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Pornographic Basic Instinct rejects humanity

Basic Instinct
Directed by Paul Verhoeven.
Written by Joe Esterhas.
Starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone.
At Loews Cheri.

By Eric Blair

Basic Instinct is pornography! That some simplistic editing slight-of-hand alters the visual shaping of one sex scene by changing the manner by which an ice pick in a female hand is inserted into a male's head in order, literally, to climax a life and a sexual congress in no way alters this plain fact.

In his original Holland, Director Paul Verhoeven first made Soldier of Orange, an excellent World War II adventure flick which was at once melodramatic and literate. He then made The Fourth Man, an admittedly murderous sex comedy, but one whose perversions were construed through indirection and even wit. Demonstrably, then, Verhoeven is some type of artist, not a mere hack, and therefore must be accorded some benefit of the doubt. So when one encounters Basic Instinct and finds a new low in sleaze, one must recognize that Verhoeven has created no mere accident. Instead, this mega-budget, top-grossing film could be viewed as some kind of pop-culture benchmark.

In his book The Studio, John Gregory Dunne posited that Hollywood financiers entrust big-budget movies first and foremost to those who show they can actually spend the money. In his first American film, RoboCop, not only did Verhoeven spend money, he made some. In the process, he took that most expressive of actors, Peter Weller, and made a literal anti-human out of him -- a robot.

Next came Total Recall. Here Verhoeven need not coat a real actor in chrome and tinsel, for he started with the artificial original, that inimitable product of pumped iron and steroids, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Visually, with its grotesque humanoid freaks, Total Recall represented one man's Boschian rendering of disgust not just at human life, but at the human life form. It was an anti-human message translated to the screen. Cinematically, Total Recall and its success represent the human equivalent of the proverbial dog eating its own vomit, for the movie was a monstrous hit which audiences ate up.

Eschewing, as it does, robots, mutations, and humanoids, Basic Instinct is more subtle -- though the subtlety is that of an icepick to the head -- for its characters are at least human. But they are such in representation only. No utterance within the $3 million Joe Esterhazy script would pass a Turing test -- the screenplay's every word is an insult to artificial intelligence. For example, Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammel says to Douglas' Nick Curran when he returns to being a detective, "I'm not gonna confess all my secrets, Nick, just because I have an orgasm." There are academic "insights," such as the police department's use of outside shrinks to question Detective Curran with such additions to the literature of practical psychoanalysis as "Nick, when you recollect your childhood, are your recollections pleasant to you?"

While it is conceivable that even this script could be overcome by great acting, that possibility need not be entertained. In Basic Instinct, all performances are on par with the script.

To the extent that Sharon Stone demonstrates any talent at all, it would seem to be in her ability to assume a naked equestrian position, and then, in one rapid, highly stylized motion, pull from sight her slightly equine face whilst, with arched back, she brings her somewhat slight breasts into an all too prominent and improbable upright view.

Michael Douglas, while slimmed down for his role, nonetheless offers even less evidence of talent than does Stone. George Dzundza's screen time as Douglas' pudgy sidekick is considerable and never totally unpleasant. Jeanne Tripplehorn as cop shrink and Douglas lover is akin to Stone in acting style. Then there is that Sharon Stone of yesteryear, actress Dorothy Malone, brought on screen seemingly for no other purpose than for Verhoeven to demonstrate that megabuck cinematic magic is not everything; in the ravaging of great beauty, age does very well on its own.

Indeed, in allowing Dorothy Malone to be her own mortal self, thereby drawing so stark a contrast to the artificiality of everybody and everything else, Verhoeven demonstrates the one bit of wit evident in this film. The rest of his characters move with the absolute lack of grace inherent in the worst of modern dance. Artist that he is, Verhoeven manages to make even the sex, which forms the bulk of this movie, simultaneously both silly and ugly. It is never the act of love, but instead an act of death, real people being in no way involved. It is a parody of sex and life both.

There may well be certain instances when consideration of what is pornographic requires fine, precise calculations. Basic Instinct is not one. Whatever the precise definition, "pornography" must be accounted anti-life, anti-love, and yes, anti-sex. Basic Instinct is all these -- absolutely, unambiguously so.

That it is likely to provoke an audience reaction not so much of "prurient interest" as of revulsion and disgust means simply that, according to legal standards, the movie does not merit banning. But it remains pornographic, nonetheless.

Verhoeven has as misanthropic a vision of mankind as has ever made it to the silver screen. He takes Hobbes' axiom that "the life of man is nasty, brutish, and short," and because Hollywood has given him all the money in the world to play with, he has abandoned rendering it in visions of some wit and sensibility, as he did in his European films, but instead simply emits his nightmares flatly upon the screen.

There is a certain fascination in watching the fantasies of so gargantuan a misanthrope in color on the Wide Screen. But there is a limit. The fascination with Verhoeven's adventures in American cinema is the spectacle of his continuing ability to spend vast sums upon lurid visions.

Eventually his visions will combine the extremes of the banal and the revolting to such a degree that audiences will no longer spend to see. Thereafter, no further Verhoeven visions will be onanistically played out upon the screen. Basic Instinct's early box-office success would seem to insure that such time has not yet come. So Verhoeven's next must be an abomination way beyond the ratings R, X, NC-17, or whatever. Short of his somehow giving us Dr. Hannibal Lecter as vegetarian, one cannot imagine how he'll deliver.