By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The TV Set,” THINKFilm, 2007]
After seven very quiet years, Paul Verhoeven returns from moviemaking exile with “Black Book,” his first feature since disappointing invisible rapist movie “Hollow Man.” Or, perhaps, Verhoeven’s exile continues: “Black Book” is also the first feature the talented and controversial Dutch filmmaker has made in his native Europe in over twenty years. Whether Verhoeven’s return home was offered or imposed upon him, there’s no denying he revels in the accompanying creative freedom. “One day you’re singing, the next you’re silenced,” someone says in “Black Book,” and no doubt, Verhoeven, pigeonholed in Hollywood as a director of sci-fi trash, can relate. “Black Book,” a picture bursting with the director’s signature mixture of bleak wit, brutal violence and sexual depravity, is his most accomplished, entertaining and truly “Verhoevian” work since “Basic Instinct.”
Like “Basic Instinct,” “Black Book” is an erotic thriller, but unlike Joe Eszterhas’ epochal boobies-and-butchery wankfest, Verhoeven’s latest is set in the past, in occupied Holland at the tail end of WWII, where a buxom woman and aren’t they all in Verhoeven’s cinematic universe? named Rachel goes undercover in the Nazi regime in order to help the Dutch Resistance and extract revenge on the men who murdered the rest of her Jewish family. She uses her feminine charms to slink her way into the confidence of Müntze (“The Lives of Others”‘ Sebastian Koch), a powerful Nazi officer but, like so many movie heroines before her, lets herself fall for her prey.
The full definition of that “Verhoevian” tag is elusive, but the director’s obsessions (or maybe fetishes is a better word) are not. “Black Book” shares a host of thematic echoes with the rest of the director’s oeuvre. Like “Total Recall,” it features a group of Resistance fighters nearly torn apart by a mole within their ranks (it’s worth mentioning that Verhoeven’s “Soldier of Orange” is also about the Dutch Resistance). Like “Basic Instinct,” its female lead is an untrustworthy blonde, though, in this case, she’s using her irresistible gams for good instead of evil. Like “Hollow Man” and “RoboCop,” “Black Book” is about someone who undergoes such an extensive physical transformation that they’re not only physically unrecognizable, but emotionally as well. And like so many of Verhoeven’s movies, there are numerous homages to Hitchcock: if “Total Recall” was his “North by Northwest,” “Black Book” is his “Notorious,” if only Ingrid Bergman had wiggled her naked butt on camera for the delight of Cary Grant and the rest of the audience. Add in a dash of Dietrich and her sex and espionage (or “sexpionage,” if you will) picture with von Sternberg, 1931’s “Dishonored,” (where Dietrich plays a spy so sexy she seduces herself along with her target) and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie in a nutshell.
In other words, the material is as old as World War II, if not time itself, but Verhoeven makes it sing. Nazis are dependably scary movie villains, but they’ve rarely been whipped into such an unstoppable, horrific force: appearing out of nowhere, crashing through walls, guns a-blazin’ they’re like an army from hell, more akin to the bad guy in a slasher movie than a war film. The movie is paced like an endless sprint: it goes and goes and never lets up.
You can love him or hate him, but you can’t deny Verhoeven’s fearlessness, which borders on recklessness. He pushes himself and his audience. He tries an erection joke. He literally covers a character in shit. He humanizes some of the evil Nazis (who ultimately come to Rachel’s aid) and vilifies some of the heroic Resistance (who cover a character in shit). The most crucial line of dialogue may be the phrase “everyone has unknown depths”… except maybe for Verhoeven himself, whose darkness is up there on the screen for all the world to see.
“The TV Set”
A producer and director of a show as good and as mishandled as the short-loved cult classic “Freaks and Geeks” can speak with some authority on the madness that is the network pilot season. And so writer/director Jake Kasdan does in his funny and insightful comedy “The TV Set,” a movie short on huge laughs but long on authenticity and insight. I have no evidence that the shenanigans Kasdan portrays are based on real ones he has experienced or heard about from friends in the business, but his film looks, sounds and feels genuine. Some of it is so bat-crap insane it has to be true. I don’t want to believe that a head of programming would say something like, “Original scares me a little. We don’t want to be too original,” but I do.
Kasdan’s story follows a television pilot script called “The Wexler Chronicles” (named, no doubt, to recall the original title of another iconoclastic television show that was ultimately renamed “Seinfeld”) from casting through production through the climactic moments when executives decide whether or not to put the show on its fall schedule. Its writer and director is an aging, fattening man with a bad back and a growing family named Mike Klein, played by a perfectly understated David Duchovny. His arch-nemesis is Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) a tenacious exec who lets her 14-year-old daughter make her casting decisions for her and whose latest smash hit is a reality show called “Slut Wars” (which sounds totally absurd until you watch an episode of a real show like “Pussycat Dolls Presents: The Search for The Next Doll”). Everyone agrees “The Wexler Chronicles” is the best script the network has, but whether it makes good television is another matter altogether.
A movie like “The TV Set” makes it very clear why a network like HBO, whose artists are only limited in their creative endeavors by their imaginations (and possibly their budgets) has made such tremendous leaps and bounds in viewership while traditional outlets have floundered. If “The TV Set” is to be believed, its remarkable any quality programs are made at all. The system seems designed to encourage failure. Consider the testing process completed pilots are sent through before the networks put them on the air. A group of people are placed in a room and given a device with a dial; they’re instructed to turn it one way at any moment they’re enjoying what they’re watching and the other way when they’re unhappy. How can you possibly judge the quality of anything that way? Are these numbers based on the acting? The writing? The lighting? The judges’ stomachache? During this show’s testing, the ratings spike when the attractive female lead flirts with her co-star. “The boner factor,” Lenny nods approvingly.
Kasdan debunks two different myths about the Hollywood creative process: that productions are works of authors with a singular vision or, conversely, that they are the work of talented artists working in collaboration with nothing but the best final product on their minds. From the creators to the executives to the cast to the assistants to the grips, everyone is looking out only for themselves. Even Mike, who wrote “The Wexler Chronicles” in response to the suicide of his brother, gives in to the network’s ultimatums: the choice between maintaining his integrity or feeding his family is a relatively easy one. And in this kitchen, everyone is the cook: the lead actress (Lindsay Sloane) changes her costume because it’s not “sneaky sexy” enough; when left to his own devices, the assistant director choreographs a lengthy panning shot from the show open that takes all of the focus away from the dialogue and actors because he thinks it’s more “cinematic.”
With projects like “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared” and his first feature film “Zero Effect,” Kasdan’s maintained his own creative integrity and worked on projects whose quality speaks for itself. But he’s never had a commercial hit of “Slut Wars” proportions. I doubt “The TV Set” will be that hit it’s sort of a more cynical “Get Shorty” with a lot more inside baseball but I also doubt Kasdan much minds.