Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Grid: Televisual Culture in ROBOCOP

Robocop is a study of how television infiltrates culture and structures our way of looking. Director Paul Verhoeven develops a visual strategy throughout Robocop that incorporates each of the film’s characters and the viewer into a continuous televisual grid. Several different methods are employed to constitute the metaphor of The Grid. Not all of these techniques are visual in nature. Some are woven into the fabric of the narrative, such as the insistent interjection of the vulgar sitcom whose main character repeats “I’d buy that for a dollar!” Others are almost metatextual, as the form of the film itself is altered so that it comes to resemble, and present itself as, television.

The film begins in just such a manner. After an initial track over the skyline of the urban center that will be our setting, and the sudden, forceful display of the title, Robocop takes on the form of a television evening newscast. We are immediately introduced to the central visual motif to be repeated in different ways throughout the film. The screen is divided into squares or boxes of equal area by intersecting series of horizontal and vertical lines, creating a grid. In each of the squares (each a miniature t.v. screen unto itself) is an image of some war, disaster, or political scenario typically covered by a national news broadcast. We are told that if we give this television program just a moment of our attention, it will give us the entire world—all of reality is contained within The Grid. Each image of death and disaster is replaced, one by one, by the empty smiles of the somewhat stereotypical news team. Television news is both ‘television’—images that are wholly manufactured—and ‘news,’ which is how society refers to the recent movement of history. The viewer of the evening news takes it as both true (as news) and as produced (as television). By presenting the introduction to his film as a mock version of a news broadcast, and having the “newscasters” reporting on slightly futuristic events, Verhoeven highlights the fictive nature of any television news program and announces that what follows will contain some measure of satire. The insertion of a parody commercial between news stories about dying cops and Presidents in zero gravity draws each of the big topics Robocop satirizes together: media, business, politics, and law enforcement.

The conference room at OMNIcorp where the Robocop project is pushed into production is dominated by a large bank of television screens; another appearance of The Grid. In order to demonstrate the company’s success in turning a profit in traditionally non-profit industries (healthcare, law enforcement, national defense) a video is shown. Each screen is filled with the same types of images shown at the beginning of the newscast, but given a positive spin. Sick people, victims of crimes, police officers and soldiers—all of these are no longer icons of the world’s ills, but potential customers. Again we are presented with the conflagration of media, business, politics, and law enforcement. With the product pitch session for ED-209 culminating in gruesome bloodshed, the satirical juxtaposition of commerce and violence that will act as an organizing principle of the text is immediately foregrounded here as well. After this failure, the Robocop program is posited as a replacement. This is a plan that is rooted in bloodshed in order to create its product: a cop must be killed in the line of duty in order for Robocop to be created.

Murphy’s death is the opening OMNIcorp needs to turn a human being into a product. Even before his death, though, Murphy’s life as a police officer is mediated by televisual references. He is learning how to spin his gun around on his finger in order to impress his kid, because the kid saw t.v. cop “T.J. Lazer” do it and thinks that’s what good cops do. So Murphy is literally practicing to become more like a fictional representation of his actual profession. But as Robocop, he is reborn as a physical manifestation of television—as our collective obsession with television in human form. But at the same time, he is us, the viewer, looking at the world through The Grid: whatever Robocop sees becomes television. As soon as Murphy dies, and his transformation into Robocop begins, we stop looking at the character and begin to look with him. The equation of the viewer with the protagonist is easily accomplished by the use of the point-of-view shot. In a p.o.v. shot, we see what the character sees; our eyes are his eyes. It is not so much that we become more sympathetic to him, but that our entire worldview is interpellated by his. Robocop and the viewer are one, and the way television sees is the way Robocop sees.

All of this is achieved in the Murphy death/Robocop birth sequence. After Murphy’s death, Robocop is switched on and off like a t.v.—in fact, the same graphic used to illustrate the end of the evening newscast and the segue into the film proper is used here to signify the waxing and waning of Robocop’s consciousness. We see through his eyes as the scientists working on him activate his mind at their whim. It’s like flipping through channels as he wakes up in different places, in different contexts, with the flicker and fade of video accompanying each cut. In case we haven’t gotten the point, Verhoeven inserts one final visual clue that Robocop, in essence, is television, by giving us our first glimpse of him on a television screen. Upon his birth, the only thing we know about him is the way he sees. This is further foregrounded by the scene of the scientists putting him through a series of tests. As the scientist commands him to target the pen in her hand and follow it around the room, we are made aware that Robocop has picture-in-picture capabilities: he breaks the world down into boxes of visual components, i.e., a grid.

Later, when he is resting after his day on duty, Robocop is monitored by the scientists on another video grid, a series of screens. As he begins to violate his programming by doing that most human of things—dreaming—his dreams flicker on the monitors for a split second. In this moment, he regains his agency and transcends his existence as a “product.” This second transformation is represented by Robocop actually producing television images. The citizens of this world are depicted as the faceless ‘television audience,’ rapt, powerless in the face of the t.v. broadcast. They are made one through the repeated appearances of the “I’d buy that for a dollar!” sitcom. It is watched by criminal and victim alike, stick-up man and storeowner. Nor is the ubiquity of the program contained within the lower class—the young executives at OMNIcorp quote its capitalist catchphrase to each other as they walk into the bathroom. Everyone is equal in the face of this onslaught. Only Robocop has true agency, accomplishing this by his use of the technology itself, becoming like it and even creating it—not only with his dreams, but also by recording incriminating evidence and playing it back on that same bank of video screens at OMNIcorp.

There are several points at which the equation of humanity with the televised image is pushed into a depiction of the replacement of humanity with pre-recorded, produced videos attempting to have meaningful communication with a live person. In each case, the pallor of death hangs over the scene. When Robocop returns to the home he lived in, as Murphy, with his family, he finds only an empty house with a t.v. on a stand in each room, repeating an endless series of sales pitches as he walks from room to room. Before his death and transformation, these rooms were filled with his family. Now they are occupied only by chattering televisions on eternal loops. Another time a video image successfully attempts to communicate the message that the viewer of the tape will soon meet his own death. This event, and others like it, shows how the televisual image begins to have primacy over reality in the world presented in Robocop.

In order to satirize the way that television has infiltrated culture and structured our way of looking, Paul Verhoeven establishes the visual metaphor of The Grid at the outset of Robocop, and elaborates it in many ways throughout the film. In addition, the film presents television news—all the world’s events—as existing on the same plane as science fiction. It shows the members of the police force themselves equating their jobs with television representations of that job. It depicts a large majority of society as being captivated by vulgarities of the lowest sort in their entertainment choices. With the houses filled with talking television screens, it shows how other professions can literally be replaced by video images. And it gives us an image of an anthropomorphized t.v. set—Robocop is a walking, talking projection of the television image. But Robocop himself is not criticized along with the cultural institutions that create a world in which he can exist. Robocop has the ability to use the technology of the dominant culture against it, capturing the world as video imagery and replaying it in order to achieve his greatest victory. At the end of the film, Robocop proves who the bad guy really is by acting as a television—broadcasting a previously recorded image on a giant video grid. But does Paul Verhoeven’s vision offer a way out of The Grid for the normal citizen, rapt in front of the television screen?


Adam Ross said...

Great analysis, Ed, your last paragraph sums everything up very well. I've said for a long time that there's a lot more going on in "Robocop" than many people would like to admit, as it's often lumped in with the 80s action genre.

Adding on to what you said about the opening scen, I've always felt like the presentation of the title looked odd, like you're watching a TV show called "Robocop." After reading your post, that's probably by design.

And while the sequel falls short of the original in many, many ways -- credit has to be given for at least continuing with Verhoeven's television theme.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Adam: Thanks for the comments. I agree that the title is designed to fit in with the t.v. look of the whole affair.

The sequels are quite rightly "lumped in with the 80s action genre"--but that happens to be a genre that I love, and Frank Miller's scripts hold much interest as well. It's been a while since I've seen either of them actually. Maybe that'll be for a follow-up post...

Viva Verhoeven!

Jonathan Lapper said...

I love this movie. I think it's a great satire, one of the best really. Good to see such a well-thought out write up and good to see you back to blogging.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

JL: Thanks for your kind words. I've long thought that Verhoeven is such a sly satirist that much of his work is taken as straight--as if anybody could be serious doing SHOWGIRLS or BASIC INSTINCT.

I won't be back to blogging more often until the end of the semester. Until then I'll just keep posting school papers on film (like this one.)

sid said...

excellent piece of analysis.. i have a child's memory of the movie and now i can't wait to revisit.. actually, i stumbled onto your site via Sushine and you pinned Boyle down.. i had the exact same things to say about the pics but i couldn't see the grand scheme...

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Thanks for your comments, Sid. It's an amazing thing to revisit work from when you were younger and see how its changed in relation to your life.