Holiday Affray

Also over Easter we rewatched the original and one true TOTAL RECALL, quite a messianic film if you think about it. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger rides to Mars not on a donkey, but wearing a robotic fat lady costume, and he kills a lot of people, but he also saves the mutants and terraforms the planet, which I’m sure Jesus would have done had he thought of it.

Paul Verhoeven threatened for years to make a Jesus film, which would at least have been interesting. I imagine his Christ would have been more human than most, but maybe I’m wrong. The closest he got was ROBOCOP, where Peter Weller rises from the dead, walks on water (seriously — check out his final confrontation with Ronny Cox), and stabs a guy in the throat. At least two of those things get done by Christ in The New Testament.

Verhoeven, Mel Gibson and John Woo are the unholy trinity of Christian mayhem merchants.

This oxygen volcano has a certain Maria Montez nostalgia value, but feels like something the leads should be dancing around in SHOWGIRLS.

Saint Paul’s other big unmade film also had a Middle East setting, his crusades film, planned in the wake of the Gulf War — Schwarzenegger as Schwarzkopf.

But back to Mars. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett, ALIEN’s originators, adapt a Philip K. Dick story. The project passed from David Cronenberg to Fred Schepisi and back to Cronenberg and then somehow to Verhoeven, changing company in from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (which folded) to Carolco in the process. Verhoeven, discussing the extreme violence, said that gore in movies meant nothing to him since he grew up in WWII and so bodies blown to pieces in the streets. O’Bannon, responding in another interview, said that was all well and good, Verhoeven was “psychotically desensitized,” but he should remember that he was making films for audiences who are not.

We kind of are, though. But Cronenberg himself said that movie violence desensitizes us to more movie violence, but no amount of fake punch-ups will lessen the impact of a real punch, given, received or witnessed. Which is true. Though I think movies can get us into trouble by creating the impression that certain activities will be fun if we try them. The reality is often disappointing.

Anyway, apart from the graphic and OTT carnage, there’s also Rob Bottin’s spectacular asphyxiation effects, achieved with fake heads, bulging eyes, protruding tongues… I find these repellent but hilarious. While the faux Arnie head which emerges from the fat lady is unconvincing (they hold on it too long in a static medium close-up), the gagging stars would be totally compelling if they weren’t so extreme.

A difference of reaction: Fiona is really freaked out by them, which she puts down to her panic disorder, a condition which gives you the feeling you can’t breathe. Whereas I find them amusing — though the horrific/absurd confusion OUGHT to be disturbing. And I have asthma, which means I periodically really CAN’T breathe.

I’m always struck by how the film, despite the talents involved, the money lavished, and the nasty fun provided, isn’t very good-looking. Mars looks kinda awful, right from the get-go. There’s so much wrong with the very first effects shot…

Firstly, it fails to establish the domed cities, which we need to know about. The sets consequently always seem really small, I think because there’s little to tie the buildings in with the domes. We need wide shots of miniatures that show lots tiny buildings inside domes, and these little buildings would then be seen full-sized with the actors moving about them, and THEN we’d feel a sense of scale.

It’s crazy the way everything is tucked underneath the horizon line. Feels like an attempt to make things easy to matte together.

And the yellow construction cranes are popping too much. The fact that there’s work going on is something we don’t need to know about yet, the domed cities should be the priority.

Verhoeven’s skill with blocking is something only intermittently present in his work, flashing up unexpectedly in scenes that don’t always deserve it. Though the staging of the fights is pretty good, making the slow-moving AS seem like an effective scrapper, it’s only with the first long dialogue scene with Rachel Ticotin that we get a nice lesson in old-school staging:

As a prospective Cronenberg picture, it’s intriguing to see how the layered plot twists or “mind fucks” would connect with his first person films — VIDEODROME, NAKED LUNCH, XISTENZ, SPIDER — where we’re led up a subjective garden path away from consensus reality. Rather than going deeper into delusion, TOTAL RECALL progressively strips away the false scenarios our lunk hero is ensnared within.

Of course, it’s all happening in Rekall, Inc, and Arnie’s dream should end with a big reveal showing him “a drooling vegetable,” as Verhoeven vividly put it (and with relish) in the chair, his memory implant having malfunctioned and fried his brain (the term “schizoid embolism,” a conflation of the psychological and neurological, is a trashy bit of ersatz science Cronenberg would probably have improved upon). But, in a big action picture starring the number-one box-office star, this was unthinkable. So Verhoeven says he ended the picture on a fade to white to give the audience a subtle feeling that something was up…

13 Responses to “Holiday Affray”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Judging from his “The Fourth Man” Verhoeven’s Jesus would be a male hustler deep into S&M. That Jesus is also a Zombie would likewise conform to Verhoeven’s . . . . .taste

    Rivette’s admiration for Verhoven mystifies me.

  2. Apparently Albert Pyun (CYBORG, NEMESIS) was also briefly in the running to direct TR. Not sure how that would have turned out.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Verhoeven is an odd film-maker, sometimes compelling, other times not so. I don’t think he’s malicious just idiosyncratic.

    I think the ugliness of Total Recall is intentional. It’s kind of expressing how Verhoeven feels about action movies and Hollywood productions. I like some of Verhoeven’s films (Black Book, Elle, Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Flesh + Blood) but others I think are basically him losing sight of the plot. I am certainly not someone who thinks Showgirls is some misunderstood success the way Rivette and others have argued. It’s not as bad as people thought in its year of release but that doesn’t make it good.

    As for Verhoeven and Jesus…heh, his latest film is about sexy lesbian nuns (Benedetta, finished and set for a Cannes Release but presently in COVID-Limbo), so I think he’s found the triangulation of his interests there. I like his film FLESH + BLOOD which is set in this almost never-represented period and it’s an interesting and dark look at sex and violence in the middle ages, and you have amazing work by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rutger Hauer, and it’s a story about a cult leader in the Protestant emergent era. That one I think might be the one time his profane interests matches his sacred interests.

  4. His crude sense of humour — I’m not sure he even intends his jokes to be funny, or else he’s serving them up to a public he has contempt for — is front and centre here, and then in Showgirls it becomes almost the whole show.

    When he does satire it’s of the blunt force variety, but it can be effective, more so in Robocop than Starship Troopers.

    Speaking of plot, I meant to say that this one is exceptionally well-tooled. There are a couple of thin bits — the opening “memory” turns out not to be real at all, and Arnie escapes bondage like King Kong, just by getting cross. But mostly it’s incredibly well-constructed. Verhoeven actually wanted to tamper with it, removing the part of the climax where Arnie saves the mutants, but Arnie himself insisted it stay. He was right!

  5. I’m also very curious about the iteration of Basic Instinct II that would have been helmed by Cronenberg…

  6. The furthest Total Recall got before Verhoeven was with often interesting director Bruce Beresford & starring Patrick Swayze back in 1987. So slotting right between Beresford’s episode of “Aria” and his “Driving Miss Daisy”

    They got as far as building the miniatures, whole Martian cities and pyramids, in a completely style from the 1990 movie, and were just about to shoot when De Laurentiis’ company imploded and they were all told to go home (similar story to Lynch’s One Saliva Bubble, if only Dino had stayed running for another few months)

    There’s a 7 minute documentary with the poor 1987 model makers here, and you can see their very different interpretation of the story

  7. chris schneider Says:

    I feel compelled to add that the “fat lady,” so often unnamed, was Priscilla Allen, a respected actor and teacher in San Diego. I understand that she was a terrific George in KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE. The performance I did see, and enjoyed, was Allen as Mrs. Venable in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER … a Mrs. Venable more than a bit like a debauched Roman matron.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I can’t imagne a Cronenberg “Basic Instinct” He’s often daring but never pulpy — and Verhoeven is pure pulp. It also must be mentioned that he approves of rape. In “Spetters” rape is promulgated as a salutary sexual expression; Likewise in the repellent “Showgirls”

  9. The Basic Instinct sequel was being written by Henry Bean and his wife, I believe, and they came up with an idea they suddenly thought would work for Cronenberg (but, frustratingly, he never said what it was). Incredibly, the producers went for it and so did Cronenberg, and then the producers fell out and everyone was suing each other.

    Richard Lester had signed a deal to develop films for other filmmakers and himself, at De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, right before it collapsed. Among the scripts getting great reports at the time was Dead Ringers — a movie lucky to escape the collapse of the company.

  10. I remember when David Cronenberg was briefly doing Basic Instinct 2, he told an interviewer “We want everyone to roll their eyes and go oh boy, Basic Instinct 2, and then surprise them when it’s actually really good”

    which is a lovely ambition.

    But then reportedly the producers told him he couldn’t use his own established crew and got cute telling him “It’ll be a new challenge for you” which sent him running.

    Dino had a strange relationship with Total Recall, both loving & supporting it and also not really understanding it. He kept asking if instead of going to Mars, the hero could instead “go to the Jungle like Rambo ,and kill a lot of people”

  11. Cronenberg and the Beans were the only ones not embroiled in lawsuits when that iteration of BI2 crumbled in acrimony.

    I’m never really sure how much of anything Dino understood, ever.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    There was a “Basic Instinct II” you know. It starred Charlotte Rampling.

    Of course.

  13. I think casting Rampling was about the only thing they got right.

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