The Capitalist Absurd
Two of the subjects preoccupying American cinema in the mid-to-late-eighties were those of individual strength and corporate manoeuvring. Where the individual streak was evident in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando, Cobra and Predator, the problem of corporations and the manipulative ways of people within them were present in Working Girl, Wall Street and Power, all released loosely around the same time as Robocop. Dutch director Paul (Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange) Verhoeven's first American film plays the individualistic against the corporate yet arrives at a certain sociological good faith by questioning both, no matter the deliberate bad taste evident in many an individual moment.
Indeed this might be the very purpose behind Verhoeven's career, and especially in the States (where his films included Total Recall and Starship Troopers). He offers cake and eat it cinema where he wants the audience to eat cake but expects them to choke on it as well. In numerous scenes Verhoeven insists on the brutalizing relish practised by numerous mid-eighties films where people die horrible but entirely deserved villainous deaths much to the audience's glee (evident in the ending of Wanted Dead or Alive, starring none other than early Verhoeven regular, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, taking out Gene Simmons with the help of a hand grenade) or feel indignation for undeserved heroic torturings (Stallone at the mercy of Steven Berkoff in Rambo). But Verhoeven pushes such scenes beyond relish and indignation and towards critique: to expect us to ask questions about the very violence he shows. Verhoeven gives the audience the violence they expect, but takes it farther than it's expected to go. It may be a moot point whether this is Verhoeven pushing the viewer into a new level of depravity, an error of judgement, or if he is quite deliberately working with comic book scenarios but vividness of anatomical detail to problematise screen violence itself, but we're inclined to go with the latter.
We can think of two scenes here especially, one that falls into the category of the indignant and the other relish, but where in each instance Verhoeven goes beyond the entertainment category he is working within, and arrives at critique. The first is the scene responsible for turning the police officer Murphy (Peter Weller) into a dead man, and a figure who will then be resurrected as Robocop. As Murphy gets trapped by the scumbag villain, Clarence (Kurtwood Smith), he gets blown to pieces in a manner that pushes past the possibilities of indignation on two counts. First of all, Murphy is basically left for dead, allowing the film to create the Robocop of the title as Murphy is more machine than man when resurrected by the corporation and their medical lackeys: this is not torture but murder. Secondly, Verhoeven pushes too far into the visualisation and, if you like, auralisation, of Murphy's demise. When Murphy's hand is blown away, Verhoeven shows the hand turning into a bloody, splattered mess, a genuinely gratuitous visual and aural moment considering on narrative terms all we really need to know is that as far as the bad guys are concerned Murphy can't possibly survive the violence done to him. Yet Verhoeven takes the clich of the bad guy and his flunkies wise-cracking their way to another's demise, only to show the violence that makes the wise-crack curdle into a moment of splatter specificity. Indignation surely works best where our moral coordinates aren't overridden by our stomach turning. Stallone and his director George Pan Cosmatos in Rambo get the balance 'right' - Verhoeven 'wrong'.
The same is the case when it comes to relish late in the film as one of the villains is apparently dispatched as his vehicle careers into some toxic waste. The baddy nevertheless manages to survive and crawls away from the accident as his face becomes increasingly molten, while he tries to get another of the cohorts to save him as he pathetically and implausibly asks for help. Now generally a filmmaker will know when to stop, when to make sure that the violence presented remains within the realm of the feeling it is pushing. If we're correct to say that a hero's torturing is a moment for the viewer to feel indignant, and the villain's demise a moment of relish, then these general expectations need to be consistent with the level of violence that accompanies it. It is exactly what Verhoeven's screenwriter Dan O'Bannon and a New York Times critic were presumably getting at when they questioned the level of violence in Verhoeven's following film, Total Recall. "The way the violence plays in Total Recall is as though" O'Bannon said, "there wasn't enough there to support the excitement without it." The New York Times wrote: "Mr Verhoeven is much better at drumming up this sort of artificial excitement than he is at knowing when to stop." The critic has a point, but at the same time would seem to miss Verhoeven's. The critic asks for artificial excitement but is less happy when it goes beyond that artificiality it would seem.
Yet Verhoeven's work has been full of the detail that goes beyond good taste and generic limitation. Whether it is the bloodied stool in Turkish Delight, the male gang bang rape in Spetters, the dying epileptic at the beginning of Flesh and Blood, or the person used as a human shield who gets blown to pieces in Total Recall, Verhoeven is a filmmaker who not so much never knows but always knows when enough is enough - and then goes beyond it. In the director's biography, Paul Verhoeven, Rob van Scheers makes great play of the autobiographical in justifying Verhoeven's attitude to film violence, as he opens his book with a scene of destruction. The six year old Verhoeven stands with an older man and "before him sees a sheet of flames - a hellish red glow as far as the eye can see." It is as if Verhoeven always wanted to be true to the nature of violence, but also wasn't afraid of exploiting its potential. Verhoeven's films are often best seen within this problematic.
Like much of Verhoeven's work, Robocop is an exploitation film made by someone who wants to exploit the theme as much as the genre, and to call into question the nature of the genre in relation to the pertinence of the theme. From the generic point of view it would be enough that Verhoeven needs to create the requisite mayhem to justify the appropriate feeling in the viewer, but the director seems to want to create an inappropriate, an indeterminate response to ask certain questions about the sociology of the situation. Throughout the film Robocop cuts away to news footage of various events in the States and elsewhere, all reported by its two newsreaders with a peppy tone nothing in the images seems capable of countering. Whether it is the president of South Africa thinking of using nuclear weapons against his own people, or problems arising with the Star Wars programme, the newsreaders remain in good spirits. There are also adverts for private heart operations that ends with an oleaginous 'we care', and a children's game for all the family called Nuke 'Em.
Now it is true this is hardly satire at the highest level, but it doesn't only punctuate the film it permeates it. The TV footage gives us a good idea of exactly what is going on the minds of a corporate America where everything resides in getting on and making money. Verhoeven and his regular cinematographer Jost Vacano visually gives the film a corporate greyness, a sense that the world no longer has the time or inclination to generate natural environments, and the more metallic the world the more efficient the citizen.
What unites the society aren't any deep values, it would seem, but instead a catchphrase, "I'd buy that for a dollar", one used by a TV personality on the sort of TV show pandering to the lowest common denominator. Shared values are low values, and though Verhoeven may have left the Netherlands finding the culture stultifying, what he finds in the States doesn't seem any the more appealing: his use of TV here came to him after spending hours in his hotel room watching American television on first arriving in the US.
If the graphic imagery in his earlier work seemed to be injecting into the European art movie the exploitative, as films like Turkish Delight, Cathy Tippel, The Fourth Man were interested in pushing against bourgeois expectations, then in the American ones, in Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers, the purpose seems to be reversed; to put into exploitation action cinema the ethical dimension that is usually surrendered to generic demand: to the obliteration of baddies so evil that no one is likely to question their right to live. In Robocop, Verhoeven's villans are as nasty as anybody's, but they are also a product of the society out of which they come. Verhoeven doesn't create sympathetic villains, that's clear, but he does offer villainy within a perspective that means it is still irrelevant next to the social inadequacy of corporations running society on the basis of profit and loss.
Some might insist that Verhoeven is a cynic, and indeed that would seem to be the position of O'Bannon and the New York Times reviewer as Verhoeven offers violence far beyond the generic requirements. The same could be said in relation to those who people his films: that Verhoeven doesn't work too hard to create sympathetic characterisation. Here we know almost nothing of Murphy's family life before the accident, and the relationship with his cop partner, played by Nancy Allen, is hardly milked for emotional impact. In Basic Instinct, Michael Douglas is libidinously controlled, and abusive with his ex; the star of Showgirls is hopelessly and crudely ambitious, and the heroes of Starship Troopers are borderline Nazi youth. If we compare the sympathy generated in fellow action filmmaker James Cameron's work, the burgeoning relationship between Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in The Terminator, between Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, Verhoeven would seem a man without much feeling.
But let's say instead that Verhoeven is suspicious of generic feeling, and more interested in experiments in emotion, in pushing generic expectation to a place where we're forced to take ethical stances in relation to the images shown. From this point of view the early scene where a robotic machine Ed 209 is tested out as a potential police option is horribly fascinating. A senior member of the corporation Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) wants to please the CEO and says he has Ed 209 ready for use. Verhoeven films it as the typical board meeting. He shows the large table in wide angle shots illustrating the lackey nature of the board, all dressed in grey or beige and generating a collective anonymity. The senior member asks someone to volunteer, and a weak-willed apparently sympathetic figure is offered, a lamb ready for slaughter. The machine malfunctions when the volunteer is asked to drop the gun he has in his hand; the machine doesn't seem to hear it drop, and blasts the poor victim to pieces. Verhoeven gets a laugh out of this moment, but it is a laugh that comes at a price. He chooses perhaps the most sympathetic member of the board to be blown away, and the machine keeps firing long after the individual's demise. Afterwards, the CEO turns to Jones and says that he is disappointed, an entirely inadequate response to the mayhem, ethically, but thoroughly appropriate given the context of the corporation. We laugh at the violence, at the absurdity of the machine that fails at its basic purpose - to discern villainous activity - but succeeds brilliantly in despatching someone after its initial malfunctioning. It seems an apt comment on advanced right-wing capitalism: low on trust, but high on retribution. The following remark by the CEO exacerbates it in a moment that we might call the capitalist absurd. It isn't the dead man that is the problem, but the malfunctioning machine. It will cost millions to sort out.
Another filmmaker might critique corporate culture, but would be wary of creating an ethical knot within the critique. When Judith Williamson says, in Deadline at Dawn, the film "provides the left-wing brain with just enough activity to make it feel busy and mask the fact that emotionally and morally it isn't taxed in the slightest", we're inclined to disagree. If the violence were presented less extremely, then the liberal response could hold: the scene would be furnishing a liberal argument commenting on the heartlessness of the corporate mentality. But by making us laugh is Verhoeven not implicating us in a certain heartlessness of our own, and by making us laugh at the same time that we are seeing such extreme violence, is he not making the liberal position curiously, instinctivelyuntenable? Verhoeven's film might be ostensibly a liberal attack on corporate logic, but it also insists that we share a degree of that corporate reasoning in the very viewing of the film. When we laugh at the CEO's sense of disappointment, where exactly is the laughter coming from? Is it a liberal distance or a momentary fascist realisation that the CEO has a point: that life is less important than the technological screw up?
Verhoeven's interest in ethical knots is evident also in the scene in the men's room between Jones and the ambitious Robert Morton (Miguel Ferrer). Morton is the man behind Robocop, and its successful implementation. As he disses Jones while standing next to another corporate figure at the urinals, he and the others in the room realise that Jones is clearly able to hear him; he is in one of the cubicles. As various corporate nonentities do a disappearing act including the man Morton has been dismissing Jones to, Morton and Jones have a stand-off. Who are we to side with in this mirror shot that becomes a tight shot/counter-shot exchange? Is it the older man who feels he is being usurped by the younger one, or the younger one who proves as underhand, greedy and cynical as the man still above him on the corporate ladder? By utilising the mirror we might assume in a formal-thematic reading that there isn't much to choose between them: they aren't so much two sides of the same coin, but both on the same side of the mirror. But while formal thematic readings are all very well; more interesting is the film's creation of a standoff between two characters for whom we're unlikely to have sympathy. We are engaged in the battle of egos, but certainly aren't put in a position of moral comfort. Who will win this battle of the vacuous?
In the scene where an innocent is blown away, our sensibility is called into question by the laughter elicited out of extreme violence, and the 'disappointment' the CEO feels in the wake of it. In the bathroom scene it resides in a moment where both characters strongly express an opinion, but one is neither especially for nor against either of them. It is an example of what we might call dissuasion, taking into account Gilberto Perez's take on Louis Althusser's notion of interpellation. Now for the Marxist Althusser, interpellation is a form of coercion, the manner in which we're ideologically bullied into identificatory submission, and was greatly utilised by film theorists questioning how the viewer was too readily stitched into Hollywood texts. Perez, in an article published in Senses of Cinemacalled 'Toward a Rhetoric of Film', reckons rather than treating it as coercion it might better be understood as persuasion: that we are persuaded to identify with certain characters in certain situations. In this sense, much of Verhoeven's work is dissuasive, creating not identification with characters, but distance from them. Even a brief moment where a couple of very peripheral characters discuss the trouble in Acapulco that means their prospective holiday is ruined calls into question identification. Again this is an example not of persuasion, of "persuasion by identification", but of dissuasion as we distance ourselves from characters within the diegesis, no matter the humour elicited.
The two main forms of dissuasion Robocop practises lie as we've noted in the violence presented and the range of unsympathetic characters deployed. If few filmmakers push the violence into problematic extremity more than Verhoeven, few filmmakers give over more screen time to characters who in common parlance pass for unsympathetic. Whether it is forcing us to spend time with Morton and a couple of hookers, listening to the villainous wisecracks of Clarence and his gang, or attending to the needs of one disgruntled ex-city employee making exorbitant ransom demands, Verhoeven dissuades at every opportunity.
Yet if we feel watching the film that Verhoeven is not simply the cynic he is often presented as being, why might that be so? If we think briefly about persuasion in cinema, persuasion as Perez would couch it through Althusser, then many an action movie persuades us to accept certain actions that one finds intolerable without the filmmaker problematising that intolerableness. In a James Cameron film like True Lies, there is a scene where Schwarzenegger's character forces his wife to strip as he sits in the dark with his wife assuming he is a dangerous stranger, and another moment where Schwarzenegger dangles Bill Paxton's character over a cliff until the man wets himself, and Cameron seems to offer the scenes as examples of persuasion rather than dissuasion: as he puts us into Schwarzenegger's shoes and doesn't question enough the problem we may have with being in them. We're on the side of his powerful feelings, rather than musing over the moral mindlessness. Would Verhoeven makes such moments dissuasive rather than persuasive; would he not be more inclined to ask questions around our misplaced sense of identification?
Cameron by this reckoning is finally a far more cynical filmmaker than Verhoeven, and also lacks Verhoeven's interest in creating a critique within the context of the action film: hence a double cynicism of casual cruelty unacknowledged, and an absence of social critique that the action genre can serve: True Lies too easily creates a villainous Muslim; Titanic, an incompetent, lascivious captain of the ship. Verhoeven, as we've indicated, goes for permeating social satire, and shows corporate greed, peripheral selfishness and cruelty, as well as disgust at anything remotely intellectual (one of the villains asks a bookworm if he could outsmart a bullet). Robocop is hardly a left-wing paean to social unity, but in showing a corporate society, a mindless media, and mindlessly ambitious individuals where there is finally no difference between corporate crime and street crime (Dick Jones is in cahoots with Clarence), Verhoeven creates a sense of dystopia that also generates the dystopian: the very viewer positioning in relation to violence and character. If Verhoeven 'goes too far', he does so to ask how far are we, as a society, willing to go. An apparently gung-ho action film, Robocop manages to offer up the sort of questions that not only ask us to muse over certain directions society seems to be moving in, but makes us wonder also about the general easy violence and villainy of most action films. "Big illiberal, thoughtless tendencies", Mark Cousins insists in Widescreen, "have been the force behind the aesthetic grandeur of some of the most memorable American films of all." Robocopmanages queasily to blend that illiberalism with elements that ask us to call into question the low-key Fascism the action film so often takes for granted.
© Tony McKibbin