Tag Archives: metropolis

From Automata to Robots at the Science Museum

A crazy, packed weekend in London, that involved the launch of the 4th issue of Salvage and meeting Andreas Malm (and friends, lots of friends), catching up with my friend Tucker who just passed his viva with no corrections, The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum and much more… and still there was much left undone, friends not seen, stones left unturned.

Still.

Robots. Pretty awesome.

Robots

From the exhibit description:

Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.

It did make me realise that the closer we get to actually making robots real, the less I am fascinated by them. Really it is the old automata and clockwork things I most love. It opened with old clocks, and this, on the subject of orreries:

Possessing a model of the universe became a mark of politeness and respectability in the new, rational world of the 18th Century.

I almost laughed out loud. As I did seeing this:

Robots

An incredible and absurdly intricate automaton which they called ‘rose engine’ lathe created about 1750 — this produced a small complicated pattern cut into a round piece of wood. The exhibit notes it was made for someone wealthy – no shit.

I spent a while staring trying to work out where they could add another flourish of metal.

But even better was this automaton monk, made in Germany or Spain about 1560:

Robots

Robots

This monk prayed, walking across a tabletop while moving his lips, raising a crucifix and rosary, and beating his breast in contrition. He was built as an offering on behalf of King Phillip II of Spain, in thanks for his son’s recovery from a bad injury.

Just one of a whole collection of wonderful (and absurd) Catholic automata, that I suppose given the current state of catholic decorations for the home should hardly surprise me:

Robots

In this crucifix above, Jesus’s head would roll from side to side and shed wooden tears of blood while the Mary’s and other mourners raised their arms up to him.

They had this amazing, tiny, mechanical spider

Robots

They had the wondrous Silver Swan finished in 1773, originally found in the Mechanical Museum of James Cox, and with an internal mechanism by John Joseph Merlin:

Robots

Robots

These little silver fish swim up and down when the mechanism is in motion, and the swan endlessly succeeds in catching them, releasing them (you can watch it here, I am sad we did not see it in motion):

Robots

But on to the real robots. Maria, from Metropolis, happiness:

Robots

Tin wonders:

Robots

Robots

Cygan, George and Eric (Britain’s first robot, rebuilt here):

Robots

These mad composites of plastic and metal and wood and wire:

Robots

And on to a present that is feeling like the future:

Robots

Robots

In chatting over what we had seen, I realised Mark had the same nostalgia I did walking through the space for the utterly amazing Cosmonauts exhibition, which is the last thing we saw there. Not even robots could displace the memories of awe and wonder. But it was pretty awesome.

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Metropolis

Just saw Metropolis…I’ve been on a bit of a Fritz Lang kick. He wore a monocle after all. I’ve been watching a lot of noir actually, and thought I’d go back to the beginnings and so watched M, and god damn, what an amazing movie. And Peter Lorre was incredible, as was Inspector Lohmann, so I watched The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and loved it too…and so, once again I returned to the beginnings to see more of where Lang began, and, well…the cinematography is great but I have to say  (and in disagreement with a lot of critics I spose) I’m glad he moved on.

Of course I loved the machines. The machines are extraordinary. Apparently in the book they are alive. And they are impressively bizarre. And the new “machine-man” is also cool (though it is patently a machine-woman), along with its creator, Rotwang the mad inventor. Apparently he sacrificed a hand to create his metal creature, I have no idea how that worked. He’s got both crazy eyes and crazy hair, a brilliant tiny medieval looking house in the middle of modernity with his own private entrance to the city’s 2000 year old catacombs…that could lead to so many interesting possibilities. A hint of the satanic in the pentegrams on the walls and doors, the house’s peculiar powers. And Metropolis, the capitalist city-state run by dictatorship with power concentrated in one man due to his control over its technology and structure…it’s an interesting idea. And how much did it influence Blade Runner? all of the workers live deep under the city. The visuals of the city itself are stunning, you see echos of it in future sci fi stuff. So what in this, I ask, is not to love?

And of course this was a groundbreaking film, the cinematography already shows some of the brilliance in M, scenes cutting back and forth linked one to the other by doors, by actions, by objects. The scene where Rotwang is chasing Maria with the lamp is genious, even if she’s rubbish at actually making any attempt to save herself. The water of the flood as it first comes down, the beating of the gong in time to the music…so many individual scenes. The music is great, I forgot to say that it’s a silent movie I think, filmed in 1928, and I loved how the dialogue screens are dynamic as the movie is dynamic, a part of its ebb and flow.

It’s ridiculously overacted by today’s standards of course, and with the heavy makeup. The cinematography is almost enough to make up for that, but the story itself, I’m afraid, is rather ridiculous, apart from the politics that turn my stomach. Thea von Harbou and I would not have got along, and I blame her for everything I didn’t like about M as well because now I understand her crazy ideas better. It looked at first that it was going to be a sort of gothic all power to the workers tale, and that would have been quite all right. But turns out it’s a rather bizarre mix of Christianity, a man who is in search of the virgin Mary and his mother combined in one perfect woman, and at best “compassionate conservatism,” but I’m not at all surprised that Thea and the Nazis rubbed along really well.

It pissed me off so much I’m writing this in fact…the machine woman is given Maria’s face, becomes an erotic dancer, embraces what a woman is beyond the virgin and the mother and of course it’s all death and destruction after that! Though the vision of what was once erotic dancing is rather amusing, and astonishingly racy. And then dressed as the virgin she riles up the masses (part of the capitalist plot to have an excuse to use force to repress the workers because we all know praying is the way, the marseilleise is in the background), and leads them all in a howling mob to destroy the heart of the machine. Though they know it will flood the worker’s city below, they forget the flooding will drown all of the children they’ve just abandoned. They’re not so bright, but don’t worry, Feder and the real Maria (well, Maria’s actually pretty soft and useless and tends to slow things down as a good woman should) save the kids and the day. While the workers dance joyfully in circles, freak out when they realize their kids are probably dead, and then in vengeance burn the machine Mary as a witch. I do like her, she laughs maniacally as she burns. But back to the maker’s moral, it is incredibly clear why the workers are the hands, and the capitalist is the head…so in this natural order of things we just need a little improvement for the workers as their conditions are a bit grim and they deserve something a bit better…what can bring them together? The moral of all this is that a mediator is needed, the heart. He descends from the upper levels, works one ten-hour shift in the factory, and then fixes everything. Makes me want to spit.

And I can’t even begin to describe some of the corniness of some of the dialogue and action. And why is the thin man not thin? That bothered me, it could have been sarcasm had he been fat, but instead he was just mildly goonish. And what is the significance of worker 11811?

The alternate title could have been run, Feder, run.