Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The motorcycle racing drama Spetters follows a similar pattern to many of director Paul Verhoeven's films, which often start with the basic elements of a trashy genre film and transform it into something much deeper, richer, and stranger. That's certainly the case here, as Verhoeven worms his way into this pulpy exploitation tale about a trio of arrogant young dirt bike racers striving to make it big and get out of their small town rut. Rien (Hans van Tongeren) is the most promising of the bunch, an ace driver who's on his way to becoming the king of the underground racing circuit, just a short step away from mainstream success. Eef (Toon Agterberg) is his mechanic, a sullen hood in a leather jacket who's mainly trying to buck the influence of his overbearingly religious parents. Finally, the goofy Hans (Maarten Spanjer) is the trio's loser buddy, perennially in Rien's shadow, with a bike that only starts half the time because Eef's more interested in maintaining the winner's motorcycle. This trio, with their girls and hangers-on, spend the first half of the film largely goofing around, going through an array of teen comedy moments with the usual Verhoeven flair.
The film earnestly takes on this milieu, wallowing in the cheesy fun of an early 80s disco, where Eef does his best imitation of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, before being outdone by a black guy with better moves. Travolta looms large over the film, sometimes literally, as when a poster-sized blow-up of his face fills the frame before Verhoeven zooms out to show what else is in the room. These kids are living in a wholly imitative culture, grooving to Blondie and Michael Jackson on dance floors that might've been modeled on New York City disco clubs. Verhoeven takes real pleasure in depicting what these kids get up to for fun, and he diligently checks off the requisite scenes: the disco, the motocross race, the fight where the outnumbered but defiant teens manage to outwit the big, tough motorcycle gang. It's all cheesy, kitschy fun, rendered with Verhoeven's typical appetite for such purplish material. But through it all, there's something more going on beneath the fun and the nods to genre clichés.
For one thing, Verhoeven's characters are developed with much finer strokes than the typical pulpy teen adventure. Even from the very beginning, these characters have a tinge of desperation lurking beneath their outward cheekiness; there's a very real sense in which these motocross races represent the teens' only chance to make something of themselves. In a town with very few opportunities Eef works in a gas station, Hans and Rien as carpenters these seemingly uneducated guys only dream of stardom and success, an escape from the various things they want to run from. As usual, Verhoeven also explores the subject of sex, which is both something of a status symbol for the kids and a sore spot in terms of their limited means. One definition of success for them might be having a nice place to bring their girls to get laid, something Rien gets a taste of whenever his parents leave town, while the other guys have to settle for distinctly un-sexy abandoned buildings and grassy fields. Even so, there's more than a hint that the guys go through the motions of sex not for its own sake but because it's an expected communal ritual. There's a hilarious scene where Eef and Hans, in adjacent rooms, aren't having sex but convince their girlfriends to fake it anyway, moaning and screaming until they fake cumming. The guys immediately break away and join up, bragging about how good it was, the homoerotic undertones in this kind of buddy movie coming to the fore here (and more explosively elsewhere) as sex becomes just a way to bond with the guys.
More subversively, sex also comes to the fore in the way that Verhoeven treats homophobia and various forms of prejudice and hatred. One way in which his film defiantly departs from its pulpy inspirations is that the main characters are depicted as hateful, obnoxious bigots and homophobes, getting their kicks by torturing others. At one point, Rien sneers about "nigger and Chinese" doctors, while in an earlier scene the group berates and tortures a gay couple, smearing one boy's mouth with lipstick and beating him. Still later, Eef takes up the habit of spying on and robbing gay hustlers, watching them perform their services and then beating them up afterwards to steal their money. He is fascinated and drawn to this scene even as he's repelled by it, and the money seems less like a motivation than an excuse. This cover-up is complicated by the fact that he's ostensibly stealing in order to win the favor of the fickle Fientje (Renée Soutendijk), who only sleeps with men who have either money or the promise of earning it someday soon.
Fientje has a lot in common with the three motocross kids, in that her one overriding motivation is a desire to better herself, to move up in life. She's sick of selling cheap fried food from the traveling stand she runs with her brother, hitched to the back of their car. She wants a man who can give her security and a fur coat, and to that end she'll kiss any guy with promise and screw any guy with money. She's a caricature of the shallow, socially ambitious slut, looking with her teased blonde curls and expressionless painted face like a trampy doll. Verhoeven revels in exaggerations of this sort, making Fientje an unapologetic slut and status-seeker to play off of Rien's more complex girlfriend Maya (Marianne Boyer), who cares about him in a far deeper way. It's not so much a virgin versus whore dilemma, since both girls are more than willing to sleep with Rien, but a question of why they want him and what they see in him. Ultimately, the shallow Rien picks the girl who's a makeup-caked mirror image of himself Fientje shares his ambition, while all Maya can offer him is love and caring.
Throughout the first half of the film, Verhoeven does an excellent job of making these characters both interesting and profoundly unlikeable. They're self-centered jerks, vain thugs with no respect for their women and no tolerance for anyone different than themselves. Their idea of a fun night out involves boozing, dancing, gay-bashing, and having sex, this last a triumphant capper to the night's excitement. Despite all this, Verhoeven never allows them to become mere villains, and he sympathizes with their ambitions and camaraderie even when he detests their prejudices and attitudes. This complicated stance towards his protagonists pays off in the film's increasingly devastating second half, which departs more and more from its genre origins into deeper tragedy. As the film progresses, the initially inseparable trio are driven apart into diverging storylines, each pursuing his own fate as Verhoeven crosscuts between them, using rigorous, systematic parallel editing to emphasize this separation. The characters are deprived of all their grounding, as the motocross racing milieu becomes less and less important to the film, its status as a symbol of success replaced by a much more open and desperate thrashing about.
Spetters is a typically complex film from Verhoeven, not as harrowing or as fully developed as his earlier Turkish Delight, which treads some similar ground, but still a fascinating deconstruction of some particularly lightweight trash genres. This is a motocross film, a disco film, and a teen comedy all wrapped into one, though each of these elements is pushed into the background as the story progresses. Its second half, with its tragic narrative arc and shocking, brutal scenes of sex and violence, is a natural development of the film's negative worldview, in which the best that can be hoped for these kids is a life of compromise and willful self-deceit, always looking for more. Verhoeven's pulpy tribute to a degraded genre delivers the requisite motorcycles, sex, and leather, but he also delivers so much more.