Robot Dreams: ‘Transformers’ and ‘Sex Kittens Go to College’

[28 July 2011]

By Kit MacFarlane

Robot Dreams: Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) Albert Zugsmith

Retro Remote likes big guys made of metal hitting each other as much as the next internet writer who refers to himself in the third person, but something about Michael Bay’s Transformers series seems to take so much of the fun away. No doubt Retro Remote should be made of sterner stuff (like MechaGodzilla), but can’t help but feel that the lack of complete and immediate global derision for Michael Bay’s tedious and pointless adolescent scribble (before people actually went and shelled out cash for it) bodes poorly for the cultural stock of general movie fandom.

As dismissive as much of the online sentiment may now be, it nevertheless fuelled the initial manufacturing of relevance and mainstream value for the film despite two previous instalments that should have made it clear that Michael Bay has nothing to offer beyond knee-jerk conservatism in narrative, empty dull-motion effects (don’t call it CGI wizardry, folks – magic don’t cost millions), and an embarrassingly retrograde attitude towards women in film.

Stupid stories about robots hitting each other are great fun; but they don’t need to be insulting.

There seems to be an innate reluctance in popular online circles to actually dismiss these huge cultural machines outright, presumably out of fear of seeming elitist, out-of-touch, or not
awesome enough to consider ‘it’s awesome’ to be a complete and in-depth critical evaluation.

Excellent criticisms like Charlie Jane Anders’s ‘Transformers 3 is a Movie About How Wrong You Were to Hate Transformers 2’  (a great read on io9) draw out the inner ugliness of Bay’s latest ‘successes’, but still find themselves firmly enmeshed in the overall ‘fun and games’ aura these films construct.

More direct criticisms tend to be met with the infuriating dismissal that sums up so much of online culture: ‘I know it’s crap, but robots/explosions/whatever are awesome’.

The problem with criticising Transformers-type franchises is that the criticisms are so obvious, and yet remain wilfully overlooked. Criticism can’t make people see the flaws: they already know they’re there. It can only annoy people by reminding them of what they already know but have chosen to ignore.

Fair enough, perhaps, but it’s a sign of an innate consumerist, unambitious and easily-led ethic in an online fandom realm that still generally presents and perceives itself as being blissfully freed from the adult compromises and conservative shackles of everyday life. ‘fraid not, Scott Pilgrim.

Courting accusations of grouchiness, Andrew Weiss over at Armagideon Time sums up the ‘cult of ‘awesome’ (or ‘fuck yeah’ or ‘WOO!’)’ nicely with a post tag of ‘grow up already’.

His glimpse into the future of the ‘empty pursuit of raw spectacle fueled by puerile ideas hailed as moments of genius’ seems more than likely: ‘True fact: Scott Pilgrim will be to Millennials what Woodstock was for Boomers, i.e., “Why their children think they’re insufferable assholes”’.

Groucho Marx has a great bit in Duck Soup where he’s describing Marx brother Chico to the court of Freedonia: ‘Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.’

Slavoj Zizek fans will know that he often uses the seriously sophisticated comedic logic of this joke to make a simple but potent point about our reactions to public figures, events, institutions and the like: we instinctively anticipate concealed meaning and bigger pictures when, in fact, we should be responding to what is being paraded openly and superficially in front of us. Forget some hidden upper-level logic that will reformulate the seeming reality of the situation into something viable; we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking we’re being fooled. Sometimes stupid is just stupid. Sometimes ugly is just ugly.

Mainstream press sold the heck outta Transformers’ dumbness that somehow transcended dumb, as though being in on the joke made is somehow ok. Retro Remote’s local self-labelled ‘sophisticated cinema’ happily chirped:

“Shia LaBeouf returns with some vaguely known Victoria’s Secret model (sorry, actress) as the token hottie in the final installment of the Transformers trilogy. Leave your common-sense detector at home and just enjoy this for what it is—a big popcorn adventure film. Plot?—well there’s sort of one…”—Palace Nova Cinemas.

Ha. Sorry, ‘actress’. It’s funny that it doesn’t matter who the hell the girl in the film is and that she was only cast because she’s a model and she can’t act and the camera stares at her ass more than her face and she probably got paid millions for it. Excuse me while I wipe the tears of joy from my eyes.

In fact, the snide laughter in reviews at Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s general lack of ability is a miserable sign of what a dismissive approach to cultural ugliness lets cultural ugliness get away with. Instead of fury, her role is received with exactly the eye-rolling smirking that Bay expects and believes is entirely appropriate. For Bay, she’s nothing but a joke and he treats her that way, and we all respond in kind.

Though Retro Remote has steadfastly avoided adding any funds to Bay’s Transformers-related coffers, it wasn’t tough to get a glimpse of Huntington-Whitely’s introductory scene. Bay’s devotion to his actress is stunning. Let’s break it down:

Huntington-Whitely enters the frame, shot from behind while dreamy music plays. We see a man’s shirt (the lazy popular symbol for recent sex), then the fact that she’s wearing no pants.

The camera zips down to get a better shot of her ass, tilting to follow her (it?) up the stairs and get a better view. Down to the legs, back up to the ass. She gets a line of dialogue, but so what? We don’t look up; we stay with the legs. Then we follow ass to a bed where poor neglected hero Shia LaBeouf looks up to see… a big white rabbit held in the dominant part of the frame.

Yup, the first shot of Huntington-Whitely that isn’t aimed below the waist makes sure that our attention is focused not on her face, but on the fluffy irrelevance (and presumed ‘fuck bunny’ slang allusion) she offers into the foreground of the scene. This diversion from Huntington-Whitely’s presence is carefully placed on the right side of the screen where our left-to-right reading reflexes instinctively end up.

Creating a visual correlation with the stuffed rabbit, Huntington-Whitely is also decked out in dreamy white. LaBeouf’s response to his new ‘lucky bunny’ (as Huntington-Whitely describes it)
seems to summarise Bay’s view of his actress; LaBoeuf, somewhat unimpressed with the gift, explains to Huntington-Whitely that it’s not the whole body of the good-luck charm rabbit that’s lucky. He gestures broadly and ambiguously to the rabbit’s lower half, noting that it’s just ‘this section here’ that’s lucky. He pauses before narrowing it down, somewhat unconvincingly, to ‘the foot’. Of course, the pause as he broadly circumscribes the rabbit’s lower half with his hand, pondering what’s really worthwhile about the ‘bunny’, says it all.

Sure, she’s being devalued in every way cinematic way possible from the outset in her introductory scene and Bay’s ‘object delivery’ approach to his leading actress is obnoxiously clear, but it’s funny because…um. Um?

Even the most basic understanding of film grammar should make this ‘fuck you’ to his female lead painfully clear.

If It Looks Like Misogynist Dreck and Sounds Like Misogynist Dreck...

Sexualisation is nothing bad in itself (it often leads to sex), but combined with dismissive contempt for the person being sexualised, it’s as ugly as it gets. As in Duck Soup, this looks like misogynist dreck and sounds like misogynist dreck. But don’t be let that fool you. It is misogynist dreck.

It’s uncomfortably reminiscent (as is much of female representation in past and current media) of Robert Crumb’s ideal woman: the headless one.

Sometimes great (sometimes awful) writer David Mamet in Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business seems to be on the right track when he suggests that:

“The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung. These events, once but ornaments in an actual story, are now, fairly exclusively, the film’s reason for being. In the thriller these events are stunts and explosions… The film existing merely for its “high spots” has, for its provenance, the skin flick.”—David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla

Whether they like robots and explosions or not, members of a supposedly informed culture should know better than to endorse this kind of thing by paying for it. Whether or not supporting misogynist dreck makes you a misogynist is something readers can consider for themselves, but Thoreau put it well in Civil Disobedience: ‘It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong… but it is his duty, at least… not to give it practically his support’.

Puerile enjoyment is one thing, but actually contributing financially to something that – if made as a verbal statement rather than a visual one cushioned by ‘narrative’ would be deservedly condemned – is another matter entirely. Not to mention the fact that this isn’t marketed as some niche geek event, but as a mainstream all-ages family attraction.

Following Mamet’s ‘skin flick’ understanding of such ‘spectacles’, Retro Remote will suggest a precursor that’s more suited to the Transformers series than any of the sci-fi classics of the past, offering up a film that more or less captures two-thirds of where Michael Bay’s head seems to be at, all in a convenient and streamlined ten minute scene for a fraction of the budget.

Albert Zugsmith’s Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) is about as boring as any and every other ‘60s ‘sex romp’, reminding us just how unfunny and unsexy such romps can be. The presence of Mamie Van Doren doesn’t help matters much, but Sex Kittens Goes to College lives on in the memory banks for eternity thanks to a giant robot, Elektro, here playing a thinly veiled version of himself, Thinko.

Seven foot tall Electro had already had a long career by 1960, having appeared as a cigarette-smoking marvel at the 1939 World’s Fair. Aside from cigarette cravings:

“All told, Elektro has a bag of 26 tricks. He not only walks forward, but he can back up just as readily. He bows his head as prettily as a debutante or turns it 45 degrees in either direction to gape like a rowdy. If in the mood, he will bring either hand up to his face in a patriotic salute, and if properly coached he will raise his hands and count on his fingers, bending them one at a time in approved finger-counting style.”—Radio-Craft Magazine, August c1939, via cyberneticzoo.com

For more on Elektro’s remarkable career, check out the excellent early robots blog, cyberneticzoo.com.

Retro Remote can’t remember much of the first two-thirds of Sex Kittens Go to College beyond the impossibly irritating theme tune (‘sex pot goes to college’ as ‘sex kitten’ has too many syllables for the annoying tune – listen, if you dare), but has never been able to un-see the climax that seems to compress so much of screen Robot culture into one short single-location sequence.

Forget all those other robots Internet people like to make lists about whenever a Transformers movie opens: Retro Remote would like to propose Thinko’s final scenes as the true precursor to Michael Bay’s robotic opuses.

Thinko, for reasons I am not willing to recall, is lying in a hospital bed, a nurse seductively stroking him to some kind of well-being. Things shimmer go blurry and Thinko stops thinking and starts dreaming.

What do movie robots dream about? Being people, of course (duh). And being people for Thinko means sitting at a bar in a school uniform and cap with a monkey in glasses and a striped t-shirt (presumably how robots see real people). While they drink bourbon (aka standing next to a bottle), a maid in scrappy clothes mooches about with a mop until she catches a glimpse of Thinko and can’t contain her excitement.

‘Dance. Doll.’ decrees Thinko.

The cleaning lady immediately engages in a surprisingly committed striptease, providing the required (and presumably much-anticipated) dose of nudity that these films offer but rarely deliver. She doesn’t do a bad job of it either, but, in retrospect, naked save for underwear and ugly cleaning-lady boots probably wasn’t the best look. Seeming to realise this, she throws them off before walking out the door, presumably in search of another outfit and another job.

Thinko’s eyes flash ‘Wow!’ in delight, but we’re not done yet. A new lady emerges from the door, this one clearly ‘exotic’ as she has dark hair and zebra stripes on her underwear.

The monkey claps when she’s done, but Thinko’s ‘wow’ response has already dimmed, the pornographic over-indulgence having dulled his capacity for basic stimulation, he immediately swivels his head to look for a new dancer, this one already old news. The next one has a ‘nice girl’ look, all lace and frilly skirts. Well, while they last, anyway. The next one is wearing sleek, sophisticated black. Too cool for an entrance, we simply cut to her already at a table in the diner. She strips (surprise), gyrates against the metal man, Thinko’s eyes flash, and we shimmer back to (sigh) reality.

The scene has one sole purpose, of course, which is to shoehorn some blatant nudity into a film that isn’t actually willing or able to include it in its main body. The scene is pointless enough that it can be cut for TV or international markets if necessary, and none of the strippers have any relevance to the rest of the plot.

Still, there’s something in the idea that, for all our robot screen heroes dreaming of being human [I always preferred (loved!) Tik-Tok from Return to Oz who wanted none of it], this one is really just dreaming about sitting at a bar and drinking with a monkey. In doing so, he’s probably more accurately represented what ‘being human’ means for a considerable percentage of the population.

Real-life Thinko, Elektro, was also a bit of a barfly, as the Radio-Craft article points out: ‘Elektro is at his prodigious best when it comes to smoking. He not only puffs and inhales, but he blows the smoke in billows from both nostrils’.

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation might pine for the ability to respond emotionally to theatre and poetry, but we all know he’d end up like Thinko/Elektro sooner or later.

In the history of cinematic robot dreaming, Thinko’s trashy understanding of the world and human activity should hold a special place. It should also be of interest to Michael Bay and Transfomers fans.

Giant robot. Stripping girls. Monkey claps.

Kit MacFarlane has a PhD in English Literature, Film and Popular Culture, and teaches film and media as a freelance academic. He writes cultural criticism, commentary and relentless tirades, and has published regular cultural and higher education commentary in Australian media. He writes monthly-ish column Retro Remote at PopMatters. A full list of his writing can be found on his very ugly webpage. Why not follow him on Twitter? Off-the-clock, he shouts at the TV incessantly.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/145005-robot-dreams-transformers-and-sex-kittens-go-to-college/