A.I. = ( 2001 + E.T. )2

Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick have collaborated in

spirit on a fabulous fable called A.I.

that is well on its way to becoming the

most controversial conversation-piece to hit the dumbed-down American

movie scene since heaven knows when. Its ending alone may invade your dreams,

as it has mine ever since I saw it at a screening. I frankly don’t know if I

would wish this psychic experience on children, and as a marginally certified

adult I am still grappling with the task of explaining exactly how A.I. has managed to push the envelope of

cinematic expression so far beyond what we have been conditioned to expect as

“family entertainment” over the past century. A.I . is certainly about family, though mostly about sons and

mothers, regressive as it may seem to some.

There are many references

to the Pinocchio story, but many dissimilarities as well. The hero here,

a little boy robot named David, has no conditions to meet and no temptations to

overcome. He is instead a monomaniacal pilgrim in search of little-boyhood only

as a means to an end, that end being the love of a real-life mother. Hence,

there is no moral to the film, only the excitement of an emotionally driven

adventure. Yet the story is told so well, and with such unwavering conviction

in its performances, that it ends up being an overwhelmingly haunting

experience as well as an exquisite work of art.

Mr. Spielberg directed A.I.

from his own screenplay, based on a screen story by Ian Watson and the short

story by Brian Aldiss. At one time before his death, Stanley Kubrick proposed

that he produce and Mr. Spielberg direct A.I. ,

which takes science-fiction cinema to new heights of dramatic and philosophical

expression, and perhaps also to new depths of morbidity and pessimism about the

human condition, along with its special-effects virtuosity. This is to say that

it might be a hard sell to the more credulous consumers of this summer’s

mindless blockbusters. For myself, I regard A.I.

as the most emotionally and existentially overwhelming Spielberg production

since the ridiculously underrated and underappreciated Empire of the Sun (1987). Both masterpieces are anchored by

extraordinarily accomplished child actors, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun

and Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Mr.

Osment had earlier shown his flair for projecting the uncanny in M. Night

Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999).

In A.I. , Mr. Osment’s David expands the Pinocchio story of the puppet

who wants to be a little boy into something more painfully and Oedipally

passionate: the quest of a robot for the love and attention of a mother

figure named Monica, played with exquisite

tact and feeling by Frances O’Connor. The robot, or “Mecha”-for “Mechanicals,”

as opposed to flesh-and-blood “Orgas”-continues his search for love for

centuries, beyond the existence of humanity itself. The point is, I don’t think

little children are quite ready to see the Manhattan skyline underwater as a

forerunner of humanity’s extinction. Yet A.I.

is not primarily a political tract about global warming or an impending

over-reliance on the artificial intelligence (A.I.) of robots. It is rather a

beautifully formulated meditation on the eternal intensity of filial love.

There is, of course, much

more to A.I. than its central

narrative, which often gets lost in the colorful excitement of the film’s

futuristic vision of civilization. It’s no wonder that A.I. was the late Stanley Kubrick’s dream project for a decade. The

reported closeness of the two filmmakers will give rise to speculation about

how much can be attributed to Kubrick’s conception and how much to Mr.

Spielberg’s execution. My own feeling is that, though much of the wildly

surreal texture of the film is reminiscent of such futuristic Kubrick fantasies

as 2001: A Space Odyssey

(1968)-particularly the HAL section-and A

Clockwork Orange (1971), the warmth and romanticism seem inescapably

Spielbergian.

Purists of narrative

structure in film may complain that there is a discernible rupture between the

first part of the film, which settles down to a fierce conflict between a

family’s real son and his robotic “brother,” and the second part, which begins

when David is thrust out on his own. Curiously, the domestic scenes are more

harrowing than the subsequent mob scenes of enraged Orgas out to destroy the

overly numerous Mechas. Once David escapes the twin perils of being returned to

the factory and being destroyed by the unruly Orgas, he becomes an immortal-a status

foreshadowed in an earlier scene when he lies at the bottom of a pool fully

conscious, impervious to the danger of drowning and yet feeling lonely and

abandoned. It is but one of the many striking images that force the viewer to

contemplate his or her own vulnerability and mortality.

Jude Law’s Gigolo Joe is

one of the happiest adaptations of Pinocchio’s thespian fox (and bad

influence). Joe is a “love Mecha” who becomes David’s “scoutmaster”-as Mr.

Spielberg calls the character-and is far more benign toward him than Disney’s

fox was to Pinocchio. Indeed, Joe is sincere in his attempt to help David find

the Blue Fairy who can turn him into a real little boy, one who can be loved at

long last by Monica. I won’t give away the ending, which soars beyond happy or

unhappy to a different realm of feeling entirely.

It would be amusing if A.I. should turn out to be too original

and too insightful and too creative for its own good. I hope not. Perhaps I

have become too cynical about the mass audience for my own good. All I can say is that I like and admire A.I. enormously despite the fact that I

have never been unduly reverent toward either Mr. Spielberg or Kubrick, and I

have never particularly liked or enjoyed science fiction even at its best. That

is what surprises me about A.I. : It

is so good it has made me abandon my most cherished prejudices. I should not

neglect the contributions of such excellent actors as Sam Robards as Henry

Swinton, David’s designated “father”; Jake Thomas as David’s malicious

Orga brother; Brendan Gleeson as a religious

fanatic dedicated to the destruction of the Mecha population; and William Hurt

as David’s real creator for all the right reasons-except his ultimate happiness

as a human being. The cast is small, but its impact is huge despite all the

special effects. Since casting is a large part of what makes a movie great and

memorable, I should note that the gaze of David toward Monica, and of Monica

toward David, constitutes one of the great love images in all the cinema,

transcending the romantic and the erotic with the devotionally religious. It is

an image to be treasured and savored and remembered as long as there are movies

to be seen and appreciated.

Yet the very sublimity of A.I . and its single-minded hero may limit the allegorical range of

the film. David is not really one of “us,” and he is not really one of “them.”

He is singular and unique. The facile subtext of a cult film like Ridley

Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), from the

Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of

Electric Sheep? , can suggest parallels between the futurist androids-the

Mechas of their time in science fiction-and aliens and minorities in our own

time. No such parallels exist as allegorical options for David. He is instead

an extraordinary romantic hero beyond anything in our human experience, and Mr.

Osment endows the character with a hyper-human stillness and stoicism that is

at times unnerving.

We know from the outset that he has been manufactured to

provide bereaved parents with a substitute for their dead or comatose children.

Since the film is set in a post-apocalyptic future when much of the earth’s

previous land mass is underwater, the resulting scarcity of natural resources

forces society to restrict natural births. David, the prototype “feeling” robot,

is adopted by Henry and Monica Swinton, a Cybertronics employee and his wife,

whose own son has been cryogenically frozen until a cure for his

life-threatening illness can be found.

Thus David is alone with

the Swintons at first as they try to adjust to their new situation. Monica

resists treating David as her real son, and is angered when he accidentally

invades her privacy in the toilet. It is a bizarre moment of mutual confusion

about what David thinks and what Monica thinks. Is he a real boy, an animated

doll, a toy, a pet or what? But one day when David calls her “Mommy,” Monica’s

resistance melts.

Then suddenly her real son reappears as a partial invalid,

and he immediately resents David’s presence. A very disturbingly one-sided

sibling rivalry ensues, with the real boy insisting on treating David as a

toy-much like the state-of-the-art talking teddy bear that proceeds to play an

important role in David’s existence. Despite all the real son’s taunting and

teasing, David never responds in kind, since he is not programmed for family

intrigues. Yet he is more dangerous to the real son than the real son is to

him, as evidenced by a playful maneuver around the pool that almost drowns the

human boy. Monica starts driving David back to the factory, but at the last

moment she lets him loose in the forest with his teddy bear, and the second

part of A.I. begins as an epic

adventure of hope and survival.

Mr. Law’s Gigolo Joe is introduced as a truly mechanical

seducer of women-which turns out to be bad news for the women. Joe bumps into

David at the edge of a garbage dump for discarded Mechas, to which other Mechas

flock to get better parts. It is a gruesome spectacle that reminds us of the

eventual disposability of both David and Joe. Curiously, David never registers

the fear that Joe exhibits in ample measure as both are pursued and eventually

netted by Orga vigilantes in search of Mechas to be destroyed in Flesh

Circuses.

At one point, Joe takes

David to the temple of Dr. Know for information about the Blue Fairy that

turned Pinocchio into a real boy. There are echoes here of the Bond series, The Wizard of Oz and TV quiz-show

categorizations. David learns that his quest will lead him to Manhattan, now

mostly underwater, where he learns the chilling secrets of his creation as the

first model of a series. With the airship he has stolen, David plunges into the

watery depths to find his ultimate destiny.

A.I.

is a courageous film because of the sustained lyrical force running

though its prodigious imagery, which could have deflected David’s odyssey from

its primal destination were it not for a directorial single-mindedness as

relentless as David’s. There is a fair share

of humor as well, and this I am quite willing to credit to Kubrick’s conceptual

ironies. But the emotional grandeur I would grant to Mr. Spielberg alone.

Ever since my then 7-year-old brother George was dragged

screaming from a showing of Snow White

and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)-at the point at which the Queen-Witch was

preparing the poisoned apple for Snow White-I have wondered if anyone could

match Walt Disney in probing the Oedipal abyss. I only wish George were still

alive to see and appreciate how deeply Mr. Spielberg has plunged into this

forbidden cavity of the unconscious.

Performing for Posterity

Maggie Greenwald’s

Songcatcher overflows with ambitiousness and authenticity as it follows the

adventures and misadventures of Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) as she attempts to

track down traditional folk music in the Appalachia of 1907. Lily-or “Dr. Penleric,”

as she prefers to be called in recognition of her doctorate in music-has just

been passed over for a full professorship at her male-dominated elite musical

college. She plunges into the hill country to join her sister Elna (Jane

Adams), who operates a local schoolhouse. Lily comes encumbered with a bulky,

primitive recording device she uses to capture and transcribe the music carried

to those shores by Scottish, Welsh, Irish, French, German and African

immigrants, and preserved by their descendants all through the 19th century.

Lily has little trouble at first making the people she encounters perform for

posterity, but as she gets further up into the mountains she is stymied by the

inhabitants’ suspicion of all outsiders, and by downright bigotry.

At first I feared that this might be a promotional

semi-documentary, very careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings even in

retrospect. At times I was fearful that Ms. McTeer, a comparatively tall

actress playing a somewhat overbearing character, would bully her way up and

down the Appalachian hills until she produced enough fresh discoveries to

vindicate her academic position and perhaps win international acclaim, with

concluding banquets and such. In essence, I was bracing myself for the

traditional Hollywood sanctification of noble efforts among the backwoods

provincials. Such hardly proves to be the case, as melodramatic complications

arise in the film because of a discovered lesbian attachment at the school, a

bigamous relationship that ends in murder, and the destruction by fire of all

of Lily’s notes and recordings. In the process, the seemingly spinsterish Lily

finds love and a new career with a musical mountain man named Tom Bledsoe

(Aidan Quinn).

The bulk of the film, however, is devoted to the expert singing,

dancing and playing of the hill people, on a variety of home-grown instruments,

sheerly for pleasure and communal celebration. The period atmosphere is

plausibly reconstructed and recreated. At one point, Ms. McTeer executes a

modified striptease in full flight from a snow-leopard that may or may not be

pursuing her. (Lily had previously been instructed that the wild animal would

be so distracted tearing the discarded garments to shreds that she’d have time

to escape.) One suspects that Ms. Greenwald wrote in this piece of business not

so much to titillate the audience as to educate it in the laborious intricacies

and voluminous folds of women’s underwear in this primitive phase of women’s

liberation, when even the vote was still denied them. 

If I have avoided discussing the music being sung and played

and danced to in the film, it is because nothing in my background from

childhood on qualifies me to make any judgment beyond a respectful curiosity, a

broadening of my musical horizons, and a confirmation that my father’s Greek

Royalist politics have induced in me a permanent impatience with any art

emblazoned with a “folk” label. I am ashamed to admit it, but I have always had

more of a yearning for life in the palace, and the court music that goes with it.

A Civil-Rights Wrong

William Greaves’ Ralph

Bunche: An American Odyssey , based on the biography by Sir Brian Urquhart,

Bunche’s colleague, friend and successor as U.N. Undersecretary General, and narrated by Sidney Poitier, will be

presented by the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at the Walter

Reade Theater on Wednesday, June 20, at 3:15 p.m. and Thursday, June 21, at 7

p.m. I strongly recommend this film as a piece of neglected history by people

inside and outside the civil-rights movement. As the promotional flier notes:

“The legacy of 1950 Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche (the first person of color

anywhere in the world to win the prize) has faded from public consciousness in

the 30 years since his death.”

And so it has,

particularly for me. I knew the name, of course, from the newspaper headlines.

But I found Mr. Greaves’ film revelatory, in that it made me feel a great

injustice has been done to Bunche’s memory by the very people who should have

raised monuments to him. The film makes me feel the pain of a man who had to

confront bigotry from inside the Establishment rather than from the less

stressful outside. This is not to diminish the stature of Martin Luther King

Jr. and his street-marching colleagues, but Bunche should no longer be

penalized for fighting for his race in his own way, utilizing whatever

opportunities presented themselves to him. He never backed down from his

convictions, and he marched in the streets with all the others. In his early

years, he fought the good fight as a radical anti-racist professor at Howard

University. In his years at the U.N., he presided over the decolonization of

Africa and Asia. He deserves to be remembered.