Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Incredible! Unbelievable! Told The Untamed Way!: Re-Calculating "Robot Monster" as 20th Century Art

I grew up watching a local Tampa Saturday afternoon TV show called Creature Feature that played "horrible old movies" hosted by a friendly and jovial (if rather spooky) old gentleman named "Dr. Paul Bearer". Science fiction, primarily from the 1950s and 1960s, much of it of questionable artistic quality and cultural value, formed a major component of my intellectual and aesthetic diet as a young boy.

My love for these ancient and often technically terrible science fiction and horror epics has not only survived but continued to thrive in my adult life. I have watched so many of the genre films of this time period that I feel like a veritable expert on the subject. To many people, this may seem at best an innocent waste of time, or perhaps a guilty pleasure.

I myself long considered it such, not being able fully to justify to my adult self, with my interest in and attraction to the high culture of poetry, classical music, and art history, why these trashy pictures retained such a strong hold on my heart and mind. I would sometimes half-jokingly explain to friends that sometimes I needed to rest my brain.

Robot Monster is widely considered one of the worst films ever created by human beings since the art of the cinema began. You may have never heard of it, but among film buffs, and especially fans of sci-fi, it has the dubious distinction of vying with Ed Wood's anti-masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space for the title of "The Worst Film of All Time". According to legend (which is probably just that), director Phil Tucker attempted suicide after the negative reaction to the picture upon its release in the summer of 1953.

The judgment is understandable. To the uninitiated (and even to most "fans" who enjoy the movie more as a spectacular failure to laugh at, MST3K-style, than as something to be sincerely appreciated and enjoyed), the movie is a total mess, an evidently zero-budget effort with equally nonexistent production values, laughable special effects, props, sets, and costumes (including the infamous alien costume consisting of a diving helmet and a gorilla suit), terrible acting and dialogue, and a completely nonsensical narrative.

My aim here is not to overlook or deny any of Robot Monster's abysmal technical and artistic qualities. These are part of its charm, indeed the whole of whatever charm it might possess for most people who devote 66 minutes of their life that they can never get back to witnessing this belief-challenging spectacle.

But I do believe, with Robot Monster as with many other of the much-maligned "B" movies that were churned out by Hollywood in the mid-20th century, that there is more going on here than simply a pathetic exercise in incredibly inept and trashy moviemaking—entertaining (or not) as that trash might be.

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What began to change my perspective on Robot Monster (and, by extension, B-movies in general) was the review of the movie by Bruce Eder at the website AllMovie. Startlingly to my mind, Eder saw the movie as something other than an unmitigated cinematic disaster, and helped me to begin to appreciate and understand aspects of the film that give it value beyond serving as a cautionary tale about how not to make a motion picture.

The crux of Eder's analysis is this: "Essential in appreciating what director/producer Phil Tucker was trying to do with Robot Monster—and trying to do with a total budget of $16,000 and four days of shooting time—is to keep in mind that the main body of the movie consists of an eight-year-old boy's nightmare." With that in mind, the utter bizarreness of the film, the absurd, illogical features of the narrative, and even the cheapness of the production all come to be seen in a different light:
The way that the action unfolds, suddenly and with huge leaps in logic and thought, are seen the way a child sees the world. The threadbare sets, which are missing what we know to be vital pieces, also resemble the settings of dreams. [...] The whole notion of a brave young boy facing down a space invader hangs together beautifully once one accepts the setting as a dream (or nightmare).

According to Eder, Robot Monster re-creates the nature of children's dreams and nightmares more accurately than do many other fantasy films that address the subject, and thereby can actually be seen as, in its own strange way, an accomplished work of art, especially considering the production's severe limitations of money and time.

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This is not to argue that Phil Tucker was an artistic genius, or that Robot Monster is a cinematic masterpiece. It is only to say that, if one views the film with the proper perspective (and is generously willing to forgive its abundant technical flaws), it is more than just trash. Understanding Robot Monster as the nightmare of an imaginative young boy who is obsessed with science fiction and space aliens, it becomes, in fact, a respectable if highly imperfect work of art, and even, as Eder describes it, "a somewhat enchanting film". That may not sound like much, but it is a far cry from "the worst film of all time".

One of the most giggle-inducing features of Robot Monster is the dialogue. The screenplay was written by Wyott Ordung, another 1950s B-movie practitioner. Many of the lines are rightfully regarded as just plain ridiculous, but there is a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime. The absurd can even be philosophical, as in the absurdist comedy of, for instance, Monty Python's Flying Circus or Seinfeld.

In the case of both Tucker and Ordung, who, judging by their entire career output, seem to be middling talents at best in the field of motion pictures, one is cautious to ascribe too much artistic or creative genius to their work in Robot Monster. But, as poet Kenneth Rexroth explains in his excellent article on Literature for Encyclopaedia Britannica, "The nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to recognize. The writer need not even pursue it to attain it." Rexroth repeatedly alludes to the fact that artistic quality in a work, though usually intentional on the part of the artist, may sometimes be produced by "accident"—that is to say, without the artist's intention.

So, even if Wyott Ordung did not mean to produce ingenious absurdist dialogue for Robot Monster, he marvelously succeeded. Though it also contains many lines that are simply bad, Ordung's script is a treasure house of strikingly surreal utterances that read like some kind of brilliantly bizarre Dadaist play:

I cannot - yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do "must" and "cannot" meet? Yet I must - but I cannot!

I will re-calculate. Your deaths will be indescribable.

Earth Ro-Man, you violate the laws of plans. To think for yourself is to be like the hu-man.

Hu-mans, listen to me. Due to an error in calculation, there are still a few of you left.

Johnny: I think you are just a big bully, picking on those smaller than you are! 
Ro-Man: Now I will kill you.

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These lines also point to one of the major themes of Robot Monster (yes, the movie has themes): the survival of humanity, not just of physical humanity against (atomic) destruction, but of spiritual humanity against the dehumanizing effects of hyper-rationalization.

The premise of the film (i.e., of Johnny's nightmare vision) is that a race of super-advanced space aliens has conquered the earth, wiping out almost all of its inhabitants except for one family, which it somehow missed. These aliens, the "Ro-Mans" (as in Robot Man), are entirely guided by cold, calculating mathematical, logical, and scientific reasoning, with no room for human emotions and desires such as love and compassion.

The majority of the film's running time details the beleaguered family's attempts to survive in their new post-apocalyptic world and to escape, hide from, and negotiate with the Ro-Man who has come to earth as a sort of advance scout for his mechanistic and merciless race. In so doing, they run up against conflicts between physical survival and maintaining their human dignity, and the subject of love is cast into stark relief—not only by the budding romance and marriage (an expression of stubborn hope in the midst of such devastation) of the boy's older sister and a young male scientist who has survived with them, but also, and perhaps even more poignantly, by the Ro-Man's attraction to the young woman and his confused awakening to emotions of love and desire.

The Ro-Man's feelings and the desires they awaken in him bring him into conflict with his leader, the Great Guidance (who is similar in appearance and who communicates with his Earth-based underling via one of the ubiquitous viewscreens that populate 1950s sci-fi films). After the "Great One" has told Ro-Man that "to think for yourself is to be like the hu-man", Ro-Man replies: "Yes! To be like the hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?"

The Great One answers, "You are an extension of the Ro-Man, and a Ro-Man you will remain." Ro-Man, rather than conquering the inferior "hu-mans", wants to become one of them. He wants to become a free individual, not "an extension of the Ro-Man". In this we can also see a theme common to 50s sci-fi horror films, though only subtly brought out in this one: the fear of assimilation by Soviet-style collectivism.

Most of the picture, however, seems not so concerned with communist paranoia as with the perennial anxiety (expressed in art at least since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein) of the loss of humanity to "science"—in this case, to the dehumanizing effects of technological and rational control that would attempt to subjugate and colonize all areas of human life and experience. The same concerns may have been more eloquently and powerfully expressed elsewhere, but Robot Monster can be seen as a strangely touching and colorfully imagined statement of not only the precious worth but also the spirited resistance and ultimate survival of the human against the inhumane.

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I would not recommend that everyone should watch Robot Monsterand would certainly not make the claim that it is one of the most important works of art of the 20th century. But I will assert that this much-ridiculed picture is far more worthwhile, and far more accomplished, than its reputation would suggest.

In using the frame of a child's dream fantasy to conjure an image of a lone family struggling to survive in a devastated world—and not only to survive, but to defend humanity, i.e., that which makes us human, against obliteration by the forces of a cold, calculating logic that is devoid of unscientific but eminently human qualities such as empathy and love—Robot Monster proves itself to be not entirely deserving of the descriptor "trash".

In fact, I would argue that, in its own ridiculous, childlike way, Robot Monster is a masterful expression of flawed, imperfect humanity in defiance of rigid and oppressive rationalism and control. Its very form—both the setting of the narrative within a highly imaginative child's dream and the many technical shortcomings of the film's production—is actually, whether intentional or not, a perfect medium for the movie's message. What better way, after all, to defy the juggernaut of a humanity-denying perfectionism than with one of the most amazingly imperfect works of art ever made by man? What better way to counter the steamroller of uncaring, merciless "calculation" than by way of a child's deliriously irrational and freely imaginative dream—a dream that is nevertheless illuminated and made sensible by love and hope?

It is true that Phil Tucker most likely did not set out to create an important work of art when he made Robot Monster. Like most science fiction movies of the era, Robot Monster was no doubt intended as entertainment, especially for the kids who attended Saturday matinees. It is certain that many of the children who sat in the theater and viewed this picture were indeed delighted and thrilled by it. My 3-year-old daughter enjoys watching it now. But, regardless of the intent, and despite its miserable reputation, the film does rise above the level of "mere" kiddie entertainment and, I think, is worthy of serious enjoyment (as well as of the more giggly kind).

Whatever greatness Robot Monster possesses may have been an accident. But what a wonderful accident it was. Despite the technical disasters; despite the artistic failures; despite a poverty of resources and time—in fact, partly because of these things—Robot Monster stands as a small, strange triumph of humanity, of its daring imagination and undaunted spirit, of its deeply flawed but noble stuff, against those forces that would seek to repress and to eliminate human imperfections. A Ro-Man, equipped with expansive budget and technical wizardry, and guided by the inexorable logic of "calculation", never could have made this movie. Robot Monster is, and always will remain, a testament to the gloriously, imperfectly human.

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