It could be said that you don’t like the absurd images of cartoon-esque violence and graphic sex in his films, but Verhoeven knows you like it.
It is absurdly obvious how accepted violence is in film and television. Don’t get me wrong, I think violence is part of life and can be shown on TV if it works for the story. The problem is that audiences can say that violence is inherently bad in real life when we stand in line to see a movie where people are killed in the crossfire. The thrill of violence has stunned US audiences, and Paul Verhoeven knows how to exploit the hypocritical parts of human nature in his films.
Verhoeven is a filmmaker that people either love or hate. He started his career as a mainstream filmmaker in Holland, but his sophisticated melodramas showcasing sex and violence made funding his films a challenge. Verhoeven then moved to the US and was shocked by the incidence of violence and sex in the media, but knew this was the perfect place for him to realize his vision. Verhoeven was able to show his reaction to American culture and excess because he was an outsider.
Some critics describe Verhoeven and his work as brilliant, subversive and high-profile satirist, while others discredit him as cheesy, misogynistic and purely sadistic. Are his films really as deep as he thinks? joke discusses in her video what makes Verhoeven’s works provocative and smart, by exploiting his ability to tell the audience a long-standing joke by exploiting American cravings for violence and sex.
Watch the full video from Wisecrack here:
The senseless violence for the fascination of the audience
In his greatest films like RoboCop, Starship Troopers, and Entire recall, Verhoeven added sci-fi elements to an action film formula to mask his true intentions as something alien. Whether it’s a revenge thriller, a spy adventure, or a war film, all of these films had cartoon-like violence that flaunted the audience’s bloodlust in a morally ambiguous way.
The heroes are average Joes who think they were made for something bigger, but can get violent the moment the opportunity arises through propaganda or advertising. Verhoeven said, “After what happened in WWII and we saw what people could do to each other, the audience just didn’t want to buy the idea of perfect heroes anymore.”
Heroes can be complex characters struggling with their dark side, but Verhoeven pushes the envelope and blurs the moral line of what makes a character good or bad.
Verhoeven grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland, where he was exposed to the unimaginable horrors of war. Past mutilated corpses, executions and burning buildings was a constant occurrence in Verhoeven’s childhood. Verhoeven broke away from the horrors of his life and pretended to watch a movie to come to terms with his trauma. His characters reflect his own distance from the horrors that surround them.
Entire recall makes Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) the hero of his own story, but he carelessly uses and kills innocent people to his advantage. In one scene, Quaid uses a civilian as a protective shield and the bullets tear the man’s upper body to shreds. The man is no longer human, but a tool that Quaid uses to accomplish his mission. The brutality of the murders is so extreme that it takes center stage in the film, while a simple plot ties the violent scenes together.
Starship Troopers follows a similar pattern as Entire recall. Attractive young adults are drawn to the idea of joining the Federation and killing a bunch of bugs. The characters want to get right in the middle of the violence, and all they needed was a boost from their government to become the killer machines they always wanted to be. People don’t care if the violence looks realistic or not because all they want is to see someone’s head chopped off by a winged alien and then watch that alien be torn to pieces for their crimes . The violence is purposely nonsensical to subversively comment on the audience’s fascination with violence. All people need is for violence to disguise itself as justice, so that people should strip off their masks and present their wild desires to the world.
Nothing is real if it’s a joke
One of the greatest theories around Entire recall is whether or not Quaid had real or fake memories. This argument comes from viewers who note how the doctor Quaid explains the entire plot of the film in 30 seconds and how a Rekall technician determines that Quaid’s “journey” will end with blue skies on Mars. Everything discussed in the Rekall building happens throughout the film, and even ends with blue skies on Mars, but Verhoeven purposely made the audience question the reality of the film to draw attention to the unreality of the violence shown. There’s no need to take violence seriously if what you’re seeing isn’t real, is it?
Verhoeven believes that action films are inherently silly and captures this joke of extreme and unrealistic everyday violence by putting ordinary people in exaggerated situations. in the RoboCop, the camera switches to the news to show footage of a repressive government before jumping to commercial promoting a game about nuclear war. Quaid in Entire recall sipping his morning smoothie watching people die on the news, just like the news in Starship Troopers shows mutilated corpses from the war. There are even commercials that you can tune in for live performances.
Verhoeven criticizes how human nature has made it possible for a world to become deaf to violence. The US audience watching war and oppressive governments through the news is far more jaded than anyone else.
The joke is always with the beholder
People love to see terrible things happen to other people. Verhoeven creates a story that seduces the audience before it makes it clear to the audience that they are admiring evil all the time. An audience can be so busy looking for the troops in Starship Troopers that we don’t realize that we are cheering on the bad guy. The troops are part of a fascist empire and are unhesitatingly committing genocide against an intelligent alien race. Verhoeven’s joke in Starship Troopers is to get an audience to support pseudo-Nazis even when we say we could never support a Nazi regime.
No joke was better than the one in his Razzie Award-winning film Showgirls.
Showgirls is a typical dishwasher to millionaire story that follows Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) on her way to fame. It’s a Hollywood wannabe dream we’ve seen countless times. Instead of making it pretty, Verhoeven shows the cruelty of the entertainment industry and sets the film in the glittering and man-made land of Las Vegas. Nomi’s rise to fame is far from glamorous. There is little difference between where Nomi begins and where it ends. Your dream is tainted by what drives most people: sex. No matter how much Nomi combats this idea, her dreams can only be realized through sexual transactions. Her body makes her famous and when she realizes this she leaves the show.
Our obsession with sex becomes the core of the joke in Showgirls. Sex robs Nomi of her dream, and the dances are designed to make us laugh as we watch our sexual desires become absurd. The scandalous dances make fun of the Hollywood dream by obscuring their true purpose. Is it giving a talented woman a place to put her skills to the test, or is it for our pleasure and entertainment? In the end, the audience is the one who paid money to see the same story told over and over again. We are invited to look, think, and stay away.
Verhoeven’s films are his reflection of what makes our world chaotic. We can say that we don’t like excessive violence or sex over and over, but we can’t help but feed ourselves because our need to watch is so strong. There is nothing wrong with flaunting human nature because that is what filmmaking is all about. It is a reflection of the world you see and you are free to mock it as you see fit. In the end, the joke always falls on the audience, because we are invited to watch and watch in silence.
What do you think of Paul Verhoeven’s films? Let us know in the comments below!