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Robert Altman Week

Friday
Feb262010

« In Which I'm A Writer, I Use People For What I Write »

The Fuck Of The Century

by MOLLY LAMBERT

Basic Instinct (1992)

Wr. Joe Eszterhas

Dir. Paul Verhoeven

"You know I don't wear any underwear, don't you Nick?" - novelist Catherine Tramell

Basic Instinct is a bizarro Vertigo, which is remarkable considering that Vertigo is pretty fucking bizarro to begin with. Joe Eszterhas takes a sledgehammer to Hitchcockian tropes and the result is LURID. And I've learned that I like lurid. Eszterhas's dialogue here is as awesome as it is in Showgirls, with side characters prone to tossing out lines like "there's cum stains all over the sheets" to remind you that this is a SEXY R RATED MOVIE. It's mostly silly and sporadically legitimately hot. 

The constrasting "good girl" brunette, Beth, is played by Jeanne Tripplehorn (aka Barb from Big Love) who nonetheless gets hella groped by Michael Douglas in an extended consensual rape play scene. Her character is a shrink, which is about as believable as Sharon Stone's bisexual blonde best-selling novelist's beach house. But Basic Instinct is not a movie about realism. It's about cinematic tropes and Jungian archetypes and film noir plot twists and Verhoeven and Eszterhas elevating pulp to an art form.

"you got nothing better to do than come in here and jack off the damn machine."

I know this movie got panned a lot when it was released, but so did Showgirls, and I'm not being ironic when I say I really love that movie. Paul Verhoeven made five stone cold classic films about America, starting in 1987 with Robocop, Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997). 

"You're gonna make a terrific character Nick."

As others have noted, the erotic thriller is a genre that has in some ways been displaced by the internet. It may be hard for younger readers to even imagine the world some of us grew up in where pornography was not an easily accessible boundless and free resource, where filmic nudity is not nearly so precious.

The whole scrambled porn opening scene in American Pie (1999!) would make no sense as a joke nowadays. But lots of people enjoy sex scenes most in the context of a narrative. Just ask John Mayer, who writes fanfic for the porn he's watching. It's weird how much of Basic Instinct's plot I sort of remembered/knew about from having read a Cracked or Mad Magazine parody of it at the library once around 1992.

Off topic but not actually: You know what else is a great erotic thriler? Wild Things.

Like Vertigo, Basic Instinct is a film about voyeurism, obsession, and sexual fetishism. Because it is a 90s movie written by Joe Eszterhas the roster is expanded to include cocaine, bisexuality, BDSM, and vagina flashing. Michael Douglas shows his ass a few times, and tells a lesbian her girlfriend is "the fuck of the century." Nomi Malone in Showgirls is similarly lauded for her magic pussy, which elevates her above all other women and seems to be something of a Joe Eszterhas trademark theme.

Verhoeven sustains heavy suspense during the film, and a scene towards the end involving an elevator is particularly taut. And in both Vertigo and Basic Instinct, the real terror is seemingly a sexually magnetic but emotionless woman. When you get down to it, isn't that what a femme fatale is? A woman who doesn't need men?

"well she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain"

Having watched Casino recently, I feel confident saying I think Sharon Stone really is a great actress. She may be an insane hard to work with asshole (based on reports), but that doesn't stop a lot of male actors from getting work (cough, Sean Penn). In Casino and Basic Instinct she is basically the walking embodiment of cocaine. Catherine Tramell's even got a giant mirror over her bed so you can watch her blowing you.

"I spend most of my waking hours dwelling on my lies. For my writing."

It also reminded me how the early 90s was full of these new creatures, icy scary blonde women like Madonna, Camille Paglia, and Stone's Catherine Tramell, called Third Wave Feminists. And how it was kind of a revolutionary concept to be like "BEING OBJECTIFIED CAN BE EMPOWERING" and how sick of that shit I became in the 00s from the Vice Magazine/American Apparel version, which was more like "you'd get naked if you were cool." Which is not how it really works at all, hence also "Girls Gone Wild." 

Which brings us back to the problems with Free Love and why being objectified doesn't actually usually end up being that empowering. At least not as empowering as being a best selling well-known novelist, which Catherine Tramell also is (and presumably not just because she gives great author photo). Apparently her magic pussy also makes for a magic pencil. Or is it the other way around? It's probably an ouroboros

In the end, the plot doesn't make a ton of sense when you try to add it all up. But neither does the plot of Vertigo! Or a lot of film noirs, for that matter. What's more uncanny than trying to go back and tie up all the threads so they'll make sense and finding that you just can't? It's inspired me to write my new film Basic Wordpress about a sexy ginger whose blog presages murders all over The Mission.

THE BEST CRIME FILMS & THRILLERS SET IN SAN FRANCISCO

The Lady From Shanghai

Zodiac

The Maltese Falcon

Vertigo

Basic Instinct

Dirty Harry

48 HRS.

Bullitt

Chan Is Missing

The Conversation

The Fan

Freebie and The Bean

The Rock

Sneakers

The Sniper

So I Married An Axe Murderer

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She tumbls and twitters.

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Reader Comments (10)

If you like his American films you should try to check out some of the Dutch ones. Specifically Spetters, Turkish Delight, and Soldier of Orange. Some of them are harder to track down than others but Verhoeven is amazing when he works in his native language. Plus, I think they all have Rutger Hauer in them and his first few films were all shot but Jan De Bont, the director of Speed and Twister.

February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhilipppe

De Palma has made some of my favorite erotic thrillers: Body Double and Dressed to Kill are both brilliant.

February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

I may not know shit from shinola, doc, but what I does know is that I've seen this frikkin' movie about twenty times. It's been five or six years since the last go-round; maybe I'll watch it tonight! Thanks for the inspiration.

Meanwhile, I always wondered when Catherine found the time to write. Seemed she knocked out that thick novel in her sleep!

February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFlickhead

Re SF films: Dark Passage w Bogart Bacall San Quentin & Coit Tower

February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVincent Parry

The denouement of this movie is, quite frankly, fucking ridiculous. Which is exactly as it should be. Especially with something like Wild Things as well, which would make for a great drinking game every time a new twist gets more insane or you get the fantastic Theresa Russell doing things like slamming her fist on a table and shouting, "My daughter does not get raped in Blue Bay!"

Also, Dressed To Kill? Awesome movie.

February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarco Sparks

sharon stone isn't really a good actress. besides that i really enjoyed the post.

February 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterderby

If you are looking for San Francisco thrillers, I suggest The Game. Michael Douglas + freaky clowns + James Rebhorn. Instant classic/so 90s.

February 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMartha

Interesting piece and I'm glad I read it, but not sure why you and many others don't almost hate "The Lady From Shanghai" like I do.

February 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBP

I watched this movie once while under the influence of marijuana. DO NOT WATCH this movie under the influence of marijuana. The film making process is revealed to be an artifice. You can feel the poorly written script, the poor direction and the exceptionally poor acting. All it makes you want to do is order in pizza and watch your libido exit stage left.

August 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

'- It's inspired me to write my new film Basic Wordpress about a sexy ginger whose blog presages murders all over The Mission.'

I would love to see this movie!

January 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHC Carr

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