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Daily Archives: November 21, 2011

“Basic” Film Language

Most artistically ambitious film directors in the sound era have dreamed of returning to the aesthetics of silent cinema. Stanley Kubrick expressly stated his intention of creating a “visual, nonverbal experience” when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey. That movie’s lengthy dialogue-free passages (and, for that matter, passages where dialogue is present but ultimately unimportant) are what many critics had in mind when they recently invoked it in discussions of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – not coincidentally another unusually ambitious cinematic attempt to show man’s relationship to the universe. Other films in recent decades have impressed with audacious scenes of little or no dialogue: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge with its epic, climactic heist sequence, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West with its comically drawn-out train station showdown, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger with its virtuosic long take/crane shot accompanying Jack Nicholson’s offscreen suicide, Ken Ogata carrying his mother up the mountain in Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, and entire contemporary art films like Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia and most of the oeuvre of South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk. Then there is the matter of the curiously similar openings of Pixar’s WALL-E and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, both of which depict the solitary work of a lone protagonist in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. In both instances, more than fifteen minutes goes by before a single word of dialogue is spoken. And this is to say nothing of that earlier generation of directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, et al.) who actually started directing in the silent era and then applied its lessons to sound era filmmaking.

One of my favorite non-verbal sequences in any movie of modern times can be found in Paul Verhoeven’s darkly comic thriller Basic Instinct, which also has the added benefit of being far less ostentatious about calling attention to its virtuosity than any of the examples cited above. In fact, even though I had seen the film several times (including a 35mm print during its original theatrical release as well as the notorious “unrated version” when it bowed on DVD) it wasn’t until I recently watched it on blu-ray for the first time that I even became aware that Verhoeven had plunked down two back-to-back dialogue-free sequences totaling eight and a half minutes of screen time in the middle of his movie. As far as I know this aspect of Basic Instinct hasn’t even been commented upon in any critical writing about the film. This passage of pure visual storytelling is both the high point of the movie as well as a great example of why Verhoeven remains one of contemporary cinema’s unheralded masters.

It has been much commented upon that Basic Instinct is essentially a reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both films detail the relationships between a psychologically disturbed cop and two contrasting women – the beautiful, mysterious and dangerous blonde woman of his dreams vs. his pragmatic, maternal and glasses-wearing ex-girlfriend. Verhoeven’s movie however is no mere retread. He displays an extreme (and extremely clever) self-consciousness in regard to gender roles that mark Basic Instinct as a defining film of the early 1990s in much the same way that the portrayal of repression in Vertigo marks it as a defining film of the late 1950s. But what is obvious watching Basic Instinct now that was less clear in 1992 is the extent to which it functions, like most of Verhoeven’s work, as a satire. Decades removed from its status as an epoch-making “zeitgeist movie” (with its controversial depictions of bisexual killers and full frontal nudity), it positively delights today as a witty send-up of erotic thriller conventions. Verhoeven takes a prominent subtext of the genre – male sexual insecurity in the face of a powerful, domineering female character – and makes it the explicit subject of Basic Instinct. (Not for nothing does Camille Paglia refer to it as one of her “favorite works of art.”) Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in the aforementioned non-verbal scenes, in which Verhoeven effectively utilizes the “basics” of film language to drive his point home.

The first such scene occurs after Michael Douglas’ character, police detective Nick Curran, has become hopelessly infatuated with Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone in her best performance), a famous mystery writer who also happens to be the chief suspect in a murder investigation Curran is heading. Off-duty, Curran follows Tramell to a decadent nightclub that apparently has been converted from an old church. A breathtaking crane shot introduces viewers to this beautifully designed location, which humorously mixes the sacred and the profane: pink and blue neon lights line the many archways of the club’s interiors as religious icons silently look down from stained glass windows on the swirling mass of frenzied dancing patrons below. The camera eventually picks out Curran, looking remarkably unhip in blue jeans and a green V-neck sweater with no undershirt, stalking through the club. Curran spies Roxy, Tramell’s lesbian lover, and follows her into the men’s bathroom, the site of a wild bisexual orgy of sex and drugs. Roxy enters a stall where Tramell and an unidentified man are doing cocaine. Then, in a series of highly effective eyeline matching shots, we see Curran (himself a former cocaine addict) gaze lasciviously at the forbidden fruit in the stall in front of him. Tramell returns Curran’s gaze but maintains the upper hand by slamming the stall door shut in his face.

Verhoeven then elliptically cuts to moments later on the club’s dance floor where Curran is watching Tramell and Roxy dance with and fondle one another. As Tramell turns her attentions to Curran, Roxy walks off in an angry huff. It should be noted here that Michael Douglas, admittedly a handsome man at any age, was forty-seven years old at the time (and thirteen years older than Sharon Stone), which makes Nick Curran look distinctly uncomfortable in this milieu. Curran’s attempts at dancing consist of nothing but light swaying and repeated attempts to kiss Tramell on the mouth, advances that she initially, playfully rebuffs. As Roxy looks jealously on from a distance, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the power dynamic between this trio. In hindsight, the protests that met the film’s original release look particularly misguided; the purpose of the Tramell/Roxy relationship isn’t to paint bisexual women as psycho-killers. It’s to highlight Curran’s insecurity about the fact that Tramell is the one who calls all of the sexual shots. Because Roxy is a woman, she can provide Tramell with something that Curran can’t, which heightens the viewer’s sense of the hero’s emasculation.

The next scene is the most infamous in the film – the first sex scene between Tramell and Curran, one that is so explosive that it will cause him to refer to her repeatedly as “the fuck of the century.” This is also the scene that was censored upon its original theatrical release in order to ensure an R rating, causing Paglia to memorably formulate that American audiences couldn’t fully appreciate the “choreography of the combat.” Far from being gratuitous, the point of this precisely storyboarded, Hitchcockian sex scene is to show, without dialogue, the struggle for power between these characters while simultaneously building suspense as to whether or not Tramell is the killer. At one point during their lovemaking, Curran becomes the dominant partner by initiating the missionary position but Tramell turns the tables on him by clawing his back with her nails and drawing blood. She then climbs on top of him and ties his hands to her bedposts with a white silk scarf. (This, of course, mirrors the murder scene that opens the film and thus causes our suspicions to grow that Tramell is indeed the killer.) After rocking spasmodically back and forth on top of him, we see Trammel reach beneath the sheets for what we assume will be an ice pick, the killer’s weapon of choice. Instead, Trammel merely falls forward, empty-handed, as the tension deflates and the two characters engage in a post-coital embrace. The non-verbal spell is finally broken in the following scene when Curran repairs to the bathroom and realizes that Roxy has been voyeuristically spying on them, with Tramell’s knowledge, all along.

Basic Instinct briefly made Paul Verhoeven the unlikely king of Hollywood but the Dutch master’s intensely cinematic, envelope-pushing style wouldn’t remain in synch with American tastes for long. His next film, Showgirls, would prove to be his most bitter satire, a remake of All About Eve that used the world of Las Vegas strip clubs as a jaundiced metaphor for the Hollywood star system. As with Basic Instinct, it too is full of wonderful cinematic conceits but audiences and critics expecting genuine titillation howled the movie right off of cinema screens. The critical and commercial failure of Showgirls unfortunately sounded the death knell for the mainstream viability of the NC-17 rating as well as Verhoeven’s Hollywood career, although he did stick around long enough to complete one more masterpiece (Starship Troopers) as well as a mediocre and impersonal genre exercise (Hollow Man). Since then he has returned to his native Holland where he triumphantly reunited with his old screenwriter Gerard Soeteman for Black Book, a highly subversive take on the Dutch resistance to the German occupation during WWII and arguably his greatest achievement. The two are currently working on another Dutch production, Hidden Force, that is scheduled for release in 2013.

The club scene from Basic Instinct can be seen on YouTube below. For the sex scene that follows it, you’ll have to rent the DVD or Blu-ray (or surf websites that exceed YouTube’s PG guidelines).

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