Friday, March 09, 2007

When a Man's an Empty Kettle: Coparck "A Good Year for the Robots"

One of the most fascinating videos of the year comes from the Netherlands...this is how you tell a narrative through music video...

Coparck "A Good Year for The Robots"

dir. by COMRAD

If you've ever read Frank Baum's children's books, beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900, you know that the story of the Tin Man (a.k.a. The Tin Woodman) is far more tragic than Judy Garland and company let on in the classic 1939 film. There's a reason he's made out of tin and needs constant oiling; his heart is missing in more ways than one.

Turns out the Tin Man was in love once, and was in fact a non-metallic human being named Nick Chopper. As his name implies, he made a living cutting down trees in the forest of Oz. But once the Wicked Witch of the East gets wind of Chopper's romantic feelings (in later versions of the story she is either jealous of or in love with the Woodsman herself) she curses his axe, which subsequently begins chopping off his body parts. Each lost limb is replaced by a tin replica made by a local tinsmith, but the one part that he never receives is the one he needs the most. He wakes up one morning heartless, and now physically unable to love the girl he originally sought so dearly.

Near the center of Coparck's video "A Good Year for The Robots," a party is thrown to get Alex the robot a "heart." It's a different story in a different context, but the connection made seems deliberate on the part of the director. In alternative interpretations of the story of the Tin Man, his gradual dehumanization is attributed to the growing threat of industrialization at the turn of the century. Coparck's video is filled with commentary on the subject, and in many ways it is the central theme of the work.

Of course the other literary touchstone for the video is the rather blatantly referenced Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The story that inspired Blade Runner raised fascinating questions in its time about not only technology, but more dramatically the treatment of marginalized groups in society. Written in part as a response to the horrors of the Holocaust, Dick uses the idea of nearly-human androids to explore the underpinnings of real discrimination on the basis of small difference.

In the process of becoming "more human" in the video, Alex the robot is exposed to a series of horrific images of chaos and violence, as well as heartwarming footage of lovers and babies. He emerges energized and full of feeling; skipping along the roads he once mechanically trudged. But the majority of his co-workers are less than thrilled by Alex's transformation. They generally preferred the stoic and efficient version that one co-worker called "a retard" prior to the operation. In many ways they liked him as an unfeeling and focused employee because that is precisely what they are.

The director establishes the monotony of this environment in a myriad of ways beyond the excellent performance of Alex. From the opening shot, which finds him walking straight along with a speeding train behind him, the technological blandness of the video is established. There are a lot of horizontal lines throughout the video. There is also a particularly fun shot later when Alex enters the doctor's office seen through a strange mirror which pixelizes everything - emphasizing his inhumanity right as he seeks an operation to change that. Furthermore the cameraman shoots in a documentary-style that reminds one of quintessentially British productions you might find on Channel 4 in the afternoon. This also plays upon (often in a quite humorous way) common stereotypes of uptight English people, which is ironically contrasted to a robot who seeks emotions. At one point Alex is shown entering a subway as everyone else exits.

As much as this video works as a Blade Runner-esque critique of discrimination and persecution of minority groups, its heart is elsewhere. What is essentially being lamented is the hypocrisy of a hyper-controlled society which seeks progress at the expense of self-expression. The suits at work support the Alex who walks the straight-and-narrow down the middle of the street, rather than the hugging and laughing man who emerges from the operating room. But perhaps what they fear the most is what they feel inside of them, or what they have seen humanity previously do with extremes of emotion.

The explosions of Hiroshima and the race-riot beatings that Alex witnesses (along with his subsequent truly frightening anger) remind us of these possibilities. We remain reserved in order to separate ourselves from these horrors that might lurk within, but in doing so we also grow more distant from the other clips he sees in the slide show - namely those of love. What is seemingly embraced is the entire spectrum of human emotions, despite the risks, as the Tin Man sings in that famous movie, "just to register emotion, jealousy, devotion."

But like most truly great works, the video asks as many questions as it attempts to answer. In the finale we see Alex reading Dick's famous book himself in the dark, and we wonder how long it will be until he begins to question his own "humanity." Do we really even want him to be more human? At the same time we wonder what the consequences of "unpeeling the armor" will have on the romantic relationship between Alex and his admirer. After all, he doesn't have a real heart in there. Right?


Buzz Stephens said...

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Anonymous said...

no spelling errors! woo hoo!

and very nice choice of video and analysis. i never knew the real story of the tin man...

Anonymous said...

It's a fascinating video, and one that feels really personal to me, as this highlights quite well the experience of someone with Asperger Syndrome: the awkward body movement, the inability to express emotion properly, and the sweet joy that comes when you can make at least some connection between your brain and someone else's heart.

Alex, the robot, seems a bit OCD though.

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie