Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is currently playing on nine big city screens, and slowly expanding to more in other parts of the country. It's a radical departure for Mr. Verhoeven. It's his first non-English film since The Fourth Man (1983), and it's his first non-exploitation film in decades. It deals directly with the Nazi persecution of the Jews and it runs 145 minutes. Clearly, he's trying to say something here. He wants us to know that, whether or not anyone liked Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990) or Basic Instinct (1992), he never really took those films seriously.
Now, I don't think that's exactly true, but it's certainly the impression one can get. The truth is that while Black Book appears to be more important, dignified and serious than Verhoeven's other films, and while I like it very much, it actually has quite a bit less to say. Films from the lower regions can often get away with more subversive ideas than more prestigious films. For example, Black Book demonstrates once again how awful the Nazis were and how resourceful the Jews were, but Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997) sends a far more sinister message by forcing us into the perspective of the Nazi-like heroes as they try to exterminate an entire species of "bug." The film sweeps you up into a frightening mob mentality, so you cheer for death and destruction well before you realize what's actually happening.
Of course, few viewers (including myself) actually got the point of Starship Troopers upon a first viewing, and so it didn't get the kind of response it deserved. Verhoeven watched as more middlebrow films earned all the year's accolades. It was the same story for the elusively intelligent Robocop; was there a more canny satire released in theaters in 1987? But how many critics took it seriously at the end of the year? So Black Book could be viewed as a kind of concession for Verhoeven, a surrender. If this is the kind of film you'll pay attention to, he seems to be saying, here it is. (Fortunately for us, he made a film that's just as tense and enjoyable as his earlier work.)
Sadly, Verhoeven is not alone in this thinking. Director Bill Condon, with his film Dreamgirls (220 screens), provides another all-too clear example. I've met Condon twice and I can tell you that he is a horror fan, but like many involved in the horror genre, he hates the idea of being trapped there. He began by writing and/or directing films like Strange Behavior (1981), Strange Invaders (1983), Sister, Sister (1987), F/X 2 (1991) and Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995). Serendipitously, this filmography landed him the job of directing the wonderful James Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters (1998), which landed Condon an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
After that, Condon laid low for a while, and I'm sure all his research and immersion into the life of Whale made him think hard about his own career. Whale (1889-1957) was a gay man who made four horror films that are popular and beloved to this day, and 17 other films -- including the musical Show Boat (1936) -- that have been largely forgotten. Condon used his Oscar to maneuver his way from horror into musicals and wrote the screenplay for Chicago (2002), which led to a biopic, Kinsey (2004) and then Dreamgirls (2006), all Oscar contenders.
Now, I liked Chicago and Kinsey just fine, and I didn't much like Dreamgirls, but none of them contained the huge thrill that comes of watching Strange Behavior or Gods and Monsters. Did Condon swap his passion for prestige? Did he trade his soul for a legacy? Only Condon can say for sure. The psychology of the matter is that Verhoeven and Condon traded 'body' and 'soul' in favor of 'mind.' Genres like horror, erotic films, comedies and thrillers rely on body responses, or physical responses. When it comes time to intellectually assess these films, people tend to entirely dismiss the body response, shunting off those films as unworthy. The tradeoff is that "body" films tend to be very popular and earn their makers massive fame.
It's an old struggle that goes back as far as humankind, and there are a million examples. You can see it in Chris Rock when he adapts a highbrow Eric Rohmer film for I Think I Love My Wife (168 screens), then unsuccessfully tosses back and forth between maturity and the lowbrow comedy his fans expect. An insecure or ambitious artist probably won't be happy with either camp. At first, one or the other is probably fine, but eventually any artist will want both success and acceptance. And, as much as I or anyone else writes about it, our mindset as human beings makes that ever harder to attain.