T-Shirt Philosophy

T-Shirt Philosophy;
or, Verhoevens To Betsy!

 
    I’ve always prided myself upon my imperviousness to the critically commonplace, but I’ll admit that they got me this time! For thirteen years! And I would still be in the dark if visiting friends hadn’t set my sights Verhoeven-ward once again, by instigating a Starship Troopers/Total Recall double-feature over the weekend.

    I got so excited about this pair (especially the glorious Heinlein ad-slap-tation) that I announced my intention to watch everything the man has done, since coming to America in the mid-’80s. “Not Showgirls though, right?” my friends inquired. Of course Showgirls! How could I skip that one? I wasn’t expecting to like it–but I did think that it would at least fit with the theory that the Dutch director’s entire career in Hollywood constitutes some kind of meta-critique of the culture the industry serves/helps to create…

    Well I’m tossing that theory out the window. Forget meta-critique–the films themselves offer the purest critique you will ever see. Even purer than Motime fave Grant Morrison’s The Filth, because Verhoeven really dares to produce exploitation films that vibrate on a plane SO closely in tune with the worst in the culture that you could very easily fail to find your way into the anti-chambers (and I DO mean anti–, not antechambers, no matter what my word processor says!) they contain. And most people have done just that. Failed.

    Where to start with Showgirls? Well, first off, I’d say, the All About Eve comparisons have to go. I understand them. Even considered them. But they can only lead you astray. This is NOT a critique of “ambition” or “show biz shallowness”… Those have been completely acceptable targets since the dawn of Hollywood–a part of the whole “the rich and powerful have problems of their own” strain of thought that keeps the capitalist treadmill rolling, despite the inequities it breeds.

    What to compare it to then? My choices would be Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky’s Body and Soul (1947) and Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971). The earlier film is a classic noirish expose of capitalist exploitation, as seen through the prism of the fight game, which grinds up the bodies of the poor boys it feeds upon. It features incredible performances by John Garfield and Canada Lee–both of whom would be destroyed during the “Second Red Scare”–and I love it–but I’ve always been disappointed by the popular front humanism (saintly working class mother, neighborhood solidarity, the very idea of a “soul” existing apart from an exploited “body”) that dulls its critical edge. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, has this rep for being an ultra-cool satire that drowns the viewer in the crocodile tears which are the life’s blood of do-goodery and moral/ethical thinking. (and I suppose it IS that–but it’s ALSO an ultra-cheezy paean to the prerogative of the “sensitive artist/intellectual” that is no less sentimental than a fuckin’ Julia Cameron self-help guide).

    Verhoeven’s film goes so much further than either of these predecessors. If you want a REAL comparison–you might want to check out Richard Wright’s Native Son. Think of Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi as Bigger Thomas, and you’ll begin to see the movie aright. Shallow? Violent? Unable to tell friend from foe? Yes. Yes. Yes. Patriarchy creates its own form of lumpenproletarian.

    Is the dialogue  terrible? I’m never sure what people mean when they say this. It’s not erudite? (how could it be?) It’s not realistic? (fuck off!–to paraphrase Marx–artists have done a decent job of describing reality in the past century or so–but the point is to CHANGE it) It’s not appropriate? That depends upon what you think the movie is. Reviewers are shocked by the stupid lines. “It must be nice not to have guys coming on you every night”???? That’s supposed to be heartwarming? Yes. Yes, it is. (supposed to be) And no. No it’s not. (why should it be? What resources can these people call upon in order to create that special moment that audiences seem to want?) All of the <> scenes in this film expose the ways in which seemingly-sophisticated viewers are looking for exactly the same things that a movie-of-the-week specializes in serving up. I happen to think that the script serves the narrative perfectly.

    And what IS the narrative? Well! It’s the story of a soulless wreck of a human being who begins the film with a confused idea in her head about the way to salvation/empowerment/”a soul” and ends the film on a DIFFERENT confused route (leading out of Las Vegas) to the same never-never land. Along the way, she comes as close as she is capable of coming to two other people (her roommate and the woman she supplants in the show)–although, in both cases, this happens too late and can’t lead to anything that anyone could confuse with anything that is actually good. Like Body and Soul, Showgirls presents us with the ultimate survivor–a person who, for whatever Satan-given reason, has been granted the power to survive in ANY environment… Unlike the Rossen film however–Showgirls strips that power of all glamourous/inspirational/heartwarming qualities… John Garfield walks away from the fight game arm-in-arm with Lilli Palmer. Elizabeth Berkley makes good her escape in a cowgirl costume, holding a knife to the throat of the once-and-future dick who first brought her to Sin City–from a place, we later learn, that was worse than ANYTHING we see in the film itself… And she’s clearly headed back to the same dismal place. It’s called the world we live in. There’s nothing else. And no safe place to view it from. Verhoeven satirizes the half-smart satirists that give the genre a bad name (in my book, at any rate). Nathanael West would have loved this film. And so do I.

I could go on–but I need to eat!

good afternoon friends!

Dave

15 comments

  1. “but [Clockwork Orange]’s ALSO an ultra-cheezy paean to the prerogative of the “sensitive artist/intellectual” that is no less sentimental than a fuckin’ Julia Cameron self-help guide”

    Man, I really gotta disagree with you there, or rather did here.

    Glad you’re back (for now?),

    Charles R.

  2. Charles wrote:

    “Glad you’re back”

    Ditto on this side!

    Of course I’d love to read a Jason-Powell-style take on Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run, though I’m cautious with my enthusiasm because Dave has a way of bringing up exciting project ideas and then discarding them🙂

    I also like “Starship Troopers” very much and now that Dave has used his hermeneutic jiujitsu on “Showgirls” I am going to give it, slightly reluctantly, and even it might hurt (I’m almost sure it won’t be without pain) another try.

    FrF

  3. SHOWGIRLS is pure pleasure, actually. HOLLOW MAN is the only one of Verhoeven’s films that I can’t think of any kind words to say about it.

    Charles R.

  4. Dear Sirs–

    I’m gonna do my best to post here on a regular basis. Of course, in the past, my best just hasn’t been enough!

    I agree that Hollow Man is pretty weak Charles. It lacks that “little lower layer” of critique that each of the others incorporate…

    Dave

  5. (cross-posted from Charles’ splendid site)

    quoth Mr. R:

    “The celebratory ending to Kubrick’s film isn’t the result of some thuggish desensitization to violence, but is one of an individualist aestheticism managing to slip through the cracks of an overdetermined utopia, even if it’s under the sign of brutality.”

    but Charles–this is exactly what I was arguing! I consider this supposed “triumph” cheesy in the extreme… But then, aesthetics divorced from ethics is my working definition of thuggery–not yours! Which is not to say that art should form good behaviour. A great work should be an end in itself–and our relationships with same should be as endlessly rewarding as our relationships with other beings–but you can’t entirely substitute the former relationship for the later (which is what Alex does)… or, if you do, I’m going to argue that there’s nothing triumphant about it! (except maybe in a Triumph of the Will sense)

    Dave

  6. Ah, Showgirls. I re-watched this recently when it was on TV, and… to me, it still registers as Verhoeven’s most Verhoeven-ish movie.

    Which is basically a fiddly way of saying that I have no idea what to make of it, or whether I think it’s good or bad. It’s ridiculously entertaining and watchable, but I’m never sure if Verhoeven’s none-more-OTT style is psychotically profound or profoundly psychotic.

    Guess that means that I’ve failed to make my way into the “anti-chambers”, but hey — it was a pleasurably absurd failure, as it is every time.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this piece — especially the little nod to The Filth, which I’m gearing up to write about at the moment — and it’s good to see you back in action.

    Take care!

    David Allison — v.3.0

  7. ah yes–the line between the psychotically profound and the profoundly psychotic is hard to see… I suppose I just tend to cheer whenever I see either!

    bring on the Filth-blogging!

    Dave

  8. I consider this supposed “triumph” cheesy in the extreme… But then, aesthetics divorced from ethics is my working definition of thuggery–not yours! Which is not to say that art should form good behaviour. A great work should be an end in itself–and our relationships with same should be as endlessly rewarding as our relationships with other beings–but you can’t entirely substitute the former relationship for the later (which is what Alex does)… or, if you do, I’m going to argue that there’s nothing triumphant about it! (except maybe in a Triumph of the Will sense)

    My point was that what’s triumphant about the end of CW is that the Ninth is freed from the instrumental uses to which the ideologies were putting it. When Lenin couldn’t listen to Beethoven because he felt it would weaken his will to fight, he was seeing music as ideological, not aesthetically. Kubrick’s film is, to me, at least, exactly the opposite of what you consider it, an anti-sentimental view of aestheticism. That is, you can be a wonderful human being or a complete thug and still have a meaningful attachment to music. A sentimental view would be one (e.g., THE LIVES OF OTHERS) that suggests music is so intrinsically ideological that hearing a particular piece will shift your worldview. There is a good in any dictator or thug who enjoys good music as good music. And there is a bad in any institution that tries to use good music as an instrument of control, even if to control a thug or dictator. Alex’s worldview never shifts, just his behavior.

    Charles R.

  9. Charles wrote:

    A sentimental view would be one (e.g., THE LIVES OF OTHERS) that suggests music is so intrinsically ideological that hearing a particular piece will shift your worldview. There is a good in any dictator or thug who enjoys good music as good music. And there is a bad in any institution that tries to use good music as an instrument of control, even if to control a thug or dictator. Alex’s worldview never shifts, just his behavior.

    I understand what you’re sayin’ Charles–I simply don’t think there’s any reason to celebrate the liberation of aesthetics from the intersubjective/ethical realm… and I do believe that any celebration of that event is in danger of crossing the line into a sentimental relationship with art… but then, what would you expect from a person who believes that interpretation, rather than creation, is the place where art lives? We’ll never agree on that point sir!

    Dave

  10. Man, my cat is being especially needy today …

    Anyway,

    I do believe that any celebration of [the liberation of aesthetics from the intersubjective/ethical realm] is in danger of crossing the line into a sentimental relationship with art

    Well, I agree that there’s a danger there, as well. Some (all?) art has an ideological component to it. I certainly don’t advocate a cold-blooded formalism that would ignore the very important way that we relate to any art. My reading of CW is just as ethically inclined as yours, for example. It’s just that I see it as being a critique of the instrumentalist view of art. And any reading that sees art from a recipient-first/-only perspective to my mind falls into the trap of instrumentalism. I don’t see how one could appreciate right-wing cinema as a leftist without an ability to separate aesthetics from the political. There are objective qualities which resist the subjective interpretation. I’d argue that separation is what makes watching such films fun. It’s what enables my love for old country music, while still knowing that most of it expresses a worldview that I fundamentally disagree with. You can’t just interpret the stuff to agree with your view, so that it’s now safe for you appreciate.

    but then, what would you expect from a person who believes that interpretation, rather than creation, is the place where art lives? We’ll never agree on that point sir!

    Probably not, but I’m interested in why your celebration of interpretation isn’t sentimental by the same definition with which you apply the term to CW. Art resists interpretation similar to the way I’m resisting your own view. The recipient and the art don’t exist in a one-way direction. Art doesn’t simply mean what it means, nor does it simply mean what you want it to mean.

    Charles R.

  11. oh I wasn’t arguing that YOU are an aestheticizing thug Charles–only that Kubrick is!

    part of my dispute with your interpretation of the film as an attack upon the instrumentalization of art may depend upon my own faulty memory (I’m sure you can set me straight on this, if I’m wrong!), but I always thought that the McDowell character acquires his revulsion to great music by accident… i.e. the authorities weren’t trying to make music=good behaviour… that just came as quirky by-product of the reprogramming process–and it seems to be thrown into the mix precisely in order to give the audience some reason to cheer for this brute’s eventual release from thralldom to “decency” (i.e. Kubrick is saying that the “good” of this man’s love of music was thrown out with the bad of his rapist yearnings–and I’m saying there’s nothing good about loving art… which is not to say that I don’t have my own subjective moments of joy when I encounter a work I particularly love… y’know?)

    and I don’t think you can equate interpretation with instrumentalization–the former is merely what the mind does when it is confronted with a text–the latter is an attempt to use a text for the purpose of foreclosing upon the free play of the mind…

    I never said that interpretation can magically turn any text into an endorsement of its interpreter’s worldview though–Clockwork Orange is a fine example of that–I know that it’s not on my side… I do like a lot of stuff made by people whose politics I abhor–but usually I like these things for the ways in which they explore pre-political problems (i.e. Ditko, Lynch, Frank Capra–whose films are obnoxious if interpreted at the level of their politics, etc.)

    hope the cat’s okay! We’ve been having our own feline senior-moment problems at my house lately!

    Dave

  12. I’ve got to get back to writing something else, but a few brief points:

    1. To the degree I’m siding with Kubrick’s thuggery, I wouldn’t mind you calling me a thug.

    2. You’re right about the Ninth becoming a conditioned stimulus by accident. The researchers chose to include it as background without thinking one way or another about what using music as muzak might cause. (Such blase usage is also a result of viewing art as mere commodity, I’d argue.) But its instrumentalist function becomes more apparent later on, such as when the liberal writer Mr. Alexander drives Alex out of a window by playing the tune.

    I was in a Kubrick mood at the time, and wrote a recommendation for the movie here, which gives my overall view of the film’s message (in 500 words or less).

    I’ll be back for the other stuff.

    Charles R.

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