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March 02, 2006

"Basic Instinct"'s Commentary Tracks

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The first time I saw "Basic Instinct" was at a screening in early 1992. What a different moviegoing era it was. At the time, Sharon Stone was a barely-known minor starlet. The movie itself had already, before its release, been the object of all kinds of unpleasant press. Because the screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, had made some multimillion-dollar deals, he was despised by the press as a bad-guy vulgarian who was degrading movie culture. (Between you and me, I think many people in the press were jealous of Eszterhas.) Paul Verhoeven, the film's director, had stirred up lots of strong reactions with his earlier films "Robocop" and "Total Recall." The PC gay and lesbian crowd had obtained "Basic Instinct"'s script, and had decided to protest what they thought was the film's unfair treatment of lesbians. They'd done their best to disrupt shooting in San Francisco, and were continuing to apply pressure as the film's release date approached. Perhaps most amazing of all, none of the media people going into the screening had any idea that Sharon Stone -- er, Sharon Stone's character -- was going to uncross and recross her legs in quite that way. It's safe to say that the people at the screening were primed to be appalled by the movie.

They weren't disappointed. The film was outlandish, exciting, stylish, upsetting, and extreme. It was lewd and unrelenting yet sophisticated. Me, I loved it. As far as I was concerned, Michael Douglas had given the Michael Douglas performance to end all Michael Douglas performances. The Ezsterhas script had its holes and couldn't exactly be said to be about anything. But it also had tons of crude drive, and a sneaky and filthy mind. Verhoeven's direction married high gloss with trashy, amoral relish. And Sharon Stone! Who knew she commanded anything like that kind of killer poise and power? Her performance was a classic, one for the film-history books: the pornographic apotheosis of all the self-possessed, scary-erotic blondes who had ever stalked across a movie screen.

The media people I chatted with after the screening didn't see the film my way. As far as they were concerned, the film was every bit the un-PC, horrifying and despicable thing that they'd looked forward to. And Sharon Stone? Well, surely I was kidding. I only enjoyed her performance because she had shown her pussy.

So you can imagine my quiet pleasure when the film became a big hit. Picture me snickering in smug self-satisfaction as the much-anticipated lesbian outrage failed to materialize. I rejoiced particularly when word emerged that, as far as many lesbians were concerned, the reaction to the film wasn't indignation but rapture. "Butt out, protesting PC gayboys," the lesbians were saying. "Let us enjoy our movie. This Catherine Trammel bitch is one hot mama!"

(Please indulge my self-congratulations here, btw. I don't get so many chances to gloat that I'm going to turn one down when it comes along.)

I'd been eager for a long time to look at "Basic Instinct" again, and when I learned that the "Special Edition: Unrated Director's Cut" DVD features one commentary track by Paul Verhoeven and his cinematographer Jan De Bont and another one by the cutural critic Camille Paglia, I felt seriously tempted. When I noticed the disk could be purchased for $6.95, I bit.

What was most striking about the film itself was how adult it looked. It really did seem to come from another, and far more mature, filmgoing era. Despite the controversies, the subject matter, and the rating, the film was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hit of its year. (Sorry, I'm on a lousy AOL connection at the moment, and I don't have the bandwidth wherewithal to do my usual researching.) The film also kicked off a straight-to-video "erotic thriller" boom that lasted for years. These days, where can audiences interested in adult material treated in narrative-movie ways turn? Certainly not to most movie theaters. Has the culture grown more infantile? Has the zeitgeist flipped? Or does it all come down to technology? In any case, most of the time we now seem faced with a choice between corporate family fare on the big screen and porno clips on the web. (Or exploring DVD libraries, of course.)

The Verhoeven/De Bont commentary track was well worth the effort. For one thing, it's a reminder of what movie culture once was. The two collaborators -- who started off in European films -- talk freely about art: about "8 1/2" and Hitchcock, about David Hockney and Edward Hopper. They aren't talking about mere tension and impact, and they aren't self-ironic media wise-asses. As outrageous as "Basic Instinct" is, the two guys are artist/entertainers working within the tradition of the narrative cinema, which in turn exists in a larger cultural matrix. "Basic Instinct" gets a lot of its power from the way Verhoeven and De Bont situated their work in art history. One example: They patterned the shooting style of the precinct and cop scenes on "Touch of Evil," while basing the shooting style of the scenes with Sharon Stone on "Vertigo."

The most surprising thing about this commentary track is the way its duties break down. Although he directed the film, Paul Verhoeven speaks about his movie less like a film director than like a producer. He's an exciting and charismatic presence. He has a chortling, robust, alpha-male-to-the-max unstoppability. He's also appreciative of his collaborators -- the actors, the screenwriter, the composer. But he seems only dimly aware of how his movie actually got made. Over and over, Verhoeven defers to Jan De Bont for explanations of how scenes were staged, lit, and shot.

When Verhoeven speaks about the film himself, his stories are about locations, stars, gossip. He's shrewd about what his characters are up to, and cheerily perverse about people's sexual drives. An example: He says that he thinks that Sharon Stone carries Catherine Trammel deep inside her, but finds it unpleasant to give vent to the character -- and that this explains why Stone has taken so long to make a "Basic Instinct" sequel. Verhoeven comes across less like a down-to-earth craftsperson than like an inspired pitchman, someone able to excite moneymen into committing to his pictures. He also comes across as someone who's inarticulate about what he's looking for but who won't stop until he gets it. Not an unusual combo in bosses, wouldn't you say?

De Bont, by contrast, seems like the real filmmaker, if content to piggyback on Verhoeven's dynamism. You know how there's often an unheralded lowkey genius behind a glitzy music act? De Bont seems like that guy, but in movie terms. He has in fact gone on to direct a number of movies himself. Most have been beyond-crappy -- but, to his credit, he's also the guy who directed "Speed."

De Bont has a subtle and insightful understanding of how films are put together. During a scene when the erotic gamesmanship is heating up, De Bont talks about the difficulty of lighting and shooting faces in such intimate quarters. "You want to see the eyes," he says. "Without the eyes, you don't have a face. Without the face, you don't have a character." His remark reminds me of something else I once heard a film director say about the importance of eyes in feature films. This director had once used Kurt Russell. He adored Russell, who he felt had everything it takes to be a big star -- except for the eyes. Russell's eyes are so deep-set, this director said, that they're almost impossible to light in such a way that they come to life on screen.

At another moment, De Bont talks over a scene that consists of one long, intricately choreographed shot: "[A scene captured in one shot] gives a feel of real time," De Bont says. "Sometimes when you cut a scene up too much you feel like too much time has passed. This is all in one. A shot like this connects everything." De Bont talks easily about using "the drama of the Pacific ocean," about letting the characters lead the camera, about studding the movie with mirrors and reflections, about color, lighting, and pacing choices. His goal -- er, what he and Verhoeven were aiming for -- was to create an atmosphere of "heightened reality."

Camille Paglia's commentary track? Well, all due credit to Camille for standing up for the movie, and especially for recognizing at the time of the film's release the iconic beauty of Sharon Stone's performance. Most critics and reviewers were beyond-cautious about giving Stone credit for much beyond looking terrific and taking her clothes off. Camille, by contrast, swung for the bleachers, comparing Stone to Kim Novak and Grace Kelly. But her commentary track on this disc didn't, alas, strike this very big Camille fan as Camille at her finest.

In 1983, before coming to America, Verhoeven made a literary thriller called "The Fourth Man." It's my favorite of his movies: brilliant, ingenious, sexy, and perverse -- something like a Nabokov novel, though realized in movie terms. It also features a lot of elements that show up later in "Basic Instinct." Check out that kinky and dangerous spiderwoman-blonde! You can buy "The Fourth Man" here. I wrote a few words about Verhoeven's film version of "Starship Troopers" (which I love) here.



posted by Michael at March 2, 2006


Great post. You definitely need to check out "Casino", where Sharon Stone gives a spectacular performance that demonstrates the cost of being an actual, real-life Catherine Trammel femme fatale, as opposed to the fantasy. That is probably the greatest "gold-digger" performance in Hollywood history.

Glad to hear you also like the very under-rated "Starship Troopers". Heinlein fans cannot forgive that movie for being such a clever lampoon of Heinlein's fundamentally adolescent and cheesy, authoritarian mentality. Verhoeven picked up on the pulp, pop-facist nature of the source material and amped it to the max. But science fiction fans are a solemn, worshipful bunch who have a hard time seeing their idols exposed.

Posted by: MQ on March 2, 2006 04:37 AM

Actually, Heinlien's fantasies aren't fascistic, they're Roman. Notice the key 'innovation' of the society in which the novel was set isn't a one-party state, but a 'democracy' in which political participation is restricted to people who have served in the military. (I believe several of the characters have joined up to earn their "vote"). I suspect that Heinlein is actually correct in supposing that a rule of this kind would make society more stable (note the remarkable political stability of Rome from 500-200 BCE), but I don't think he thought through how much of a bias this would give to aggression in state policies. People wanting to launch their political careers would need a good combat record to get attention, and hence need lots of combat to be sure to get one.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2006 08:31 AM

I was there for the first 5:00 Friday matinee showing of "Basic Instinct" on opening weekend. God, was it great.

Posted by: jult52 on March 2, 2006 09:44 AM

I don't quite understand how Sharon Stone is going to manage a reprise of the Catherine Trammel role in the upcoming sequel. She's close to 50, admitting to a birth year of 1958 (who knows what it really is). No matter how good she may look, the part just won't be age-appropriate unless it's written substantially differently than in the orginal. It makes me think of the late-50's Roger Moore playing James Bond in A View to a Kill.

Posted by: Peter on March 2, 2006 09:56 AM

This is a great set of observations---but I am most struck by your comment that more adult (not porno, but I mean "adult" as in more complex, more mature themes, more nuanced characters) films used to be "big hits." You absolutely right---it seems to have almost vanished! Reese Witherspoon---who I think is talented--is gonna have to dig deep to find her Catherince Trammel. Stone is largely about unapologetic female power (not "empowerment"--pure "power") in that movie. The evidence of the strength of her performance is a comparison of this movie to that Demi Moore-Michael Douglas thing a few years later (can't remember the name) where Moore supposedly "sexually harasses" Douglas. Moore can't pull it off. (Just like I don't think Stone could have pulled off Moore's character in "Ghost." Moore was about vulnerability; Stone is about unleashed sexual power).

I think Sharon Stone was sort of a watershed. It's like she was really about what Madonna just pretended to be about. Stone is gorgeous, and in real life she's actually smart as a whip---phi beta kappa in college, I believe--and she was about marrying beauty and "girl stuff" with power and poise and smarts and "man stuff". I like her.

This all brings up another element of the-actor-and-the-role. Stone very badly wanted the part Meg Ryan got in "Sleepless in Seattle", and at that time (around 1993 or '94) Stone was the bigger star. But Meg Ryan is all about funny pragmatic-life-vs.-lovely-meant-to-be-romance-and-reconciling-the-two; Moore was almost a male fantasy of vulnerability (at her best) and Stone is powerful.

P.S.---I think Stone was way more interesting than Kim Novak ever was. And definitely different than Kelly. As Cary Grant said of Grace Kelly: "She's pretty femme but not very fatale." Stone is fatale in "Basic Instinct."

Posted by: annette on March 2, 2006 10:18 AM

There certainly are fewer box office smash hits with any sophistication. I was 20 when Basic Instinct came out and I saw it for only 1 obvious reason. That narrow view has now become the one that matters the most. The disappointing part is that the entertainment powers make a killing with this. We are now frozen in time when it comes to 'demographic'. Stuck in adolescence. Check out your local video store. If you want anything with any thought you have to know what you want and if you don't you will invariably find yourself in the 'classics' section.

Posted by: doug on March 2, 2006 12:31 PM

"Actually, Heinlien's fantasies aren't fascistic, they're Roman"

Good point, and I basically agree, but I don't think that contradicts the fascist connection at all. Fascism as an ideology was first invented by Mussolini as an explicit attempt to imitate ancient Rome in a modern context. Hence the "fasces".

Verhoeven has the fascist context somewhat in mind artistically, note the lingering on warrior bodies throughout the movie, which was a characteristic of fascist pulp art.

Posted by: MQ on March 2, 2006 12:41 PM

and P.S. I didn't mean to be completely critical of Heinlein. I do think his mentality is adolescent in many ways, cheesy, authoritarian, etc. but he made those things come alive in a way that connected to the people's subconscious fantasies. That's what marks a great pulp writer (great artists add an element an element of self-awareness and an acknowledgement of complexity that was completely foreign to someone like Heinlein).

Posted by: MQ on March 2, 2006 12:44 PM

As to what happened to the movies: the PC stormtroopers won.

Whether or not you like Ann Coulter, I suggest reading her thorough demolition of this years Oscar nominees at:

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 2, 2006 01:11 PM

Good post.
My biggest problem with "Basic Instinct" was with the most famous scene. There's no way that a group of experienced detectives are going to be discomfitted and distracted by a suspect flashing her crotch. If anything, it would make them determined not to let her actions affect their questioning.
My own perspective of that scene? As a hospital worker (20+ years): "big deal. I've seen it before."

Posted by: Gus on March 2, 2006 02:23 PM

Here's a quite unrated trailer for Basic Instinct 2. Despite Stone's age, she's naked all over it and looks pretty damn good.

Posted by: the patriarchy on March 2, 2006 02:26 PM


Obviously we could split hairs about the "Roman-ness" of Italian fascism, but I think it's fair to say that Mussolini used the symbolism without being in any way able to access the substance of the Roman state. As an ongoing series of posts of mine should demonstrate, I am not a cheerleader for the ancient Romans, but their accomplishments are not to be ignored...and the use of an exclusively upper- and middle-class (property-owning) army and the linkage of that army to the leadership of the state was one of those underlying reasons for those accomplishments, at least during the Republic. (To give one example: at the great Roman defeat of Cannae, fully 25% of the Roman Senate perished. These guys had to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk, so to speak.) The impact of adopting such a system on the current American foreign policy would be interesting to see.

Likewise, I'm not defending Heinlein as a great artist or a great philosopher, but I think you just might be underestimating his capacities as a thinker (i.e., describing them as adolescent) because you, um, appear not to agree with his conclusions. It might be more useful to criticize the substance of his ideas rather than use such tags, IMHO.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2006 02:29 PM

There were glimmerings of fierce-Sharon-to-come in the Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall. As I recall, she still had baby fat in her cheeks—verboten in the fatale-iest of femmes.

Stone studied with Roy London, the same acting teacher as my own acting teacher, whom I believe coached Sharon on a few things. She came and spoke at the studio several years ago. I missed the talk, alas, but everyone who went said the same thing: the woman was a heat-seeking missile of desire and ambition, a force of nature that was awesome (and a little scary) to behold.

What was so impressive to me about her work in Casino was how vulnerable she allowed herself to be while still fully inhabiting the predatory character (Ginger, I think?) she was in the film. That is really, really hard to do, especially for those whom the power mode is (or has become) more natural. It involves going to some really terrifying places down deep, over and over again. Bleh. She deserved that Golden Globe and Oscar nom.

But I can't imagine her going out for "Meg Ryan-type" roles any more than I can imagine Meg Ryan playing "Sharon Stone-type" roles: they're stars, not character actors, and stars are stars for playing some version of themselves that they've adapted along the way as their persona. (Meryl Streep is the exception that proves the rule, I think.)

Great post. Great movie, too, I think. Now I want to hear that commentary track!

Posted by: communicatrix on March 2, 2006 02:37 PM

Meg Ryan tried the the "Sharon Stone-type" (including appearing nude for the first time) in Jane Campion's "In The Cut" and I thought that both the film and her performance didn't really work. Campion tried to elevate the source material into something more than just an erotic thriller and couldn't pull it off and Ryan apparently confused sexy with sullen in her approach to the character.

Posted by: grandcosmo on March 2, 2006 03:34 PM

Communicatrix---I think you and I are making the same point, but remember, in 1993, "Sleepless in Seattle" wasn't a "Meg Ryan role"---Ryan was pretty cold after a series of flops. "Sleepless" was just a good role---and Sharon wanted it. Nora Ephron actually had to fight the brass a bit to cast Ryan, but felt that the chemistry between Hanks and Ryan just couldn't be beat. It was that film that made certain parts "Meg Ryan" roles.

Posted by: annette on March 2, 2006 03:37 PM

MQ -- Stone really was good in "Casino," wasn't she? Fun back and forth between you and FvB about Heinlein too. I've only read a couple of his books, and their appeal whizzes by me completely, even on a totally-pulp level. So, unlike his fans, I had no attachment to the "Starship Troopers" book in the first place. Heinlein fans mostly hated the movie, I guess, thinking it wasn't respectful. Fair enough. But as an irreverent midnight-movie type thing, it was pretty spectacular. All those Crest-white smiles, the sexy bods, the eagerness to get ahead ... I thought it was a hilarious satire of the young kids of that era. I read Verhoeven somewhere saying that he was proud of the movie, but that he'd miscalculated -- you just can't do sophisticated satire with that kind of budget. There isn't a big enough audience for it.

JT -- To my regret I've never seen the movie with a regular audience. Did it work well when you saw it opening day? Was the audience with it?

Peter -- I've seen some recent paparazzi pix of Stone on the web (topless beach somewhere), and she was looking awfully good. I'm curious about the sequel -- which direction will she want to take the character and the movie? Or will she just be there to repeat it and take home the paycheck?

Annette -- You're amazing about movies and especially about stars! What an inspiration, too, comparing Stone to Reese. There are a lot of similarities: all that blonde will. Ah, for the days when such a creature would really have to prove herself ...

Doug -- "Stuck in adolescence" indeed. Sometimes I even wonder if we've regressed further than that, right back to childhood. In any case, adulthood seems further from our grasp than ever. Hard to explain, isn't it? Can we blame it all on the Boomers? Or, even better, on modernism? I sure hope so.

ST -- Thanks for the Coulter link. She sometimes makes me laugh out loud. The PC stormtroopers have a lot to answer for. I wonder sometimes though if the bad guys don't also include the sanctimonious squares too. I mean, bless the squares, of course. But some of them get awfully intolerant of anything non-square. Remember some of the porn wars? MacKinnon and Dworkin would partner up with local pastors and moralizers. Wasn't DW Griffith tearing his hair out about similar alignments back in the days of "Intolerance"?

Gus -- That's hilarious, tks. I've often marveled that medical people manage to stay interested in sex at all. Did you ever see a Blier movie called "Femmes Fatales" (or "Calmos" in French)? It starts with a middle-aged male gynecologist, very hunky and suave, who one day just can't face his work any longer...

Patriarch -- She's lookin' good, and so's the trailer, tks. I'll be there. It's one of the few times I'm regretting not being on screening lists any longer.

Communicatrix -- I picture people like Stone as living surrounded by a kind of Uri Geller force-field of ambition, will, determination, and more. Did you ever see her interview on "Inside the Actors Studio"? One of the better episodes? Fairly frank, pretty bright, funny, tough ... The way all that combines with her airline-stewardess prettiness is really something, isn't it?

Grandcosmo -- I liked Campion and Ryan for giving it a game try in "In the Cut," didn't you? But like you I thought it didn't work out too well. Too bad. I'd love to see more intense, sexual stuff from the p-o-v of the gals. A good topic for a blog posting, btw ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 2, 2006 06:49 PM

Ironic that Heinlein is coming up in conversation, because I've been on a Heinlein-reading kick of late. I went through a serious sci-fi phase as a young teen, then abandoned it for decades as far too déclassé. Now I don't care, and it's fun to go back. I didn't 'grok' Heinlein at all in my first go, since I tried to read Stranger in a Strange Land first, and it's really not a good choice for young kids.

I've recently plowed through Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, and just recently Glory Road. I must be liking him enough to keep at it!

Heinlein's not for everyone, but to write him off as an adolescent fascist because he held the military/national defense in high regard is not fair. He was trying over and over to come up with plausible alternatives to representative democracy, which he clearly thought wasn't the long term solution for the world's woes. I found the system in Troopers quite compelling, myself. It's a sophisticated deconstruction (and I mean that in the best possible sense) of the assumption of 'rights'. Many of us from western countries would benefit from thinking a bit more carefully about what 'rights' really are, where they come from, and how they're maintained.

Speaking of plausible alternatives, my own gripe with Heinlein is his obsession with inventing mating arrangements as alternatives to monogamy. They're fun to consider at first -- the 'line marriage' he proposes in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is very clever -- but it gets old when some variation of free love/polygamy pops up and is expounded in nearly every book.

Ahhhh, maybe I'm being just as unjustifiably harsh as Heinlein's political detractors!

Posted by: mr tall on March 2, 2006 09:42 PM

I'll say one thing about Basic Instinct ... it led millions of men to use the Pause buttons on their VCR's!

Posted by: Peter on March 2, 2006 10:16 PM

first, when I was a peace corps volunteer in Albania, I met a 22 year old painter whose inspiration was Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (his father--also an artist--was inspired by Cezanne).

Good mention of 4th Man. Lots of parallels between the two movies.

i didn't get the fascist undertones underneath Starship Troopers, but once it was pointed out to me, it seemed so obvious.

Sharon Stone--great actress who was unfortunately typecast. Now I can't wait to watch Casino (which I've been avoiding for no reason at all!).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 3, 2006 11:12 AM

Who said 50 ain't sexy?!

Posted by: ricpic on March 3, 2006 12:02 PM

"Casino" is a terrific movie.

MvB: about the live audience, not a particularly full house (it was a matinee) but one of my Top 10 in-theater experiences.

Posted by: jult52 on March 3, 2006 01:53 PM

These days, where can audiences interested in adult material treated in narrative-movie ways turn?

Quite aside from the merits of the post, this one line made me realize that there is *NOTHING* that will not be grounds for future nostalgic proclamations of the "I walked to school uphill both ways" school.

When Basic Instinct is seen as *classic* Vertiginous.

Not to say that it's not a good movie, but it's a bit disorienting to hear it praised from the "you kids these days" perspective...when many of them would (still) view such a movie as evidence of the decline & fall etc.

Posted by: gc on March 3, 2006 07:30 PM

Basic Instinct was a pretty great movie. But based on the way BI2 is being marketed, I predict that it will essentially be a remake of that Madonna movie "Body of Evidence" or whatever that piece of crap was called.

Having said that, I'd like to propose that they similarly make "Showgirls 2".

Posted by: Ilkka Kokkarinen on March 3, 2006 10:38 PM

Mr. Tall -- I'm completely untouchable by sci-fi, but I'm fascinated by people's reactions to Heinlein. He seems in some ways like Ayn Rand -- you either love him or you hate him, or maybe he meant a heckuva lot to you at some point ... But you've got me thinking: maybe it's not all sci-fi. I don't think I've ever been much affected on the plane of ideas by a work of fiction. Is that true? Hmmm. Yeah, I think it is. Which would go a long way to explaining why I blank out before sci-fi, come to think of it...

Peter -- The key frames are much clearer on the DVD than they were on the VCR. But most movie-fan men know that already.

Robert -- I wonder if the work of your Albanian painter will eventually inspire some filmmaker! As for Stone, I'm under the impression that she miscast herself. I've got no way of knowing this for sure, but I watched her career post-"Basic Instinct" thinking, Wow, I've never seen anyone blow the credit she's earned quite this fast. She never seemed to find a satisfying way to balance power, beauty, and a little vulnerability again. Though I thought she did glamorously well in that inadvertently hilarious movie "The Specialist."

Ricpic -- 50 is the new 30, I hear.

JT -- Let's hope "BI 2" will be even half as satisfying.

GC -- It's going to be discovered someday soon (maybe in your lab) that there's an evolved mind-module that ensures that everyone eventually starts talking about the good old days.

Ilkka -- The line between camp-wonderful and wonderful-wonderful is sometimes mighty thin, isn't it? I notice that Verhoeven doesn't do a commentary track on the DVD of "Showgirls." I'd love to hear what he has to say about it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 4, 2006 04:16 AM

The point about Heinlein's Starship Troopers is that it's challenging by nature. It's a society that works on assumptions totally different from the ones we take into the book, and it doesn't let us off by inserting some tagalong voice-of-the-reader to reassert the modern perspective. It's the scifi equivalent of Fight Club -- even if you strongly disagree with the society you see on screen, Fight Club presents its internal logic compellingly enough that you have to do your own thinking.

The fundamental problem with the Verhoeven movie is that it lets the viewer off the hook by treating the social arragements that Heinlein clearly put some thought into as a scifi farce. You don't have to think about whether you agree or disagree with the assumptions behind the society you see, because the filmmakers have already tipped you off that it's a sham. And if that wasn't enough, the officers' uniforms are all modeled on the Waffen SS (think Doogie Howser's uniform at the end of the movie).

Posted by: Zach on March 4, 2006 09:37 PM

I think you've hit on something significant about fiction-reading experiences, Michael. I was an undergraduate lit major, and for me it was all about themes and ideas. I appreciated good artistry, but it wasn't my first concern. I would be a truly lost puppy in today's pomo, theory-saturated lit crit world.

Zach is right on; Verhoeven's sin is taking a genuinely subversive and 'countercultural' work, and making it nice and comfy for postmodern, self-indulgent viewers. I don't mean this as a criticism of someone like Michael, who enjoyed the movie on these (rather limited) grounds, but as a seriously missed opportunity.

Which brings up a question: has anyone else noticed how the current sci-fi remake series Battlestar Galactica is actually doing the reverse, i.e. it's taken a premise that was a farce (the orginal 70s series) and is now playing out its implications in a completely straight (and may I say compelling) fashion? Remarkable, really.

Posted by: mr tall on March 5, 2006 10:30 PM

Verhoeven's crime against STARSHIP TROOPERS was turning a serious story into comic-book bling. A major part of this crime was his obvious contempt for physical plausibility. Very science-fiction works ever manage 100% scientific consistency, to be sure - but no stagecoach route ever passed through Monument Valley, either. John Ford did no great violence to the plausibility of STAGECOACH by setting it there. Suppose Verhoeven made STAGECOACH the way he made TROOPERS. The Indians would have been riding in elk-drawn chariots and wielding blowguns. The stagecoach would have escaped by vaulting the Grand Canyon (and arriving immediately in downtown San Francisco). And the Ringo Kid would get away at the end by a quick gallop to the Canadian border.

Some people think that because it's 'sci-fi', anything can happen. Not true. STARSHIP TROOPERS takes place in a world of faster-than-light travel among planets in different solar systems quintillions of kilometers apart. The relative separation of Earth and a planet of Alpha Centauri is comparable to two grains of sand on opposite sides of Australia. That's a fact, as real as the geography of Europe, and whether we invent a 'warp drive' won't change it. Verhoeven doesn't know this or worse, he doesn't care. It's just sci-fi.

He wouldn't make a movie where characters drive over the border from France into Britain, or walk from Times Square into a casino, or meet the President of Japan. But TROOPERS is just 'sci-fi'. The open contempt and deliberate insult - to Heinlein, to the genre he worked in, and to the audience - is obvious.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on March 6, 2006 02:36 AM

Actually, Heinlein wasn't a fascist, of any sort. He started out a left-wing radical of the "Social Credit" type, and ended up a quasi-libertarian. Heinlein was convinced that mass democracy would end up in some sort of repressive, lowest-common denominator society, and he was very eager to formulate a plausible alternative to it. He may not have been a great thinker, but he caused a lot of adolescent guys to actually think about society, and political theory, and that alone is an accomplishment.He had a quick agile mind, wrote well, passed up several lucrative contracts because they offended his political beliefs, and never seemed to take himself as seriously as many of his fans did. Sort of a Sci-fi Raymond Chandler - a pulp writer, but a great pulp writer...

By the way, as several commentators have pointed out, Heinlein was a nudist with a strong interest in alternative sexual arrangements, so I have a feeling that SOME aspects of the Starship Troopers movie would have appealed to him - he would have hated those "SS" uniforms, though - few people hated totalitarianism as much as Heinlein.


Posted by: tschafer on March 6, 2006 03:25 PM

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