See No Evil?

With Hollow Man, provocateur Paul Verhoeven tests the viewer's capacity to distinguish sadism from seduction

Los Angeles--

 

Speaking as someone whose rave review of Showgirls nearly spelled the end of his nuptial engagement, I believe I can testify to the fact that the films of Paul Verhoeven are dangerous indeed. More than anything, these lurid, decadent, fiendishly polarizing works of pop art--including the "psychosis trilogy" of RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct--are elaborate Rorschach tests of the viewer's take on sex and violence both onscreen and off. Does the excessive vulgarity of Showgirls constitute cinematic exploitation or real-world critique (or mere camp)? Does the excessive violence of Verhoeven's male protagonist in Basic Instinct evince the natural progression of the film noir "hero" or the righteous agenda of the femme fatale? Does the excessive jingoism of the director's Starship Troopers--in tandem with its excessive splatter--work to pump up the viewer's bloodlust or make him choke on it?

Not with a whimper but a bang: Hollow Man director Paul Verhoeven on the set
Not with a whimper but a bang: Hollow Man director Paul Verhoeven on the set

Not easy questions, these, although it does seem clear that not since Fritz Lang or Douglas Sirk--both of whom, like the Dutch Verhoeven, emigrated to Hollywood from Europe--has a filmmaker so ingeniously catered to the industry's appetite for slop, adding rich layers to the devil's food cake that he has and eats, too. Believe it or not, the maker of Showgirls holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, and accordingly his movies are as precisely calculated as any theorem--even though their answers are invariably subjective. At what point does "entertainment" in extremis become repulsive? And if it doesn't--in other words, if Showgirls and Starship Troopers can be widely interpreted as having at least attempted to be sexy and thrilling, respectively--then isn't that the real cause for alarm? In the current issue of Film Comment, Verhoeven claims that Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will--that epic of agitprop saluting a 1934 Nazi party rally--represents a "guilty pleasure" for portraying, "in the most magnificent way, the seductive beauty that evil can have." One could easily say the same of Verhoeven's own "evil" oeuvre: Mistake it for mere spectacle at your peril.

"On a philosophical level, I was taken with the idea of what happens once you can get away with everything," the director tells me of his latest mega-budget shocker, Hollow Man, a mad-scientist thriller whose arrogant protagonist (Kevin Bacon) gets off on invisibility--literally. For a man of considerable potency himself, Verhoeven, ensconced at the Four Seasons in L.A., appears disarmingly genial and motormouthed, the question mark on the breast pocket of his cream-colored Guess? shirt bearing the only evidence of his trademark ambiguity. "This moral, ethical issue of invisibility, or whatever you want to call it," he says with a vigorous Dutch accent, "was traced thousands of years ago by Plato, whose theory was that any man who could be invisible would ultimately behave in a manner that is evil. So the idea [behind Hollow Man] was to create a person who, because of his power, rather than the invisibility serum itself, would be led, slowly, into the abyss of evil."

Age-old as its sources may be, this ain't your grandfather's Invisible Man. For one thing, and as usual for Verhoeven, the FX are both state-of-the-art and borderline nauseating: In place of the eerily unwrapped bandages and magically floating cigarettes of James Whale's Thirties classic, we get an anatomical model come to life, with coursing blood, purplish organs, and all manner of glistening viscera accompanying the character's transformations. For another, the hollow man is no good doctor underneath his lab coat: Indeed, the first thing he does after getting out of sight is to cop a feel from his co-worker (Kim Dickens). (And what would you do if you were invisible?) Verhoeven doesn't hesitate to describe his followup to the pricey, profoundly seditious Starship Troopers as a more mainstream exercise ("Career-wise, I felt that alienating the audience would be the wrong decision here"). Still, its provocation can be measured by the lengths to which the director goes to make his hollow man's actions both utterly identifiable and beyond the pale. "I tried," says Verhoeven, "to make the audience as [pauses]...culpable? Do you say culpable?" Yes. "As culpable as possible."

Per usual, the Verhoeven project is to catch us in the act of rooting for the protagonist's dastardly triumph of the will--a strategy deployed even more forcefully in the repugnant Turkish Delight (1973) and others of his double-Dutch screen-rippers (The Fourth Man, Spetters). Here, strutting and primping no less than in Footloose, Bacon makes his Sebastian Caine into an unsightly prick right from the start--although any male viewer who fails to see himself in the man's rear-window peep at an unclothed neighbor couldn't consciously have chosen to watch a Paul Verhoeven movie. The filmmaker goes on to suggest that what keeps us prurient voyeurs from becoming rapists is merely our lack of supernatural powers, but even that bleak view of humanity isn't as mischievous as the former mathematician's idea to plot the hollow man's "gradual" descent into evil as a string of ethical peaks and valleys. To put it bluntly: The mad scientist sexually assaults the aforementioned neighbor rather early in the movie, and then, much later, he kills a dog. According to the director, who draws his data from test screenings, it's only after the latter atrocity that most viewers surrender their sympathies for the perp.

To accept that an audience's allegiances could be so perverse--so profane--requires a truly dark belief in what Verhoeven would call the seductive power of evil: Raping your sexy neighbor can be understandable, perhaps even a little titillating, but bumping off man's best friend is simply unforgivable. And yet the director's sense of the public's complicity in such blithe cruelty has its roots in history.

"I would say it comes from growing up in Holland when it was occupied by the Germans," says Verhoeven. "I could see in a very close-up way how the whole German nation was seduced by Hitler in the early Thirties, how it took people ten years to realize where he had gotten them. If you look at the reaction of the German people during the years before the war, people were following [Hitler] throughout. Whatever measures were taken against the Jews, whatever happened to the Gypsies, it was only in 1939, finally, when [the Nazis] started to kill what they called "mentally deficient people," when they started using euthanasia, that the Catholics started to react and say, 'This cannot be done.'"

Now--would anyone care to change her vote on Showgirls?

 

Hollow Man starts Friday at area theaters.

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