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“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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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

27 responses to ““Basic” Film Language

  • suzidoll

    Interesting comparison to Vertigo!

  • michaelgloversmith

    There are even more connections – San Francisco as the main location, overhead shots of cars traveling down winding roads, and the similarity of hairstyles and wardrobes between the two female leads.

  • jilliemae

    I have always been resistant to Basic Instinct because of it’s seedy reputation as a bad 80s movie. However, I am really intrigued, especially b/c of the great audio commentary from Paglia, by its arguable feminist leanings. Way to shine a new light on this flick!

  • Scott G.

    A great article, Michael. Dialogue-free passages are something I enjoy immensely…but then, I enjoy good dialogue scenes “immensely” as well. What do you want from me, I’m a movie nut.

    Now I’ll have spend some time reading some of your earlier stuff…more minutes lost to the internet. Darn you!

  • drew smith

    so michael, what’s your take on the new silent film “the artist”? worth checking out?

  • drew

    but what about “the girl with the dragon tattoo”?

  • mike vance

    very good article. I like how some movies would trick the audience who’s really the bad guy or behind the curtains the whole time.

  • Amar

    Mr. Smith,

    Your analysis of Basic Instinct (Verhoeven, 1992) was top notch. Your comparison of Basic Instinct and Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) are very well correlated and parallelized. Both films consisted of detectives and their works being interrupted by manipulating women. Though many may consider Hitchcock’s film to be far superior to that of Verhoeven’s, both are deserving of their past success. Vertigo was a revolutionary film for the 1950s while Basic Instinct was so for the 1990s. Everyone loves a good story that consists of twists and turns, but on top of that, if there are good-looking, naked women, you have yourself a recipe for quick success. Although some scenes in the film were meant to be serious but may be considered cheesy by today’s standards, this work of cinema was heavily regarded as a thing of the future with its controversial use of nudity, sex, crime, storytelling, and violence. I did some research about this film and found out that it was one of the most popular films of the 1990s. I have no doubt that that was the case because of its complex plot and acting that included as a younger, confident Michael Douglas (Detective Nick Curran), a sexy, flirtatious Sharon Stone (Catherine Tramell), and even an appearance from Newman (Wayne Knight, who played as John Correli) of Seinfeld. One of the film’s most iconic scenes, possibly most iconic in all of the 1990s, was Stone’s crotch scene during her questioning. There has been a running rumor that that scene was shot without Stone’s permission, but I refuse to believe that, the pieces simply do not add up. This movie was well appealed with men, but often thought to be repulsive amongst women. As mentioned, this film had as strong verse of controversiality to it, because of, well, the innumerable amounts of times both Stone and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Dr. Beth Garner) were inappropriately revealed and its underlying themes of sexuality. As viewers, we assume Stone’s character was bisexual, yet her entire motive was taking advantage of vulnerable men. In my personal opinion, the greatest part of this film was the ending. We all assume that Stone’s character set up Tripplehorn’s character causing the inevitable death of her and Douglas’s partner. Yet, our next guessed death would be Douglas, but Stone does not complete the deed and continues to sleep with him. The last scene is a shot of an ice pick under Stone’s bed and the audience is left to question if Stone’s character was truly the killer, if Tripplehorn’s was, if neither, or if Stone actually fell in love with Douglas’s. It is open to interpretation.

  • Adriana Lorusso

    After watching Basic Instincts in class and now reading your essay I have come to the conclusion that this movie has a twisted story line. This essay forces you to think more in depth into the mind of the killer. However before this essay I had thought Roxy was the killer. Now after reading this essay I am more aware of the fact that it was Tramell the entire time. Not only has this essay opened my eyes about the plot in the film but has also helped me realize some of the characteristics that are present in earlier genres of films.

  • Jeremiah Campbell

    Watching Basic Instinct is class and reading your essay really makes me want to watch the movie again.it kept me on my feet the whole time I was watching it in class. what I love about your essay is how well you use your words to describe this movie, by me reading it really made me feel as if I was watching the movie again; I also love how you tell the movie how it is, then give us a brief sight on your opinion, and lastly go deeper in breaking down the movie. For example in the “fuck of the century” how their fighting for there dominance while fucking he thinks he has the best of her until she draws blood. great writing over all really enjoyed reading it.
    -Jeremiah

  • Tyler Kiczula

    Mr. Smith I really liked how in your essay you mentioned the homage that Verhoeven paid to Alfred Hitchcock and his film Vertigo. This film was extremely well made and it makes me want to go and watch Vertigo so I myself can compare these two films. I also like how you brought up the taboo that is sex in American films and how it’s absent in American cinema. I think that when used properly that sex in cinema can contribute to great and interesting plots and Basic Instinct is evidence of that. Sex sells, especially in America, it just doesn’t in Cinema. I also would have to agree that Sharon stone was nothing short of phenomenal. She played Catherine perfectly. She was strong, manipulative, and powerful. She made playing a psychotic serial killer look easy!
    On a side note, one of the best scenes in film is the interrogation scene when Catherine turns the tables on the homicide detectives. A Fem fatale doing what she does best.

  • Matthew Teichert

    during the movie I was constantly changing my mind on who I thought was the killer and reading your essay on the movie has made me conflicted even more on who the real killer is. at first I did not have high hopes of liking this movie as much as the other ones I have seen in your classes. however after seeing the movie and reading your notes on how this movie comments on many other movies and trends, I have now grown an appreciation for this movie that I would have likely not seen if not for you. I would have to say that the club scene was my favorite due to how the camera pans around the dance floor and you get to see the main characters blend into the rest of the crowd and the whole scene. I like how the camera only focused on the characters when it was absolutely necessary, this made that whole scene appear natural and not forced.

  • Mark Edquiban

    Mr. Smith, when you asked the question why are sex scenes so limited in American cinema I was thinking about how America is mostly christian religion and they probably don’t want to show too much raunchy scenes because they want the children of the future to think that sex is when people both love each other and not just sleep around like in Basic Instinct. I also loved this movie that I found out there is a second one with Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell but no Michael Douglas instead David Morrissey as the protagonist and directed by Michael Caton-Jones. As a matter of fact, they knew it wasn’t as good as the first one and wouldn’t make money that they released it on tv instead.

  • Derek Colon

    Mr. Smith, it wasn’t until I read your essay that I realized that the club scene was filmed in a church. Brought me some good laughs after the fact. I will never be able to think about that scene the same way again. There is indeed a lot of sexual scenes in this movie that increase the tension and mystery of who the murderer really was. In fact, even at the end of the film, it can be argued, as a viewer, you can’t with 100% certainty say who the killer really was. The sex scenes between the two made great suspenseful moments all the way until the very end of the film. The camera work helped make it that way too; focusing on what Catherine was doing from a birds eye angle reflected off a mirror above them. You never could tell her intentions. I loved how there was a constant and silent psychological battle going on between Nick and Catherine as well. Catherine always tempting Nick with the “forbidden fruits” as you stated. All in all, I enjoyed the film and reading your essay on it. It ushered in some new perspectives for me that honestly will make me probably end up watching the film again on a later date.

  • Aldreech Barrios

    I like how the movie twist the story. During the first scenes you can tell that Tramell was the killer but when Curran realized that she and Garner used lovers that’s the time start to ask who’s the real killer

  • Tamara Fleysh

    I agree with Michael Smith’s essay that the movie “Basic Instinct” is satire. The killing scenes are almost overboard. The character of Sharon Stone, Catherine Tramell is so strong that every man in the movie looks stupid and pathetic compared to her, She dominates in every scene and, especially, in the famous interrogation scene. The set design helps to achieve this goal. Catherine Tramell sat in the blue room with a spot light on her as if on stage. On the other side, the men who interrogated her had a striped shadow over them as if they were in the prison. Catherine Tramell is a psychologist, who manipulates people. She is a killer and a writer who writes about her killing and surrounds herself with killers such as Heather Dobskin and Roxy. In the end when we see the ice pick under the bed, it is foreshadowing of Nick’s future.

  • Sebastian Tchorzewski

    Mr. Smith

    I really enjoyed watching Basic Instinct and I think that this movie did a really good job at ptrayeing the battle between Male and Female, Nick vs. Catherine. But clearly Catherine had the upper hand since the begining of the movie. Ever since Nick and his best friend Gus came over to Catherines house near the ocean, I saw her dominance in the scene over Nick and Gus, and how easly she manipulated them. For me it was clear that she will have the upper hand during this whole movie and Verhoeven did an amazing job at introduing the two main characters Nick and Catherine. I feel like the introduction of Nick and Catherine was crucial in making us understand that Catherine and Nick have a lot in common and make us care about the main characters. I couldn’t agree more that the scene in the club was truly the best in the entire film, but also one of the best movie scenes i have ever seen. The club scene was where every thing was going and we would see whether Nick is going to fall for Catherine. I also agree that the first sex scene between Nick and Catherine is not only exposive, but also makes us feel vulnerable and on the edge of our seats awaitng the epic conclusion and possibly Nick’s death scene. That scene also shows us the great battle of sexes and quite literaly sex and just as you described as “sex scene is to show, without dialogue, the struggle for power between these characters while simultaneously building suspense”. I didn’t see vertigo, but if you say that Basic Instinct mirrors it in some sence i must watch it. To see how the original film looked and how similar it really is to Basic Instinct. Overall i really enjoyed reading your review it showed me how gender playes a huge role in this movie and how the sex scene are really just showing us the battle between the characters in the movie and not just for show and that they had a bigger meaning and were key to the plot.

  • George Price

    Mr. Smith, great anlysis of a commonly understood film (basic instinct) i usually am not fan of silent movies, an honestly didn’t even realize that that silent club scene was over 8 minutes long. this film is a good example of how a couple scenes of silence can really make a movie more complex and meaningful. When i watch that scene in the club i felt like i was writing the dialog in my and everyone in class was hearing it. this movie was very confusing and hard to follow. but there were times where stuff just clicked in my head and by the next scene i was lost again. the club scene was on of theose scenes where i just knew Trumell was doing the whole club girl act just to mess with nick and that it obviously work because it they had sex the next scene. even though Trumell orchestrated the hole scenario, I’m not sure she was prepared for the result of “the fuck of the century”. after that scene she still seemed to have a lot of the power however it seemed she had to work a lot harder to stay on top of nick (psychologically, not physically). I think the few silent scenes, witch were usually the sex scenes, where the scenes where you saw the two main characters (Nick, and Catherine) show the most mental growth. Great analysis on a greatly entertaining film.

    -George Price.

  • Marisa S. Cygan

    Your essay really helped me understand this film because watching Basic Instinct for the first time you didn’t know what to think. There is so much that is going on from all of the visual storytelling that it really messes with your head. There is so much dominance that Sharon Stone portrays through her character, with every man in this film and even women. The way that she had carried herself throughout the film with all her confidence really shows she can manipulate people. The scene of her interrogation really shows how she was the dominant one. The way she had the men acting and the way she would talk to Nick like she knew him.

  • Lenin Philip

    Mr. Smith

    After reading your essay I’ve found a lot more incite to the film. for instance where their is no dialogue in the club scene and how the club was inside a church. I love how the club scene is this build up to the infamous sex scene between Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. After seeing the scene again the fact that Roxy is watching the two dance can be foreshadowing of Roxy always watching Catherine when ever she is with another partner making you believe Roxy is the ice pick killer. But after reading this essay I do believe Catherine is the killer because you see that Catherine is always in control of Nick with her sexuality and her brain the whole time. garbing his attention when they integrate her in person and at the station, And she wins him over with what nick calls “The fuck of the century”. and that last shot of the ice pick can be interpreted as she didn’t kill him right then so she not going to. But she definetly is going to kill nick.

  • Nick Weimer

    I like the nods to Vertigo with the similarities between Stone and Novak, and Nick Curran’s apartment’s staircase and Vertigo’s tower’s staircase, but, I of course agree that Basic Instinct is very much its own film.

    There are a lot of great shots in BI (Bad Investigator?). I love the shot when it first shows Tramell (if you discount the very beginning), with the camera tracking around the tree to show her staring out at the waves crashing on the rocks below—which is later mirrored by the shot in Curran’s apartment, where Tramell is sitting behind a plant she’d brought (for the purpose of sitting behind?). And I also love the later shots of them going down to the beach, the overhead followed by a tracking shot following them down the stairs to the beach.

    (There are a lot of great shots in Showgirls too. I don’t understand why people have so much pure loathing for Showgirls)

    There were a few sort-of visual jokes that also work as foreshadowing (or foreshadowing that works as jokes?). Nick appears to crash into a black sports-car at Tramell’s house ( http://i.imgur.com/W1z3oTa.gifv ) which starts a short revenge subplot with Nick and the black car, which resolves when Roxy helps the car hit Nick. There are multiple shots where people seem dangerously close to being hit by cars, like the scene where Nick is driving in to the scene of the ‘enemy’ cop’s murder, when he peels into that people-formed parking spot, but probably most notably in the scene where Nick drops Gus off to take his incredibly long and unfortunate elevator ride. Gus crosses the street on a green light and appears to just barely get out of the way of a red pickup flying through a red light ( http://i.imgur.com/sjyTqBF.gif ), unfortunately his second chance doesn’t work out too well.

  • nickweimer

    I like the nods to Vertigo with the similarities between Stone and Novak, and Nick Curran’s apartment’s staircase and Vertigo’s tower’s staircase, but, I of course agree that Basic Instinct is very much its own film.

    There are a lot of great shots in BI (Bad Investigator?). I love the shot when it first shows Tramell (if you discount the very beginning), with the camera tracking around the tree to show her staring out at the waves crashing on the rocks below—which is later mirrored by the shot in Curran’s apartment, where Tramell is sitting behind a plant she’d brought (for the purpose of sitting behind?). And I also love the later shots of them going down to the beach, the overhead followed by a tracking shot following them down the stairs to the beach.

    (There are a lot of great shots in Showgirls too, I don’t understand why people have so much pure loathing for Showgirls)

    There were a couple sort-of visual jokes, that also work as foreshadowing (or foreshadowing that works as jokes?). Nick appears to crash into a black sports-car at Tramell’s house ( http://i.imgur.com/W1z3oTa.gifv ) which starts a short revenge subplot with Nick and the black car, which resolves when Roxy helps the car hit Nick. There are multiple shots where people seem dangerously close to being hit by cars, like the scene where Nick is driving in to the scene of the ‘enemy’ cop’s murder, when he peels into that people-formed parking spot, but probably most notably in the scene where Nick drops Gus off to take his incredibly long and unfortunate elevator ride. Gus crosses the street on a green light and appears to just barely get out of the way of a red pickup flying through a red light ( http://i.imgur.com/sjyTqBF.gif ), unfortunately his second chance doesn’t work out too well.

  • jonk

    Mr.Smith’s article on the movie “Basic Instincts” gave me a completely fresh take on the film. I have seen this movie before and at the time was captured by its ability to push the envelop. After seeing the movie a second time and reading this article, I was much more aware of the artist value and great comparisons to the classic “vertigo” by Alfred Hitchcock. The way both female leads wore white dresses and a identical hairstyles only scratches the surface. Paul Verhoeven is a brilliant director, and Hollywood should really miss his talents. This article really pushed me to rethink about the role each character played in the murders and cover ups. The twist in the plot of this movie were not predictable and seem to occur and an organic manner. Mr.Smith’s notion about sex in american movies is a strong highlight to whats missing in today’s Hollywood films. I think maybe Hollywood is more concerned with making money by providing movies that can be viewed by a bigger and wider audience. So to do this they take sex out of movies. Now movies try to appeal to everyone by having action for guys while there is also a love interest for women. “Basic Instincts” doesn’t bother with any of that. It’s target audience is adults, and the film delivers a great twisted thriller with a unforgettable and powerful female protagonist.

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