January 10, 2013

"Susan Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right (1987) and Other Space Oddities" by Lee Ann Roripaugh

1.  Space Oddities

Maybe this is about diaspora, about being the daughter of a first-generation Asian immigrant. Or maybe it’s about my chronic commitment issues.  Or maybe it’s because a small portion of the women I’ve dated are mildly psychotic.  (NB: If you’re reading this, and we’ve dated?  Let’s just pretend I’m probably not talking about you.)  And yes, maybe a number of the men I’ve taken up with have just been, well . . . undeniably very very odd.  (Odd as in thinking-they-can-mathematically-calculate-the-pattern-of-rain-falling odd.)  So here’s the thing.  Show me a nice rom-com with mail-getting and mistaken identities and not-sleeping in Seattle and I will probably be all meh.  On the other hand, show me a movie like Starman? In which the beloved is an alien?  Who hurtles off on a rocket ship into outer space?  Then it’s on like Donkey Kong, as in Susan Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right (1987)—a movie in which public relations expert Frankie Stone (played by Anne Magnuson) falls in love with the android she’s been coaching to pass as human (played by John Malkovich), before he’s sent out on a scientific mission to explore outer space.  How could this flick not hit that sweetly toxic trifecta of epic diaspora, impossibly doomed science-fictive relationships, and tragic absurdity?

2.  Because Who Doesn’t Adore Ann Magnuson?

Ann Magnuson as publicist Frankie Stone is all savvy, fast-talking cosmopolitanism—with an immediately likeable smidge of vulnerable fluster, a dash of harried flakiness.  To me, she conveys the metamorphic possibilities of urban transformation.  In a series of completely transparent projections, I read her as a small-town girl who’s made it in the big city.  Smart, ambitious, married to her work.  Okay, so yeah, her personal life is kind of a train wreck?  But still!  She’s unapologetically fucking awesome at her job!  With her cropped gamine pixie cut, fabulous shoes, and funky eyewear, she’s stylish, edgy, arty—the embodiment of the sort of woman I think I might like to become: sassy, eclectic, successful enough to be flamboyantly neurotic and have it come across as at-least-sort-of-charming.  As in all things Magnuson, the character’s played with an undeniable tongue-in-cheekiness—a hint of both kitsch and burlesque.  Frankie Stone’s performed as both character and caricature, and it’s this slyly recursive sense of simultaneous critique and homage that repeatedly tractor beams me to Magnuson in this and other roles.

3.  Malkovich as Unlikely Sexbot

In a quirky, but nonetheless refreshing, reversal of the standard trope of cinematic female sexbots (think Cherry 2000, et al.), John Malkovich portrays the Ulysses android—created in the image of his maker/socially maladroit doppelganger, Dr. Jeff Peters.  Designed for space exploration, but—unlike a Ken doll—apparently (generously!) endowed with a penis, Ulysses is the ultimate walking/talking dildo.  Sensitive, romantically expressive, and a good gifter to boot, he’ll rent a tux, be your Plus One, and dance with you all night long with the unabashed panache of your fabulous gay boyfriend.  Um?  Did I mention that he’s programmable?  Despite these pleasing, battery-operated features, the plot is nonetheless rife with a certain amount of hilarious creepiness.  Malkovich as Ulysses is uncomfortably childlike—a shambling, straw-haired, Andy Warhol-esque naïf of a cyborg.  Even with his allegedly Gigantor-scale phallus, he’s not so much sexy as he is uncomfortably strange.  As Dr. Peters and Frankie Stone engage in a power struggle over how much humanity is necessary, useful, or even desirable for Ulysses, they assume the role of parents bickering over their child’s education—giving Ulysses’ infatuation with Frankie overtly incestuous overtones.  When Dr. Peters ends up taking the place of his android as the pilot of the rocket ship, thereby exiling himself indefinitely into the far reaches of outer space, one has the uneasily distinct sensation that the android Ulysses has accomplished a sort of ultimate Freudian coup.  Nonetheless?  He’s programmable! And if he becomes a pain in the ass and shorts out?  One can simply remove his head and hit the reset button.

4.  The Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Like any kid growing up in the wake of the hazy televised glow of Apollo 11’s lunar landing, I was obsessed with astronauts and space travel.  It was the era of Tang! And Space Food Sticks!  Even the Eames era/atomic age décor owned by my parents and their neighbors reflected our collective obsession with hurtling through the interstellar frontiers of cosmic futurity.  Soon we would all be like the Jetsons—going to work in our bubble-topped aerocars with a live-in robot maid named Rosie.  Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right is, indeed, undeniably Jetsons-esque with its space astronaut android—an android so compellingly lifelike, in fact, that he physically passes for human, even though his behavior is undeniably, albeit gregariously, bizarre.  In fact, he’s repeatedly mistaken for his human creator, a man who made him in his own image, whose own behavior is also undeniably, albeit antisocially, bizarre.  The flawlessness of the robotics, and the concomitant questions raised about how to “program” humanity, or what constitutes a human being, firmly places the film within the cyborgian realm of post-human science fiction.  At one point in the movie, Frankie has to inform her breathily dim-witted best friend (played by Glenne Headly) that, in a case of mistaken identity: “You just made it with my android!” At this crucial is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex moment, representation/simulacra has seemingly replaced the real (and will do so again in the end of the movie), heralding the impending triumph of the age of virtuality.  That the movie takes place pre-World Wide Web, pre-dot.com boom, pre-eBay, pre-Amazon, pre-Facebook—just on the precipice of the rise of internet culture—is, particularly in retrospect, even more delicious.  In fact, there are charming scenes in which the Ulysses android commandeers the computers in the robotics lab and—in what at the time seemed like another instance of wacky, Jetson-esque futurity—purchases items online and has them delivered to the lab!

5. Queering Mr. Right

In addition to adumbrating the seismic cultural shift into an increasingly virtual culture—one in which we feverishly search for our own mirror images within the hazy glow of our computer screens—the narcissistic programmability of the Ulysses android is, of course, a reverse-gendered Pygmalion myth.  As such, it perhaps speaks to the shifting relationship needs of independent working women of the late 1980’s: Ulysses is unthreatened by Frankie Stone’s career or her independence, and even though (as she points out to him) she’s the only woman he knows, he accepts her as she is and on her own terms.  He’s emotionally available and sympathetic, he anticipates her needs, he rubs her feet after a tough day at work, he can provide sexual pleasure, and she won’t have to worry about unplanned pregnancy.  As the Pygmalion to his Galatea, Frankie Stone has, furthermore, defined and inscribed her own needs and desires upon this robotic tabula rasa.  He is mechanical not biological, and therefore also, by definition, purely culturally constructed—fluid in terms of gender, and, in this sense, inherently queer.  Ulysses’ optional penis is quite literally a tool—detachable, like any of his other body parts, and constructed for sexual/aesthetic pleasure, as opposed to procreation.  Arguably, he possibly functions as one possible interpretation of Judith Butler’s lesbian phallus, and given that—in the same way Dr. Jeff Peters constructs Ulysses in his physical image—Frankie constructs Ulysses in her psychosocial image, Ulysses can be read as distinctly genderqueer.  In contrast to other male characters in the movie—who are, by turns, either emotionally withdrawn, commitment-phobic, philandering, or aggressively bullying mouth-breathing dimwits in mullets—Ulysses is comparatively feminized: a distinctly odd but nonetheless very nice girl with a big strap-on.

6.  Ground Control to Uncle Tom

As in any switch-and-bait sleight of hand in which the representation triumphs over the real, there is something distinctly unsettling about the ending of Making Mr. Right.  In his most distinctly “human” gesture, emotionally stunted Dr. Jeff Peters places his needs below those of other characters in the film through taking Ulysses’ place on the spaceship—leaving Ulysses behind to perform the role of Frankie’s “Mr. Right.”  This act of self-sacrifice seems to indicate that Dr. Peters may himself be in love with Frankie, and as a grand romantic gesture, it potentially overrides Ulysses’ childlike fumblings at puppy love.  Has Frankie settled for the high-end vibrator in the nightstand?  Or has Dr. Jeff Peters refused to settle for the mere banalities of conventional coupledom in lieu of something larger, grander, and more visionary? As we pan out to Dr. Peters’ seemingly suicidal hurtling through the overwhelming and uncertain solitude of outer space, the viewer feels simultaneously stricken and awed.  Dr. Peters seems to be reaching for something more than his imagination is able to dream.  It is, he says over the crackling and fading intercom, beautiful.

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s most recent volume of poetry, Dandarians, is forthcoming from Milkweed Press in 2014.  She is the author of three other volumes: On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), Year of the Snake (Southern Illinois Press, 2004), and Beyond Heart Mountain (Penguin, 1999). She is currently a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.

[Curator's note: I just had to throw in this clip from Ann Magnuson's band, Bongwater, because she rules.]

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