Paul Verhoeven From Flesh + Blood to Robocop.
I awoke from a deep sleep at 1:30 AM thinking of the films of Paul Verhoeven. Not specifically All the films of Paul Verhoeven; the vast filmography he created in the Netherlands before his fascinating pivot to America and Oripn Pictures is completely unknown to me. Anecdotally, I know those original Dutch films are highly erotic, anti- establishment and filled with a very specific Scandinavian sensibility (and subversion) that he would bring to the fascinating films he helmed in the USA .
Before I go any further, in the interest of credibility and authorial integrity, I am, and always have been, a champion of Robocop. Now, there has been a certain intellectual revival of the themes and story of Robocop in maybe the last 10 years, many people other than me have held the film up in high regard. It is not just a silly high- concept 1980s action film, which is exactly what Verhoeven thought when he read the script and initially passed on it. If anything, we have Paul’s wife to thank for the film, as she was the one who saw in that strange screenplay a place where Verhoeven could find both the sugar and the medicine, a visceral sci-fi dystopia that was a mirror to the American society at the tail-end of the Reagan administration. It’s not for nothing that Robocop is considered a film for “the smartest person in the room and the dumbest person in the room.” Or that the director himself claims that Robocop the American Jesus. But first, some background.
Before his first foray into filmmaking in the US, 1985’s Flesh + Blood, starring Rutger Hauer and very young indie darling Jennifer Jason Leigh, Verhoeven had been directing television and features since 1969, no stranger behind the camera, and a director with a fully formed worldview. Living through the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands as a boy, experiencing the postwar privations of a savaged Europe, the experiences which would inform his filmmaking, none more obvious than 1997’s Starship Troopers, a movie that opens with an outright pastiche of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will.
Let’s skip ahead. What I find so compelling of his films is the notion of subversion, and how a director plays within the sandbox of a genre. And using those tropes, those mainstays of the genre, creates a piece that is an elevation of its forms. I’m certain I’m not the first to think this, but what is so compelling about genre filmmaking is how much it’s a reflection of the fears of the moment. The 1952 Western High Noon is a reaction to the Communist witch hunts within Hollywood at the time, the naming of names. Do you speak up and defend others, or remain silent and protect yourself? The 1984 actioner Red Dawn gives an America grown soft, beaten by the memories of Vietnam, an opportunity to win the Cold War and remind us all that our way of life will always win, just like Stallone reminds us when he overcomes Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.
And if there is any director who has worked in American genre filmmaking and elevated it, that would be Paul Verhoeven. Robocop is a sharp satire of the prevailing sentiments of its time, the tropes of 1980s red-blooded barrel-chested Americans exceptionalism filtered through the sensibilities of an outsider. It’s no mistake that once Alex Murphy becomes Robocop his face is hidden behind that steel-blue visor. This is not a star-driven picture, it is a character-driven action film. There is no glamor nor vanity to the titular hero of this film. There is pain, freakishness and a journey from man to monster to man again. Inside that absurd 80s sci-fi-fi action picture, with over the top violence and sometimes cliched dialogue, is a very human story, a proper Greek tragedy, a redemption for Alex Murphy and a catharsis for the audience.