Sunday, May 14, 2017
Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1980)
Paul Verhoeven has been followed by controversy his entire career. I have no idea how Dutch cultural critics reacted to his first four movies, though they were all obviously quite popular. His next movie, 1980's “Spetters,” would also be financially successful. Moral outrage, however, would dog the movie in its native Holland. The original financial backers wanted Verhoeven to tone down the script, which he refused to do. The gay community thought it was homophobic. Women thought it was sexist. It was derided as lurid and decadent. In America, Steven Spielberg was about to recommend Verhoeven to George Lucas, based on “Soldier of Orange,” as a potential candidate to direct “Return of the Jedi.” Until “Spetters'” explicit content made him change his mind. Yet the movie has survived these controversies and is now regarded as a cult classic.
The film follows three friends in a small Dutch town. Each boy is obsessed with dirt bike racing and especially admire national champion Gerrit Witkamp. Rien is an extremely talented racer, on track to become a champion himself, with a steady girlfriend. Eef is everyone's mechanic, much to the chagrin of his hyper-religious father. Hans desperately wants to be as good as Rien or Witkamp but lacks their skill. The group's social life is disrupted when Frientje, the fetching girl who works at the snack truck, comes between them. After tragedy strikes, all the sex and bike riding in the world won't be enough to hold everyone together.
After making two period pieces, Paul Verhoeven returns to the modern day. “Spetters” is a classical coming-of-age story, loosely plotted, following six young people as they figure their lives out. Being an early Verhoeven film, the director loads this story with as much sex as possible. Each of the leads have a nude scene, with every male doing full frontal. The gang have two main pleasures in life: Fucking and riding bikes. It doesn't take long for Verhoeven to draw a parallel between the two, with Rien loosing his ability to race and become erect at the same time. The director sees the foibles of these boner-obsessed teens. One hilarious scene – which references Verhoeven's own “Turkish Delight” – has two couple simultaneously faking orgasms. It's only after they stop thinking with their dicks and pussies that the youths start to grow up.
“Spetters” is an ensemble film but, if any character emerges as the protagonist, it's Hans van Tongeren's Rien. Rien's success as a bike racer is what his friends rally around. They each cheer him on. When he wins a race, it's a cause for celebration for all of them. He's popular with the girls, illustrated when he actually gets laid on the same night the other four stumble around. It's easy to see why Rien is so popular. Tongeren's performance is charismatic. He has an easy-going energy, which he often emphasizes with a charming smirk. When the more dramatic moments appear, Tongeren is good in these too, able to lend small gestures or simple phrases with meaning. Tongeren, tragically, would commit suicide not long after filming finished, ending a promising career and eerily paralleling his character's fate.
Toon Agterberg plays Eef, the group's mechanic. Eef is so good with engines that he can literally assemble a bike with his eyes closed. Yet something else is troubling him, besides his abusive dad. In an early scene, Eef is compared to John Travolta while dancing in a disco. Later, Travolta's face decorates a trailer owned by a gay man. (This is somewhat ironic, considering the rumors regarding Travolta's sexuality that have circulated for decades.) After leaving the club, Eef and his friends beat up a pair of gay men. On another occasion, he sneaks off and watches a hook-up between two gay men in a subway tunnel. Eef begins attacking and robbing hustlers. Yet this violence betrays a fascination with homosexuality. Eef's hidden queerness gives new meaning to the macho posturing he engages in with his friends, which includes a literal dick measuring contest at one point.
Rounding out the group of friends is Hans, played by Maarten Spanjer. Spanjer, with his floppy hair and puppy dog eyes, appears to be the most innocent of the group. Hans is perpetually in Rien's shadow. During Rien's big race, Hans wrecks his own bike, not even finishing. After Rien's debilitating accident, Hans sees this as his chance to become a successful racer. Instead, he's humiliated by his idol, Gerrit Witkamp recording footage of Hans failing on the race track and showing it on television. Once again, as “Spetters” is about growing up, Hans only begins to achieve happiness after he stops chasing after his friend and pursues his own goals. Spanjer's performance is maybe my favorite of the film, as he keeps Hans likable and relatable even during his teenage outbursts.
The reason “Spetters” offended gays should be obvious. The reason “Spetters” offended women appears with Fientje. Fientje sleeps with practically every male character she meets. She screws a cop to get out of trouble. She sleeps with a news reporter to secure Rien a sponsor. She seduces Rien, encouraging him to dump his current girlfriend, because she believes him to be a future champion. After Rien's accident, she dumps him for Eef, as he plans to leave for Canada soon. Once Eef comes out as gay, Fientje shacks up with Hans out of sheer desperation. Like Katie Tippel, Fientje uses her feminine wiles to prosper herself. Yet this may be less sexist than it appears. Because Fientje isn't a bad person. She's strong, fighting off rowdy bikers in her first scene. Her fame whoring ways are another sign of immaturity, that she leaves behind as she figures out her place in the world. Either way, Renee Soutendijk's performance is certainly eye-catching.
Oh, yeah, “Spetters” offended Christians too. At a tent revival, Rien hopes a preacher can cure his condition. When it doesn't, he gives in totally to despair, taking his own life. Not only is this a sign of Verhoeven's growing obsession with religious iconography, it's another example of the film's thesis. That the young people need to follow their own path, instead of doing what others tell them to do.
As a filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven's visual skills continue to grow with each new feature. The bike racing scenes are impressively brought to life. The quick editing and handle on motion points towards Verhoeven's future as an action director. That same sense of motion carries to the sickening rape scene, which Verhoeven intensifies with close-ups and handheld shots. A few other images come to mind. Such as an overhead shot that shows Rien, alone and wheelchair bound, on a busy street. The film's conclusion features a point-of-view shot from a moving vehicle, as if the eye of God is observing every character as they reach the next step of their life.
Verhoeven's last three features has gorgeous, orchestral scores. But those movies were made in the seventies. “Spetters” was a modern movie about modern teens. To usher audiences into 1980, the film begins by showcasing its synth heavy soundtrack. Composer Ton Scherpenzeel, who would later form the Dutch New Wave band Kayak, provides the music. The main theme is driving and powerful, pushing the character forward with a fast paced beat. Later, that same theme is reprised in a darker manner, taking on a new meaning as the character's lives grow more serious. When Scherpenzeel isn't providing awesome beats, “Spetters” fills its soundtrack with pop hits of the day. Iggy Pop, Blondie, ABBA, Olivia Newton John, and other musicians of the day are often heard in the background.
hunks,” referring to the mud splattered by the bike wheels. [Grade: A-]