Robot Dreams: 'Transformers' and 'Sex Kittens Go to College'
Retro Remote nominates Sex Kittens Go to College as Transformers' true precursor. The problem with Tranformers-type franchises is that the criticisms can only annoy people by reminding them of what they have chosen to ignore.
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.