My love for film extends beyond the critical gaze. Weaving in and out of my life, film shaped me, putting its own unique stamp on my experiences and beliefs. Whether its the era we first saw it, the people we saw it with, or simply the mood in which we saw it: film has the power to contextualize.
Welcome to my movie-watching life.
Where: A videostore in Battle Creek, MI
Age: Two and three quarters (no, seriously, this matters)
We’ve lost something, not having video rental stores anymore. My earliest memory was in a video store. It’s strange being a tiny person in a video store, no older than two-and-a-half. Your selection is only as good as the placement. Luckily Robocop was at my eyeline. At the time, that’d been roughly two-and-a-half feet from the floor.
I don’t want to make myself out like some wunderkind. I was a doofy kid, never not in my own head playing out some fantasy. Car rides were cargo transports in space ships, fireplaces were stoops of buildings that I, in Batman pajamas, would leap into the night from. I had a sense of these things before I ever had a sense of fiction. I didn’t know what movies were, aside from being awesome. I just knew that when the tiny black magic box got shoved into the large silver magic box it would tell the stories. Likely on account of some unforeseen wizardry happening behind the television. I thought there were wizards behind the television making it work. Did I mention I was a doofy kid?
VHS covers were an extension of this over-active imagination. Trouncing about the floor, taking it all in, staring into these tiny portals of other worlds – worlds clearly more exciting than my own. I didn’t see Evil Dead 2 until I was 14, but the cover image of the skull with human eyes (that had nothing to do with the actual film) had already been burned into my mind at this impressionable age.
My mother had entangled me into a system long before I’d figured out I was in it (and rightly found ways to abuse it). I’d pull a box off the shelf, hand it to her, she’d flip the back to find the rating. The first letter I ever learned was “R.” It came to mean disappointment – signifying mystery, danger, boobs, Jeff Goldblum. So when I saw this awesome cover of a robot man climbing out of a police car, bathed in the glow of sirens, I knew a “no” was coming around the corner. VHS covers with robot cops didn’t just fall from the sky (at the time before, y’know, the 90s). It was too good to be true.
Maybe it was the disappointment in my eyes as she surveyed the back of the jacket, maybe she’d gotten tired of fighting me after countless attempts to rent Return of the Swamp Thing again; honestly, I’d like to think it was because she was getting as sick as I was of Masters of the Universe cartoons (I loved them but seriously, I was living that shit in my youth), but I got the magnificent old bag to concede. “Maybe you can just turn your head at the bad parts.
Bad parts? Movies had “bad parts”? I hadn’t encountered one yet. Regardless, my fate, and indeed the fate of my parents, was sealed. RoboCop changed me. Its circuitry dug deep into my bones, changing me and dooming me to life mystified by the moving pictures. I’d seen Star Wars, loved Jedi at the time, using discarded toilet paper rolls as imaginary lightsabers. But RoboCop was the film that ruined me.
I remember my dad coming home and being mortified. He hadn’t seen RoboCop, he just knew it got bloody. Before he got home, “Turn your head at the bad parts,” denigrated into “Why aren’t you turning your head?” into a plea to “Don’t tell your father.”
So mom was pissed I floated the movie to dad as soon as he got in the door. I wasn’t boasting I’d just seen RoboCop (though I totally was). I was genuinely a disciple now, trying to spread the good word. “Father, have you seen this film RoboCop? Would you like to see RoboCop? I happen to have procured a copy and… wait… why so glum?”
In my head, I was the only person who’d seen this story of one cyborg’s never-ending quest to punch all the evil doers in the skull. It was now my duty to sing its praises to the unconverted. It had a melting man, what’s not to love?
Parents are too freaked out about nightmares. I never got nightmares from movies*. I was impressionable, but only as it pertained to my make-believe. Officer Alex Murphy getting torn to shreds by Clarence Bodicker was never scary. In fact, it made me a real favorite amongst parents at the playground. “He asked you to shoot his hand off? So he could become RoboCop? Leave that kid alone.” I’d like to think kids who played pretend with me were left indelibly changed and perhaps mildly disturbed.
I’d walk around the house in RoboCop pajamas and a mask 12 sizes too big for my head (sadly it’s now 12 sizes too small). I did the sounds, always with the goddamn sounds. Swishing and buzzing and humming, it had to be real.
The leg thing really pissed me off. Murphy still has the coolest holster in movie history. I couldn’t replicate that. I couldn’t make a gun grow out of my leg. I found a workaround for the metal hand spike though, again, parents…
It affected me, and the lives of those around me, in other ways as well. A few months after I’d first seen it (the ‘rents recorded it on VHS from a heavily edited TV appearance), life got pretty dark. I didn’t know what cancer was, just that Grandma had it. I knew that mom looked after her in the bedroom next to mine. She became the kindhearted woman with the patience to listen to me jaw off about RoboCop for as long as she was able-bodied enough to devote her full attention to a young boy’s eccentricities. Then, one day, she was just… gone.
This introduction to a concept as finite as death left me in a vulnerable state. I needed a protector, a shield that’d be my own RoboCop: always protecting, always serving, always robotic.
Two out of three ain’t bad. My parents let me name her Murphy; and this half-lab, half-golden retriever would serve as my dutiful protector for the next fifteen years.
I stuck with the film, the sequels, the TV Series, the Canadian TV movies. It wasn’t until seven years later that I revisited original. We moved to Minnesota and I decided to bury myself in VHS tapes for a while rather than make friends in yet another town. I haven’t ever stopped revisting the film since. I discovered RoboCop had a director, I discovered there were directors. There were special effects bringing to life a world, real world people inhabiting the same space as these characters. It had Regan-era critiques, whatever those were! In rediscovering RoboCop, I discovered film for the very first time.
I recently decided to leave behind a fairly cushy day job to go deeper into my writing, explore a road less traveled before the financial concerns of marriage or kids have a chance to get their hooks into me. So it made sense last week, as my dad helped me lay up posters in my home office, that I go back to the start: an ever-present reminder of where my love of film was first bourne, of the time I walked into a video store and saw a portal into another world, and all the portals I’d later see because of it.
Critically, RoboCop is an all-timer: a science-fiction actioner dissecting Reaganism through the lense of Paul Verhoeven in his hyper-violent prime. Contextually, it’s so much more. It’s worn-out pajamas, the sulfur smokiness of action-figures with cap loaders attached to their backs, an emotional getaway when I needed it, and a dog that brought 15 years of joy into my life as well as mom and dad’s. Not bad, Mr. Verhoeven.
And thanks, mom. This was all your fault.
*Once, actually. And it is solely responsible for a sleepwalking habit that plagued me for years after. Perhaps for another column.