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The Ballsy Cinema of Paul Verhoeven: A Selected Filmography

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls,” United Artists/MGM, 1995]

Few filmmakers have generated as much box office juice, public outcry, critical revulsion and, conversely, a unique kind of reactive critical delight as Paul Verhoeven. In filmography alone he’s unusual: he’s made good movies (“The 4th Man”), bad movies (“Hollow Man”), underrated movies (“Total Recall”) and movies so shockingly misguided they transcend ordinary measures of taste and artistic merit (“Showgirls”). Personally, I like him because he’s such a good subject: even when his movies are bad, they’re unfailingly interesting.

And give Verhoeven credit: while a lot of interesting artists’ skills wane commensurately with their age, he’s as edgy as ever on the precipice of the big 7-0. It’s hard to think of anyone else who’d make an erotic thriller set during the Holocaust, and certainly impossible to think of anyone else who’d try to make that erotic thriller both moralistic and sexy. Verhoeven’s latest film, “Black Book,” is both.

He’s an envelope pusher to the end. Good or bad (or something else entirely), his “Showgirls” will always be the movie that tried to break through the box office poison of the NC-17 label — and without the massive success of his own “Basic Instinct,” no one would have even had the opportunity to try it. He failed (spectacularly), but who else would have even made the attempt? Here’s your answer: just try to name three other NC-17 movies since “Showgirls.

Frankly, dude’s got balls. You probably have to if you’re going to get your actors to appear as emotionally and physically naked as Veroheven consistently does, and you definitely have to if you’re going to ask your leading lady to allow you to drown her in a vat of shit on camera, as Verhoeven did in “Black Book.” (Imagine that conversation!) For more on the shooting of that scene and the rest of the movie, check out the interview he gave to IFC News’ Aaron Hillis last week.

With all that in mind, here are a few of Verhoeven’s balliest, I-can’t-believe-he-did-that moments in English (Verhoeven’s early Dutch work will have to fill out an article all its own at a later date).

Attack of the Fish Wolf!

From “RoboCop” (1987)

“RoboCop” is not exactly a down-to-earth sort of movie — it is, after all, the story of a cop who’s brought back to life as a badass robot after he’s murdered in the line of duty — but Verhoeven goes way out there during the no guts, no gory glory finale, when Robo busts loose and gets revenge on the gangsters who killed him. The ballsiness comes in when Paul McCrane’s hood tries to run our hero over in a big truck. At the last moment, the robot formerly known as Officer Alex Murphy dives out of the way, and McCrane and his truck plow into a vat labeled “TOXIC WASTE.” McCrane comes out the other side of the crash instantly transformed into a hideous mutant with claws and dripping skin who shambles around whispering “Help me!” It’s an utterly absurd moment, but it speaks to why “RoboCop” was such a hit: Verhoeven believed the premise enough to make it real, and played Murphy’s story for tragedy, not ironic laughs. To throw a drippy skinned fish mutant into the mix, you’ve got to be a certified genius or an authentic wacko.

Fade to White

From “Total Recall” (1990)

Verhoeven experimented with ambiguous stories back in Holland (as in “The 4th Man,” where the line between fantasy and reality never fully delineated), but it takes some serious balls to experiment with ambiguity in a big budget sci-fi picture. In “Total Recall,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid pines for the exciting life of an interplanetary hero, and after a failed “virtual vacation” memory implant, discovers that he is, in fact, an interplanetary hero. And though Schwarzenegger goes on a pretty conventional hero’s journey where he defeats the villain (including a twisted version of himself) and gets the girl, Verhoeven never clarifies whether Quaid’s adventures are real or a figment of his possibly schizophrenic imagination. At the end of the movie, Verhoeven gives Schwarzenegger’s character a grand finale and a romantic kiss, but he brings in an unsettling strain of music and fades to white instead of black, a choice, he suggests on the “Recall” DVD commentary, made to suggest that Quaid has been lobotomized as one character warned him about earlier. “It’s very disturbing to the audience,” he explains, “because they want an adventure story, not a fake adventures story.” As if trying to leech a good, non-robotic performance out of Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t ballsy enough. Verhoeven would try a similarly open-ended finale with his next picture…

Stone’s Gams of Steel

From “Basic Instinct” (1992)

“Basic Instinct” is a potpourri of gutsy, borderline crazy choices, but the one that really distinguishes Verhoeven from his peers is a choice he made in pre-production: to reject the numerous script rewrites he’d been working on for months and return to screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ original screenplay. That meant taking the good with the bad — among the latter are lines of dialogue like “She wants to play? Fine, I’ll play!” and “Everyone SHE plays with DIES!” — but there’s also a kind of fevered girl-fearing, ultra-macho logic that doesn’t play when it’s watered down: it has to either run hot-to-the-touch or not at all. As in their later collaboration, “Showgirls,” this is an allegedly sexy movie wherein very little of the sexuality that is represented resembles any of the sex real people have in the real world. But that’s the whole thing: this is not a real club, that is not a real lesbian couple, that is not how murder suspects behave under interrogation. And while we’re on the subject, gender aside, what’s ballsier than that most infamous of scenes, where Stone uncrosses her legs and maybe flashes Wayne Knight, Michael Douglas and us her hoo-hah. Stone has claimed she didn’t know the camera was pointed down there (“Hey Jan, why are you lighting my crotch?”), Verhoeven’s simply maintained that everyone knew all along what they were doing. No real woman would behave in such a brazen, hooched-out fashion, but, surrounded by all that wonky Eszterhas dialogue, it plays straighter than straight, like a statement of purpose and defiance.

How Can You Pick Just One Moment?

From “Showgirls” (1995)

We touched on the NC-17 controversy, but that’s barely a drop in the bucket of ballsy moments from “Showgirls.” Verhoeven cast an actress best known as a goodie-goodie on a kids television show and turned her into a mentally unbalanced hip-shaking lunatic. Out of a massive cast he presented just one likable character, then showed her getting brutally raped. He threw in a graphic menstruation joke. He argued for the legitimacy of stripping as an art form. He tried to pass the movie off as serious drama. He kept his name on the finished film, but later took his name off the basic cable version (where the voluminous nudity is obscured by digitally inserted underwear) because it didn’t represent his directorial vision. The pièce de résistance: when “Showgirls” was nominated for a record number of Razzie Awards, Verhoeven showed up at the ceremony to collect his statuettes. In typical Verhoeven fashion, he was the first director in history to do so.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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