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TIFF Programmer Jesse Wente talks FLESH + BLOOD: THE FILMS OF PAUL VERHOEVEN

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For fans of ultra-stylized sex and violence that spans decades and nations, running now until April 4th at Toronto’s storied TIFF Bell Lightbox is FLESH + BLOOD: THE FILMS OF PAUL VERHOEVEN. The series is a new retrospective that starts in the early days, with Verhoeven’s Dutch masterpieces like SPETTERS, TURKISH DELIGHT and THE FOURTH MAN through his first foray into Hollywood with the 1985 erotic adventure film FLESH + BLOOD, swelling with his such revolutionary sci-fi gems as ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS, sexual pulp like BASIC INSTINCT and of course, literally climaxing with his camp lap-dance legend SHOWGIRLS.

FLESH + BLOOD is overseen by eternally boyish TIFF programmer Jesse Wente, a former film critic with the CBC who is treating his gig at the film center as the ultimate toy, a tool to educate and forever be that kid who lived to indulge his junk culture impulses while discovering more serious strains of cinema, an unapologetic dichotomy that Verhoeven has long navigated successfully.

VerhoevenBasic“Verhoeven is among the more requested subjects I get here,” Wente told FANGORIA while gallivanting around LA on business (in fact, director John Landis was just about to pick him up for lunch). “But fans haven’t necessarily screamed for a complete retrospective, mostly because people only want us to show SHOWGIRLS, unfortunately. I preferred a complete analysis because I find that he’s a director with two very distinct separations in his career. There’s that pre-Hollywood Dutch stuff and then his bigger Hollywood films, but they’re all interrelated and it’s interesting to see his evolution and progression as an auteur, as opposed to simply focusing on one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history which has over the years been reclaimed by many critics as a misunderstood work, whether an ironic one or not.”

The series is of extra interest to cineastes due to TIFF’s longstanding mandate to exhibit the best possible sources available, as opposed to popping up a DVD like some centers and festivals are content to do. “It’s always a struggle when doing a historical retrospective getting the best material,” Wente insists. “In general, we almost never screen from DVD as we want prints or restorations. So it’s extra exciting that all the Dutch stuff is all 35mm as is most of the Hollywood output, even if some of the prints have unusual subtitles due to the fact that those prints of certain films are incredibly scarce.”

Like Hitchcock, who was long considered a craftsman until French critics examined his body of work to determine running themes and ideas, Wente believes Verhoeven is an artist hiding as a journeyman, a fact that makes looking at all the work of extra fascination.

“What I find most interesting is the genesis for the ideas in the Dutch pictures that would come out in the Hollywood films. Verhoeven was always into sex and violence and looking at the intersections between the two, coupled with an interest in war and counterculture. When you look at the films, you see that the raunchy TURKISH DELIGHT relates to BASIC INSTINCT for example. He is an auteur and the Hollywood films take on a different patina when you see the larger context. If he had continued exclusively making Dutch films, he would have always been considered this.

With over a dozen pictures of varying intensity and budget unspooling, there really is a Verhoeven epic for everybody, but Wente clearly has his favorites.

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I am obsessed with THE FOURTH MAN, I think it’s brilliant. I’m also a big fan of  TURKISH DELIGHT. But my all-time favorites have to be ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS because they both are emblematic of his style, his sort of meta-fantasy for the Hollywood age in that they work on multiple levels. I am not wound up in the reclamation of SHOWGIRLS because as much as it is indeed Verhoeven’s film, it is also very much a Joe Eszterhas film. I also think it’s actually a pretty bad movie; interesting, sure, but bad all the same. I’m very proud of this season at the Lightbox as it really exemplifies what my intent has always been and that is to mix high and low culture—though I do not believe in those designations, really. Working with James Quandt, (senior programmer at the Cinematheque) we have Godard and Pasolini retrospectives running at the same time as Verhoeven and Stephen King on Film series, in which we have 35mm prints of things like MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE.  It’s a celebration of cinema…and also probably a disturbing glimpse into how my brain works!”

For more on FLESH + BLOOD: THE FILMS OF PAUL VERHOEVEN, as well as all of the incredible TIFF programming, head to the official site.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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