Tuesday, August 18, 2015

High Theory and the Crotch Shot in Paul Verhoeven's ROBOCOP (1987)

            I had a colleague who was into capital "T" Theory of the literary, cinematic, and cultural-feminist variety. We didn't interact much, but for a brief while we both worked, separately, on analyses of Paul Verhoeven's fine 1987 film, ROBOCOP. I got to look over her presentation on the film and noted to her a "proof-text" for her main point on gender: in the scene at the nightclub (or disco) where Robo goes into "ARREST MODE" and hauls in Leon Nash for questioning.
            During the arrest, Leon pulls a gun, which Robo knocks from his hand, to be caught be a young man who dances with it, as the dancing generally continues.
            Part of the satire here is the obliviousness of the "civilians" — those neither cops nor criminals — to the altercation between a suavely thuggish man and a police cyborg who is unmissably large and far more machine than man; and I probably should've paid more attention to that skewering of obliviousness. In Mass (1971), Leonard Bernstein and Paul Simon noted that even during that more activist period, "Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowning and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction." The partiers in near-future Detroit are part of the stoned half, and, as always, a major part of the problem: all those people far, far too cool and sophisticated to, as we used to say, "get involved."
            Apathy, though, wasn't what either my colleague nor I would be dealing with, so I'll forgive myself for concentrating on what comes after Leon pulls the gun on Robo: Leon's kicking Robo in the crotch with a mighty "Clang!" followed by a scream not by Robo but by Leon, as Leon goes down, to be pulled toward the exit by Robo by the hair on Leon's head, with a continuing scream by Leon and Robo's line, "Let's talk."
            First point here: My colleague thanked me for pointing out the Nightclub Scene and "the crotch shot" (my formulation) and in the final draft of her analysis ignored it. She was doing Theory, "dad gummit"!, and she neither needed for her audience nor wanted for herself the crass empiricism of something we could see and hear in the movie.
            My second point is that she really should have used the two crotch-shot shots for her analysis. Even among advanced students in our program, relatively few could follow the philosophical arguments for capital "T" Theory — I couldn't follow most of the arguments, and I was a full freaking professor — and it's important that young American learn to analyze works in their popular culture.
            And with iMovie and what the antihero in GROSSE POINT BLANK calls "a certain ... 'moral flexibility'" — or healthy respect for the Fair Use Doctrine — a teacher at the end of the 20th century could find a lot of cinematic examples to test hypotheses and reinforce analyses.

            In the Nightclub Scene, Leon delivers a very hard kick to RoboCop's crotch and Leon goes down howling. Our reaction might well be, "Wow, Robo! What a man! He's got balls of … oh …." Precisely. Robo has neither balls nor penis. His crotch is a crotch, period, and this is made explicit in the film. Robo otherwise has a hyper-masculine body, and on the shooting range, he has the biggest and most powerful handgun of all the cops; but no testicles, no penis, no nuthin' that goes toward the most basic sort of manliness.
            And the mutilation is part of what denies Robo not so much sex as his family.
            In James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's THE TERMINATOR (1984), the ultimate macho man turns out to be a machine: an almost unstoppable, killer robot, impervious to pain — in all ways unfeeling — merely passing for human. There's a very explicit lesson there, although it is missed by the teens (and older folk who should know better) who take the Terminator for the role-model of the film. ROBOCOP takes a different tack, and it may be more effective for young males (although THE TERMINATOR and Cameron and Hurd's ALIENS are more girl-friendly).
            When I was growing up, a young guy might wimp out of a confrontation with the cliché "I'm a lover, not a fighter" and not lose too much street cred. In RoboCop, we get to see what in this dystopian Detroit is the near-ultimate in macho. And many in the audience will come to identify with him and sympathize with him and note that his macho is intertwined with his maiming, with a loss, at least for a while, of the lover in many senses of the term.
            At film's end, RoboCop has regained his name — "Murphy," literally the last word in the film — and a face and identity; and he achieves a human relationship with his police partner. He can "dispute it like a man," to use a callow expression out of Shakespeare's Macbeth (4.3), but he can again "feel it as a man": i.e., he is still one kick-ass cyborg, but he has regained a large part of his humanity.
            Insofar as we empathize and sympathize with Murphy/RoboCop, and think through the images of masculinity in the film: that far audiences have been invited to rethink some traditional cultural ideals of manhood.

            Insofar as subtlety is rarely a virtue in popular culture, especially in works for young males, it is well that this lesson is driven home with all the directness of a powerful kick to the gonads.

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