SPETTERS (Paul Verhoeven, 1980)

My taste doesn’t run to films by Paul Verhoeven. The very few I’ve seen—in all, three now—seem shallow to me. (This includes his much-admired Soldier of Orange, in 1978.) Before addressing the Dutch filmmaker’s Spetters, which turned up accompanying a film I had asked someone to tape for me off of cable TV (Robert Altman’s luminous and haunting Thieves Like Us), I want to take aim at it for something completely gratuitous in it. It’s a line that exists at least in the dubbed version that I saw. Referring to someone she knows, a girl tells someone in need of a medical miracle, “He’s Jewish, but he is a good doctor.” But. I appreciate that the girl is supposed to be an evangelical Christian, but I think Verhoeven is toying with us. I think people often play this game, a variation of “chicken,” when they slip into their conversation some slight remark attuned to racist or like-minded sentiments. They say something offensive with a built-in “out,” in the case of Verhoeven, with Spetters, the following rationalization: “It’s something that the character might say; she might even be crafting the remark so that the person with whom she is speaking will accept her message of hope—in any case, it’s her comment, not mine.” To be sure; absolutely. But the simple fact is that no one needed to say such a thing. It’s irrelevant to any thematic or even plot development in the film. It’s a passing remark that accomplishes nothing besides begging an opportunity to explain that nothing bad was intended by the remark. Yeah, right.

Spetters is a disco-decked soap opera about three boys, much in the vein of the American (and far worse) Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977). The boys in Spetters are in their late teens or early twenties. Two are amateur dirt-bike motorcycle racers, and the other, teamed with one of the other two, is a mechanic. The three friends are united by two other persons: a sexy girl to whom they are all attracted (a penis-measuring contest determines who gets the first shot at her); the professional racer whose success, glamor and wealth are their inspiration.

Something terrible happens to each of the boys. The one with professional promise becomes a paraplegic after the bag of orange peels that a motorist tosses out of his car precipitates the boy’s road accident. Bound to a wheelchair, his dreams of racing glory shattered, the boy commits suicide by wheeling himself into traffic. Another’s incompetent racing skills are locally televised, making him even more of a laughingstock. The third is gang-raped, unembedding his suppressed homosexuality, causing his religious father to beat the crap out of him. Frankly, I find the idea farfetched that anyone might sufficiently enjoy being raped as to reach by way of the incident sexual enlightenment. Needless to say, the one living and straight member of the trio ends up with the gold-digging girl, although the mechanic ends up with her brother.

This plot is not my cup of tea. There is too much unpleasantness here, even in minor details. For instance, operating a sausage stand by the racetrack, the girl uses canned dog food for the tasty treats that she sells. On the other hand, the film contains some gorgeous flamboyant imagery, including a shot at night outside a revivalist tent, the gray clouds pressingly low, that gaudily transforms the mounted cross into a penis all but penetrating the heavens: a spectacular, blasphemous image. (For the record, Verhoeven has stated that “Christianity is a religion grounded in one of the most violent acts of murder, the crucifixion. Otherwise, religion wouldn’t have had any kind of impact.”) The director is indeed fortunate in his color cinematographer, Jost Vacano.

There isn’t a good performance in the film. (Rutger Hauer briefly appears as the racer whom the boys idolize.)

I haven’t the foggiest idea what the word spetters means.


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