RIDM 2012: ‘The Meaning of Robots’

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Meaning of Robots

Meaning of Robots

Meaning of Robots

Written and directed by Matt Lenski

USA, 2011, imdb, RIDM

My favourite film of Montreal’s International Documentary Film Festival, RIDM, so far is a poetic four minute film about an obscure New York film miniature builder and animator named Michael Sullivan.

Sullivan’s New York city studio apartment looks like the before picture in a Hoarders episode, strewn with odd machinery and what we eventually realize are hundreds and hundreds and thousands of doll-sized robots obviously modelled loosely on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis robot design.

The film acts like a giant optical illusion, the camera roaming over the piles of robots, hiding nothing, but it is only when Sullivan explains that he has built the robots for a stop-motion robot porno to be called The Sex Life of Robots that you realize that they are not just piles of robots, but “thousands of Robots with weiners“! The insanity is only compounded when Sullivan reveals his robotic horses, built to film the climax of his film, a stop-motion recreation of the death of Catherine the Great. (According to apocryphal legend, she was killed when the harness holding up her equine lover snapped.)

While Meaning of Robots doesn’t address the issue directly, Michael Sullivan is a real filmmaker with real credits on films like Star Trek V and considered by Bill Plympton to be “a New York animation legend“.

The reason that I love Meaning of Robots is the poetic, elliptical way that it deals with its subject. It respects Sullivan enough to let him tell his story in his own words. The film treats him gently, allowing Sullivan his obsession. Obsession is a great subject for films, but you could ruin this film by trying to explain too much, by insisting on a full explanation of why Sullivan is obsessed with the sex lives of robots.

Oddly, what makes Meaning of Robots work so well is Matt Lenski’s refusal to spoon feed us meaning.

– Michael Ryan

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