Intelligence Quotient: Reactions to A.I. Reveal the Esthetic IQs of Movie-Lovers and Critics

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



"Miraculous?"
someone asked me about last week’s review of A.I. "Yes!"
I insisted, because Spielberg has achieved a breakthrough–a breakthrough
no one could have expected: raising fairytales to the level of great art. He
also resurrects movie art, though you wouldn’t know it from the clueless,
defensive reviews. "Fascinating wreck," "It needs to be faster,
lighter," critics complained–as if A.I. were ruinously flawed,
as if art had to be "perfect," as if they’d know perfection when
they saw it. Critics recoil from A.I. at precisely the moments they should
reach toward and connect with it. Jean Renoir once said, "My films are
incomplete. They need an audience." But most critics–Hollywood drones–think
good movies are the ones they don’t have to think about. What they really
want is a film that zips by without need for thought or reflection (Memento,
Lara Croft, The Fast and the Furious); more of the junk they’re
employed to promote.


Reactions to
A.I. reveal the esthetic IQs of movie-lovers and critics. I’m not
doubting individual intellects, but separating the hacks from the esthetes.
It’s a matter of taking pop mythology seriously. For all the jawing about
genre and f/x and film savvy, it is Spielberg’s intelligent use of technology
that upsets critics. They’d prefer that his filmmaking have no ambition,
thus appeasing the juvenile sensibility that favors cynicism over A.I.’s
fascination with faith and the loving essence of humankind that the robot David
represents.


A major cause
for the disrespect of Spielberg (and film art) is that people–Hollywood
indoctrinated–want what they want. They want trash without high motives;
no originality will be accepted, only derided. They want car chases and shootouts,
explosions and killings–no meaning. Spielberg’s problem is that he
goes at devotion, faith, desire through pop. Kubrick took the easy route by
claiming "art" from the beginning. There was no confusion of intent.
Critics, now, won’t let Spielberg be an Artist no matter how much artistry
he displays. One journalist told me that Nabokov’s was modernist art, yet
Spielberg’s was not. That’s just fatuous. A.I. makes evident
how pop myths (funhouse, videogames, tv, cinema) all come from the same source
of needs and aspirations as religious mythology. Using the universal storehouse
of pop culture and literary legends to address ubiquitous human needs is A.I.’s
triumph of art over trash. Hitchcock, Lean, Cocteau, Kurosawa, Demy all knew
it. How heroic that Spielberg took advantage of his skill, clout (and Kubrick
bequest) to make something better than a kiddie or teen flick–to actually
take the time, after A.I.’s first hour, to do a serious philosophical
exploration.


If A.I.
were "faster, lighter," it wouldn’t be the great, cumulative,
mythological assessment of our time, it’d be Speed. Reviewers betray
resentment that Spielberg makes art rather than trash. This is surprising after
Pearl Harbor’s critical drubbing; one deplored Michael Bay and Jerry
Bruckheimer’s choice, having the chance to address the world with untold
resources at hand, yet offering nothing more than that pitiful postadolescent
love triangle. A.I. improves pop potential by adding what the 1940 Pinocchio–a
movie for children–always lacked: a heartbreaking recognition of impossibility
in a culture that has gone against the purest desires. That’s why it’s
emphatically a movie for adults. (At its deepest, one can feel adulthood asking
childhood for forgiveness.)


Because this
is the most remarkable achievement of my grownup moviegoing years ("It’s
the most amazing film I’ve ever seen!" slipped out of my mouth the
other day) I can’t muster much to say about Pootie Tang. And why
bother? Pootie Tang–like most other recent flicks–is best seen
on bootleg video anyway.


 




Once again,
Spielberg has
raised the bar for movie culture. Instead of assenting, the dogs are yelping.
Film culture has collapsed so disastrously that people no longer know how to
read metaphor, allusion, analogy. They can’t see the human condition in
David’s plight; insisting that he’s a robot and therefore unpitiable.
They don’t recognize the coarsening of modern culture in the Flesh Fair,
Rouge City or what Spielberg shows to be the ultimately untenable, Disneyfied
place that is a world sunken in its own modern arrogance. A heart-stopping vision.
Despite everything we live with–the dislocation between children and parents,
the solipsism of narcissistic, unsatisfied adults and the truly appalling lack
of craft and imagination in most Hollywood movies–critics insist on seeing
A.I. as a failed Star Wars or 2001 comic. Worse, they presume
themselves to be above the story’s (Spielberg’s) basic human emotions.


Worshiping
at Kubrick’s grave gives critics an excuse for not rationally considering
the confluence of major filmmakers. They apply anti-A.I. criteria arbitrarily,
not the way one made sense of Welles-Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux,
Kurosawa-Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train, Fellini-Rossellini’s
The Miracle, Truffaut-Godard’s Breathless or even Spielberg-Scorsese’s
Cape Fear. It’s ridiculous to say one director has not fulfilled
the intentions of the first; we sensibly expect the directing auteur to imprint
his vision on the material–that’s what determines how we read any
film. Appreciating the magnitude of a Spielberg image such as the tear-like
reflection of David’s suicidal fall requires faith in the ability of film
to encapsulate an experience imaginatively and then to find the image that simultaneously
conveys the story’s theme, the character’s emotion and the viewer’s
awareness. Many people never approach a Spielberg movie that credibly.


But you can’t
go to A.I. to be hip. Hip is what has ruined film culture as critics–even
middle-aged ones writing for the most stolid, antiquated, middle-class publications–claim
hipness to be definitive modern expression. This fake intelligence is worse
than blind, drunken stupidity because it fends off feeling, and prefers the
comradeship of a cynical elite, priding itself on what it disdains rather than
what they might open itself up to discover. (That would explain why some people
prefer the shallow Raiders of the Lost Ark to the more politically complex
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Hip critics who generally favor
David Fincher, Harmony Korine, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von
Trier–the past decade’s prime scalawags–seek the cool, derisive
pose of knowingness. A.I. offers something much better.


With the robot
David’s pilgrimage through future centuries of human existence searching
for an ideal, A.I. puts viewers in touch with experiences–memories–they
have forgotten but that remain lodged in their soul: the dream of ideal love.
Rather than hipness, Spielberg recalls our common humanity, the most precious,
least conscious part–David’s desire for connection, his pure will
to be accepted, to be loved. It’s in the scenes when he attempts to become
part of Monica and Henry’s family, or searches the universe for his own
origins (a resolution to which Spielberg’s audaciously given us privilege).
Contrary to detractors who think Spielberg’s interest in childhood is trivial,
A.I. refines what his past movie tropes (the aged sisters uniting by
playing paddycake at the end of The Color Purple; Jim finally closing
his eyes in his mother’s bosom in Empire of the Sun) showed to be
essential longings. David’s prayer to the Blue Fairy is more eloquent than
Pinocchio’s simple theme song "When You Wish Upon a Star."
Spielberg finds a delicate, adroit expression of longing that blows fairytale
wishing sky high. This is spiritual aspiration–not mere hipness–and
the final half-hour of A.I. achieves an erotic plateau that is also metaphysical.
Whether you observe it as memory or theology, it’s so beautiful it’s
shattering.


When Saving
Private Ryan
shook the summer of ’98, it seemed like Spielberg would
change the way filmmakers and filmgoers approached action cinema. Instead, soulless
imitators from Ridley Scott to Spike Lee to Joel Schumacher tried upping the
ante on verite violence and fast-edits, completely refuting Spielberg’s
art and further degrading the medium. All the pomo hacks can do with A.I.
is defy its large-scale, fully evolved concentration on human emotion. As in
the days of Lang’s Metropolis, Siegfried and Kriemheld’s Revenge,
Griffith’s Intolerance and Murnau’s Faust, Spielberg
expresses feeling undistracted by action, but more clearly expressed through
exquisite, mythic detail (the Blue Fairy’s resemblance to Virgin Mary statuary–and
Kate Capshaw) and fantastic imagery (the neon miasmas of Flesh Fair and Rouge
City and the modern world’s destruction shown as a flooded Manhattan).


Hipper-than-thous
always argue against Spielberg with cant–"manipulative," "sentimental."
They’re so used to technique meaning nothing–like the closeup exhalation
of smoke by Tcheky Karyo in Kiss of the Dragon and shifting focus on
lovers’ faces in Crazy/Beautiful–that they can’t appreciate
when technique is used to say something. Audiences hooting and hollering at
Jet Li putting chopsticks through a man’s thorax tell you Spielberg’s
belief in human sympathy is out of fashion. It’s dispiriting that A.I.’s
heart, dedication, skill, imagination is wasted on audiences bred to want far
less. Still, Spielberg restores cinema’s essence: keeping one’s eyes
startled and mind open. It’s inconceivable that people could look at David’s
quest to communicate–the most nuanced images of physical and emotional
touching since Jules and Jim–and remain unmoved. It can only be because
those scenes embarrass the modern effort to appear above need, to seem hip.
Mentioning so many other films is my attempt to hint at A.I.’s significance
as an achievement that reflects an entire cultural epoch. It recalls Henry James’
assessment of a new, popular art work as "a state of vision, of feeling
and of consciousness."


A.I.
may be just a movie, but such filmmaking requires an intelligent audience that
doesn’t simply groove to f/x but is sensitive to what imagery means–that
fairytale imagination many people have lost since childhood, just as film culture
has lost appreciation for it since the silent years. The great hope of A.I.
is that people will be reawakened to the magnificence of the film medium before
it all crashes down into digital-video slovenliness, zero craft and impersonal
storytelling.


 


Pootie
Tang

Directed
by Louis C.K.



Chris Rock
appears in both A.I. and Pootie Tang, but only the Spielberg film
justifies his lousy career. In A.I.’s Flesh Fair sequence Rock is
turned into an effigy–one of the discarded robots used as cannon fodder
in a destructo-derby cheered by working-class citizens whom the future has reduced
to howling maniacs. Giving the people what they want (their debased tastes not
far from current, end-of-days pop audiences), Rock’s automaton is shot
through a ring of fire and into our (David’s) face. It’s an horrific
image: charred, flayed, spooked–a "lynching image," critic Gregory
Solman suggested. Rock’s regular resemblance to old-time stereotypes is
made a throwback with terrifying cultural resonance. He uncannily resembles
Emmett Till, the infamous bloodsport of a 1950s race-murder. Not out of place,
this adds gravity to A.I.’s parable about faith outlasting cultural
dehumanization. It’s Spielberg’s most audacious ploy since Amistad’s
insurrection scene. Millennial court jester Rock frequently uses social inequity
to make audiences grin. With Spielberg’s backing, he dares them to bear
it.


Funny in fits,
Pootie Tang’s cartoonish send-up of blaxploitation iconography–catnip
to today’s dumbest hiphop–isn’t progress, it’s a stepin
fetchit back. It puts into the culture exactly the kind of low-grade black caricatures
that the film’s producer Chris Rock has made money from, jovially justifying
racial profiling. Comedian Lance Crouther (a better actor than Rock) gets high
on pimpology playing Pootie Tang, a superhero pimp figure, a ghetto Austin Powers
who mumbles jive talk with supreme confidence ("Sine Your Pitty on the
Runny Kine"). Dressed in patent leather pants, big horn-rimmed glasses
and wearing a thick-braided ponytail, Pootie’s just a sketch idea searching
for a screenplay.


Best scene:
flashing back to a prepubescent Pootie. Director Louis C.K. slowly pans–Scorsese-style–to
a closeup of the mannish boy so ridiculously portentous it puts all hiphop preciosity
(from Kriss Kross to Spike Lee) in hilarious perspective. Crouther, Rock and
C.K.’s love-hate of black silliness remains ambiguous but venal. Every
scene is narrated and introduced with chyrons–suspicious of the audience’s
intelligence and attention span. It’s rare for a studio and network (MTV)
to sponsor a film that’s both too ghetto for the room and too ghetto for
anybody’s good. The silly black caricatures feel as anthropomorphic as
the new Cats & Dogs. Wanda Sykes (a young LaWanda Page) costars (in
red, blue, purple wigs) as the big-hearted ho, Biggie Shortie–or B.S. for
short. Appropriately.



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