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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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Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

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Lane 27: Broken Windows

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Lane 69: Filthy Cars

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Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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