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The erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992) is really a cinematic occasion for one scene, that scene. The scene that anchors the film—narratively, aesthetically, iconically—comes surprisingly early, only twenty-five minutes in. Crime author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) is brought downtown for questioning about the murder of the man she’d been sleeping with. The scene is shot low and wide in a windowless interrogation room that looks like a spacecraft or an indoor swimming pool: blue lights shine up from the floor like moons on a stucco horizon, ceiling lights pierce down in sharp shards and shadows, slicing across all the bodies, but especially hers, radiating icy white, a celestial being, a gravitational pull.
A row of men in matching suits sit together in the dark watching her, a camcorder in their company. All are keen to capture this woman. The men watch her, and she watches them watching; a woman like this has spent her life watching men watch. Catherine appears to find it amusing—so boyish—that they think this set-up would be new or frightening to her, this scenario of being observed, interrogated, and recorded by men sweating and flabbergasted by her sexuality, horrified by her intelligence and independence, demanding that she confess, which is to say, expose herself to them.
So she does.
Catherine Tramell uncrosses her legs and flashes the men. Which is to say Sharon Stone flashes them—which is also to say Catherine/Sharon flashes us. A cultural primal scene is set, a knot in our collective sexuality is tied, a star is born.
In her 2021 memoir The Beauty of Living Twice, Stone writes that she did not consent to this shot, she did not know what it would show. Stone maintains, as she did at the time of the film’s release, that the director, Paul Verhoeven, had misled her and did not explain how revealing it would be. Stone claims that Verhoeven told that she needed to remove her underwear because the camera was catching it, and in the previous scene, we, and Nick, have seen her putting on her white dress without any. Verhoeven denies there was any deception: “my memory is radically different from Sharon’s memory. . . . We still have a pleasant relationship and exchange text messages. But her version is impossible. She knew exactly what we were doing.”
Stone describes seeing the final cut for first time with studio lawyers and agents, once again alone in a room watching men watching her. Afterwards, she went to the projection booth, slapped Verhoeven across the face, and considered getting an injunction to block the release of the film since, according to the Screen Actors Guild, it wasn’t legal to shoot up her dress.
Upon further reflection, though, Stone did not intervene. She writes: “what if I had gotten that shot? What if I had gotten it on purpose? Or by accident? What if it just existed?” She decided to allow the scene to stay. “Why? Because it was correct for the film and for the character; and because, after all, I did it.” Sharon did what Catherine would do, what Catherine did.
Basic Instinct is probably Verhoeven’s best-known film, and it is probably the best-known film of the most popular, most profitable genre of the 1990s, the erotic thriller. Verhoeven’s oeuvre ranges from high-grossing scifi epics like RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), to infamously panned, now cult classics like Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), to the brutal, funny rape-revenge romance Elle (2016). Stone’s memoir was published within months of the release of Verhoeven’s newest film, Benedetta, a dizzying lesbian nun apocalyptic epic, and also the release of a 4K restoration of Basic Instinct for the film’s thirtieth anniversary. Stone does not say that she tried to stop this new release, only that she was powerless to do so.
Reflecting on Stone’s claims naturally prompts thinking about the ethics and politics of filmmaking and film viewing. But it also prompts thinking about the nature of film itself—how it uses and abuses reality—and the nature of the cinema-body, the projected person, something that lives twice: out in the world and up there in light. Human beings constitute not only the topic or content of film, but the medium’s material: as philosopher Stanley Cavell puts it, “the physical basis of movies, being irreducibly photographic, necessitates or makes possible the meaningful use of human reality.” Or, to cite German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who in turn was paraphrasing master of melodrama Douglas Sirk), “you can’t make films about something, you can only make films with something, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood.”
Basic Instinct—the film we watch and rewatch and rewind and pause and remember and fantasize about—is all Stone. It is built out of her, and its success continues to depend on her, on her acting body and on her fame. To watch Catherine Tramell is to watch Sharon Stone; what Tramell does with her body and what happens to it is what Stone does with her body and what happens to it. The difference is that while Catherine is in charge of her body and how it is perceived, Sharon apparently was not.
Film viewers are always shuttling between realities, between the fictional world and the real world—and in the case of Basic Instinct, between “San Francisco” and San Francisco, between Catherine and Sharon. We are never fully lost in the former and we never lose sight or grip of the latter. Photographic (or, increasingly, digital) film captures the world—our one and only world—and film literacy involves not only knowing how to immerse oneself in the film’s world, but knowing how to allow the real world to arise and erupt within it.
All film viewing involves this toggling back and forth. The weird joy of it is constitutive of the pleasure of film. The real insists within the fiction. Think of spotting Alfred Hitchcock riding a bus with Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959)—or do we say he was riding a bus with Cary Grant? Think of the aliens beaming back real footage of Adolf Hitler in the Jodie Foster scifi film Contact (1997). Think of Manhattan announcing itself as itself in any movie it stars in, or the experience of watching a film and spotting a street corner or park or storefront in a city you know. I was there! Not in the film but in the world, which is there, in or on the film. Our world juts out within the film world; this one appears in that one.
The sheer bodily fact of acting does this too. Who can watch Gena Rowlands’s character have a nervous breakdown in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and not think, A human body is not meant to move like that. The film is painful to watch not (just) because we see a character in unspeakable pain, but because we see a real human being going through the undeniable physical contortions of pain. You can reassure yourself that it’s “just a movie” or it’s “just acting.” But that body is real, and something real is happening to it. Sidney Poitier, who died just last week, made this point when he said that “acting isn’t a game of ‘pretend.’ It’s an exercise in being real.”
Stars shine forth too: I’m not sure if we ever quite lose Humphrey Bogart in Sam Spade or Rick Blaine. We certainly never lose Marlene Dietrich. Her face resists narrative capture; it is as if her face called forth and inaugurated the only medium adequate for it. The eerie enchantment of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), depends almost entirely on the fact that the film’s erotically estranged husband and wife are depicted by real-life super-celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman—who, for every instant they’re on screen, are unforgettably the most famous couple on Earth.
In a movie, a single being lives twice: the body is in the film world and it is in the real world, it is Bill and it is Tom, it is Catherine and Sharon. The point isn’t to pretend it isn’t Tom Cruise or Sharon Stone. It would be preposterous to think that the audience is meant to “suspend disbelief” about who is there on the screen. It is never just Bill or Catherine, and it isn’t meant to be. It is a joy to play with this ontological uncertainty. It is the magic of movies.
The naked body toggles too. Usually, the presence of sex and nudity in non-pornographic film is justified as being necessary for the narrative. How a film is rated depends in part on whether the sex and nudity have a narrative reason for being. When they appear on film, sex and nudity must be contained or sutured, knitted into the diegetic universe. Narrative and formal techniques work to contain the bodies in that world, so that they do not impose on our world. The plot plots the sex, and the plot plots our pleasure: we aren’t just looking at naked people, we’re following a story. Verhoeven was only allowed by the studio and censors to keep the lengthy sex scene between Nick and Catherine because it generated suspense about whether she was going to kill him. Within the logic of the story, we aren’t just watching sex, we’re waiting for murder.
Or consider the neo-noir erotic thriller Body Double (1984) by Brian De Palma, a director often discussed in the same breath as Verhoeven: scandalous, sexist, sexy, violent, political, “problematic.” In one scene the main character watches porn, which means that we also watch porn. The film plots the porn, but just barely, so that while audiences can affirm “I’m just watching a movie” they must come dangerously close to confessing, “I’m watching pornography.”
But sometimes the fact of the body juts forth from the narrative. What makes Basic Instinct’s interrogation scene—that shot—so jarring is not just the nudity (in point of fact, no one is nude in the scene). What’s jarring is that the shot is not fully narratively contained, not fully sutured. The shot is almost explicitly for us: we get just a glimpse, a shock, almost a glitch—possibly more than the men in the scene. One of the special capacities of the camera is that it can capture the split second, the glance, the incidental, accidental, the almost-missed in a way that no other medium can (“What if I had gotten that shot? What if it just existed?”).
This is what we get in Basic Instinct. A real peek. Because it is so fast, as if unintentional (“What if I had gotten it by accident?”), viewers have to ask themselves and each other: Did I see that? Did we see that? Did that just happen? And, in asking, we join league with the sweaty men on screen glancing around at each other wondering the same.
Indeed the experience is so jarring that when the film was first released, viewers were often unsure if they really saw what they thought they saw, and rumors circulated about what was really shown. Such uncertainty jolts the viewer out of the narrative and into a more aware relationship with the film-as-film, with Sharon’s body as a naked reality. The narrative orientation drops away for a moment, now you’re on your own with this vision. This conscientious, personal relation with the film-as-film gets amplified in home screenings, where viewers can stop, rewind, start again, slow down, pause, and, now, screen grab. Now you are no longer watching a movie. You aren’t even dissecting a scene. You’re looking at a body, you’re grabbing the screen.
Queer film critic Boyd McDonald wrote, “motion pictures are for people who like to watch women.” Basic Instinct is for people who like to watch Sharon Stone. Or, now, “Sharon Stone”, star. But the film’s first viewers would have seen a different movie than the one we see now, because in 1992, Sharon Stone was not yet famous. When cast, she was a thirty-two-year-old unknown actress, not yet “Sharon Stone”. Michael Douglas, the film’s star and then one of the most famous actors in the world, was indeed nervous about casting Stone. He worried he would be “alone” up there on screen in such a risky picture. By the time Stone was cast, the film’s producers had in fact already tried giving her role to big stars—Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan (imagine it)—but no one would go near it. Only Stone, who was not yet “Stone”, would take the part—an as-yet-unnamed screen luminosity who then upstaged Douglas throughout. Picture (or, if you can, recall) watching it without knowing Stone as “Stone”. You would’ve asked, Who is this? A question for a new star.
But now she is “Sharon Stone”, and she is “Sharon Stone” because she was Catherine Tramell. It was a star-making role, a star-making shot. Those early viewers were witness to the birth of a star in real time, the Hollywood process by which a human being was alchemized into the celebrity called “Sharon Stone”. But now, at this point in the movie’s trajectory and notoriety, we see the movie in the aftermath of the transformation, so we can only watch a hybrid being, living twice, Catherine Tramell/“Sharon Stone”, an ontologically uncertain creature straddling worlds. At this point, it is difficult to see Sharon Stone in any capacity or in any film without also seeing Catherine Tramell. Tramell sticks to Stone.
I thought of this sticking while recently watching Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone in Showgirls, which was screened at the IFC Center in New York as part of a retrospective honoring Verhoeven upon the release of Benedetta. People who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s also grew up with Berkley, who was famous for her starring role on the popular sitcom Saved by the Bell, where she played Jessie Spano, the beautiful bookish neurotic feminist. She followed this by taking the role of Nomi Malone, exotic dancer, in Verhoeven’s Showgirls, a film that was derided upon its release and punished with an NC-17 rating. Notoriously, Berkley was basically unable to find acting work after this role. Nomi stuck to Berkley. This sticking is even referenced in the 2020 Saved by the Bell reboot: Berkley’s now-grown Jessie Spano has a line about wearing “Versase,” an error of pronunciation made by her Nomi. Verhoeven doesn’t just make movies about people or even with people; he makes movies that stick to people, roles that follow them out of the film and back to the world.
The world is there in the film; its real presence is not denied. That presence includes the conditions of production. An epic or spectacular—like The Wizard of Oz (1939) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—is spectacular in part because we marvel at all it took to make it, because it is a human feat: the spectacle does not eclipse its conditions. It is hardly coherent for philosophers or art critics or theorists to insist, when analyzing a work of art, that we must keep our focus on “the work itself”—on its self-contained narrative and formal success and failures—and bracket out the conditions of its production. Film makes such a bracketing particularly farcical, since the work itself captures those very conditions. The film, the finished product, is itself a photographic record of those realities.
Some filmmakers engage and stage the fact of production to great cinematic effect. Eyes Wide Shut is set in New York but Kubrick shot it in London: many of the streets are London streets dressed up with New York signs and pay phones, and in several scenes Cruise is filmed walking on a treadmill with footage of real New York streets projected behind him. Some audiences complained that the film looked “fake,” that they could tell it wasn’t really New York. But this assumes that the film wants to mask the fact of its creation and construction. The complaint is a refusal of the invitation to toggle between layers, a refusal to let the status of filmic reality become unsettled—a refusal, even, to let the film be a film.
The most fabulous scenes of Verhoeven’s new film, Benedetta, are those that are least real, those that have been clearly digitally enhanced or computer-generated: Benedetta’s erotic adventure fantasies with Jesus as her personal savior, and the scenes of a comet lighting up the night sky with the nuns’ faces glowing in impossible neons. The loss of the tether to the real world in the film’s production facilitates the aesthetic experience of a world in the highest pitch of fantasy. The felt presence of facsimile, the queasy flatness of the image, organizes the total film world as someone’s fantastic projection—Benedetta’s, Verhoeven’s—in which the viewer is invited to indulge, if that’s your pleasure.
Or finally consider that a central preoccupation of Werner Herzog, especially in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Heart of Glass (1976), is exploring and exploiting the interpenetration of the conditions of production with the finished film. Heart of Glass is beautiful and haunting in any case, but once one learns that almost the entire cast had been hypnotized during its production, the experience of the film convulses, the real world occupies and structures the diegetic world, the film itself cannot escape its sway. Or with Fitzcarraldo, the movie isn’t just about pulling a 320-ton steamship over a mountain; it is made of this. The cast and crew truly pulled that massive ship through the jungle; people died. The film’s dependence on the bodies and world becomes an aesthetic and narrative element internal to the finished film. There is no way to watch the film without toggling between the narrative and the uses to which real human beings and the natural world were put in its making.
All films play with the world but some films make this play a more acute dimension of the cinematic pleasure (or unpleasure). In filming the crotch shot as a glimpse or a peek, Verhoeven thematizes the inherent illicitness—the thrill, and aggression, and the shame—of the camera’s capacity to grab and his audience’s illicit interest in looking and taking (Susan Sontag saw an “acquisitive mentality” in all picture-taking). The conditions of production enter and form the film itself. The film world is transparent to the world of which it is made, with its destruction, exploitation, flowers, and blood.
The world is in the film. We don’t forget this, nor are we meant to. The real people, the places, the sets, the work—all of this can jut forth inside the fictional space. It is a mistake to wish it wouldn’t or think it shouldn’t, and it is a mistake to think we ought to keep what we know of the world out of the film. Films, in filming reality, do not permit such easy ontological quarantining.
Now that we know more about Stone’s experience making Basic Instinct, and Verhoeven’s experience of how he got his shot, this awareness adds more layers to our aesthetic experience of the film, other dimensions to toggle through. We, with those sweating men, get our peek because Verhoeven did; the film itself is the footage of that “trespass,” to use Stone’s word.
If we watch this film now, toggling back and forth between the film world and the pre-filmic real world, then the knowledge we bring from the latter—factual, ethical, political—becomes part of our experience of the former. Films are not just about ships being pulled over mountains or cities or sexual violations; sometimes, they are made of them. In catching our glimpse of Catherine’s body, we catch Sharon’s, because Paul did.
This year will see the release of Tango, a new documentary about the making of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). The documentary will focus on the star of Last Tango in Paris, Maria Schneider (after complaints about the initial focus of the film, Brando). Schneider confessed near the end of her life that she experienced the filming of the movie’s infamous rape scene as a real sexual assault: “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by [costar] Marlon [Brando] and by Bertolucci.” Schneider insisted the scene wasn’t even in her script, and in 2012 Bertolucci confirmed this when he described why he kept the scene a secret from Schneider: “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act.” So the film is footage of her violation; it is materially made of it. If we watch the film now, our knowledge of this reality will be part of our experience of the film.
If we watch it now. When we know what we know about Last Tango in Paris, or Basic Instinct, these facts raise ethical and political questions about what it means to watch, and about collaboration and consent in art, and some viewers may decide that they will answer these questions by refusing the films. They may find that those conditions ruin the film, snuff out any of the pleasure or magic it might have once afforded. Others will accept those conditions. It is a massive and difficult question whether conditions of production should bear on the assessment of works of art, and how specifically they should bear if they do: politically? morally? legally? aesthetically?
The world bears upon film, in ways that are at once direct and uncertain, hence unsettling. Considerations of the real world, including the conditions of production, are not aesthetically inappropriate importations of something extraneous to “the work itself.” To consider these conditions in one’s consideration of the film is not an aesthetic mistake (though of course this can be done more or less creatively, more or less effectively). It is part of the toggling back and forth that is basic to film and film viewing. Depending on the work, it can be more or less pronounced, but in all instances our knowledge of the realities of a film’s production can properly, appropriately, interestingly, mysteriously shape our experience of the film. We may then choose to keep watching, or not.
Stone’s claims thus ask us to think not only about the ethics of film but about the nature of film. They allow us to consider how films are at once distinct from and continuous with reality, including the reality of their own production, and how films in turn can stick to reality, especially the reality of the actor. Reality and movies interpenetrate, they shape each other. The pleasure and unpleasure of this uncanny link are the pleasure and unpleasure of movies.
Human beings are the stuff of film.
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