PRINT Summer 2000


One day in college I went to the local art house to see Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man (1983). The director was unknown to me, but the promise of gaudy violence and AC/DC sex scenes no doubt lured me in. Verhoeven, as I later learned, was at that time probably the Netherlands’ most renowned filmmaker, having directed such critically acclaimed features as Turkish Delight (1973), which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Soldier of Orange (1977), and Spetters (1980). I had no idea that The Fourth Man, a less than completely successful film, would prove the “bridge” between Verhoeven’s European art-house past and the string of controversial Hollywood blockbusters that lay in his future, beginning with RoboCop in 1987. There’s something weirdly disjunctive about the elegant if gory killings in Verhoeven’s last Dutch film and the out-of-control body counts amassed in subsequent Hollywood productions, especially the assassination-a-go-go of Total Recall (1990) and the giddy celebration of sex-hungry lesbian serial killers that is Basic Instinct (1992). People complained about the unrelenting violence and about the socially unredeeming (albeit extremely glamorous) portrayals of ice pick–wielding dykes. The movies were smash hits.

Subsequent Verhoeven films such as Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997) fared less well at the box office and were typically savaged in the popular press. Being misunderstood is the common fate of strange and original art, but the stubborn obtuseness of most mainstream critics in response to Verhoeven has been risible. No point is served by arguing with the popular press over its presupposed dumbness, but Brian D’Amato and I did fervently believe that our enthusiasm for Verhoeven’s movies was a legitimate art—and Hollywood—passion. He’s our favorite mass-market auteur, a real genius. Naming Starship Troopers one of the top ten artistic achievements in Artforum’s 1998 year-end roundup, I asseverated that Verhoeven had created a new kind of cinema. The extravagance of my claim has been more than borne out in one important taste demographic: art schools, where I frequently screen Verhoeven films with the same earnest seriousness I would accord Straub-Huillet. Was not the ideological import of Cahiers du Cinéma to rehabilitate trash Hollywood noir as the highest art? Maybe our excitement over Verhoeven is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.

Part of the thrill of Verhoeven’s American films derives from the narrative ambiguities and off-register tone common to all his work—a link, however unexpected, to the European art cinema of the ’70s and to his youth. His upcoming feature, The Hollow Man (English majors will recall the similarly titled T.S. Eliot poem), which opens nationally on August 4, stars Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue in a horror drama about the highs and lows of discovering a formula for human invisibility. Maybe the ultimate in voyeuristic stalking fantasies isn’t the dream we imagine. It is our hope that The Hollow Man may yet portend a general reappraisal of the Verhoeven oeuvre. For perverse fun alone, he deserves a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.


BRIAN D’AMATO: We wanted to ask you about some problems in your films—


BD: Well, issues—

DAVID RIMANELLI: Problems for some people.

BD: We’ve been rereading the reviews of Starship Troopers [1997], and it doesn’t seem as if many of the critics realized there was any irony in the film.

PV: I don’t think they got that, no. The movie has a lot of irony or whatever you want to call it. It’s saying, “This is wonderful! You have to fight! And don’t forget—you’re going to die, too!”

BD: We also read an interview with the film’s leading lady—Denise Richards—and she didn’t seem to get it either.

PV: No.

DR: Maybe that worked for the benefit of the concept.

PV: Well, that is a pretty good summation of the characters, isn’t it? (Laughs.) Because they don’t seem to understand very well what they’re doing. You know that line where Michael Ironside [Lieutenant Rasczak] says, “Want to live forever?” I think that’s from Frederick the Great—

BD: The inventor of modern warfare.

PV: Right. That was one of his most famous lines: “Come on, guys! You want to live forever? Let’s fight!” And of course throughout the film there are these nearly verbatim visual quotes from Triumph of the Will. I don’t know if you ever read the article that was in the Washington Post, two weeks after the release, accusing me of being a neo-Nazi—

BD: (fumbling in notebook) Yeah, here it is. It’s by Stephen Hunter: (reading) “It’s spiritually Nazi, psychologically Nazi. It comes directly out of the Nazi imagination, and is set in the Nazi universe. . . . Unlike films from a civilized society that see war as a debilitating, tragic necessity . . . this movie sees it as a profoundly moving experience.”

PV: That article was picked up by all the European newspapers: They were all saying, “Beware! This movie’s coming to your country!” (Laughs.) And the more fascist the nation had been, the less they were willing to see it as a description of their country. I had terrible interviews where they just said, “You’re a Nazi.” And I’d say, “No, no, I’m talking about some fascist mentality in the film.” And then they’d say, “Well, isn’t that something you admire?” They were set in their belief that the film was promoting fascism. Now, of course it plays with that, because it shows how these kids accept that and glory in it, in all these clichés—which have been used by propagandists not just in Germany but in the United States as well. But the movie isn’t saying, “Okay, now, our message is that the US is a fascist, imperialist country.” I try and avoid being someone with a big message. I always feel that comes at the cost of the movie. I think a movie is its own thing.

DR: I watched Starship Troopers over and over, and if it were simply an allegory of fascism I don’t think I would have gotten so interested in it.

PV: No, it touches on these things without becoming them. It’s more just about me than anything else, I think. All these things are living inside me—my interest or fascination with authoritarian systems, but also my knowledge that if I had lived in Germany in the ’30s, I would never have been able to stand in the crowd and raise my hand in that salute. But I’m certainly able to understand how crowd emotions feel.

DR: The excitement of the bestial, insectoid masses?

PV: Well, in Starship Troopers the animals aren’t organized much differently from the people who fight them, are they? But I don’t think you can say it’s this or that. Ultimately a movie is expression, or at least this one became expression because I was involved with it for so long—much longer than any of the other movies I’ve done in the US. Most of the others came my way with a nearly final script. Although I think I did add layers to RoboCop [1987] and the others, but somehow they were vaguely there anyhow. We developed Starship Troopers practically from scratch, over three or four years. In that sense it became more like Soldier of Orange [1977], although that certainly was not an ironic film. It’s more of a humanitarian movie; more about acceptance and about how everybody’s a hero—or nobody’s a hero. You know how at the end of that film two people stand next to each other and toast the future, and one is the hero and the other is the guy who didn’t do anything during the war? He just sat over his books and studied the whole time. But they are equalized in the last shot, meaning, “I’m not going to pass final judgment on them. The hero is here, and the antihero is there, and, basically, that’s life.” Starship Troopers is about something else altogether: my unrest when it comes to the United States in general, my wondering, “What is this society about?”

DR: Does that explain the much-commented-on fact that so many of the stars of Starship Troopers were picked from Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place?

PV: Well, I won’t say that’s pure coincidence. But I didn’t set out to pick people from television shows just to say, “How superficial everything is here!” I was looking for a certain physical type that happens to abound in television shows—superficial characters, people who have a certain one-dimensional quality, nearly comic-book characters. You know, there’s now this animated TV series based on Starship Troopers, and the faces are all drawn in that chiseled way. But they already look like that in the movie, don’t they? They are really kind of . . . well, I was looking for chins and noses to match Leni Riefenstahl’s vision of the ideal soldier.

DR: Or Arno Breker’s.

PV: Right, right. That was on purpose. I was looking for something to give the audience that feeling, that these are the kind of people who would do this. Anybody else would say, “What the fuck are you doing? I’m not gonna join the army.” And of course I also thought it was interesting to show all this beauty being destroyed.

BD: Nazi propaganda films had all these really sweet-seeming people—

PV: Definitely. You know the shot at the beginning of Starship Troopers where they all turn to the camera and say, “I’m doing my part!”? That’s straight out of Leni’s film, where the one guy turns and says, “I’m from Silesia!” And then another one says, “I’m from Bavaria!” So, yes, I tried to give it that kind of feeling. And I don’t really know why.

BD: People have a problem with ambiguity. They think everything’s deadly serious unless Adam Sandler walks on honking a bicycle horn.

PV: Even the advertising people had a hard time with it. They had no idea how to market that movie. There was only one campaign that was absolutely marvelous, the one in England with these giant teaser posters all over town with the different catch phrases in huge letters, like “the only good bug is a dead bug!” They understood that sort of irony. But even if you look at the more normal movies—Total Recall [1990] and Basic Instinct [1992]—there’s also a gigantic layer of ambiguity in those. Although it’s more in the story, isn’t it?

DR: It’s a narrative ambiguity.

PV: Right. Starship Troopers was more some sort of “politicized pop.” But again, I have to say it’s not a political movie. It’s not done to say “fascism is bad” or “fascism is good” or “you should become a soldier” or “you shouldn’t become a soldier.” It’s more just my own observations, expressed in film language. Observations of any, let’s say, imperialist country. It could be in the future or it could be the Roman Empire—which has lots of similarities, of course, with the United States.

BD: A few weeks after Starship Troopers came out, I saw an ad on TV for the US Army Reserves, with this GI Jane–type woman working in an office, and she says, “No problem, this weekend I just refueled sixteen Apache helicopters!” That’s almost exactly the same line Denise Richards has in the movie: “Imagine piloting half a million tons of starship!”

PV: It’s ridiculous, of course. And with those insects—but at the same time the insects are truly devastating. And then there’s also some beauty in all the destruction, isn’t there? You know the scene in Patton where he looks out at all those tanks that have been destroyed and says, “God forgive me, but I love this!”? (Laughs.) Somehow, that’s also part of me. I love to see movies on war and destruction. And I could say, “God forgive me for liking them.” Perhaps it’s because I grew up during the bombardments in The Hague. And a lot of houses in our quarter—not our street, but the whole area around it—were destroyed. So sometimes I think, “Oh, maybe it’s my youth, you know?” That’s why that sort of thing fascinates me. Anyway, it’s why I feel that movie is about me, really. It’s about how contradictory I am, myself, and how ambivalent I am about all those things. I mean, of course, the Allies freed us from the Germans, for God’s sake. Which was good. But, on the other hand, I still can jump into the German thinking and live there in my imagination, as an artist, if you like. Not as a person. As a human being, I’d just say, “You fucking idiot!”

You know that scene in Starship Troopers with the little kids stomping on the tiny insects? And then their mother starts applauding them, screaming ecstatically. (Laughs.) I mean, that’s an expression of the idiotic ideas that go with liking to fight, right? And loving destruction. But it’s something of a commentary on myself, too. Saying how crazy it is to think that way.

It’s the same way I’m fascinated with religion. As you may know, I’m working on a movie about Jesus. And basically it asks, How can millions and millions of people, for two thousand years—year in, year out—how can they all believe this and have this, say, this “light psychosis”? It’s taken me fifty years of studying even to figure out what I can say that’s really different enough to be said. Not to antagonize people—it’ll do that anyway—but to say something I believe is true. I mean, it’s difficult to find the truth in this story. And, of course, to the postmodern mind truth isn’t much of an existing particle anymore anyway. For me the question remains, What do I think really happened there, two thousand years ago? And that’s the issue of the movie.

BD: But it’s not going to be in ancient Aramaic?

PV: No, that would be too truthful. (Laughs.) Then nobody would want to see it.

BD: So when is the record going to be set straight about Starship Troopers?

PV: I don’t know. In retrospect, you could argue that we should have cared about the audience much more—from a commercial point of view. But I didn’t, unfortunately.

DR: But from an artistic point of view, who cares?

PV: Yes. But from a commercial point of view—well, we spent a lot of money on that movie.

BD: It’s doing well on DVD.

PV: Yes, but it’ll probably take the studio twenty years to get their money back.

DR: So it was too much of an art film?

PV: Right. That’s just what [creature effects supervisor] Phil Tippett said to me. He said, “Paul, this is once in a lifetime. Never again will you be able to spend $100 million on an art film.”

DR: Showgirls [1995] was something of an art film—

PV: Yeah, but it didn’t cost $100 million. (Laughs.) It was much cheaper. But yes, Showgirls was just so negative and so cynical about American society, reducing everything to opportunism. Almost everyone in it was bad, and it was expressed in the most vulgar—or let’s say, the most realistic—way. I mean, the ironic thing is that Showgirls is the most realistic movie I’ve ever made in the United States. It’s all based on months and months of interviews with chorus girls, choreographers, producers, and theater owners—and that’s really the way they are. Even the singer who rapes the girl at the end—that was also based on things that had really happened and were covered up by the police because it’s Vegas.

The same thing happened with Spetters [1980]. That film was also based on interviews and articles. We gathered material for a couple of years to get those characters exactly right. And then everybody in Holland was completely upset when Spetters came out. They said, “This doesn’t happen in our society, this male-rape stuff.” But it was all from news stories that we’d just gathered and put together.

BD: But isn’t there an implication in Showgirls that it’s all just the main character’s fantasy? You know, the way she gets into the same car at the end, and it swerves in just the same way, and the way she never gets hurt or even hit all through the picture, like that might wake her up—

PV: No, I don’t think it’s all her fantasy. Although perhaps that would have made the movie a little more interesting. Maybe. But it is clearly a fairy tale, if you want to use that word. It’s purposely a cyclical story. The idea for the ending was to predict that what she’d just done as a showgirl in Vegas, she was now going to do as an actress in LA. Did you see that big sign at the end that shows they’re going to LA? It wasn’t in the script, but I added it to give the idea that now the story would spread out to the whole world, because LA reaches the whole world. That mentality is the norm in LA, as much as it is in Vegas. So for me, Showgirls was just Part One. Actually for some time [screenwriter] Joe Eszterhas and I discussed a sequel. It was going to be set in LA and called Bimbos.

BD: That’s a good idea.

PV: No, I don’t think so anymore, I’ve already had too many problems because of Showgirls. I underestimated how genuinely shocked people can be. The public—and also the critics—were really pissed off. Because it got them personally. They couldn’t just sit back and just say, “This is bad.”

In fact, I even warned Elizabeth Berkley before we made that movie that people would end up hating her for it, that long before the movie was released they’d be writing that she can’t act, can’t dance . . .

DR: She was great.

PV: I think she was great. And extremely audacious. But the critics went for the kill. I think they couldn’t stand that anyone had been able to push them right in the nose. They hadn’t expected it.

DR: But from the aficionado you had acceptance—an instant camp classic.

PV: Yeah, right. (Laughter.)

DR: And in that context, camp is reality.

PV: I understand, that’s all true—and that was also kind of nice. That’s why I went to the Raspberry Awards. You know, Showgirls won Worst Movie, Worst Director, Worst Actress, even Worst Music.

BD: Weren’t you the first to accept the award in person?

PV: Yeah. I went there because I thought, mmm, well, somehow, I wanted this “trash.” So I should get that award, you know? (Laughs.) But of course it also cleaned the slate for me, a bit, neutralizing the complete negativity. I mean, you read the reviews and try to say, “I’m above that. I’ve trained my whole life to get bad reviews.” Especially in Holland—Spetters was an even worse experience in that regard than Showgirls. Because Spetters was the first time, and I didn’t expect it; I was completely overwhelmed by so much personal negativity—by them really attacking you, in your most personal being, like you’re a brainless fucking idiot. And now I look back at Showgirls and say, for God’s sake, how did we dare to do that? I mean, I’m amazed at my own naïveté, to think that this was fine. (Laughs.)

DR: There’s a question of camp and intentionality with that film. Isn’t camp one thing that still depends on authorial intention?

PV: Of course it’s intentionally camp-y, but on the other hand it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to make camp. Because I never try, really, to do that. I’d say that comes into the movie. I didn’t start out saying, “Okay, Starship Troopers is going to be ironic.” It became that way while I was working on it.

DR: So irony and camp are by-products.

PV: For me they are. I think you set out to do something you think is outrageous or that goes beyond current thinking, something nobody has dared to do in a Hollywood movie. We wanted Showgirls to have a layer of brutal realism on the one hand and a layer of fairy-tale fantasy on the other. A girl comes in from nowhere, and she’s picked up because she dances so well. And then she takes somebody out and grabs the best spot.

BD: It’s inexorable.

PV: Yes. And it would have been all right if we’d done that story in an inoffensive way—like All About Eve, which is basically the same tale, isn’t it? But to apply it to the “dirtiest” level of society—although I don’t think it’s dirty, but that’s how people look at Vegas—and then to present that as glamorous, in a way. (Laughs.)

DR: It had the pleasure of self-revulsion.

PV: Right. I think it played with that. Even Joe Eszterhas, when he came to the set and saw me shooting one of the scenes in the first club—the one with the two girls dancing together on the pole? He was surprised. He said, “I guess you’re really doing what you promised.” (Laughs.) I don’t think he had seen it that realistically. But really, that scene is no different from what you see in Vegas. If you go to the less high-level clubs, that is. And there are things worse than that. I even took a few shots out that were just too far beyond.

DR: While we’re talking about camp, there’s something about the tone of your early Dutch movies like Spetters and Turkish Delight [1973] that makes me wonder whether you’d seen any Warhol movies at that time.

PV: Yeah, Morrissey, Paul Morrissey.

DR: Trash? Flesh?

PV: And Heat. Yeah. I’m a big admirer of those early Morrissey movies. And of course I know Warhol’s work. But I’m not so sure that I used that. I think it was more just the feeling of freedom, and the way Joe Dallesandro—isn’t it?—how he behaved in nudity.

DR: His animality.

PV: Yeah, and his directness. It was like, “Okay, do you want to have a man or woman, do you want to be fucked, or sucked, or whatever? Fine, it doesn’t matter—man, woman—oh, yeah, another woman, okay, no big deal, whatever.” Isn’t there this scene in Flesh or Trash where he’s in bed with these two women and he thinks there’s going to be a great threesome? And then the two women are much more attracted to each other. So in the end he goes to sleep off to the side. I mean, that whole kind of nonchalance, not insisting too much—especially in Heat. That’s the one set in the little motel, isn’t it? Joe Dallesandro is in this motel, and he has all these sexual encounters, and out at the swimming pool there’s this boy who always has a sheet over him, and he’s masturbating through the whole movie. I loved that.

DR: That’s the audience, I guess.

PV: Yeah—that’s what I thought. When that came out it became a strong influence. I’m sure some of that reflects in my early movies.

DR: People said Turkish Delight was the Dutch Last Tango in Paris. Except Last Tango was so dirgey.

PV: Yeah. No, Turkish Delight took pleasure in it. Especially if you can see the original version in Dutch, it’s not cut, like that dubbed version you saw on tape. It’s not so masturbated—or how do you say it?

BD: Emasculated.

PV: Right. There is the same kind of nonchalance in the sexual encounter. In most Hollywood movies today, you know, if they fuck it’s only done to show that they’re fucking, isn’t it? They put themselves on top of each other, and all the movement starts, and a lot of dissolves—dissolve to the knees, dissolve to this, dissolve to that—and then that’s it. Ahhhh! (gasps). And they fall down, and that’s the scene. A sex scene needs something more than that. Otherwise, why show it? It’s like walking: You don’t show people walking if they aren’t going somewhere. When we did Basic I wanted to do a scene where the characters would be watching each other while they’re going at it. I wanted to do that scene in a Hitchcockian style, or let’s say, what Hitchcock might have done if he’d been able to do a scene like that in those days. And it’s a murder scene at the same time. It’s the big scene between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, and it has two aspects. There’s the sex, but also the question “Is she going to kill him or not?” Which saves it, of course, from being only a straight love scene, right?

DR: Murder was a pretext.

PV: Murder as a pretext to keep the audience there. And to not make them completely uncomfortable because of all the sex. I mean, you even see Michael Douglas licking Sharon Stone’s genitals—especially in the European version. We had to make cuts in the American version because of the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America], and it became more choppy. But in the “director’s cut,” everything flows. It’s an absolutely beautiful love scene, I think. But it could only be extended that long because there is something else going on, that keeps you on the alert. Otherwise, if you show sex for longer than a minute or two, you start to think you’re watching a peep show. So I felt that Basic gave me this magnificent opportunity to do a really long sex scene—it’s three or four minutes or so—without losing the audience, without everyone starting to look around at each other like, “Uh-oh, my girlfriend’s watching this. Should I look over at her? I mean, does she think I’m going to do that myself tonight?” That kind of thing. Of course that’s always there anyway. You sit there, and you think, “Hmm, that was interesting. Maybe I’ve failed in life. I’ve never done anything that interesting.” There’s always a little bit of that.

DR: But at that point in the film the audience isn’t yet sure that the Sharon Stone character is the killer.

PV: No, I know. But because of the repetition of that shot of the ceiling mirror, and the angles, the hands, the same as when she kills in the very first scene in the film—I wanted that threat to always be present. And he even suspects she’s going to do it, but then it’s nothing. So it’s all playing with that murder possibility, but using it for other reasons.

BD: There’s an implication in that film that the Sharon Stone character is just making it up, the way you see her writing novelizations of the movie’s upcoming scenes.

PV: Yeah. Well, it’s an ambiguous movie. In my opinion, of course, Sharon did it. But all the characters in the movie think it’s Jeanne [Tripplehorn], right? It’s only we, at the end, who might think: Hmmm . . .

DR: I thought they were in cahoots.

PV: No, no. I think it’s nearly as ambiguous as Total Recall. You know how in that film you wonder, “Is the whole movie just the dream he bought at Rekall, Inc.? Or did he buy the dream and then wake up from it, and have the full adventure and become a real hero?” It has this continuous ambiguity of the two levels of reality. I think that’s what Basic has, too: Is it her? Is it her? Her, her? Or this one? (Laughter.) That, I think, is the movie.

BD: What about your new film, The Hollow Man?

PV: Well, it’s a more straightforward project. A bit like RoboCop. It’s a science-fiction film, too. But the narrative is more like Basic Instinct, which is about murder. A strange murder. A woman kills men during orgasm to find out if she can get away with it. If you can accept that premise as a reality, then fine. And in The Hollow Man the premise is, “You can make somebody invisible.” And one scientist does it to himself and starts to deteriorate and become evil. Which is the classic story, isn’t it?

I just showed this film to my wife. I’m never so sure what I do with movies while I’m working on them, what the levels are. It’s only afterward, when I look at the whole movie and start to reflect on it, that I see what I did. Anyway she felt that it was “a study in evil.” That it was really about the descent into the abyss of evil. But, of course, if you look at it from a realistic point of view, it’s not even campy, it’s silly. (Laughs.) If you want to use that word. Nobody can become invisible in the first place.

BD: And you do have a doctorate in physics—

PV: Yes. I know precisely that it can’t be done. (Laughs.)