I Do Movies Badly: Paul Verhoeven

4 Apr

In this episode, Jim welcomes Sequelcast 2’s Mat Bradley-Tschirgi to kick off a series about director Paul Verhoeven.

18 Responses to “I Do Movies Badly: Paul Verhoeven”

  1. Julius April 5, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    You have at least one listener from the Netherlands (me).

    And Tippel is not her actual last name, but her nickname. ‘Tippelen’ is old Dutch slang for prostitution.

    • Jim April 14, 2017 at 6:56 am #

      Hooray! Thanks for listening, Julius!

      That’s a very interesting tidbit to know. It also makes one of the translations of the title (Amazon Prime titles it “Katie’s Passion”) make even less sense

  2. Mat April 5, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    That’s interesting! How do you feel Katie Tippel stacks up against Verhoeven’s other work? I tried to pick 3 films that sort of ran the gamut of the different genres Verhoeven worked in.

    If I could have picked four, I would have gone with Flesh & Blood.

  3. FictionIsntReal April 6, 2017 at 6:48 am #

    Lots of fans of the Starship Troopers movie insist the reason people didn’t like it is because the satire went over their heads. But the satire isn’t that subtle, nor is it particularly good. I’m with Roger Ebert, who noted the satire while panning the movie. People can argue that by casting poor actors in the lead it was parodying bad movies, but the result is just a worse movie you have to sit through for two hours.

  4. Julius April 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

    @Mat: I think I would have picked Turkish Delight or Soldier of Orange or Spetters, maybe because those are more iconic films in the Netherlands, but I also consider them to be more “Verhoeven”. Katie Tippel feels a bit more “conventionally Dutch” than his other Dutch work (though he has always been very Dutch, even in his American films).

    Still, it’s got some of Verhoeven’s favorite themes: capitalism, sex, power, class, religion (I love that Keetje’s job at a bank causes her more shame than being a sex worker). You can see the seeds of Showgirls, which I think is probably his masterpiece.

    Why would you have gone with Flesh & Blood? The medieval setting is unique in Verhoeven’s cinematic oeuvre (though he did direct Floris, a Dutch tv series set in the medieval Netherlands). I would have chosen one of his Dutch films set in the ’70s or ’80s.

    • Jim April 14, 2017 at 10:19 am #

      I think you may be the first person in history to consider Showgirls to be Verhoeven’s masterpiece. I don’t say that in any condescending way either. On the contrary, it makes me curious to revisit Showgirls once this month is done (for strictly research purposes, of course…)

      • Julius April 15, 2017 at 2:32 pm #

        Oh, I know I’m not the first. I learned to appreciate Showgirls from my favorite professor at Film Studies. There’s a bunch of us hardcore Verhoeven fans defending Showgirls.

        In the Netherlands (and a bunch of other European countries), its reputation is slightly different anyway. Don’t get me wrong, most Dutch people still consider it a bad movie. But given that Verhoeven is a far bigger celebrity over here (and a beloved talk show guest who often has smart stuff to say), people are more open to approach Showgirls as something else than laughable crap. We also tend to see his American films as the work of a very, very Dutch director, exaggerating all the things about American culture that appear to him as ‘typically American’. Showgirls is a perfect example of that: Verhoeven’s eyes are those of a tourist.

  5. Mat April 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

    @Fiction: Satire is very different between RoboCop, sure. I’d argue the corporate politics satire in RoboCop is an earlier form of the humor we see in Office Space, Silicon Valley, etc. With Starship Troopers, some argue having the vapid acting is a deliberate choice… Though Ironside does a good performance.

    @Julius: Interesting re Verhoeven’s Dutch work. I agree Showgirls is more clever than people give it credit for. Like a lot of Verhoeven films, performances are uneven, but then you have some affecting scenes (aftermath of the rape, eating the burgers on the roof).

    Flesh & Blood is one I like, though it takes a while to get started. It deals more overtly with religion than some of his other works. Have yet to see Elle, which I’ve heard great things about. Recently picked up the Director’s Cut of Hollow Man, so I might watch that again too.

  6. Julius April 7, 2017 at 4:03 am #

    @Mat: I think Elle is excellent. Great to see Verhoeven kind of reinvent himself at his age.

    I like Flesh & Blood a lot too. It’s sort of a precursor to Starship Troopers, in that he takes a Hollywood genre and shows the ugliness underneath the conventions.

    How do you feel about The Fourth Man? Also deals with religion quite explicitly – but that might be a function of the book it’s based on (written by Gerard Reve, whose Catholicism shines through in much of his work) than Verhoeven himself.

  7. W. David Lichty April 10, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    @FictionIsntReal I think you’re exactly right. Starship Troopers has become one of those movies it’s easy to sound smart about by saying that others are missing it, when they may have actually nailed it in its simplicity. It’s fine to say that you can watch Troopers as a parody, but it’s probably wrong to suggest that it was made to be one. Verhoeven only spoke of it that way after its initial critical bashing in the US was followed by audiences, and some critics, in Europe laughing, seemingly with it, but that was not his intent.

    A friend of mine, Ed Johnson-Ott, was a syndicated critic in a lot of local Alternative Weekly papers in 1997 (now he’s only local, after the internet happened to film critics), and he saw the film early so he could interview Verhoeven. He taped it, and you can hear him repeatedly asking, “Are you SURE you didn’t intend this all to be a satire?” because he had just seen what he thought was a pretty inept movie, and the answers, “No, no, it is a serious film about the costs of war.” He later called back (Verhoeven called him, I mean) to clarify that all of the inserted commercials and news reports were satire, as in Robocop, but the rest of the film was serious. A few weeks later, he started saying that the Americans just don’t have the right sense of humor, and were missing the point of the film – the whole thing is a satire.

    Online, early interviews are sparse, but I found these with Verhoeven:

    “…Although it was what appeared to be sort of ‘B’ material, I wanted to bring it up to an ‘A’ in a way, although clearly it was never going to be Lawrence of Arabia (laughs). It still approaches that reality in a very serious way, and I think it succeeds…”

    That’s from a 1997 interview done by Alex Simon, reprinted in 2010: http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2010/09/paul-verhoeven-starship-troopers.html

    And this one by Joseph McBride:

    “(McBride) It’s rather chilling, isn’t it, the militaristic nature of this society, the brutality? And the young characters remind you of Hitler Youth, don’t they?

    (Verhoeven) A little bit, yeah. Although the Mobile Infantry [to which most of the central characters belong] is more normal, I think. It’s more in other categories–like in Carl’s [Neil Patrick Harris’s] category, military intelligence–where you feel that there is this fascist streak… It doesn’t interfere with the story, because I think the story is more about people that are really caring about each other. I don’t think any of the characters, with the exception of Carl, express themselves in any fascistic way. They only believe in the citizenship [status awarded to warriors]. But they are supportive to each other; they are warm to each other; they sacrifice themselves for others. Our focus group in the movie is much more what you would call human, and not really, in my opinion, fascistic. That’s the interesting thing–these [aspects] are correlated…”

    http://www.industrycentral.net/director_interviews/PV01.HTM

    That it parodied fascism in the ads and with the Neil Patrick Harris character was pretty obvious to everyone. The rest of the cast, story, tone – all of it – really were following the Showgirls model, intended to be serious and human, and failing, not intended to be silly and satyric, a la Airplane.

    Again, it’s always fair to see it however you like. I enjoyed Starship Troopers when I saw it on opening night at 11pm, but that was because about 15 minutes in, three separate groups of viewers, mine included, began openly MST3King the film, to the delight of the rest of the audience. We were laughing at it, not at all with it, except for the clever commercials.

    But to say that people who see the lousy acting and silly dialogue in the standard ways that we tend to take those things are the ones who are “missing it,” that those were intended to be read as parody, is basically just incorrect. If you believe in discounting the film maker’s intent once the film is out, then you have to discount the times when Verhoeven has said that it was all satire. If you don’t discount those, since missing it implies missing the intent, then you must include the fact that he didn’t start saying that until it was clear that his movie, intended to be straightforward with humor sprinkled in via news clips, was not going to be taken as seriously as he’d intended.

    It’s as reasonable as is saying the same things about The Room.

    Here’s my friend Ed’s piece, after he failed at rescuing some stars
    http://www.imdb.com/reviews/95/9557.html

  8. Julius April 11, 2017 at 7:03 am #

    @W. David Lichtly: Let me start by saying I don’t really care what Verhoeven *thinks* he made; what he *did* make is a satire. But that doesn’t mean comedy. I don’t think the movie tried to be very funny (apart from the obvious parts you mentioned), and I don’t think it is. But the fact that some of the epic shots are literally copied from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will should tell you that the movie is aware of the evil nature of the society it portrays.

    To me, Starship Troopers shows the seductiveness of fascism. Everything in the movie is in service of that, including the casting of these soap opera stars, whose performances I don’t think are “intentionally bad”; they’re perfectly suited to what is essentially a nazi propaganda movie from the future. The fact that the main characters aren’t explicitly fascistic is kinda the point: to show that people who share our values – friendship, loyalty, love – can function and live fulfilling lives in a fascist society; that social progress may even continue (the world of the movie seems to have a more progressive attitude towards gender than ours); to show how easy it is to slide into fascism, and perhaps to warn the audience. So, yeah, Starship Troopers should be taken seriously – but not literally.

    I’d say the same is true for Showgirls: yes, that’s a serious movie, but also a hyperbolic one. I don’t think many are claiming Showgirls and Starship Troopers aim to be parodies ‘a la Airplane’, but that’s not the only kind of satire there is. Nor does every movie that isn’t ‘silly’ aim primarily to be ‘human’. I’d say the characters in Starship Troopers and especially Showgirls are hyperbolic archetypes, more than humans, and that works perfectly for these movies. Both are cynical, biting, painful stories about how an immoral society functions. That’s what makes them satire, more than the dark humor.

    • Jim April 14, 2017 at 10:24 am #

      Just a heads up, Julius – I fully intend to steal some of your thoughts for my Starship Troopers episode (giving credit where credit is due, of course)

      • Julius April 15, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

        Thanks!

  9. W. David Lichty April 11, 2017 at 9:05 am #

    @Julius You make a good case for your reading of Starship Troopers. I might agree with it if I ever see it again, and I might see it again for the special effects. It marked the first time battleships in space felt really massive since The Empire Strikes Back, and is maybe even the only time since Empire, and that was a real pleasure.

    I am not denying that it can be taken as a satire. What I do deny is that it must be, or should be, and I especially deny that if it is one, that puts the kibosh on citing its failings, that to see it as just a lousy film is to miss something. That’s my crusade here, not killing the satire read, but defending what some mis-characterize as the careless read. I simply deny that someone who says, “Ultimately, Verhoeven’s motives are irrelevant. He has produced a gargantuan film that fails as an action film or as a social satire.” has missed something, which is how the satire read on Troopers is usually presented. Sure, it may be satire. It may be fun satire. It also may be pretty vacuous satire. That’s what my friend (just quoted) thought. He saw the satire, it just didn’t save the movie.

    The problem comes once the argument is couched in shoulds, or in whether someone ‘gets’ something, which implies an objective truth about a picture, and a blindness to that on the denier’s part. If there’s a should, then we have what the filmmaker intended, our case vs. someone else’s, or worse, just our opinion vs. someone else’s. Absent intent, the should element, or the it *is* this element, really only means “You should see it my way, not yours.” It certainly makes no sense to deny directorial intent, and then say something like, “But this movie is not trying to be a straightforward war movie.” In one sense, of course it isn’t. Movies don’t try to be anything. Art doesn’t make itself. The artist does that, and that’s Verhoeven. If we’re aiming for the objective read, then he’s all we get on the intent front, and he said what he said above, so on the level of what Starship Troopers is intended to be, it is a valid read to call it a failure.

    But even regarding what it is regardless of what he intended it to be, it may still be a failure. It fails just at being a basic movie via its silly screenplay and it’s hammy acting, especially considering what Verhoeven said he was making before it was released, a film about characters. It may even fail due to the ham-fistedness of its messaging at being satire where he intended, where he didn’t intend, and where some read satire into it. Some think that of it, while others think it’s genuinely savvy and subversive. Those who find even the satire vapid may not have missed something. They may have caught it, every bit of it, and just found it paltry, or perhaps just not interesting enough to cover its other many failings.

    You say he *did* make a satire. You’re right to. That’s what you see, and honestly, I’m glad you like it that way. I like it when people like things I don’t. I ‘enjoyed’ watching it, but mostly at its expense, so it’s not fair for me to say that I like it, and I wish I did. The more you like, the happier you are.

    But is it satire objectively? That seems doubtful. I say he *did* make a general cinematic failure. It was unintentionally and embarrassingly goofy, poorly written, poorly acted and clumsily constructed. I think that only if those things were intended could they be contributions to it’s overall success as a film. They weren’t intended – we have it on record. I could impose myself upon the film and try to make something else of it, but I prefer to take it as it hit me, and analysis after the fact has backed me up anyway. As a satire, I find it a checklist satire, ticking boxes, but unfortunately still neither enlightening nor even entertaining in that area. Frankly, I find it dismissible. So you read it however you like, and enjoy it your way. I enjoyed it my way – I had a blast with it, and others have derided it for their own well reasoned …reasons, and have not enjoyed it. They’re right to.

    I don’t deny that it can be watched as a satire. I do deny that it must be. I deny that the parts which aren’t obviously satirical (the fun, gimmicky stuff), meaning the acting and so forth, must properly be read in that context, otherwise they’re being misread. I deny that the person who just sees that as d-grade film-making is reading the film wrongly. *Maybe* they are, to their loss, but maybe you are wrongly reading it the other way, to your gain. Or maybe we all get to see things our way, in which case those haters are still not wrong. I do deny that Verhoeven intended those elements to be part of the satire, and that the movie is intended to be that, let alone objectively *is* that, even though he started saying that himself after the film received some damning responses.

    I deny that young Jim Rohner necessarily had a false experience when he saw it in his younger days, or that anyone who initially derided it should feel embarrassed in light of its revisionists. I hope Jim enjoys it this time, but more than that, if he doesn’t, but only sees a silly, poorly directed, laughable, dismissible movie, that he doesn’t let himself feel embarrassed about that.

    And I hope he washes it down with Robocop, a delightful, tough, smart b-movie which succeeds in every single way that I think Troopers fails. I wish he’d been assigned that one, but I’m going to be very interested in what he thinks of a Troopers revisit, …so maybe actually I don’t wish that.

    Thanks for replying, seriously.

    • Julius April 15, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

      Thank you, too. I agree, of course, that there is no one way one ‘must’ watch a movie. But, well, let’s get into intend anyway. Though I believe in the Death of the Author, there are circumstances where ignoring one’s believes is necessary.

      One thing we should remember (and this may come across as a lame excuse) is the fact the Verhoeven’s English is, well, limited. Another is that when promoting a movie, a director has to take into consideration the studio’s needs. Promoting an action movie as a satire is probably not the best idea. Finally, when we’re talking about intent, I think it’s important to realize that Verhoeven is a Dutch director making an American film. What you see as poor writing and acting, I see as an outsider’s hyperbolic vision of Hollywood style film-making. I don’t think Verhoeven was necessarily making fun of anything, but I’m pretty sure he was intentionally exaggerating what he saw as typically American. As he says in that 1997 interview you linked:

      “Some people might applaud that somebody [in the film] is caught in the morning and judged in the afternoon and killed in the evening. But I think what Starship Troopers tries to do, perhaps a little too clearly in a couple of cases with the uniforms, it’s saying, “Are you aware that this is also a little bit happening in your own society? And perhaps in a way that’s not so obvious to you.”

      Even though the movie is R-rated, you know a lot of young kids are going to see it. Adolescents and teenagers will love this picture. Do you think they’ll get the point about fascism?

      No, not at all. I saw it in Sacramento with a very normal audience, and also in Granada Hills [California]. I feel that the most [young viewers] see is the kids with the guns. They all got the message; they all start laughing. They realize we’re saying, “Everybody has a gun in this country.” I think they all see the irony.

      You don’t think they will misinterpret it and think the young troopers are cool?

      No, I didn’t get that feeling at all. The exaggeration in the style goes so over the top, they realize we were, not spoofing, but looking at a hyperbole of reality.”

      • W. David Lichty April 17, 2017 at 2:36 pm #

        Julius, I had lunch with my friend yesterday, Ed Johnson-Ott, and I mentioned that I’d referred to his interview. He reaffirmed that Verhoeven was dead serious with him that the film was intended to be taken as straightforward, aside from the obvious spots, and that he’d later just changed his tune. He thinks of him as a consummate BS guy. He also reminded me that he’d interviewed Clancy Brown, and they talked past the length of a tape because Clancy really enjoys a good debate. They walked around our city for a couple of hours with Clancy agreeing that Verhoeven was BS-ing, but he said that he’d been BS-ing Ed about its seriousness, not the rest of the world about its deliberate broadness. Ed said that talking with the press in promotion of your multi-million dollar film is not the place where people normally play their hand-buzzer tricks, and Clancy said, “HE would!”

        Which was credible. So possible points for your read, or maybe Clancy Brown was yanking Ed’s chain out of the joy of sophistry. Clearly Verhoeven said it to more people than Ed.

        Also, I’ve always wondered about Verhoeven’s ability to fully read non-Dutch performances. When I see the levels of acting in, say, actual Japanese Godzilla movies from the 90’s, it’s laughable. The b-movie acting from the Japanese cast is spot on for those films, but the Americans always are embarrassing, I mean middle-school theater level bad, consistently enough that I’ve wondered if it’s harder to read quality of acting where a language is *so* different (especially tonally different, as are Japanese and English from each other).

        In America, the most even acting Verhoeven has gotten was in Basic Instinct, but then he had people like Michael Douglas, George Dzundza and Jeanne Tripplehorn to work with, and that’s how they play. A small step lower in the seriousness dept. would be Robocop, but it has, frankly, great character performances, again, due to people like Peter Weller, Miguel Ferrer, Dan O’Herlihy, Ray Wise, Kurtwood Smith and Ronny Cox. Those people can fill b-movie shoes with a-grade line readings, and they do it there. It steps down a bit with Total Recall, filled with actors doing only exactly what they do – Arnie in the Arnie role, Michael Ironside doing Michael Ironside… they’re all fine at doing what they do, and that’s all they do there. Showgirls and Starship Troopers hit the barrel’s bottom, and I confess that when I saw Troopers, I’d remembered back at having been so surprised at the broad reaction to Showgirls, because at the time, making *effective*, often better acted than usual, b-movies was something you could just count on from Verhoeven. It didn’t seem to be an area for blind spots, so I couldn’t figure out how he *could* mess Showgirls up so badly, and he didn’t come out defending that one. He actually showed up at the Razzies, I believe, to accept Worst Director and Picture awards. And he did not have the same caliber of actors in those two films. So I’d wondered if he just wouldn’t catch elements of performances that were *too* arch, or too affected, or false, in English the way he seemed to be able to do more consistently in his Dutch pictures. Not that he couldn’t tell at all, but that nuances may pass by, whether good or bad ones. It could make hyperbole hard to pull off, because you have to walk a fine line with things like that, the actor does.

        • Julius April 18, 2017 at 3:19 am #

          Well, talking with the press in promotion of your multi-million dollar film is certainly not the place for complete honesty. I can imagine an action movie marketed as serious is expected to do better than one marketed as a hyperbolic satire.

          As for the language barrier as an explanation for the broad acting: Verhoeven is evidence that a lifetime of watching American movies and years of living in the USA does not guarantee proficiency in spoken English (regarding pronunciation, anyway; his accent is a national embarrassment). However, understanding the language is an entirely different matter than speaking it. If you’ve seen as many American films as Verhoeven has, and spent as much time with Americans, you’d need to be especially tone deaf not to be able to read a performance well. Seems to me he just likes broad performances. Again, I think the acting in Showgirls and Starship Troopers fits the tone of the movie perfectly.

          By the way, here’s a Dutch interview with Verhoeven from last year: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2016/05/31/ze-betichten-me-nu-van-feminisme-1623617-a45964. Here’s what he has to say about Showgirls now (my translation):

          [Interviewer:]”The New Yorker called Showgirls a disaster in 1995. Recently, they said it’s the best Las Vegas noir of the 90s. They seem to realize only now that it’s satire.”

          [Verhoeven:] “It’s mainly a hyperbolic film. I asked David Stewart for a tasteless bombastic musical score, because that’s the way it is in Vegas, isn’t it? And they thought it was our taste. Oh well, it made a lot of money on DVD, because people incorrectly thought it was porn. I think Showgirls is still my most elegant film.”

  10. Jim April 14, 2017 at 9:25 am #

    Everything about this comment field is wonderful

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