(Spoilers for the Paul Verhoeven movies Basic Instinct and Total Recall, though these movies are so well known that it is expected the reader is familiar with both, and no attempt is made to summarize them. After reading Robert Littell’s essay on the Fitzgerald book from where I take this post’s name, “The Beautiful and Damned Is A Timeless Tale”, I should explain that the small difference in the names is that in Fitzgerald’s book, the adjectives apply to the same characters, whereas in the movie I think there is only one who enjoys the overlap: Catherine is beautiful, Nick is damned, Elizabeth is beautiful and damned. This note of explanation was added on December 22nd, 2013. The movie’s lousy screenplay is by Joe Eszterhas, and the excerpts are taken from the version found here, at Daily Script.)
This post might be thought the second in an ongoing series of attempts to deal with what might be generically and euphemistically referred to as “writer’s block”. The first, “The Room: My Funny Valentine” was in turn halted by the same affliction; a substantial second part of this post going off on an entirely different tangent on bad movies remains unfinished. This post attempts to deal with the problem by writing about a bad movie I would usually have no inclination to write about, or frankly watch, Basic Instinct.
I am cheerfully tabula rasa as to what others have said about this film, avoiding the curse mentioned by many, though my memory focuses on Huysmans’ A Rebours, where one’s reading limits one into reiterating, or making awkward and failed attempts to avoid, what others have already said1. I have chosen it as a remedy for my ills, but not entirely haphazardly; it has the ideal qualities for a movie about which one wishes to write. I have just spoken of it as a bad movie, and this is almost entirely the fault of the screenplay, maybe one of the worst ever produced for this kind of very expensive production. If one can imagine a crazed billionaire funding an erotic thriller with the stipulation that all the dialogue had to come from comments on youtube, it might produce a similar creature2. You might look at the movie as an example of the lunatic movement of money, entirely unmoored from common sense, this time deciding to make a movie out of a disturbed child’s english homework – though of course somehow this bet paid off, with the movie a huge financial success. The gap between the script and the high quality of the production, the masterful cinematography and design, are what compel analysis. The emptiness of the screenplay becomes opacity. There is seemingly nothing to the characters, nothing to their relations with each other, but the richness (the word is not chosen arbitrarily) of the images compels one to believe there must be something within. The movie is like a cryptic device, seemingly useless but beautifully ornamented, found in a pharaoh’s tomb. Someone so powerful must have had some reason for owning this antique, but what?
So, I describe what I think is the most obvious perspective of seeing the film, and though I think this perspective is entirely natural and without awkwardness, it may very well be one entirely without intent of the movie’s makers. I also think I am describing the most obvious way of seeing the film, and as a tender virgin ignorant the film’s commentary, I think I may well be saying things that have been said many, many times before3.
Basic Instinct can only be seen, and only makes sense, as a movie about movie watching and the fantasies they inspire in the audience, and the way they differently affect men and women. It might be seen as a companion piece of the Paul Verhoven film right before it, Total Recall. That movie was about a man having a fantasy made real, but it’s also about the vicariousness involved in movie watching and how those fantasies are not without malevolence. The character Doug Quaid may well experience the fantasy of an escape from his life by playing the role of a secret agent, but we in the audience are given an equal escape too, the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing this very part. The film itself gives a discreet nod to this in one of the few moments when we break from Quaid’s perspective and are with another Rekall client and her potential fantasy: the screen showing what awaits her features a massive bodybuilder form suggesting nothing less than our own hero. Our desires, however, are not entirely noble: the fantasy of Doug Quaid involves brutal killing, his use of a body as a human shield, and shooting his wife with a machine gun. We eventually learn what underlies this cruelty: Quaid is actually a double agent, part of the malevolent and ruthless government which he serves, so deep undercover that his secret mission is unknown even to him. That our role playing involves cruel acts more appropriate to a villain than a hero suggests that the fantasy does not involve being a hero at all, but to play, briefly, at evil.
After an opening dream sequence, Recall begins in the bed of Quaid and his wife. Basic Instinct opens in a bed as well, one which we first see entirely in reflection in the ceiling mirror; the movie is not about sex in real life, but images of sex. The plot which follows, all red herrings aside, is ridiculously simple: a mystery writer named Catherine Tramell4 is suspected of the opening murder, and becomes the target of an investigation led by Nick Curran. Tramell writes books which seem to foretell killings, whether that of her parents or Johnny Boz, the rock star killed in the opening. Detective Nick Curran becomes increasingly obsessed with Tramell, suspecting her of a slew of murders, including that of her parents, but we’re unsure if his investigation is a cover for his own infatuation or the other way around. Eventually, we learn that Curran’s former girlfriend, a police psychiatrist named Elizabeth Garner is also obsessed with Tramell, and has been ever since they went to school together. The movie’s open ending reveals that Garner is the one behind the killings, intended to frame and destroy the object of her ardor, Tramell, yet somehow when the movie closes with Curran and Tramell in bed, there is an icepick on the floor which Tramell tentatively reaches for, but then, for the moment, leaves aside.
The movie, like Recall, often has the ambiguous quality of a dream; there are scenes that seemingly cannot be real, from which we expect the characters to awake, but they never do, suggesting the entire movie is a dream life. Curran is a veteran cop, but when he tails Tramell by car, he is so close and so obvious that he immediately gives himself away. Curran goes to a nightclub shabbily underdressed and easily the oldest person there, yet no one seems to notice or give any dismissive stares; the club itself feels like a vision of what an older man might imagine such a club would be like. On the way to her interrogation, Tramell is asked a series of questions in the car about writing books, and her answers here are first given as a reflection in the rearview mirror, a reflected image like that which opens the movie:
It must really be something making stuff up all the time.
Yeah, it teaches you to lie.
You make up believable stuff. It’s called suspension of disbelief.
The dream-like sequences we see, of Curran tailing Tramell in a manner more obviously than any cop would ever do, or Curran unnoticed in a nightclub, destroy the movie’s own suspension of disbelief. What we see cannot be real, it must be Curran’s dream.
Tramell, the center of this dream, seems to have an uncanny insight into Curran. We later learn she may have had access to an internal police report on him, but her knowledge appears to precede this, as if she knew him intimately before the movie began. Though Basic Instinct gives no evidence that Curran knew her before, there appears such a close connection between them that he is frequently asked if he did. Curran is both the movie’s protagonist and a character in one of Tramell’s fictions, which uncannily predicts exactly how Curran’s partner is killed. That Curran’s character dies in the book implies that he’ll die soon as well, though perhaps only after the film ends. In her books and elsewhere, Tramell appears to have precognition; she is like a goddess or demon from outside the dream, summoned into it, who knows perfectly how it works and what will take place, but without any power over the consequences5. “I don’t make any rules, Nick,” she says during the famous interrogation scene. “I go with the flow.” She stares out at the camera during a lie detector exam, all-seeing, knowing that eyes are always on her6.
Basic Instinct is a mystery set in San Francisco, and it feels like a play on that other mystery set in San Francisco, Vertigo. There are, of course, the overhead shots of winding staircases, and there is the cop haunted by the mistakes of the past, this time two tourists killed when Curran worked as an undercover agent in a drug sting. The swooning strings suggest the scores of Bernard Herrmann and Tramell’s house is on the coast of the ocean in which Vertigo‘s heroine tries to drown. The detective of Vertigo is obsessed with a mysterious woman while a neglected love stands by. Here, the neglected woman is equally obsessed, and it is not the object of obsession who is remade into the ideal, but this obsessed woman who remakes herself into an image of the femme fatale7.
I have said that the movie’s opening implies that the film is entirely about our obsession with images themselves, and it is only in this relation that the movie makes any kind of sense to me. Tramell is the iconic movie character and its associated celebrity, and Basic Instinct might be a metaphor for the fantasies we have about such things and the influence of such fantasies on our own lives. Tramell is set apart early on from the other characters, a woman with a massive house outside of the city, the bounty of the extraordinary wealth she inherited when her parents died. She is supposedly a figure of malice, yet she is the only character who over and over again wears white, the traditional symbol of purity. This, to my mind, does not represent purity at all. Tramell is the central light whose rays fall on all the others. The other characters almost always wear suits, in drab colors, that blend in with the blah interiors of the police station. Garner is as gorgeous as Tramell, but she’s stuck in dull browns. Almost all the characters work for the police department, doing what’s considered difficult, necessary work, while it’s the multimillionaire maybe serial killer heiress who embodies the ideal of freedom and wealth so often celebrated in movies. This, I think, nakedly and without apology does what so many movies do, celebrating a material ideal achieved through corruption and death, the corrupt means an afterthought: this is not a movie driven by its moral lessons, this is a movie about wanting the multimillion dollar mansion of a murderess8.
I don’t think the references to Vertigo are there to simply place this movie in the tradition of Hitchcock thrillers, but because they are at the heart of Nick Curran’s fantasies, and the relation of movie fantasy to reality. Curran is a man who I assume, based on the age of Michael Douglas at the time, to be in his late forties or early fifties. The icy blondes of Hitchcock movies are the erotic fantasies of his youth, and in this dream, this icy blonde is given pornographic life, and Curran finds himself in a fantasy which unsettlingly shares some of the qualities of Vertigo. The icy blonde of his fantasy has remained eternally a thirty year old, while he has aged into an old man. As said, when he meets her in the club, he is very obviously and uncomfortably the oldest man in the room9. Whatever their absurdities, he does not wish these fantasies to be questioned or examined. The objects of these fantasies, Catherine Tramell and Elizabeth Garner, are also his opponents, and, not coincidentally, they both have a background in psychiatry. Their expertise lies in examining the desires of others. Curran resists anything like such questioning, explicitly so during a psychiatric examination. “When you recollect your childhood…are your recollections pleasing to you?,” he’s asked. “Number one: I don’t remember how often I jerked off, but it was a lot. Number two: I wasn’t pissed off at my dad…even when I was old enough to know what he and mom did in the bedroom. Number three: I don’t look in the toilet before I flush.” Curran doesn’t want to look at the shit in the bowl, and he doesn’t want to look at the shit in his head.
I think the idea of a fantasy preserved in memory, an erotic image made static is crucial to my perspective on this movie, yet I struggle to covey it as precisely as possible. The iciness of the Hitchcock blonde is not simply that of temperament, but a flower frozen in ice, Vertigo‘s Carlotta Valdes is Vertigo‘s Madeleine is Vertigo‘s Judy is Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Tramell; the beauty is eternal because there is something in the beauty that is already dead. As said, I attempt to describe something that is crucial, but I fail; I think, however, Norman Mailer comes closes to conveying it in his essay, “The sinister art of film”:
Think of a favourite uncle who is gone. Does the apparatus of the mind which flashes his picture before us act in another fashion if we ask for a flash of Humphrey Bogart next? Perhaps it does not. Film seems part of the mechanism of memory, or at the least, a most peculiar annex to memory. For in film we remember events as if they had taken place and we were there. But we were not. The psyche has taken into itself a whole country of fantasy and made it psychologically real, made it a part of memory.
We are obviously dealing with a phenomenon whose roots are less defined than the power and glory of king and church. Yes, movies are more mysterious than theatre; even a clue to the undefinable attraction of the movie star is that he remains a point of light in that measureless dark of memory where other scenes have given up their light. He has obviously become a centre of meaning to millions, possessed of more meaning than the actor next to him who may be actually more attractive, more interesting – definition of the phenomenon frays as we try to touch it. But has the heart of the discussion been sounded? Does it suggest that movie stars partake of the mysterious psychic properties of film more than other actors? That something in them lends itself to the need of memory for images of the past one can refer to when the mind has need to comprehend something new before it?
We have to be careful. It is perhaps not so simple as that. The movie star may also suggest obsession, that negative condition of memory, that painful place to which we return over and over because a fundamental question is still unresolved: Something happened to us years ago which was important, yet we hardly know if an angel kissed us then or a witch, whether we were brave or timid. We return to the ambiguity with pain. The obsession hurts because we cannot resolve it and so are losing confidence in our ability to estimate the present.
Obsession is a wasteful fix. Memory, when it can be free of obsession, is a storehouse to offer up essences of the past capable of digesting most of the problems of the present; memory is even the libido of the ego, sweetening harsh demands of the will when memory is, yes, good. But the movie star seems to serve some double function: The star feeds memory and obsession – one need only think back to one’s feelings about Marilyn Monroe! The movie star is welcoming but mysterious, unavailable yet intimate, the movie star is the embodiment of a love which could leave us abject, yet we believe we are the only soul the movie star can love.
Catherine Tramell is an image preserved in stasis, a kind of eternal blonde, and there is a kind of stasis, if not entropy, in the movie overall; when fantasy begins, real life stops. There are no children or families in the film, none of the police seem to have any relatives. Hazel Dobkins was convicted of killing her family, Tramell’s girlfriend, Rocky, was convicted of killing her younger brothers, and Tramell is suspected of killing her parents. Basic Instinct suggests that underlying a movie that is ostensibly about a flawed hero of the community, a representative of the state, a policeman, is a worship of a Nietzschean ideal unencumbered by christianity, fellowship, or community, an all powerful goddess among men, the wealthy and isolated Catherine Tramell; the women of the movie express the other side of this: they destroy the foundation of community, the family, not by namby pamby cultural warfare, but through actual murder. Despite themselves, Curran and his partner, Gus, are drawn to Catherine Tramell, this corrupt ideal. The movie deliberately establishes that the fantasies of Curran and Gus are not those of a corrupt coastal elite, but that of average flyover country Joe Q. America, the movie taking pains to make this clear: one of the longest discussions between Curran and his partner, Gus, takes place in a honkytonk bar, with Gus sporting a cowboy hat and bolo. His partner warns his friend of what might happen through his involvement with Tramell, but he’s also deeply envious of his friend’s entanglement. “You think I’m getting any? Sure, I can get laid by blue haired women!” he complains. “I don’t like them!”
Curran covets this woman as a man might covet a movie star ideal, but she is obsessed over as well by Liz Garner, who wishes to be her but hates her as well. Without doubt or qualifier, I find Garner to easily be the most interesting character of the movie10. This has nothing to do with the writing, and entirely because of the actress. Just as Tramell’s presence flows exclusively from Sharon Stone, the fascination of Garner is wholely due to Jeanne Tripplehorn. There is no erotic charge to any of the couplings in the movie; the only one which one imagines carrying any such electricity is between two characters who never share the screen: Garner and Tramell. Garner is stuck in a world of ugly, older men – the only exception is detective Andrews (Bruce A. Young) who may or may not be considered invisible in this context. Douglas is lit sympathetically in other movies, but here his face is made to look either like melting clay or a cave fish. His character is a charmless sleaze who treats Garner abysmally. In their only sex scene, he forcibly bends her over and sodomizes her. Every conversation, every moment they have together is, as they always say, about his drama, not hers. Garner’s house has paintings on the wall, books, antiques, ornaments, suggesting substance as well as a hunger for new things, places unknown, whereas Curran’s has nothing. Curran is given no rivals for her affections, she is given no hint of a better choice.
Garner is the only female character among the police, and her position is a subservient one. Curran acts like she’s dirt, and in her psychiatric analyses she is always accompanied by older men who take the lead in the analysis – Dr. Lamott (Stephen Tobolowsky) in one, Dr. McElwaine (James Rebhorn) and Dr. Myron (William Duff-Griffin) in the other. Where Curran soon comes to idolize Tramell in his sexual obsession, Garner hates the world she’s stuck in and idolizes her in a different way: she becomes the femme fatale Tramell is supposed to be, killing off a series of men. She wishes to be like Tramell, and yet she hates her as well, the way a woman might hate a beautiful actress or model whose looks she is constantly unfavorably compared to. Her killings are born out of frustration with Curran ignoring her, in favor of loving this ideal: her dying words to Curran are “I loved you.” The irony, of course, is that Garner has all the qualities that Tramell has. Garner’s body is gorgeous and her lips are sensuous. The movie plausibly tells us that Garner is the killer in the opening scene, and that the beautiful sexual dervish we see there is Garner. “She’s evil! She’s brilliant!” Garner warns Curran about Tramell, and she’s actually warning him about herself. Everything that draws Curran to Tramell should draw Curran to Garner, but he is trapped within the confines of his own fantasy; we are told that he is not drawn to Garner out of any erotic attraction, but pity. “Sometimes I think he started banging her just to get Internal Affairs off him,” says one cop to Gus, who replies “He ain’t that way. He’s got a heart.” Garner is a police psychiatrist, she knows exactly what a police officer with a drawn gun will do when she pulls her hand out of her pocket, and so she does exactly that: she is sick of this world, and so she forces her escape11.
That Curran’s own illusion will end is inevitable as well. He wishes for the fantasy to persist eternally, yet for it to unroll as well as if it were real life. Curran and Tramell discuss how the novel about his character will end:
The detective falls for the wrong girl. But he doesn’t die.
So what happens to him?
They fuck like minks, raise rug rats…and live happily ever after.
It won’t sell.
Somebody has to die.
He persists with trying to hold onto this conflciting vision, my life will be an erotic thriller but with a family as well, up till the very last scene. “I lose everybody,” says Tramell, because she knows this dream must end. Shortly after meeting Tramell, Curran takes up smoking again, and these dreams are like cigarettes in movies, a stylish pose, which one affects without giving any thought to the aftereffects, but are ultimately a habit you end or they destroy you12. After they have sex, Tramell asks, “What do we do now?” and Curran somehow tries to attach a normal life to this erotic fantasy. “Fuck like minks…raise rug rats and live happily ever after.” Tramell, however, is a creature only of erotic fantasy, and she knows that children are antithetical to this: “I hate rug rats.” Curran wants so badly what he has to persist that he abandons it immediately without negotiation, “Fuck like minks, forget the rug rats…and live happily ever after.” But Tramell knows that erotic fantasy is destroyed not just by children, but that fantasies themselves are self-destructing. Dreams are inherently ephemeral, inherently transient: the dreamer has to wake up. Inevitably, without logic or reason, somehow Tramell is the murderer as well, and sooner than later, Nick Curran will die.
(Edits for aesthetic reasons and clarity were made on November 27th, 2013; apologies are made for the poor readability of this piece on its initial posting, the day before. A still from Total Recall of Quaid using a body as a human shield that I decided was just too explicitly graphic was removed on November 27th as well. I originally misremembered the name of Huysmans’ book and gave it a title which was an incoherent combination of various french sounds. That was also corrected on the 27th. On November 29th, the text involving Noman Mailer and the obsessive images of cinema were added, as was footnote #4, where Verhoeven describes Catherine Tramell as demonic. The actress Jeanne Tripplehorn was briefly renamed Jeannette in this post; on the 29th, she was given back her rightful name. Footnote #5 on Catherine Tramell and Madonna’s Sex, and footnote #9 on who the true killer is, were added on the 29th as well. Footnote #1, the example of the sterling writing of the movie, was added on the 30th. Footnote #7, quoting the passage from The Wolf of Wall Street, was added on December 1st. Elizabeth Garner originally was stuck with a d in the middle of her name; this change, along with a clarification on how I see the last actions of her life, footnote #10, were made on Decemeber 22nd, 2013. On December 24th, 2013, the material dealing with the supporting script excerpt was added to footnote #10. Footnote #8 on the ages of Gus and Nick was added on December 25th, 2013. The additional notes on the inspiration for Catherine Trammell in footnote #5 was added on December 27th, 2013. Footnote #1 dealing with Huysmans was added on January 9th, 2015, with the following footnotes incremented. On May 18, 2015, the footnote referencing the Seven Types of Ambiguity was added.)
Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote Phaedrus, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric. In the tale, the title character, a citizen of Athens, takes a walk with the great orator Socrates into the countryside, where the two friends sit under a tree beside a stream and have a long and circuitous conversation. They discuss the finer points of speech making, the nature of desire, the varieties of madness, and the journey of the immortal soul, before turning their attention to the written word. “There remains the question,” muses Socrates, “of propriety and impropriety in writing.” Phaedrus agrees, and Socrates launches into a story about a meeting between the multitalented Egyptian god Theuth, whose many inventions included the alphabet, and one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus.
Theuth describes the art of writing to Thamus and argues that the Egyptians should be allowed to share in its blessings. It will, he says, “make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories,” for it “provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” Thamus disagrees. He reminds the god that an inventor is not the most reliable judge of the value of his invention: “O man full of arts, to one is it given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of the tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect.” Should the Egyptians learn to write, Thamus goes on, “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” The written word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance.” Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” They will be “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom.”
However, there is an excerpt from A Rebours which might be relevant to this movie:
The servant brought him a new series of books. These oppressed him more. They were books toward which his taste had gradually veered, books which diverted him by their very faults from the perfection of more vigorous writers. Here, too, Des Esseintes had reached the point where he sought, among these troubled pages, only phrases which discharged a sort of electricity that made him tremble; they transmitted their fluid through a medium which at first sight seemed refractory.
Their imperfections pleased him, provided they were neither parasitic nor servile, and perhaps there was a grain of truth in his theory that the inferior and decadent writer, who is more subjective, though unfinished, distills a more irritating aperient and acid balm than the artist of the same period who is truly great. In his opinion, it was in their turbulent sketches that one perceived the exaltations of the most excitable sensibilities, the caprices of the most morbid psychological states, the most extravagant depravities of language charged, in spite of its rebelliousness, with the difficult task of containing the effervescent salts of sensations and ideas.
2 The most egregious example of the terrible terrible terrible writing in the movie is the first encounter with Tramell:
Good afternoon. I’m Detective Curran. This is Detective Moran. We’re with the San Francisco Police…
I know who you are. So, how did he die?
He was murdered.
Obviously. How was he murdered?
With an ice pick. How long were you dating him?
I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him.
What are you, a pro?
No, I’m an amateur.
My dismissal of Eszterhas’s writing is almost as artless and witless as the object of dismissal; thankfully, those looking for an artful and skewering blade can find one in Joe Queenan’s review of Eszterhas’s advice book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, “Basic Instinct”.
3 After writing this post and making a few aesthetic edits, I found that innumerable people had looked into the connections between this movie and Vertigo, though not quite taking the approach I have here, where Catherine Tramell is an erotic fantasy formed from the memories of Hitchcock’s icy blondes. Among those who do insightful work into the connections between the two movies are Molly Lambert in “The Fuck of the Century”; a comparison between the looks of Novak and Stone is “Vertigo vs Basic Instinct” by nom de guerre TheClaud; and there are a few references to Vertigo in a detailed discussion of the costumes of Instinct, “Basic Instinct: Sharon Stone, Devil in a White Dress” by Christopher Laverty.
But, in general, complexity of logical meaning ought to be based on complexity of thought, even where, as is proper to the second type of ambiguity, there is only one main meaning as a resultant. For instance, if it is an example of the first type to use a metaphor which is valid in several ways, it is an example of the second to use several different metaphors at once, as Shakespeare is doing in the following example. It is impossible to avoid Shakespeare in these matters; partly because his use of language is of unparalleled richness and partly because it has received so much attention already ; so that the inquiring student has less to do, is more likely to find what he is looking for, and has evidence that he is not spinning fancies out of his own mind.
As a resounding example, then, there is Macbeth’s
If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly;
(double syntax since you may stop at the end of the line)
If the Assassination
Could trammell up the Consequence, and catch
With his surcease, Success; that but . . .
words hissed in the passage where servants were passing, which must be swaddled with darkness, loaded as it were in themselves with fearful powers, and not made too naked even to his own mind. Consequence means causal result, and the things to follow, though not causally connected, and, as in “a person of consequence,” the divinity that doth hedge a king. Trammel was a technical term used about netting birds, hobbling horses in some particular way, hooking up pots, levering, and running trolleys on rails. Surcease means completion, stopping proceedings in the middle of a lawsuit, or the overruling of a judgment; the word reminds you of “surfeit” and “decease,” as does assassination of hissing and “assess” and, as in “supersession,” through sedere, of knocking down the mighty from their seat. His may apply to Duncan, assassination or consequence. Success means fortunate result, result whether fortunate or not, and succession to Vhe throne. And catch, the single little flat word among these monsters, names an action; it is a mark of human inadequacy to deal with these matters of statecraft, a child snatching at the moon as she rides thunder-clouds. The meanings cannot all be remembered at once, however often you read it; it remains the incantation of a murderer, dishevelled and fumbling among the powers of darkness.
5 The idea that Catherine is clairvoyant to a supernatural degree, implying a demonic figure, not simply an evil character but one whose powers are those of an eternal, all-powerful being, is made as well by director Verhoeven in the documentary that was part of the film’s DVD reissue in 2001, Blonde Poison. It can currently be found on youtube, in three parts: part one, two, and three. These comments occur in part one, from 5:28 to 6:10:
GARY GOLDMAN (script consultant)
She’s beautiful, she’s feminine, and yet she’s also completely and totally masculine. She’s a superheroine in a way, say, that Sherlock Holmes and these characters are superhuman in their cleverness.
That was extremely contrived, but worked very well. And that I thought, okay, how can I make that true to myself? I say, okay, “she’s the devil.” That basically makes her supernatural in some way, she could forsee with more insight than anyone else…to be so clairvoyant, to be so, let’s say, clever in planning. And it works.
6 The lines that so very aptly describe Tramell are very appropriately found from a book by a woman who shares many of Tramell’s qualities, and may well have been the model for the maybe murderess, and that would be Sex by Madonna. Basic Instinct makes everything gleaming, the entire movie bright with light and money in a way that signals an extinct era, with the audience that might have once fantasized about having a fraction of Tramell’s wealth is now fighting for its life – when reading the essay “Film”, from Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, on watching Last Tango in Paris, I came across this sentence which I think adds a felicitous ring: “Perhaps it is the five dollar admission, but this audience has an obvious obsession with sex as the confirmed core of a wealthy life.”
Sex made the mistake of going for a raw zine like aesthetic, to make it look like the kind of cheap porno mags that people used to find discarded in the woods – the kind of artifact that exists now only in memories, like in this great piece by David Sedaris on This American Life, “The book that changed your life”. Madonna needn’t have bothered. We no longer bought our porno in paper bags. We were all outlaws now.
The lines are from the beginning of the book:
I’ll be your sorceress,
your heart’s magician.
I’m not a witch.
I’m a love technician.
I’ll be your guiding light
in your darkest hour.
I’m gonna change your life.
I’m like a poison flower.
My reaction to most of the writing in the movie can be found from a fragment in the same book: “Some people know how to talk and some don’t.”
I am not the only person who sees the other blonde icon as the inspiration for Catherine Tramell; so did Janet Maslin in her contemporary review of the movie at the New York Times, “Sure, She May Be Mean, but Is She a Murderer?”:
Neither the detectives nor the audience has seen anything quite like Catherine before.
Or maybe they have: Madonna is an obvious model for this rich, controlling woman who turns her sexuality into a form of malice, deliberately mocking and inverting ordinary notions of heterosexual seduction.
Eszterhas, however, gives an entirely different source for the character of Tramell, along with the basis for the charater of Curran, in “The Nerve Interview: Joe Eszterhas”:
Is there a key to writing a great sex scene?
I’ll be frank with you. I’ve always loved sex. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable things in life. I pay attention to it. I have “researched” it all my life. When I was doing research for Showgirls — this was before I met Naomi — I had my producer with me, and after our third night of “research,” he looked at me and said, “Man, you are relentless.” And that was accurate.
That’s funny, because I was going to ask how you research films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
I began my career as a police reporter, and I met a cop who just liked the action too much. He was always in the middle of shootings. He was a great cop on one level, but on another, you suspected he liked it too much. That’s what Nick Curran does in Basic. As Catherine says in the movie, he got too close to the flame. He loved the flame.
In terms of Catherine herself, when I was in my late twenties, I picked up a young go-go dancer in Dayton, Ohio. We left when the place closed, and we came up to my hotel room and did what we were there to do. And afterward, she reached into her purse, and she pulled out a .22 and pointed it at me. She said, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull this trigger.” I said, “I didn’t do anything to hurt you. You wanted to come here, and as far as I know, you enjoyed what we just did.” And she said, “But this is all guys have ever wanted to do with me, and I’m tired of it.” We had a lengthy discussion before she put that gun down. Those two random characters are where those parts of Basic Instinct come from.
I was really delighted, especially when I started to realize, how wonderful, and how beautiful, a city San Francisco was. And, of course, realizing at the same that I was shooting in the city of Vertigo. And Vertigo being one of my, with North by Northwest, probably my most favorite Hitchcock movies, that I studied forever, that I still study…I knew Vertigo by heart. So, a lot of things that Hitchcock had done in Vertigo you will see back in Basic Instinct clearly. All changed a little bit, you know. I didn’t go back to the movie to check it out, you know, what I remembered of Vertigo, I applied, you know. And if Hitchcock took the Golden Gate Bridge, I would take the next bridge.
Hitchcock would have loved to do, I think, a movie that has the explicitness that Basic Instinct has.
We know this claim to have some basis in fact. Hitchcock worked for a long period of time on a movie about a male serial killer set in America, to be titled Frenzy – though it was to be a very different movie than the Frenzy that was eventually made about a serial killer which was shot in England. Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light provides some idea of its plot, and makes clear that it would have featured explicit sex and nudity:
“Frenzy” evolved into an American manifesto—even offering a passing glimpse of the President of the United States himself. At the same time it was going to be a very personal Hitchcock film, a triumphant reprise of his signature themes. Hitchcock envisioned the mother of the killer as a professional actress, playing with the idea of the mother giving a Broadway performance, while suspecting her son of horrible deeds. (The police are slow to suspect the real killer, of course, although at one point a traffic cop pulls him over.) At the end of “Frenzy,” the mother would agree to help the police trap her son—a kind of apologetic reversal of Psycho.
The “Frenzy” murders would all be triggered by proximity to water, which had been a source of danger in other Hitchcock films. The first victim (a UN employee) would be slain in broad daylight near a waterfall in a secluded patch of woods outside New York City; the second, an art student, would be wooed to a shipyard and viciously murdered amid abandoned World War II freighters. The “Mothball Fleet” sequence would be a nail-biting cinematic crescendo, a Hitchcockian tour de force.
Hitchcock wrote the waterfall murder as a bucolic love scene that ends up as the shocking annihilation of an innocent. He planned ample nudity featuring both women and men (“an insistence on sex and nudity,” Truffaut later pointed out), and a vignette where the killer’s mother interrupts him masturbating in his bedroom.
“The first scene,” [Dan Auiler, writer of the Hitchcock Notebooks] reports, “is of the young model getting up from bed in her New York apartment. She’s nude as she rises in the scene—lit only by natural light—and walks to the bathroom. The camera remains fixed as it does a full 360-degree pan of the apartment—starting with her rise from the bed and following her around to her entry into the bathroom.
“The second scene is at the artist’s studio, where the young killer meets the nude model. There are several dollies and elaborate pans of the artists (including the young man intended as the killer) at work.”
It was the greatest film Hitchcock never made.
8 Some passages which I came across by happenstance in recent reading which best convey this intertwining of hidden desire, the sexual and the materialistic, are in Jordan Belfort’s memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, where he gives a speech which gets at the urge, the fear, that pushes on his team of stock salesmen (also known as the Strattonites because the name of Belfort’s firm is Stratton Oakmont). It imagines material desire as something so urgent that one could think it justification for murder, which makes it an appropriate tangent for a movie where the murderess is the secret hero. Another detail that makes this speech apt for a post on Basic Instinct is that Belfort’s memoir takes place around the time of the movie’s release:
“Listen to me, everyone: There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I choose rich every time. At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I can show up in the back of a strech limousine, wearing a two-thousand-dollar suit and a twenty-thousand-dollar gold watch! And, believe me, arriving in style makes your problems a helluva lot easier to deal with.”
I shrugged my shoulders for effect. “Anyway, if anyone here thinks I’m crazy or you don’t feel exactly like I do, then get the fuck out of this room right now! That’s right – get the fuck out of my boardroom and go get a job at McDonald’s flipping burgers, because that’s where you belong! And if McDonald’s isn’t hiring, there’s always Burger King!
“But before you actually depart this room full of winners, I want you to take a good look at the person sitting next to you, because one day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll be sitting at a red light in your beat-up old Pinto, and the person sitting next to you is gonna pull up in his brand-new Porsche, with his gorgeous young wife sitting next to him. And who’ll be sitting next to you? Some ugly beast, no doubt, with three days of razor stubble – wearing a sleeveless muumuu or a housedress – and you’ll probably be on your way home from the Price Club with a hatchback full of discount groceries!”
Just then I locked eyes with a young Strattonite who looked literally panic-stricken. Hammering my point home, I said, “What? You think I’m lying to you? Well, guess what? It only gets worse. See, if you want to grow old with dignity – if you want to grow old and maintain your self-respect – then you better get rich now. The days of working for a large Fortune Five Hundred company and retiring with a pension are ancient fucking history! And if you think Social Security is gonna be your safety net, then think again. At the current rate of inflation it’ll be just enough to pay for your diapers after they stick you in some rancid nursing home, where a three-hundred-pound Jamaican woman with a beard and mustache will feed you soup through a straw and then bitch-slap you when she’s in a bad mood.
“So listen to me, and listen good: Is your current problem that you’re behind on your credit-card bills? Good – then pick up the fucking phone and start dialing.
“Or is your landlord threatening to dispossess you? Is that what your problem is? Good – then pick up the fucking phone and start dialing.
“Or is it your girlfriend? Does she want to leave you because she thinks you’re a loser? Good – then pick up the fucking phone and start dialing!
“I want you to deal with all your problems by becoming rich! I want you to attack your problems head-on! I want you to go out and start spending money right now. I want you to leverage yourself. I want you to back yourself into a corner. Give yourself no choice but to succeed. Let the consequences of failure become so dire and so unthinkable that you’ll have no choice but to do whatever it takes to succeed.”
9 That Curran is acutely aware of his age, that he feels himself to be incredibly old, is the only explanation for what is one of the stranger moments in the film. It is most likely the result of a European director in an American milieu; the result, unintentionally or not, is Curran expressing how he feels like a very old man now, someone of a bygone age. Gus and Nick arrive at the murder scene, and Gus asks about Johnny Boz. “Rock and roll, Gus,” says Curran. “Never heard of him,” says Gus. “Before your time,” says Curran. This dialogue makes complete sense in the script. Gus is a much older man than Nick, sixty four to forty two. From their introduction in the screenplay:
Winter in San Francisco cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere. The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives get out of the car, walk into the house.
NICK CURRAN is 42. Trim, good-looking, a nice suit; a face urban, edged, shadowed. GUS MORAN is 64. Crew-cut, silver beard, a suit rumpled and shiny, a hat out of the 50’s, a face worn and ruined, the face of a backwoods philosopher.
It would make sense that a man of that age in 1992, the year of the movie’s release, would know nothing of a rock producer like Boz. The line, “before your time,” is clearly a joke, meaning after your time, after you were a teenager. To make the joke obvious, the script’s full line is “before your time, pop”:
Who was this fuckin’ guy?
Rock and roll, Gus. Johnny Boz.
I never heard of him.
Before your time, pop.
Mid-sixties. Five or six hits. He’s got a club down in the Fillmore now.
In the movie, Nick and Gus are played by actors who are the same age. Physically, Gus appears to be slightly older, but only slightly. When Curran says the “before your time” line, it’s now “before your time, cowboy.” Curran no longer grins, or makes any acknowledgement that it’s a joke, when he says the line. This is what is so strange for me in this moment: given how closely the two men appear physically in terms of age, the line no longer makes sense as a joke, and there’s no hint that this line is intended as one. For me, the scene only makes sense as a way of Curran expressing how old he feels in this dream world. This music actually is before Gus’s time. Curran is older than his older looking partner.
10 Whether coincidentally or not, one finds the names of the three principals line up with ancient rulers. Catherine and Elizabeth are the namesakes of famous queens, one infamous for her sexual appetites (how well founded the rumors are I can’t be bothered to look up right now) and one for her tactical brilliance, respectively and appropriately. Nick takes after Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, notorious for his weakness and his pliability in the hands of his stronger wife.
11 That I believe Elizabeth to be the one behind all the murders is not the majority view. The documentary “Blonde Poison” gives the views of the movie’s editor Frank Urioste, the composer Jerry Goldsmith, the movie’s script doctor Gary Goldman, and Verhoeven on the subject, with the director making himself very clear that he considers Tramell to almost certainly be the true killer. The movie’s screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, does not appear in “Blonde Poison”, for what I assume is his usual reason, some feud with someone or other.
Everyone has their opinion about the end.
To this day, I’m not even certain that she was really the killer.
I still don’t even know if she’s the murderer.
The last movement, the movement in bed with the icepick, is the final revelation. And the way that it’s done, in Hitchcockian fashion, by simply focusing on it, is the language of cinema telling you this is the answer to the story. It was quite an argument, and quite the fight, to keep it that way, but I think it’s actually the best possible ending.
Of course, Jeanne Tripplehorn is guilty too, in some way. For a long time, there is the suspicion that she is the killer in it, and at the end, the police think she is, but we know better…probably.
The activists who protested the movie’s depiction of a bisexual woman did so by trying to spike the box office through giving away the movie’s ending, which they considered not an ambiguous qualifier, but the movie’s final revelation. I have not brought up the issue in this piece, because outside the contemporary context cited by the group – yet another movie with a queer villain – I don’t think there’s anything here that registers with Elizabeth or Catherine as queer stereotypes. There is nothing in Roxy that makes her stereotypically butch. At no point do they connect gayness with physical ugliness. If I see this movie as one about the different ways a man and a woman relate to an image, a role, a celebrity, that fuels erotic fantasy, it is not to make excuses for the film, but because this is, for me, the most natural and obvious way to see the movie.
Throughout the entire protests, we had been labeled as censors. We had been told that we were trying to censor this film, that we were trying to stop expression. And we thought about that, and we realized, what better way to sort of turn that around, than to name our group “Catherine Did It!”. Catherine, of course, is the killer in the film. By giving away the ending of the film, we were challening Hollywood to see which is more important to you, is our freedom of expression any less valuable than the freedom of expression of the filmmakers? You can know that Rosebud is a sleigh and still think Citizen Kane is a great film. If giving away the ending of this movie takes away its value, that’s really not our fault.
I felt that they were all absolutely wrong, and that the movie proved them wrong.
My point “she knows exactly what a police officer with a drawn gun will do when she pulls her hand out of her pocket, and so she does exactly that” perhaps requires clarification, since Curran demands that she take her hand out of her pocket. The moment she sees him with his gun out, she puts her hand in her right pocket. He demands that she take her hand out several times. She starts to move it out, but while holding onto her keys, so that Curran thinks she has a gun that she’s about to draw on him, and this is what causes him to shoot her. I think she knows that this action dooms her, and she does it on purpose, knowing that she’ll do exactly this when she puts her hand into her pocket at the beginning. Her second to last line, “What’s wrong with you?”, I hear as not being asked about what he’s doing now, but his behavior throughout the movie, why he treats her the way he does, why he sees her the way he does.
The point is perhaps more obvious than in the script, where she starts out with both hands in her pockets, or the script makes the point more obviously than the movie where “She moves a hand in a pocket and moves towards him fast –” while she has a drawn gun on her. Before she makes the gesture, she smiles strangely. She has no purpose for moving her hand in her pocket; unlike the movie, there are no keys, there is nothing:
He hears something. Gun in hand, he runs towards the SOUND. He stops, gun in hand, listens again. He runs again, hears nothing.
Behind him, we see a figure.
He spins suddenly, gun, in hand. Beth Gardner is there.
She wears a windbreaker. She has her hands in the pockets.
What are you doing here?
Put your hands up!
She stares at him.
Put your fucking hands up! Don’t move.
I got a message on my machine to meet Gus here. Where is he?
She smiles a strange smile. She takes a step toward him.
I know about your husband. You still like girls, Beth?
She smiles strangely again, takes a step toward him.
Take your hands out of your pockets!
She moves a hand in a pocket and moves towards him fast —
What is wrong with you?
And he FIRES the gun. She is hit in the chest, goes down.
A long beat, and then he goes to her. He gets down on the ground. Her eyes are open. He empties the pockets of the windbreaker — first one, then the other the pockets are empty.
(in a whisper)
I loved you.
And she dies.
One might read in Garner’s last gesture in the film a symbolism that is no doubt unintended, but is surprisingly fitting and consistent. Garner holds in her hand the keys to Curran’s apartment, the ones she never returned. She has access to the inside of his home, but he has no interest in the interior of hers. She is very much trapped in his dream world, and from which she wishes to escape. It’s the gesture of pulling the keys out of her pocket that gets her shot, the keys are her exit from Curran’s dream house. Curran’s dream is one centered around a sexual fantasy that’s remained frozen, ageless, and so there’s something appropriate that these keys are on a key ring with the eternal child, Bart Simpson. There is something juvenile in this fantasy, and this makes this ring ornament a fitting symbol as well. Curran’s best moment, the one that comes off as most deeply felt, is his agony at killing her over this key ring that he mistook for a gun. He reacts to the ridiculousness of it all, but if you want to give it the context that this is all his dreamworld, it is his juvenile dreams that have brought them to this moment, and when he sees this cartoon memento, he recognizes this, and he is suddenly overwhelmed with regret at what his dreams have destroyed.
12 I am unsatisfied with my attempts to describe the connection between smoking and the ephemeral nature of this dream. I read La Diva Nicotina: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World by Iain Gately, to try and find some mention of history or social custom that would prove the felicitous image. Gately’s book has some interesting insights before it descends into a misrepresentation of those fighting against cigarette companies as a bunch of money grubbing opportunists. On this particular area of history, it is an embarrassment, its insubstantial scholarship in contrast to the definitive work on the subject, The Cigarette Century by Allan Brandt. Given the stakes involved in the fight, this embarrassment is not just a squalid one, but a despicable one as well.
As said, before reaching this ignominy, there are many colorful insights, but none that conjure the proper image (I think more in terms of images justes than mots) of association. The first branding of tobacco, by John Rolfe, seems apt for this movie, not the product of our time, a piece of mass manufactured relief for their nerves, but an entry to an exotic other world:
He named Virginia’s product Orinoco, a word, at the time, suffused with the mysteries of Eldorado as described by Sir Walter Ralegh. Lighter in both colour and flavour than its Spanish and Portuguese competitors, it burned with a unique and delicate fragrance, described by a contemporary poet as ‘sweeter than the breathe of fairest maid.’
There is a Victorian firm’s cigar advertising campaign:
Copes published a series of popular wall hangings and calendars illustrating this united nation of tabagohiles. ‘In pursuit of diva nicotina’ is a typical example. It depicts a throng of happy smokers, many caricatures of great or notorious men, rushing towards their temptress, La Diva Nicotina.
A description of Seville; the book’s account of the bandoleros of Spain, who smuggled tobacco in when Napoleon blockaded Europe from American imports like tobacco from Virginia, might be its best moment:
Seville is the birthplace of tobacco’s association with sex in the Old World. It had given Europe cigars and many of the romantic associations attached to their consumption. Cigars were for bandoleros, for dashing cavalry officers, and they were prepared for these heroes’ lips by beautiul, semi-naked Andalusians, who also smoked. Seville, its women and its cigars had also made a deep impression on the Frenchmen who had occupied it earlier in the century, and it became a favourite destination of French literati in 1830s, who celebrated a new use for tobacco – as a sexual ambassador – on their return to France. The first of these to venture south and document the phenomenon was Prosper Mérimée, a prominent figure in the French Romantic movement. Seville’s tobacco factory gave him the material for his most famous work – Carmen – the tale of a gypsy temptress who breaks hearts and steals watches. This is how Carmen dressed for work at the Fabrica:
She was wearing a very short red skirt, beneath which you could see her white silk stockings with holes in them and dainty red morocco leather shoes fastened with flame coloured ribbons. Her mantilla was parted so as to reveal her shoulders and a big bunch of acacia flowers which she had in the front of her blouse. She had another acacia bloom in one corner of her mouth, and she moved forward swaying her hips like some filly out of the Cordoba stud. In my part of the world everyone would have crossed themselves at the sight of a woman dressed like that but there in Seville everyone paid her some risué compliment on her appearance.
Carmen would have removed everything but the stockings and flowers when she sat down to roll cigars.
Interestingly, Carmen the fictional heroine may have been drawn from life. The cigarerras were as wild as their reputation and the Fabrica’s records from the tune of Mérmée document the expulsion of one Maria del Carmen Garcia, a dark haired black-eyed 15-year-old firebrand who had been disciplined numerous times, and who was finally expelled from the factory after she attacked a workmate with a pair of tobacco shears.
The only part of the book which comes close to capturing what I think is there is a very short one, on the global trade of the product which would supplant pipes, cigars, snuff boxes, and other tobacco products, the newly developed cigarette: “The Japanese had also taken to this most Zen of smoking devices, which consumed itself in fire for pleasure.”
(Images from Basic Instinct and Total Recall copyright Carolco Pictures; images from Vertigo copyright Paramount Pictures.)