Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct hit theaters on March 20, 1992 and proceeded to gross $353M in theaters. (Sales figures do not include tickets for other movies bought by 14-year-old boys who then snuck into BI screenings.)
Its cultural reaction ran the gamut from Academy Award nominations (two, for the score and film editing) and a Golden Globe nomination (Sharon Stone, Best Actress) to Razzie nominations (three, for Stone, Michael Douglas, and Jeanne Tripplehorn). The film also provoked several high-profile gay rights protests and helped cement elements of a nascent bisexual rights movement due to its portrayal of Stone and Leilani Sarelle as murderous and untrustworthy bi/lesbian film cliches with great hair. The latter helped form the early '90s "bisexual chic" trend, to the vast annoyance of bisexual chicks everywhere.
Its enduring legacy remains, you know, That Scene.
Ross: So. Wow. This movie is wildly incoherent, but my first reaction is I think a lot of it works as a parody of heterosexual men/heterosexual male fantasy/heterosexual male paranoia. Maybe I'm being too generous in my reading. (I'm on Team Starship Troopers and generally give Verhoeven the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questions of satire.)
LDP: I would fall on the side of "too generous," mostly because I saw it a couple of years after it came out in theaters, and I vividly remember the wildly enthusiastic dudely reaction to it. Which is not to say that it isn't a satire, but if it was, then Verhoeven was really off his game. The portrayal of women in particular falls under the heading of "standard Hollywood portrayal of bisexuals/sexually aggressive wimmenfolk."
Ross: I hear that. But watching all the men gulp and sweat during the underwear-less interrogation, I really wanted to believe that I was being asked to laugh at these guys and their boners.
Couple that with all the incredibly over-the-top talk about how Nick has had his "brain fried by pussy," and I feel like I have enough evidence to make the case. But like you said, to do that requires overlooking the film's treatment of Catherine and her lover.
LDP: You might be laughing, but the original audience very definitely was not. Keep in mind: This was just before Internet porn was a thing, and an actual real live beaver shot in an R-rated movie that aired ad infinitum on late-night cable was OMIGOD THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER (according to all the guys in my homeroom, and a depressing number of somewhat older guys I've overheard discussing it over the years).
Rewatching it for the first time in two decades is fascinating, not least because I've realized how much of the movie is real estate porn of the highest degree. San Francisco was made to be the backdrop for movies. Shame nobody films there anymore. But yes, you are free to make that argument, and Eszterhas has made it easier for you than anyone else might have. Dear sweet Fillmore Avenue, but some of those lines are terrible.
It also gets into some interesting questions about satire and people not getting the joke. However, when nobody gets it, it ain't a functional satire.
Ross: That shot of Nick standing in the driveway of her beach house is as much about ogling the house as it is about peeping on Catherine while she moves about the space in the nude.
Nick's partner Gus helps bolster my satire argument, I think, especially the way he's suddenly connected to the Western and becomes a gross parody of a Cowboy, one of the ultimate signifiers of American masculinity. Gus also has the most ridiculous dialogue in the film, I think.
Of course, maybe my argument is ultimately a kind of fool's effort, since so many people seem to have watched it "straight," so to speak. Although, isn't that an imperfect critical science? For instance: Twitter provided ample evidence that Zero Dark Thirty was watched by people who walked away wanting to "torture terrorists." But I'd argue that that film is a more nuanced look at American failure than those Twitter timelines give it credit for. This also applies to Breaking Bad, and the "bad fans" who cheered on Walt until the end. Maybe it's about art that allows for misreading, since it seems to be that if an art object were so clear in its instructions to the viewer about how it should be watched, that it would be flimsy propaganda, a kind of totalitarianism.
LDP: And don't forget that Lotus! The whole movie is about desirable objects, some of whom just happen to be women.
I think a large part of the straight (ha ha) appeal of BI is that it so explicitly references Hitchcock in a non-parodic and obviously reverent way. I need to think about this more, though.
Ross: I think the most uncomfortable/difficult part of the BI conversation for me is that, by arguing for the movie as parody, I'm implicitly arguing for a way to "enjoy" it, which brings me maybe a little too close for my own comfort to the misogynistic horndog's appreciation for the film. I'm afraid that by arguing for a way to laugh at the film for all its straight maleness, I'm blinding myself to what the misogynistic horndog is also blind to. Like, the way the film paints bisexuality and homosexuality as crazy, and women as essentially murderous.
If to read the film as a satire, blindness to those failures is necessary, it's not worth reading it as satire, then, is it? (Of course, Camille Paglia seemed to have appreciated the movie. Not sure what I do with that fact.)
So, question: Is there anything to salvage from BI that go beyond its "snapshot of male fear in the 1990s" time-capsule qualities?
LDP: Nice things that could be said about BI:
1) The costumes are great. 1992 was not a good year for fashion, especially women's fashion, and nearly everything Sharon Stone wears is not only gorgeous but also relatively timeless. Ditto the makeup. Not too many movies manage to avoid being dated in either regard 22 years out.
2) It's beautifully shot. It looks like a Hitchcock movie, especially all those overhead shots.
3) The sexual politics are complicated somewhat in that Nick is an asshole, too, which is also the case in FA.
4) It's a relic of a time in which it was possible to make fairly graphic sex scenes integral to the plot of a movie and have it make a bajillion dollars in theaters. I'm not going to say that it does so in either a mature or an adult way, but that hasn't happened for about a decade and a half now. People prefer to watch graphic sexuality either as straight-up porn or premium cable (or, more recently, less-premium cable a la Spartacus), which is to say, in the privacy of their own homes in the company of someone with whom they want to watch nekkid people, not in a movie theater with strangers. This is the main reason why I am unconvinced that Fifty Shades of Grey will be the box-office juggernaut that everyone seems to assume.
I don't think that you're trying to come up with a justification for enjoying BI; if you like parts of it, just own 'em. I find it deeply interesting if problematic as hell, mostly because of the portrayal of lipstick lesbian/bisexuality that is just so over the top.
And it really does play nowadays like a comment on something, even though I still think those elements are just bad or titillating rather than intentional commentary at the time. That isn't sympathizing with misogynistic horndogs so much as it is responding to the extremely overt message of the film.
And it is a really handy snapshot of male insecurity in the early '90s.
Ross: To the list of nice things I would add:
5) Dialogue that, in 2014, can be drunk down as ripe and pulpy camp. Exhibit A: "Well, she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain." Watching a gutsome and sloppy middle-aged man in a massive cowboy hat shout this line at his past-his-peak partner, seemingly in earnest, is awesomely bad and special. Also, the weird kinks of syntax in the line—"pussy on her" and "done fried up"—really sell it as a kind of object of ridicule. It's so unnatural, the line just sits there, leaden and radioactive.
6) It's very serious (lulz) about the possible murderous danger and definite intellectual prowess that comes with being a writer. Cheers to all of us who have taken up this pursuit.
And I would elaborate on three, saying:
3) Not only is he an asshole, Nick is perhaps deluded enough to think that his invitation into a monogamous life of fucking like minks is enough to persuade a murderous woman from not murdering. It's macho hubris turned up to 11, turned up so high that my brain sparked and short circuited while I watched it. How could this not be a big joke, I wondered, as the ice pick appears in the final shot and the credits roll. But I can't disagree that the movie is such a mess that it's hard to really define the something at the movie's center. I'll take my something as "points and laugh at sweaty older hetero men with boners" and own that.
And your point about four is an important one. The last time I watched graphic sex in a theater was Blue Is the Warmest Color, a movie that had its problems but one I like a lot all the same. But this was in New York, with a typical art-house crowd (though maybe one that skewed slightly younger, which is cool), and the movie didn't gross anywhere near a bajillion. Maybe this desire to try and explore or, at the very least, depict sex is the nicest legacy of the erotic thriller of the late '80s/early '90s?
LDP: 5) At least some of the actors recognized what sort of movie they were in and cheerfully just went with it. I still can't decide if Sharon Stone is one of them.
6) And the awesome homicidal capacity that stems from being a Lit major!
3) So, it occurs to me that you are onto something re: male hubris and that Verhoeven may in fact be critiquing the male gaze in general with that damn icepick. We're clearly supposed to identify with Nick earlier in the movie; everything is from his perspective (especially looking at Catherine). But by the time we get to the end and the rugrat speech, something big changes. For the first time, we see something that Nick doesn't (the icepick) and it serves to keep up that erotic tension for us, not for him. It switches up the whole point of the movie: she doesn't exist for his consumption, but for ours, as 15 billion teenage boys figured out implicitly. By telling us that he's 1) an idiot and 2) we know what's up, the icepick confirms the superiority of the audience.
Unfortunately, it does so in a super-regressive manner, and the net result of the critique is not "Don't do this to women because it sucks," but "Ha ha, look at how smart you are in comparison to this moron! By the way, that was totally Sharon Stone's magna cum laude pussy you saw. Yay!" For a movie about male insecurity, it's designed to reassure. Bleagh.