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Paul Verhoeven


Paul Verhoeven tends to invest formula (be it sci-fi, or Hitchcockian suspense) with mad, pulp energy, as though he felt like anything short of a cackling, sensationalist dive into pop trash, perfectly tuned for the horny boy, would cheat the masses.  He’s not out to make movies that transcend their genre-based roots.  He just brings a crazed sort of conviction to them.  In that respect, he’s an honest filmmaker.  None of his films move you.  None are deep.  That said, almost all of them startle and entertain, and insist (in contrast, I think, to most big-budget fare of the ilk he has specialized in) on a rather cheap and ugly vision of life on earth (and other planets).  Perhaps he is a satirist, a knowing hack serious about his craft. No matter how you slice it, his catalog is impressive and (as the above points make clear) he has a voice all his own.

Top American Verhoeven Films
  1. Robocop
  2. Starship Troopers
  3. Showgirls
  4. Basic Instinct
  5. Total Recall

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey

8235-raw“Just Like Honey” opens Psychocandy, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut album. The song epitomizes the band’s signature cocktail of Beach Boys pop and V.U. fuzz. For a while, I heard its perfection as entirely self-contained—as an unsurpassed gem in the band’s catalog; as the band’s starting and finishing points in one tidy confection. Then I saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which changed my mind. At the end of the film, in a moment starkly reminiscent of the extended freeway scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Bill Murray’s taxi coasts the highways of Tokyo—a closing note that feels both bitter and sweet, as Murray has just made a genuine connection with another human being in a metropolis neither person can call home (except home can be anywhere, especially with such matters of the heart). The pairing of this scene with the song on the soundtrack, “Just Like Honey,” has the dual effect of giving the film’s end an aching, yearning sense of evanescence, and of making it hard for me to not visualize the scene when I hear the song. This perfect marriage of sound and vision packs even more depth for me, in that I lived in a foreign country for two months and can relate to the feeling of beatific rootlessness; of feeling like I could float on the buzz of being fully myself in a world to which I was a total stranger. Losing oneself in the beautiful noise of a strange city (the hustle and bustle), and still finding that sweet spot when you or someone else accepts you for you, despite or because of that noise and the loss it holds: These are the things of which lived lives are made.


The Flying Burrito Brothers – Wild Horses

Gram 1In the hands of Gram Parsons, this Rolling Stones lament sounds even sadder than the original version.  His take on the song drips with yokel heartache, as though he had poured his soul into it; and you almost feel as though the Stones had taken the song from him, and had recast it as a slightly colder ballad with a bit of cheek in the lead vocal.

Gram Parsons was a singular talent; but he did more than sire country-rock.  His biggest gift was his ability to locate that high, lonesome whine in even the corniest material, and to transform it into something rich, memorable, and indelibly his.  “Wild Horses,” which Mick Jagger & Keith Richards wrote, is not a corny song.  It is, you could say, a transcendent ode to deep-fried country.  But Jagger is a Brit who built his career on a love of American roots music.  And, consciously or otherwise, he nearly always sings from a kind of remove, part of which stems from his style, and part of which stems from his origins.  Parsons was a Southern boy who heard this Stones song as The Real Thing — as a tribute worthy of tribute.  And by giving it his all, he brought it even closer to his roots.  He made the song his own.


It’s Such A Beautiful Day

dh_shot1This film flirts so closely with miserabilism that, after having seen the first two segments, I was prepared to out and out hate it. But then the movie seemed to get sick of being miserable just when I was, and we parted friends.

It’s Such A Beautiful Day is an hour-long feature that began life as a trilogy of related short animations. Their subject is Bill, a man with an unspecified brain disease whose daily interactions deteriorate as his faculties begin to go, bit by bit. We’re never told exactly what’s wrong with him, or even, initially, that anything is.

dhshot2Everything Will Be Okay, the first “chapter” (actually, the first short released in 2006) starts, after some animated video of powerlines*, with a stick figure walking toward another stick figure. This is narrated by Hertzfeldt as a disappointing human interaction, and it raised my hopes for what this film could be – meaning, funny. There’s a genuine gag in this first section, followed by more as we’re led through slices of Bob’s life. Little by little, we learn that Bill is very much not okay as he examines his routines, and his life, and spends more and more time seeing things that are not there.

*Literally, there are pieces of what look like video in this film that are a series of photographs that Don Hertzfeldt has used like animation cels. Never does anything the easy way, does he?

dhshot3His confusion and weirdness culminate in a complete breakdown, and then a near-death. Then, seemingly miraculously, Bill gets better…until he doesn’t.

The second and third pieces (I Am So Proud of You and It’s Such a Beautiful Day) continue the story in their own fashion: I Am So Proud of You splits its time between Bill’s problems and the story of his family’s past. The final chapter spends a lot of time on a last minute journey that Bill takes.

They are funny, but the undercurrents of desperation and sadness that fueled DH’s funniest film, Rejected, take center stage here. Every bit of misery and horror that Hertzfeldt can come up with, he piles on Bill. Bill’s mom was insane; he finds a doctor’s file on her that recommended she never have children. His ancestors are madmen, child murderers, cat decapitators.

dhshot4It’s a long, dark, horrible…slog isn’t the right word, because it is often funny, and it does not drag. DH’s animation is always amusingly understated, and uses the hell out of his aesthetics. But as we came closer and closer to the inevitable end, I was preparing to kick my cats and yell at kids to get off my lawn. I don’t need the constant misery of the world placed on my head in ostensible entertainment. But in a shift at the very end of the film, it’s clear that neither does Don Hertzfeldt. Bill gets a very welcome reprieve, similar in tone to the ending of Murnau’s The Last Laugh. That ending was (IMDB informs me) studio interference. The end of It’s Such A Beautiful Day was born, I think, just in Don Hertzfeldt’s humanity.

It’s hard to review these films without discussing the artist since it’s all essentially a one-man band. Don H draws every cel, largely shoots the films himself, and designs all their insane technical challenges. While there’s less abstract ambition in this film than in Meaning of Life, it’s still a visual dynamo. Hertzfeldt often uses a limited amount of screen space. He places the action in a frame that occasionally moves, or splits into several frames of animation – so he is essentially playing out and animating several scenes at once, all done on 35-mm film with multiple exposures. The DVDs for the individual films Everything Will Be Okay and I Am So Proud Of You! contain enormous archives of notes, cels, and descriptions of how Hertzfeldt created the films, made his effects, drove himself insane, etc. Unfortunately, there isn’t any such archive for the entire film on the Bitter Films Archive disc volume II, but that disc contains an extensive selection of edited Q&A sessions where Don Hertzfeldt comes across as genuine, funny, and decidedly non-pompous (I wonder if the long hours and hard grunt work these movies take have the effect of dragging all the pomposity out of him. I know if I’d singlehandedly created an enjoyable, thought-provoking, visually gorgeous, and original body of work, I’d be insufferable).

Even at his least structured, DH makes films for an audience (even if it is an audience of one).


Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky_s_Dune-153803568-largeI am not convinced Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a great movie. I am quite convinced it would have been a terrible Dune. Though Frank Herbert’s book is ultimately about the mind expansion of religion, and planet ecology and the effect of an environment on its inhabitants, it is also, however dense, a story. It begins, middles, and ends.

Jodorowsky’s vision, as shown in this documentary, would have been a weirdness, probably too much weirdness, piled on a weird story. A perfect (or even good) Dune movie has yet to be made and may never be made. It’s too sprawling and strange for a feature film, and may not be sprawling and strange enough for Jodorowsky’s version of it.

It was a version he was preparing to make all the way back in 1975, and for which he collected an extraordinary cast of artists and creators to realize a pretty daffy vision. But, for all his artsy impulsiveness and passion, one of the main impressions I got from this documentary about the ill-fated attempt to make Dune was Jodorowsky’s earnest conscientiousness. His Dune, however improbable as a motion picture prospect, did not exist as something nebulous in his head. It is not all effervescence, but rather a concrete plan, as evidenced in the book he produced. The book is a central figure in the documentary – a visual script, which is mainly a collaboration between Jodorowsky and Moebius, whom he discovered from his cowboy comics.

As it discusses a movie that was never made, Jodorowsky’s Dune doesn’t have a lot of clips to show us, so most of the visuals (beyond talking head interviews) are taken from this book, and the art created for it. Art from Giger, Chris Foss, and Moebius himself shows a deeply realized world, one that would have been nearly impossible to construct with 70s special effects.

But watching this doc, you have the feeling that if Jodorowsky had the money, he could have gotten it all done. Nicholas Wending Refn wonders how it would have changed cinema if this had come out instead of Star Wars (which, indeed, steals a ton from Dune, and, as speculated in this documentary, lifts some visual elements straight out of Jodorowsky’s visual script). That misses the point, I think; Star Wars was successful because of populist elements. The mind-blowing of the Dune movie would have been limited to those who were interested in having their minds blown. Much of the potential audience would have scoffed and said bullshit – right or wrong.

But as a portrait of the artist as a hard worker – as a man who identifies his damned ducks and gets them in a row, this is an invaluable document.