence to be not only bloodless but also presented in terms of absolute moral simplicity. Spielberg always cuts to the heroic working-class dad because cinema audiences need to know that their yearning for cinematic carnage does not make them a bad person. Similarly, George Lucas can neither shoot nor write a love scene because you can’t have people falling in love and then shooting each other in the face. That simply would not do.
My take on Paul Verhoeven is that he is a transitional figure in the history of blockbuster filmmaking as he spent the late 80s and early 90s building up mainstream audiences’ tolerance for sex. Without Verhoeven, people would never have gone to see Snyder’s Watchmen or Bay’s Transformers.
The tactics of the summer blockbuster remind me a lot of those of the slasher or revenge film. I recently had the opportunity to watch the original 1978 I Spit On Your Grave, and I was struck by how pure and reductive its intent was. Precisely one half of the movie is devoted to setup and a protracted gang rape meant to raise the audience’s anger and distress to near breaking point, and the other half diffuses this tension through the catharsis of revenge. Very little time is spent on deep characterization or plot or any sense of an external world beyond the immediate events of the film. It’s an interesting piece of minimalist filmmaking.
It’s odd to think of a film as reductive as I Spit On Your Grave and ones as overloaded as Transformers 3 or Total Recall as living in the same category, but really the primary distinction between them seems to be in the number of buttons pushed per minute. Blockbusters lead the way, but I’m sure there are segments of other genres that only exist to manipulate the emotions of the audience with little regard for higher-level thought. Romantic comedies, maybe?
Anyway, one of the characteristics that seems to distinguish Verhoeven’s work is a postmodern awareness of the ridiculousness of his premises. The Commandos and Rambos of the era were flamboyantly absurd, but for the most part they played it straight. I remember Robocop as being one of the first intentionally funny action films I saw. It took the winking self knowledge most action films kept as subtext and played it in the open as straight comedy. Starship Troopers manages to be both a stupid action adventure and, in my opinion, a great war satire. Showgirls becomes much more palatable if it’s viewed as a comedy and an homage to the cheesecake exploitation films of the 60’s.
Verhoeven tends to pack enough layers of self awareness into his work that they can simultaneously function as violent pornography and savvy genre in-joke, depending on how deep the viewer wants to go. He not only primed audiences for spectacles to come by pushing the boundaries of taste, he also helped initiate the second wave of postmodern, ironic action films of the late 80’s and 90’s. (John Carpenter also played a big role in this development.) I’m sure it’s not a coincidence the hyper-violent, sex-soaked postmodern movement in comics arose in exactly this same time period. They all seem to be part of a great pop culture aversion reaction toward the end of the jingoistic decadence of the Reagan/Thatcher era.
Snyder and Neveldine/Taylor are great directors. I’m not a huge Bay fan but there’s no disputing he’s talented. Verhoeven is all kinds of kick ass though.
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