November 17, 2016

Watch: Paul Verhoeven Uses Mass Media to Troll Hollywood

"I'll buy that for a dollar!" from 'Robocop' no film school paul verhoeven propaganda
Paul Verhoeven, perhaps the most misunderstood Hollywood director, uses pop culture to critique itself. 

Anyone who's seen one of Paul Verhoeven's Hollywood films—notably, the quasi-trilogy of Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers—will automatically recognize their universe. It's a singular cinematic space: one where traditional Hollywood action movies, the kind that secure big budgets and stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, meets the world of indie film cultural critique.

"By working through Hollywood, instead of against it, Verhoeven subverts mass culture from the inside."

As LJ Frezza argues in this video essay for Fandor Keyframe, Verhoeven's films are not just "brainless blockbusters," but "clever critiques of media and pop culture."

If one accepts Frezza's premise, the question is: what makes them so effective? For one, Verhoeven's intentions are never immediately apparent. And yet, paradoxically, the filmmaker never disguises his intentions, except in plain sight. And he does it so well that some people don't think he does it at all. One could even go so far as to say that the Dutch filmmaker has made a career out of trolling Hollywood and audiences alike.

There is, to be sure, an antiseptic frostiness to the mise-en-scène in Verhoeven's futures, as well as a cruelty. In Verhoeven's universe, "news, sitcoms and advertisements normalize sexism, militarism, environmental destruction [and] corporate power." 

Audiences are inured to mass media and its omnipresence. And Hollywood films are, almost by definition, mass media at its most mass. Verhoeven's trick is to insert weirdnesses into places where we do not expect such weirdnesses to exist. Therefore, when it appears as background noise—as TV, the very thing we are used to ignoring— it tends to slip past unnoticed. 

"The media of these dystopias reveal how their societies work," says Frezza. This provides a deeper understanding of the film's world, whether an audience is aware of it or not (see video below).

But Verhoeven doesn't deal in ambiguities. (Far from it!) The other key factor in keeping Verhoeven's rhetorical moves under wraps is a lack of expectation for nuance in tone on the part of most blockbuster audiences. These audiences don't expect any ideology, so, as Frezza notes, "working through Hollywood, instead of against it, Verhoeven subverts mass culture from the inside."

As the video essay demonstrates, it seems as if Verhoeven's bizarre critiques are the result of his aesthetic sensibility, sense of humor, and unique perspective on American culture (rather than any agenda, as such). This makes sense, because whenever a filmmaker attempts to shoehorn a message into their work—i.e. tries too hard to say something—the message is invariably lost. And that's a lesson for any artist, whether you're making a micro-budget indie or a space opera about giant bugs.      

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