Robot Stories (2002)

Running time: 85 minutes
Writer/Director: Greg Pak

The true beauty of independent film is that you can create something that is almost completely your vision as you originally imagined it, or at least create something that complements your original vision but is contributed to by the crew and players. Independent films convey a spirit of the creator’s vision far better than most mainstream features.

Greg Pak, the mind behind Robot Stories, has not one but four visions of what he wants to get across. The vignettes, tied together by their use of technology and how it interacts with people, ends up being very thought-provoking and intimate, imparting to the audience Pak’s love for technology while giving them plenty of food for thought about how technology touches their own lives.

The illustration of humanity reflected in technology is most obvious in the first half of the film, starting with “My Robot Baby.” As the name implies, a career-obsessed couple opt for a robot baby (which looks a lot like a pressure cooker/vacuum cleaner) rather than a real one, thinking to get the best of both worlds — the “experience” of parenting while not giving up their self-centered, shallow lifestyles. When the robot doesn’t react as expected, they have to grow up themselves — and fast. This portion could have been a lot better with more money, but it certainly gets its point across and a few others as well. I wonder how many young people watching this vignette wondered to themselves just how ready they were for parenthood, or if they should rethink those plans.

The most touching tale for me personally was “The Robot Fixer.” A mom vents her anguish and grief over her son’s coma by taking over his compulsion/fixation with small “Transformer”-like toys. This section really worked well both as a film and as a story, and Wai Ching-ho really ought to get some consideration for a heart-breaking performance.

Geeks in the audience will whoop with delight at the third tale, “Machine Love,” which stars the filmmaker as an “iPerson,” the ultimate Macintosh working as a humanoid automaton in an office environment. The term “second-class citizen” springs to life here (and may well have been meant as a subtle comment on racism or classism by Pak) but we see the machine as a person even if nobody else does … until the segment’s hilarious “climax.”

The final tale in the quadrology (is that even a word?) is simply titled “Clay.” There are no robots per se in this segment, just the surprisingly effective use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) doppelgangers. John Lee is a sculptor and stubborn old coot who can’t accept that he’s dying and that he must soon be “scanned” into the matrix-like repository in order to be with his loved ones and achieve a kind of immortality. As he struggles to complete his last big commission, he also struggles to come to terms with death when “death” as we know it is merely optional. This one again is a very subtle commentary both on where technology is taking us as well as the struggle many ethnic groups feels as they are torn between traditions of the past and realities/opportunities inherent in “assimilation.”

Pak’s masterful style makes even the most complex of these ideas go down like a spoonful of sugar and his clever and multi-ethic (though heavily favouring Asian) casting is an added treat. Robot Stories is one of the more thought-provoking films you’ll see on the festival circuit these days, and some of the subtleties may not surface until you’ve had some time to let his stories stew in your mind a little. Though the limitations of budget creep through from time to time in Robot Stories, and the structure of four short films rolled into one may be foreign to audiences used to more traditional narratives, if you have an interest in technology on any level from love to fear, you will find something delightful in this film.

My rating: Highly recommended.

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Beer Goggles (2002) and Pornographic Apathetic (2003)

Running time: approx. five minutes each
Written and Directed by T. Arthur Cottam

Kind of an unusual move, but in celebration of the opening of the Florida Film Festival (from which these pages will immensely benefit over the next week or so) I thought I’d take a look at the entire professional output and comedic genius of hit-and-run filmmaker T. Arthur Cottam, whose latest multi-minute epic Pornographic Apathetic is in competition in the Midnight Movies category.

Unlike many filmmakers, Cottam starts with a good idea, and executes the idea perfectly. He does not pad out a five-minutes sketch to 90 minutes just to give some ex-SNL cast member some work. He does not suffer from delusions of grandeur about the importance of his work the way, say, Ed Wood did. He simply wants to tell his tales, the stories that are burning to be told, as quickly and cheaply as possible. Would that more filmmakers would study at the feet of this wunderkind.

Beer Goggles was my introduction to the world of T. Arthur Cottam. Following a magnificent and side-splitting PT Barnum-esque PR buildup, this just-over-five-minutes epic finally arrived at my door and was relished like a kosher hot dog from start to finish. Like the mouth-breather heroes of the film, my jaw was agape and the simple elegance and earthy reality of his plot and characters. I went to high school with some of those guys, ah sway-ah!

It would take me longer to describe the plot than it would for you to watch the film, which you soon will be able to do at dirtylittleshorts.com (later this spring). Suffice to say that on a typical redneck evening out, things don’t go quite as planned. Keystone, but no cops.

So it was with great anticipation that I opened the promo copy of Pornographic Apathetic, a film which by contrast had arrived with minimal fanfare — only the teasing tag of “Sex Like You’ve Never Seen It.” What a lot to live up to!

Again, to discuss the plot at length would really ruin the experience, and since it too will soon be available via the aforementioned website I don’t want to delve into it too deeply. It will hopefully be enough to mention the following facts:

1. It is indeed a take on sex in film that has never been done before.
2. It will leave you flushed and breathless, but not for the reasons you think.
3. In the PR kit, Cottam included some Lubriderm and tissues. Neither were needed, and yet I feel as though I may never need to watch a porno ever again.

For point number one alone, Cottam should get more attention in Hollywood as a bright, inventive filmmaker who puts the emphasis where it belongs — on interesting ideas well told, even with the handicaps of limited resources. This is truly one of those rare auteurs who would take a million dollars (if it were ever offered to him) and make 100 good belly-laugh movies rather than one artsy-fartsy crap one.

Keep an eye out for this fellow — an upstanding example not just of a good filmmaker, but of a good man. You can’t help but admire that rarest of creatures, an American male who actually knows when to stop. I predict great things from our Mr. Cottam.

My rating: Highly Recommended.

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