A spasm of annoyance convulsed the normally placid world of film crit last week. Yes, of course, bad boy Paul Verhoeven had released a new comedy—the provocatively titled Hollow Man.
Having worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas, and (more than once) Joe Eszterhas, Verhoeven is the undisputed King of the Tinseltown Creeps; in the current issue of Film Comment, His Nastiness even cites Triumph of the Will as a guilty pleasure. This 62-year-old Dutchman has replaced Brian De Palma as the splashiest misanthrope in Hollywood—a culture to which he held up a mirror in the camp classic Showgirls. Verhoeven’s no candidate for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award—sensitive people find the monstrous bugs in Starship Troopers more sympathetic (and less synthetic) than the film’s humanoids—and Hollow Man will not blemish his record.
An uncredited remake of James Whale’s 1934 Invisible Man, Hollow Man seems to take even more inspiration from the educational transparent plastic anatomy model known as the “Visible Man.” Verhoeven, however, is interested not just in body but soul. Beneath the scientist’s lab coat beats the heart of an insanely jealous and megalomaniacal power-mad rapist. Does it take one to know one? Hollow Man opens with a shot of a wriggling lab rat held up by its tail before the camera. The rodent is released and scampers away (still in close-up) only to be chomped to pieces by some slavering invisible thing. Never let it be said that this director declines to zap the audience to let them know where they stand.
Verhoeven is not ashamed to take his film’s title personally. Hollow Man is gleefully confrontational in its ludicrous, pulpy tawdriness. Its mad scientist antihero, Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), can drop his smirk only when it’s time to lurk. Sebastian, introduced peeking through his venetian blinds to ogle the luscious babe in the neighboring apartment, heads up a government research team working on a top secret invisibility study. These geniuses have already produced an invisible gorilla—it soon gets loose, leaving Krell-like footprints all over their dungeonlike lab—but the “reversion” serum is unstable. In the movie’s most memorable special effect, the injected antidote snakes through the writhing creature’s bloodstream, rendering it visible biostrata by biostrata, like successive overlays in an anatomy textbook.
Set largely in a claustrophobic medical facility where facetious banter is the coin of the realm, Hollow Man suggests a particularly grotesque hospital drama. As Sebastian is a supremely irritating and arrogant egocentric braggart, as well as an eyesore who dresses in electric blue shirts and iridescent purple ties, his team has every reason to want him to vanish—none more than his assistant and former girlfriend Linda (Elisabeth Shue), who straddles the team’s resident pretty boy, Matthew (Josh Brolin), at every opportunity. (Verhoeven has never met a bad actor he couldn’t use.) Sebastian’s failure to fulfill this lusty lass is one of the movie’s psychological underpinnings.
If you’ve read H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man or seen the Whale movie, you know that invisibility does not improve personality. Stripped of his appearance and freed from social restraint, Sebastian wants only to spy on, and play doctor with, the girls. The first thing the invisible scientist does is expose one female associate’s breast; his next experiment is to follow another into the toilet. Once Sebastian is stuck in invisibility, his team represents his emptiness by covering his face with liquid latex goop to sculpt a cadaverous Kevin Bacon mask. The “hollow man” has lost his superego. He responds with a reign of terror that lasts for the rest of the movie—pranking, raping, and killing.
Thanks to Sebastian’s mischief (and the script’s cynical plot twists), Hollow Man doesn’t have too many dull patches—but neither is there much subtext. Still, the movie trades well on a certain rank symmetry. The more disembodied Sebastian gets, the bloodier the action becomes. This vengeful invisible force devotes itself to turning everybody else inside out. Trust the rat to go for the cheese.
Speaking of body horror, there’s no Hollywood icon—not even John Wayne—who has ever had more fun with the specter of encroaching decrepitude than that still lean and spry septuagenarian, Clint Eastwood. In Space Cowboys, which Eastwood both produced and directed, the veteran star plays long-retired test pilot Frank Corvin, who contrives to blast himself into space—along with his former team, Tank (James Garner, 72), Jerry (Donald Sutherland, 66), and Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones, a mere child of 54). The movie may not pack anything near the emotional punch of Unforgiven, but it’s an entertainingly raffish action-comedy nonetheless.
A cockpit-shaking, wing-shearing, black-and-white prologue, set in 1958, establishes the team’s cowboy derring-do as well as the ongoing rivalry between feisty Frank and hellcat Hawk. Indeed, Frank was supposed to be the first American in space until, he thinks, he was sandbagged by the irresponsible Hawk and replaced by a monkey. Dissolve to present-day America, where a crisis has arisen in NASAland because no one any longer understands the obsolete technology Frank used to power an old satellite that, for reasons not yet disclosed, requires urgent attention. Called upon to do his patriotic chore, Frank declines to teach the whippersnappers how to fix the thing, exploiting the situation to reunite his old buddies. Or, as one NASA flack puts it, “We’ve got three weeks to put four old farts in space.”
Something like Grumpy Old Men Go to the Moon, the scenario is amusing in a crusty sort of way. The movie has no shortage of recurring gags—including one in which the teammates regularly discover that old pals have passed away. The mode is relaxed and folksy, with occasional heartwarming bits of business—although the grinning Marcia Gay Harden, who plays a NASA mission director, seems a bit too thrilled (or is it pained?) with her part in the project. Each actor gets more than ample time to rehearse his identifying quirk and the leisurely regimen includes trading riffs with Jay Leno on TV. Eastwood is in no particular hurry. It’s nearly 90 minutes before the guys board the Metamucil Express and blast out into the cosmos to lasso the malevolent fossil of Cold War hardware that’s been left floating in space like a Russki time bomb.
The obvious subtext here is that Clint knows not only how to fix an obsolete satellite but how to make an old-fashioned movie. I was particularly impressed by the effectively frugal use of Industrial Light & Magic effects—despite the somewhat abrupt (and anticlimactic) landing. Eastwood signs off with a blast of generational insouciance, but if he had held off on the Sinatra until the end credits, the final shot would have had a bit more poetic pow.
San Francisco-based Jay Rosenblatt has another sort of recycling act. Rosenblatt fashions his short essayistic narratives from ’50s classroom films and old home movies, among other sorts of found footage. His assemblages are more prosaic than those of Bruce Conner (who invented the mode back around the time Eastwood’s astronaut first trained for outer space). They’re also less delirious than the political extravaganzas devised by Rosenblatt’s contemporary, Craig Baldwin, another Bay Area practitioner.
According to his biographical notes, Rosenblatt was a mental health counselor before he began making movies, and his interest in therapy remains. The grim 10-minute Short of Breath (1990) uses footage found, he says, in a dumpster outside a mental hospital, to construct a sort of universal psychoanalytic session complete with flashbacks to a primal scene and a climactic suicide; the longer Smell of Burning Ants (1994) culls footage from the insect world and the playground to meditate on the nature of male socialization. (Perhaps it might be shown as a short subject with Hollow Man.) Rosenblatt is not a connoisseur of weirdness. He doesn’t liberate the visionary aspects of his found material so much as use it to illustrate a thesis. As straightforward as they are, his movies are scarcely less literal-minded and didactic than the raw material they recast.
Rosenblatt has little interest in film per se, although his most recent works are predicated on the idea of film as history. The 30-minute Human Remains (1998), constructed mainly of newsreels and employing an imaginary first-person voice-over, puts four dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Franco, and Mao—on the couch. King of the Jews (2000), Rosenblatt’s most intriguing film to date, is a movie about anti-Semitism that marries the filmmaker’s account of his childhood fear of Jesus Christ to a dense montage of historical and Hollywood material.