JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The abandoned factory in Old Detroit (a Pittsburgh location, actually) functions as a symbol of postindustrial urban decay in Verhoeven’s RoboCop.

Padilha’s RoboCop, filmed largely in Toronto, does not convey a sense of the city that a New York Times columnist calls “America’s most severely distressed big city ghetto.”

The scene in which the old man of OCP pushes Detroit into bankruptcy in Irvin Kershner’s 1990 RoboCop 2 prefigures the actions of people like the Koch brothers in 2013.

Padilha’s RoboCop mocks the idea of social protest.

A ticker feed about wealth inequality in the United States is a welcome nod to the macro-economic issues that Padilha’s RoboCop otherwise ignores.

"There’s no class in America. [...] That’s Marxism talk,” says former US Senator Rick Santorum at a GOP fundraiser in 2013.

Padilha’s film tellingly presents Dr. Norton’s ethical dilemma in a form that eliminates the socio-political dimensions of the issue.

A TV commercial in Verhoeven’s RoboCop advertizes a luxury sedan appropriately called the 6000 SUX because it “sucks.”

Leeza Gibbons and Mario Machado, two well-known news anchors at the time, play the cheerful but vacuous news presenters in Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop.

The Novak Element in Padilha’s film resembles The O’Reilly Factor, the Fox News talk show hosted by right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly.

The fast-paced opening sequence of Padilha’s RoboCop moves seamlessly from the television studio of The Novak Element into the heart of the action.

The opening sequence of Padilha’s film alternates shots of the TV film crew shooting on location in Tehran with point-of-view shots of the cameraman’s footage.

Padilha’s filmmaking techniques engage us emotionally rather than intellectually.

In keeping with the Fox News slogan of providing “fair and balanced” coverage of issues, Novak interviews both OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars and US Senator Hubert Dreyfus.

Padilha portrays Hubert Dreyfus, the author of a Senate bill prohibiting the use of combat drones on US soil, as an out-of-touch Washington bureaucrat.

Novak’s closing monologue presents the ideological conclusion as well as the narrative ending of Padilha’s RoboCop.

 

The Detroit bankruptcy will have its winners and losers. The primary beneficiaries will be “a few wealthy businessmen who are in the position to control a large share of a burgeoning retail, real estate, and entertainment market” (Posey). Dan Gilbert, for example, the founder of Quicken Loans, who calls the Detroit bankruptcy “good news,” has been buying up property in downtown Detroit at a rapid rate (Posey). Sean Posey brings to light a project to privatize Belle Isle Park, located on the Detroit River, and turn it into a “free market utopia.”

The actions of the notorious multi-billionaire Koch brothers, who used their political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, to set up a web site—“No more bailouts for Detroit!”—and threatened to run ads against politicians who voted for a settlement, should perhaps come as no surprise. David Firestone comments on the Kochs,

“As they have in so many other areas of public life, two of the country’s wealthiest citizens are using their good fortune to make life far more difficult for those at the bottom of the ladder.”

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s iconic photographs of Detroit’s ruins, like this one of the derelict Packard plant on Detroit’s East Side, document the plight of the Motor City. The housing market collapse and financial crisis of 2007-08 hit Detroit particularly hard.

Among those who will suffer from the bankruptcy in the immediate term are the city’s bondholders, who will see a decrease in the value of municipal bonds they hold, and government employees, whose ranks, salaries, and pensions will shrink. The plight of public sector workers in Detroit is particularly unsettling. “As Detroit deindustrialized,” Sugrue writes, “one of the city’s few bright lights was the availability of government employment” (xvii-xviii).

It is in this context that the actions of the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA), the city’s largest police union, become significant. In contrast to other public sector unions, which accepted the terms of the bankruptcy, the DPOA filed an objection to the Detroit bankruptcy, calling the city’s actions “cynical” (Helms). “The DPOA notes that in recent years undermanned cops have taken pay cuts and suffered low morale amid poor working conditions,” explains Matt Helms in the Detroit Free Press. In an unfortunate case of life imitating art, the science-fiction future portrayed in Verhoeven’s RoboCop is looking all too real. As screenwriter Edward Neumeier succinctly says in a recent interview, “We are now living in the world that I was proposing in RoboCop” (Joy). 

These recent developments make Padilha’s decision not to show the Omni corporation privatizing downtown Detroit, taking over a public service, or restructuring the police force, and his concomitant decision not to portray the DPD as a politically engaged group of municipal employees, particularly striking.

I can find only two moments in Padilha’s RoboCop that show an awareness of the socio-economic issues that Detroit currently faces. Both of them fly by in a matter of seconds as little bits of visual information on the edge of the frame.

The first of these moments occurs during one of the many insufferable scenes between Robo-Murphy and Clara, when she begs her cyborg husband to come home. The scene is set against the backdrop of the Detroit police station, where cops have set up barriers to keep a small group of protestors at bay. As Murphy pulls away from the station on his hotrod motorcycle to stop some crimes, leaving Clara alone in the middle of the street, we see that one of the protestors on the edge of the frame is carrying a picket sign that reads: “People need JOBS, Robots don’t.” As if to clarify that this guy is an anachronistic throwback to a bygone era, on the opposite edge of the frame, a woman holds another sign, reading: “Robots do Not Make Love!” The latter sign evokes the old Vietnam-War protest slogan, “Make love, not war,” here transformed into one of weakest arguments imaginable against automation (that is, until robots start taking the jobs of sex workers). The scene mocks the idea of social protest in general and of protest against robotics in particular.

The second scene where we can catch a critical reference to politico-economic issues occurs during a news report on the Senate vote repealing the law that prohibits the use of combat drones on U.S. soil. I will return momentarily to discuss the debate around the legality of using robots for law-enforcement purposes. For the moment, I just want to point out a headline that runs along the bottom of the screen in a ticker feed during the coverage of the Senate vote: “Inequality in America proves that Karl Marx was right, says economist John Ryan.” Although this reference to wealth inequality is a welcome nod to the macro-economic issues that the film otherwise ignores, it is both too little (I did not even catch it the first time I watched the film) and too late (it occurs ¾ of the way through the film, at which point we been subjected to an hour and a half of neoliberal spin).

As we can glean of our discussion of the 2014 film up to this point, one of the strategies that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer adopt in the face of the inherently divisive subject of class difference is omission. They either ignore the problem of class, as though it did not exist, or belittle it in one way or another. This criticism might seem awfully minor, hardly worth making. The film does not take a stance on climate change, vegetarianism, or prayer in school either. I would hardly want to impute a position to the film on those subjects based on the fact that it does not address them. But given the explicitly anti-capitalist stance of its source material, RoboCop 2014’s omission of the narrative of class antagonism constitutes in and of itself a position on the class struggle. Padilha and Zetumer do not simply fail to bring up the issue of class; they decide to eliminate it.

Moreover, this decision mimics the neoliberal right’s own position on the subject of class. The only times one hears talk of class in the right-wing press is when someone, generally on the left, proposes some way to address the ever-widening gap between the wealth of top executives at big firms and the relative poverty of everyone else. At that point, Fox News pundits go into high gear, accusing the left of class warfare while lauding the beneficent CEOs of mega-corporations, ironically rebranded as “job creators” when downsizing is clearly the order of the day.[3] [open endnotes in new window] Otherwise, the mere suggestion that such a thing as social class exists can lead to accusations of Marxism. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum recently went so far as to demonize the term “middle class” on the grounds that “there’s no class in America. [...] That’s Marxism talk” (Reilly). In sum, although I entirely agree with Buck-Morss that “there is class warfare being waged, from the top down” (72), I would insist on the idea that an essential component of this war is the denial that it is taking place. Padilha’s erasure of the narrative of class conflict from the story of RoboCop both reflects and promotes this neoliberal agenda.

Another strategy that Padilha and Zetumer adopt is one of displacement. In particular, they recast a political problem with clearly defined antagonists as an ethical dilemma with no simple solution.

Here, I must say that I am convinced by Alain Badiou’s argument that the rise of the field of ethics over the past few decades, in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism, supplants as much as it supplements work on politics. Although I do not mean to belittle the important work that has been done on ethics in recent years, and I by no means wish to suggest that people who work on ethical topics necessarily harbor neoliberal sympathies, I do think that it is worth historicizing the trend, which began roughly contemporaneously with the birth of neoliberalism, around 1980, and established itself as a cultural dominant in conjunction with the triumph of global neoliberalism, about a decade later (see Badiou 4-17).

The shift from politics to ethics is palpable in numerous changes that Padilha and Zetumer make to the original RoboCop story. The displacement of the themes of greed and corruption from the vile corporation onto villainous cops is just one example of this shift in focus. The survival of Murphy, for example, as opposed to his death and rebirth as RoboCop, transforms the story of the robot cop’s inhumanity, his “inability to function beyond the laws and interests of a corporation” (Litt 47), into a heroic story of self-overcoming. The creation of a new character, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a prosthetist whose ethical sensibilities sometimes run counter to his boss’s desire to expand OmniCorp’s combat-drone program into the lucrative U.S. market, puts us in the position of a person in the throes of an ethical dilemma. The film tellingly presents Norton’s dilemma in the form: Should I serve the greater good by pursuing a cyborg law-enforcement program that will save countless U.S. lives, or should I do what is best for Murphy and his family? With the question posed in these terms, the battle against corporate capitalism as such is already lost. All that remains for the film to do is to lead us to the right ethical conclusion, which it does by appealing to our emotions.

The shift from socio-political critique to emotional appeal is particularly apparent in the two films’ contrasting portrayals of the media and the very different uses to which they put these portrayals. In conclusion, let us examine these contrasting representations.

In Verhoeven’s film, the “media break” episodes are witty and delightful pieces of tongue-in-cheek social commentary that intersperse sound-bite-sized infotainment TV reports with commercials for such products as a family board game called “Nukem” (marketed with the tagline: “Get them before they get you!”), the new line of sports hearts by Jensen and Yamaha available at the Family Heart Center (“Remember, we care!”), and a luxury sedan appropriately called the 6000 SUX (“An American tradition, 8.2 M.P.G.”) because it “sucks” (gas, at least). The jovial news anchors report on international wars, insurgent revolutions, urban crime, and an array of minor and major technological malfunctions with uniform good cheer and a big smile. The episodes are smart, funny, and clearly satirical. They work, Steven Best observes,

“because [they] only slightly [exaggerate] what real newscasts now do—just enough to expose the artificiality of TV news codes without appearing too unbelievable.”

We do not for a moment get caught up in these newscasts. On the contrary, they cultivate a critical distance that provokes reflection about how commercial television works, what it is, and why we watch it.

The Novak Element in Padilha’s film has an entirely different tone and serves a radically different purpose. Like Verhoeven’s media breaks, it looks uncannily like actual television programming. In particular, it strongly resembles (audio-visually, thematically, and ideologically) The O’Reilly Factor, the Fox News talk show hosted by right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly. But in contrast to Verhoeven’s mock TV episodes, which show us that network news is spin, Padilha’s talk show attempts to convince us of its spin.

Padilha’s film starts with a shot of talk-show host Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) seen from behind, his head and shoulders harshly lit in silhouette by a light in his face. The camera carves a 180-degree arc around the figure as we hear an off-screen technician count down to airtime. Novak then looks up into the camera and opens the film with a short monologue:

“What if I told you that the worst neighborhood in America could be made completely safe? And what if I told you that this could be done without risking the life of one law-enforcement officer? How do I know this? Because it is happening in every country in the world except this one. Welcome to The Novak Element. I’m Pat Novak.”

The scene proceeds to take us from the TV studio to the program as such, presented as it would appear on home television screens. From there, an internal screen opens, enabling Novak to conduct an on-screen interview with General Monroe at the Pentagon. As the general describes an ongoing mission called Operation Freedom Tehran, a new screen opens showing an aerial view of downtown Tehran, followed by an additional screen of the film crew on the ground, which enlarges to fill the film frame. The sequence then alternates between shots of the film crew shooting the scene on location in Tehran and point-of-view shots of the cameraman’s footage, and then between omniscient shots of the action on the streets and hand-held, documentary-looking shots inside the home of a Tehranian family.

A crane shot takes us from the streets of Tehran, where combat droids patrol a residential district, to an aerial view of the city. Padilha’s portrayal of Iranians could be right out of Sut Jhally and Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

This opening sequence is a tour de force of continuity editing, moving seamlessly from the television studio into the heart of the action. The crane shot that takes us from the streets of Tehran, where combat droids patrol a residential district, to an aerial view of the city, is breathtaking. The sequence engages us viscerally in the film narrative, plunging us into the action. Yet in so doing, it effectively eliminates the critical distance that Verhoeven’s media breaks opened up. Padilha’s film does not encourage us to think about why the army is in Tehran. It may well be that the purported “freedom” that the U.S. military is promoting in Tehran is none other than that of the market, but the film does not bother us with these details. All we need to know is that the Iranians are bad guys, which the movie obligingly shows us in a series of shots that could be right out of Reel Bad Arabs, the Sut Jhally-Jack Shaheen film documenting the long history of racist portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood films.

The importance of emotional reactions like those produced audio-visually in the opening sequence is, in turn, central to the film’s principal theme, as we learn when we move from the combat zone back into the television studio, where Novak broaches the debate over the use of drones on U.S. soil. In keeping with the Fox News slogan of providing “fair and balanced” coverage of issues, Novak interviews people on both sides of the debate. On one side is OmniCorp CEO Sellars, whose combat-drone program could save innumerable U.S. lives. On the other is Hubert Dreyfus, the author of a Senate bill prohibiting the use of combat robots on US soil. Senator Dreyfus’s case rests exclusively on the argument that drones do not feel anything when they pull the trigger. If they did, the argument implies (and the film ultimately suggests), everything would be fine.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge here that RoboCop 2014 is at pains to point out that Novak’s supposedly “fair and balanced” coverage is in fact neither. The TV host cuts off Dreyfus in mid-sentence, for example, in order to give Sellars the last word, and Novak’s impassioned campaign for the legalization of combat robots on U.S. soil is clearly partisan. But Padilha’s approach here only mimics the one it mocks. The director’s wink to the film audience as he shows the talk-show host manipulating his guests and their arguments, comes across as its own version of a “fair and balanced” representation of right-wing talk shows, with all the built-in bias that that slogan has come to connote. The cards are clearly stacked against Dreyfus from the beginning. In contrast to the handsome and eloquent Sellars, whose arguments are short and to the point, the bow tie-wearing Dreyfus (Zach Grenier) drones on in a pedantic tone about robots’ inability to feel anything. When Novak cuts him off, we experience a Gong Show-like pleasure and are grateful that someone shut him up. All indications clue us in from the get-go that Dreyfus will ultimately lose the debate, both in the court of movie houses and on the Senate floor.

Throughout the film, Novak plays a role like that of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, articulating our position for us in case we do not know where we should stand. When, at the end of the film, posed before a waving U.S. flag, he delivers his closing monologue, he therefore presents the film’s ideological conclusion as well as its narrative ending:

“I know that some of you might think that [...] these machines violate your civil liberties. Some of you even believe that the use of these drones overseas makes us the same kind of bullying imperialists that our forefathers were trying to escape. To you I say: Stop whining! America is now and always will be the greatest country on the face of the Earth. I’m Pat Novak. Goodnight.”

The film has come full circle. Novak gets the first word and the last word, as though the entire movie were an extended episode of The Novak Element. Therein lies the film’s ultimate irony. The new RoboCop creates a sense of what it feels like to watch a show like The Novak Element. In my case, the feeling is a mixture of anger, frustration, and disappointment. And nostalgia: I yearn for an anachronistic cyborg like the one played by Peter Weller in 1987 to put his stainless-steel fist through the screen. Maybe that is a good thing. It prompted me to write this article.

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