Triumph of the Ill

Trash Talking With Mad Scientist Paul Verhoeven

When Stanley Kubrick was working on Eyes Wide Shut, in a presumable bid to circumvent the hang-ups and double standards of the ratings board, he consulted Hollywood's most unabashed sleaze specialist, Paul Verhoeven. The Dutch-born provocateur explains: "He called me and said, 'Well, you've had so many dealings with the MPAA. Tell me what you can and cannot show.' " Verhoeven says he sent Kubrick laser discs of both the director's cut and the U.S.-release version of his 1992 softcore slasher, Basic Instinct, along with some considered advice: "I told him that sexual activities combined with a lot of movement of the two bodies—what do you call that? humping?—was strictly forbidden."

Behind Verhoeven's long-standing enfant terrible notoriety lies a chrome-plated oeuvre of sleek, brash, sneering genre mutants, from the kinky melodramas he made in his native Holland in the '70s and early '80s (Turkish Delight, The Fourth Man) to the deluxe sci-fi mindfucks with which he established a foothold in Hollywood (RoboCop, Total Recall). Now 62, Verhoeven has only gotten more perverse with age. He is responsible for two of the most widely reviled (and, in smaller circles, passionately defended) movies of the '90s: the full-frontal Vegas exercise in goggle-eyed gyration and catfight camp Showgirls, and the supersquelchy, transcendently deranged Big Bug extravaganza Starship Troopers. No other filmmaker with massive budgets to blow is as reflexively sardonic, amusingly smut-minded, or pathologically tasteless, and the epithets have been far-ranging: mad scientist, evil genius, porn peddler, misogynist, homophobe, dirty old man, Nazi.

Verhoeven's new film, Hollow Man, raked in $26.4 million its opening weekend (a career best) in the face of typically dismissive, even hostile, reviews. ("He seems to be daring the American public to sink to the bottom with him," whined The New Yorker.) In response to its tag line—"What would you do if no one could see you?"—the movie blithely sends Kevin Bacon's invisible megalomaniac scientist, Sebastian, on a rampage consisting primarily of sexual assault. Defending the premise, Verhoeven cites a formative experience involving Plato's Republic. "There's something I remember from studying Greek in high school," he says. "Plato writes that if a man became invisible, he would rape the women, kill the men, and behave like a god. I remember our teacher, an older woman, refused to translate the word rape. We had to go to our dictionaries to find it."

Hollow Manis (take your pick) an invisible-man thriller with cool, pricey effects; an updated mad-scientist-with-god-complex cautionary tale; a nasty, horny, self-mocking peep show fueled by sexual anxiety and jealousy. But more to the point (and true to form), it's an expression of the director's fundamental cynicism. "A lot of people would try to get away with evil if they could," says Verhoeven. "I don't think Elisabeth Shue's character [Sebastian's colleague and ex] would go in that direction. Nor do I think my wife or children would." He adds with a laugh: "Though I might not be completely sure about myself." (Verhoeven seems keen to uphold his rascally reputation.)

Hollow Managgressively sexualizes every scary-movie cliché it can lay its grubby hands on—partly because, the director insists, that whole fly-on-the-wall thing is overrated. "You get bored, and the only interesting possibilities left have sexual connotations, like how does that girl at work look when she goes to the bathroom." Early script drafts featured more elaborate scenarios—Sebastian spies on the president, is pursued by the military—which were excised because they seemed "more silly than anxiety-provoking."

The anxiety of his audience is a prime concern for Verhoeven. Hollow Man's gung ho antihero turned murderous rapist is a crude version of the identification dilemma posed by Starship Troopers, in which the nominal chisel-faced heroes embrace their bug-destroying mission with alarmingly fascistic zeal. Does Verhoeven get off on fucking with his viewers? He laughs again. "Well, you could not express it much better than that. But, to put it in more tender tones, I would say there are subversive qualities to my movies. Hollow Man leads you by the hand and takes you with Sebastian into teasing behavior, naughty behavior, and then really bad and ultimately evil behavior. At what point do you abandon him? I'm thinking when he rapes the woman would probably be the moment that people decide, 'This is not exactly my type of hero,' though I must say a lot of viewers follow him further than you would expect. I've had people say to me, 'He really should have gotten the girl.' I was amazed."

Verhoeven says the only invisible-man movie he looked at before shooting was not James Whale's famous 1934 adaptation of the H.G. Wells short story but an obscure 1990 teen T&A comedy called The Invisible Maniac. "It's a very strange movie about a high school teacher who can flip-flop back and forth into invisibility and uses that to get all the girls. I studied it so I could avoid the traps that would make the movie silly—I didn't want any coffee cups or pencils floating through the air." Verhoeven says he studied Hitchcock more than anything else. When constructing Sebastian's apartment, where he does little besides spy on a neighboring babe, "my production designer and I looked at Rear Windowto measure the distances—what would be best optically."

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