Monday, August 13, 2012

In Praise of Paul Verhoeven's Elusive, Smartass Genius

RV!: Total Recall (1990) Dir: Paul Verhoeven Date Released: June 1, 1990 Date Seen: August 12, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5

After reading Vadim Rizov's typically thoughtful piece on Total Recall, the 1990 adaptation of Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, I felt compelled to rewatch the film. I imagine that I'm like many other people in that I (often inadvertently) rewatch Paul Verhoeven's irreverent adaptation on a semi-regular basis. It's kind of ubiquitous, y'know?

In any case, I saw the new digital presentation of Total Recall on Sunday and found that, while I don't necessarily agree with all of Vadim's piece, I do think he's onto something. In the article, Vadim suggests that co-writer Dan O'Bannon's personal politics, the kind that helped to make Alien such an idiosyncratically thoughtful monster movie, make Total Recall a pro-Marxist film. The hero that Schwarzenegger plays is thus repositioned as a blue-collar everyman that's brainwashed into thinking that he's unthinkably unremarkable.

This is a really interesting reading and a fairly rewarding one, I think, especially when you consider the scene at the airport where Quaid's frail skeleton bursts through the X-ray machine like the Beefcake Superman that he is. But bear in mind: unless you believe that both Quaid, the blue-collar construction worker, and Hauser, his killer spy persona, are both equally fake, then Quaid is a projection of the film's bourgie baddies. In the film, stubborn exec Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) explains to an equally bull-headed Quaid that Quaid is a figment of Cohaagen and Hauser's imagination. He's a projection that took on a life of its own.

That reading is basically supported by the scene where Melina (Rachel Ticotin), the Martian prostitute and would-be revolutionary, is constructed for built for Quaid by the Rekall technicians. This is his first visit to Rekall's memory-implanting facility; it's also before the technicians even attempt to implant anything in Quaid's head. In other words: since we see Melina's picture before the Rekall agents try to alter Quaid's mind, we can assume that somebody wanted Quaid to be thinking of Melina even if the memory transplant failed. So, if we believe this reading, then Quaid, the larger-than-life hero, was created by Cohaagen and Hauser, people that disdain working class people. Quaid is thus an artificial, hatefully dull persona that just happened to overwhelm its host's Herculean body.

And yet, it would be mistake to think there's only one valid way to read Total Recall. The film's plot is intentionally treacherous and full of red herrings that suggest that the film's narrative is not nearly as straightforward as it seems. For example, the plastic smiles and unnerving placidity that characterize both Quaid's breakfast discussion with his wife and the idyllic pillow-talk-before-sex scene is not that different than Hauser's robotic manner of speech in his pre-recorded video messages to Quaid. Likewise, the bulkhead and slate-grey decors that characterize Earth in the film can also be found in a good portion of the dome-protected parts of Mars. There is, in other words, several signs that the respective habitats that define Schwarzenegger's warring personas are not fundamentally different.

Then again, you might say that the Venusville quarter of Mars, the part where all the mutants live, is instead a stable alternative to both the fake home-life and the equally fake hotel-life Quaid lives in the film. Venusville is, after all, the place where Quaid starts to like being Quaid: he sees that he has friends, a cause that he believes in and even some loose women at his disposal. This is where Quaid wants to be, but it's also not yet everything it should be. Once the Martians can all breath the same air, the re-integration of the mutants and the normal-looking, Dome-dwelling population in the concluding scene is as close to a Marxist Utopia as the film gets. But Total Recall's happy ending is basically the uncertain promise of the future: what comes next may be normal, stable and happy, but we'll never know.

All of this to say: it would be a mistake to try to find a just look at Total Recall's events through just one lens. The fun of re-watching Total Recall is having fun while being jerked around by filmmakers that are very good at jerking you around. Verhoeven's something of a pervert poet and a king mixer. He leaves you with the possibility of post-narrative normalcy but only after actively suggesting that everything he's just shown you is a fantasy concocted by a very disturbed man. You can't keep your footing while watching Total Recall unless you ignore a lot of deceptively dense contextualizing information. It's a trip and one of Verhoeven's best.

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