The Films of Paul Verhoeven

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 Virgin Spring (1960) – Trembling Before God

Horror giant Wes Craven reportedly claimed that the violence of his debut feature The Last House On The Left (1969) is a reaction by his generation to the horrors of the Vietnam war.  While this justification seems a trifle pretentious and self-serving, it does raise the issue of why it is that depictions of violence in film need to be justified at all.

Why is it that Richard Curtis never feels compelled to speak about how the goings on in Darfur dictate that he must produce sentimental comedies involving smug upper class people?  Is the production of a third Ice Age film a direct reaction to the death of Baby P?  Were it not for the death of Princess Margaret, would Woody Allen ever have made Vicky Christina Barcelona?

A lot of the time, the way in which we justify things is only as interesting as the fact that we feel obliged to justify them at all.  This is the issue that Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) seeks to address.

Continue reading →