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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.