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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.