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Screens & Tech > Screens

Robo-prop, or: Don’t blame me, I voted for the man-chine

RoboCop in the Library of Congress? I’d buy that for a dollar!

Illustration by Brian Villalobos

 

My dear and sainted mammy always cautioned me gravely against ever using “hate” to describe my feelings toward any person or subject. It’s a strong word, I was taught, and one that isn’t easily rescinded. It is with that lesson firmly rooted, then, and with love and deference to mammies everywhere, that I proceed obediently with the following statement:

I hake politics.

(There. I saib it.)

And yet, here I am, gearing up to bellow and browbeat from my ivory soapbox (actually, I’m clacking away sans pants on the living-room couch, so whatever) in support of a candidate for whom I will stump from the treetops, for whom I will proselytize to the choir, to the unconverted, to the unshaven-and-quietly-muttering dude in the back who wandered in because he heard there was free alcohol. You heard me right: “ivory soapbox.” No, it doesn’t really make sense, but I don’t care. That’s how much I believe this, and how much I believe you should believe it, too. I’ll press (campaign) buttons, I’ll run off flyers — I might scream it in a public restroom, get the grassroots thing going. “No, gentlemen; I’m fine, thank you. Please, continue washing your hands.

“Just remember: Vote RoboCop.”

A bit of background: Every year since 1989, which marked our first year under the 1988 National Film Preservation Act, the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board (loc.gov/film) has earmarked up to 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” for preservation in the National Film Registry. What that means, essentially, is that for each new selection, great care is taken — aging prints are transferred and revitalized, careful storage measures are observed, et cetera — to ensure that future generations can experience it. But beyond simply extending its lifespan, enshrinement in the Registry (475 films and counting) more or less represents official, government-funded recognition of a picture’s cultural value — sort of a federal compendium of works about which the implicit consensus is: “We, as a nation, want our children to be able to see this.” And RoboCop’s cultural value, I submit to you, is often — if understandably — overlooked.

So, fine, you say, but hold on a second. Why bring this to you? Why this semi-public plea/rallying cry, as if the public can do anything about it? Number One: I am familiar, from lifelong experience, with the wellspring of passion that resides, moiling and at-the-ready, in the heart of the fervent cinephile. Show me an activist who will kill for his cause, and I’ll show you a fanboy who’ll smack that activist in the mouth if he says he didn’t like Army of Darkness.

Number Two: There’s absolutely something you can do about it. I quote, from the NFPB website: “Librarian of Congress James H. Billington seeks nominations ... Please do vote: the number of public votes a film receives is a factor seriously weighed during the selection process ...” And anyone may vote on this. Anyone at all may send a list of up to 50 nominations per year to sleg@loc.gov, or via snail mail, if necessary:

National Film Registry
Library of Congress, MBRS Division
Washington, D.C. 20540
Attn: Steve Leggett

Votes are tabulated, and, after consultation with the Board (members include Martin Scorsese, Alfre Woodard, Leonard Maltin) and other film experts, the Librarian of Congress selects 25 inductees. (Films must be at least 10 years old in order to be eligible , but need not be feature-length or have received a theatrical release.)

Finally, Number Three: Come on. Admit it: Wouldn’t it be great if, as the folks at the venerable Criterion Collection have done, the Library of Congress stood up and appreciated RoboCop for what it is — a brilliantly subversive, multilayered, pitch-black satire that’s just as indicting now as it was the day it was conceived ? Now, presumably, if every Current reader emailed a quick list of 50 nominations, with RoboCop on it somewhere, that’d be like, what? 300,000 emails asking the LOC to include RoboCop as just one of its picks for 2008? And if some of the more zealous folk cared to email entire lists of 50 RoboCop nominations, top-to-bottom ... man. It’d blow their minds.

Ah, but that’s right. I haven’t really convinced you yet.

The first time I saw RoboCop, it was a somewhat hobbled, edited-for-television version, but it still managed to carve itself into my brain as one of the most violent bits of spectacle my 11-year-old (or thereabouts) eyes had theretofore absorbed. Of course, that impression may’ve been strengthened by my decision to record the thing on VHS (remember when it wasn’t called “piracy”?) and watch it several dozen times or so over the next few months, as was my habit with the otherwise-forbidden R-rated fare that made its way, filtered and limping, to our cable-less living room. (To this day, I’m not sure I’ve seen the real-deal cut of Major League. “Strike this [guy] out,” anyone?) My point, at any rate, is that I was a kid, and certain elements of films, therefore, escaped me. The “Druish princess” or saucier “helmet” bits from Spaceballs, for instance. Or, say, the concept of RoboCop as a Christ figure.

Like I said: You’re a kid, you miss stuff.

Now, before you start looking around for something heavyish to throw, consider: (1) Predating the kind, peaceful, loving Jesus some of us are accustomed to is the original idea of a Savior as a great and powerful warrior, come to wreak vengeance upon the heads of His people’s oppressors. (2) Americans love guns. And (3) there’s a moment near film’s end during which our resurrected hero, RoboCop, marching toward villainous crime boss Clarence Boddicker, appears ever-so-briefly to walk on water. (It may be worth a second look.) Further, director Paul Verhoeven has likened golden-boy cop Alex Murphy’s grisly death scene, in which the soon-to-be-mechanized officer is shot to death amid vicious laughter (and receives notable hand and head wounds), to the Crucifixion.

Yowza.

Not that I came up with all this, or could have. Verhoeven, quoted in Douglas Keesey’s Paul Verhoeven (from another book on the director by Rob Van Scheers), explains: “RoboCop is a Jesus figure — an American Jesus. Entirely in tune with current ideas here, he says, ‘I don’t arrest you anymore.’ ... the time for turning the other cheek is over. Americans want to be humane, but if they think it takes too long, Christian morality is pushed aside for the moment and they go for their weapons — just like RoboCop.” Again, consider: The Dutch Verhoeven, making what is regarded as his first American film (1985’s Flesh + Blood filmed in Europe), chose to create a tale pregnant with comments on the American penchant for violence and religious hypocrisy, then fed it to us the one way he knew we’d swallow it: Trojan Horsed within a carnage-filled action flick. Nicely done.

In addition, I’d argue that RoboCop, more than its much-celebrated contemporary Wall Street, is the quintessential document-of-the-times satire of ’80s excess. Now, granted: It’s been a long while since I’ve seen Wall Street, and I don’t much remember it, but compare and tell me honestly that Bob Morton and Dick Jones don’t trump Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko in terms of cutthroat yuppie ruthlessness. I mean, sure, Gekko’s a heel and a corporate raider, but Morton-and-Jones employer Omni Consumer Products bought Detroit’s entire police force with an eye toward making it a for-profit venture. And did Fox or Gekko even come close to building their own competing law-enforcement “products” (and did those products rack up body counts and then pummel the crap out of each other in glorious, nigh-impeccable stop-motion)? Oh, and did one literally have the other killed (LATE SPOILER ALERT)? RoboCop also jabs sharply at consumerism, media, and television, the militarization of police, the industrialization of the military, even the Vietnam War (the iconic “urban pacification” droid ED-209, which instantly goes berserk and turns a hapless employee into hamburger, was designed to loosely resemble the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, and is introduced by a scientist named McNamara).

At its center, though, RoboCop is, believe it or not, a film concerned with the indestructibility of the human soul. Even as our hero (played astoundingly by Peter Weller, in a severely underrated performance) follows directives seemingly without emotion — and despite his (human) creator’s claim that “He doesn’t have a name. He has a program. He’s product” — small hints and lingering memories betray the indisputable fact that somewhere within, some part or essence or spirit of Officer Alex Murphy still lives — a certainty borne out by the film’s closing line, which is surely one of the most rousing in memory.

So, that’s it. RoboCop turns 21 on July 17, and aside from a(n admittedly sweet) 2-disc CE release last year, its two-decade anniversary went largely unnoticed. Word of a remake has circulated for years, and it appears now that one may be on the horizon, but this is no concern of mine. I simply leave my cause in your capable hands. If you’d like to vote RoboCop, please do. If, instead, this writing inspires you to lead a campaign for a film you deem worthy of Registryhood, that’s just as nice. If nothing else, it’s hopefully been of interest to view a film from a potentially different angle. In the words of its ever-polarizing director: “You can do a comic-book movie and still put your soul in it.”

Good day, and God bless America. •

To ask questions or join the movement, email vote.for.robocop@gmail.com. To vote by email, send nominations to sleg@loc.gov. Feel free to let us know if you decide to vote RoboCop!

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