Thursday, July 11, 2013

Robotic Gab

Werth: Domo arigato, Wise.  

Wise: Oh, dear.  I hope we're not about to descend into some Paula Deen-style racial hijinks.  

Werth: I'm just making a reference to the 1980's pop tune as a way of nodding to the giant robots in Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim which opens today.  
Robots found their way into films fairly early on in outings like 1919's The Master Mystery starring Harry Houdini and, of course who could forget the robot-chick in Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece, Metropolis (1927)?

Wise: It's like the best opium dream I've never had. 
Werth: If you prefer your robots on the more comely side, you couldn't ask for more shapely automatons than the ones in the 1975 camp classic, The Stepford Wives. Based on a book by Ira Levin (the same guy who wrote Rosemary's Baby) Stepford opens on the Eberhart family escaping New York City for a new home in the quaint town of Stepford, Connecticut. Joanna (Katherine Ross) is reluctant from the start, but accedes to her husband Walter's (Peter Masterson) desires to start a new life free of the stresses and acid rain of the big city.

Wise: And probably to get away from Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, too

Werth: It doesn't take long, however, for Joanna to realize that something isn't quite right in this picturesque town. The perfectly groomed, compliant wives of Stepford creep her out with their empty smiles and rejection of even the most basic of feminist stances. 
Her new friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) and she begin to suspect the husbands of Stepford are doing something to their wives to make them the perfect models of Eisenhower-Era wifery, but that sounds crazy, right?

Wise: If mechanization worked for Swanson TV dinners, why not for the old ball and chain?

Werth: Stepford is the '70's answer to the classic Female Gothic genre of the '40's. Like a Rebecca in hip-huggers, Joanna has to question her sanity and whether she is in grave danger from her own husbandand men as a whole. The film is fascinating in how it challenges the notion of the "good wife" in the midst of the Second Wave of feminism. 
Feminist guru Betty Friedan famously decried the movie as a "rip-off" of the Feminist Movement, and perhaps that reaction came from the outlandishness of the story and the horrifying, yet strangely nostalgic ending. But director Bryan Forbes intended Stepford to be a reaction against the critics of feminism, and was surprised that the movie wasn't embraced by the feminist community. 
Unfortunately, the camp aspects of the dialogue, fashion, and acting (Prentiss' performance is so perfectly '70's it feels like she just walked off the set of the Mike Douglas Show) overshadow the serious points Forbes was trying to make. 
But when you have Tina Louise playing an over-sexed housewife (yes, that Tina Louise) and Carol Van Sant losing her shit over a recipe, you kind of forget about burning your bra.
Wise: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is another film that speculates about the relationship between man and machine.  In the early 1970's, Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights to Brian Aldiss's short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" and hired the author to write an adaptation, but delays and creative differences caused Kubrick to fire Aldiss, and the project lingered in development until Kubrick's death when Steven Spielberg, who had been attached to the film in various capacities for many years, was convinced to take on the project himself.  
Spielberg attempted to take on as many of Kubrick's idiosyncrasies as possible during production—banning press from the set, releasing only portions of the script to the actors, and requiring confidentiality agreements—in an attempt to capture the flavor of the film his mentor might have made.  

Werth: Did Spielberg yell at Shelley Duvall?

Wise: Haley Joel Osment plays David, a robot programmed to love, who comes to live with Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O'Connor) whose son Martin has been cryogenically frozen for many years until a cure is found for his rare ailment. 
When Martin returns home, a rivalry develops between the robot and human boys.  Tricked by Martin into performing threatening acts against Henry and Monica, it is decided that David must be returned to the factory and destroyed.  But Monica has grown to love David, and instead she sends him away with his mechanical teddy bear in the hope that he will find companionship among the unregistered Mecha that live apart from humans. 
Determined to become a real boy, David sets off to find the Blue Fairy from Pinnochio, helped along by the mechanical prostitute Gigolo Joe (Jude Law).  

Werth: Traveling to see a mysterious being who grants wishes with a walking teddy bear and a metal hooker. All you need is some guy made out of straw and you have a trip to see the Wizard.

Wise: The film is incredibly beautiful, portraying a future Earth succumbed to global warming where sleek technology offers solace from the threatening natural world.  
Haley Joel Osment, fresh off his eerie success in The Sixth Sense (1999), is both endearing and slightly creepy, capturing precisely both the appeal and the terror of ever more lifelike mechanical beings.  
And Jude Law is incredibly magnetic, radiating not only his programmed sexual appeal, but also a growing tenderness toward David.  This being Spielberg, the film hits hard on his usual themes of childhood longing and the tentative—and sometimes prickly—relationship between humans and outsiders, but unlike the usual Spielberg, the film doesn't build to a satisfying conclusion.  
Perhaps burdened by his wish to be faithful to Kubrick's vision, the last third of the picture is increasingly messy, and instead of a rousing climax, he offers a wrenching metaphor about the perishability of love.  

Werth: If love doesn't perish during a two and a half hour runtime, nothing can kill it. So admit it, Wise. You have the Styx song stuck in your head.

Wise: No, but I am thinking of a specific dance move. Tune in next week for more Film Gab you'll never forget. 


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