Spielberg’s A.I. Dares Viewers to Remember and Accept the Part of Themselves that Is Capable of Feeling

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


Back
to the womb in A.I., Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg probes
affections that get callused over with age, forgetfulness and cultural habit.
It’s the most profound treatment of a child’s life since Terence Davies’
The Long Day Closes. More than Spielberg’s other films, it dares viewers
to remember and accept the part of themselves that is capable of feeling–a
real risk these days. A.I. goes so openly and deeply into beneficent emotions
it is bound to scare off pseudo-sophisticates–people who think it’s
progress to forget they were ever children. That’s usually just a way of
denying pure, uncomplicated emotion. A.I. proves it’s small-minded
to think that art should only be about conflicted feelings. It’s equally
foolish to assume Spielberg views childhood without complication.

David
(Haley Joel Osment) is a mechanical child built to provide succor for a young
couple, Monica and Henry (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), grieving over
the impending death of their biological child. Exceeding its manufacturer’s
design, the robot starts to long for genuine feeling. The scientist (William Hurt)
who wired him for the useful affectation of sentiment professed a personal stake
in how children of the media-saturated era have had their instincts dulled, programmed,
desensitized. This makes David an ideal representative of an over-mechanized age.

Though
set in a plausibly projected future (after an ice-cap meltdown has submerged the
coastal U.S. cities), David’s story moves through scenes–adventures–that
marvelously represent youth’s stages of awakening. He experiences cultural
confusion, seeks the solace of true feeling but is bemused by the mystery of private
emotion–the very things coarsened and derided by today’s pop culture,
especially the movies. Advancing through ever-bewildering situations, David is
abandoned to homelessness, joins other flailing, fugitive robots–including
Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a mechanical sex hustler–and suffers privation and
abuse. Each narrative step is credibly dramatized, yet those scenes where David
enters his adopted home are spectral, quintessential Spielberg. Rendered as pre-K
fantasy, these sequences are primal–the paradise of family, of first education
and instinctively formed attachments. The glowing, futuristic domicile somehow
suggests one’s own past distilled, and this is the core of A.I.’s
miracle: Spielberg accepts and understands how human interaction, beginning in
childhood, fetishized through toys and storybooks, is common to the middle-class
American (if not universal) tradition of child-rearing and acculturation. He recalls
that period so warmly it’s startling; he reveals childhood’s secret
soul.

To
describe A.I.’s reverie as nostalgic would be inaccurate. Spielberg
modernizes childhood experience that’s usually coddled–distanced–as
fable. He investigates bedtime-story codes (even the ineffable affection toward
teddy bears!) because these things first stir human perception. David’s inquiry
into parental love (the bond he forms with Monica) and adult trust (holding onto
Gigolo Joe during a forest raid) perceives those connections freshly. ("I’m
sorry I never told you about the world," Monica apologizes.) He’s preternaturally
aware of the significance of everything he goes through but incapable of controlling
his fate. Like most of us, David’s self-consciousness–his emotional
intelligence–makes him poignant, a potentially tragic, restless figure. Even
when he competes with his human sibling Martin (Jake Thomas) in a dinner table
spinach-eating contest, the motivations for rivalry are no less unsettling for
being absolutely clear.

I’m
aware that A.I., in a way, presents a story of privilege; and those with
unhappy childhoods may not share Spielberg’s agape. But don’t reject
the film on specious political grounds as either "too white" or "too
bourgeois." In fact, I would not bet against folks from unfortunate, abused
childhoods still identifying with David’s quest for love and experiencing
his longing just as powerfully. The blessing of childhood sweetness is what’s
reified in A.I. Before one can become suspicious of that phenomenon, Spielberg
dares you to consider that it has nothing to do with class, and even transcends
gender. It is, above all, personal. A spiritual view of human need, if
you will. And that’s A.I.’s claim to global relevance.

Pop
entertainers are often demagogues, angling to make masses of people feel the same
shallow thing. But a true pop artist is a rare and different matter: Spielberg
works to make his deepest feelings understood. In David’s only encounter
with other children, he learns about the prospect of behavioral analogues–the
difference between Mechas and Orgas (mechanical or organic entities) who demonstrate
false or sincere conduct. These sci-fi suggestions of mysterious dread (Is David
malevolent? Are his designer or adopted parents selfish monsters?) are not the
heart of the movie–despite one irresistible trope of Buñuel-mocking
menace. Spielberg’s art–moments of indescribable goodness–rejects
the usual pessimistic sci-fi banality. He achieves Dreyerlike depth, Bressonian
loftiness simply by contemplating irreducible Love. Don’t short-change the
toy-filled premise. Spielberg heightens human need into pure feeling, and that
Mecha/Orga dichotomy keeps it rigorous.

 

Everyone’s
estimation of A.I. will depend on their interest in childhood mythology.

Will they accept that Spielberg–from The Sugarland Express to The
Color Purple
, from Hook to Amistad–is the one filmmaker
to sustain the link between fantasy and moral reckoning? Start with the film’s
audacious ad copy ("His love is real. But he is not"). It sets A.I.
apart from Hollywood’s mostly antipathetic films. Rather than indulging religiosity,
as Spielberg’s antireligious detractors charge, the movie phases into and
through religious parallels toward a spiritual essence. Every image (whether a
deceptive heavenly orb or Gigolo Joe’s facial planes resembling David Bowie’s
trompe l’oeil makeup in the Blue Jean video) forces us to question
the authenticity of things and feelings. Each part of David’s journey through
carnal and sexual universes into the final eschatological devastation becomes
as profoundly philosophical and contemplative as anything by cinema’s most
thoughtful, speculative artists–Borzage, Ozu, Demy, Tarkovsky. So what if
the project came via Kubrick? That’s both a red herring and good fortune.
Moments that Kubrick would have made cold and ugly are surpassed by Spielberg’s
richer truth–and that’s as it should be. (Besides, A.I.’s
not a Kubrick-only concept; Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man and M.
Night Shyamalan’s odious Unbreakable fumbled strikingly similar ideas.)
It’s Spielberg’s distinct sensibility that makes the difference. Rejecting
the cynical trickery some people prefer in drama, his A.I. is equal to
Kubrick’s finest work.

Here’s
a more apt analogy: imagine D.W. Griffith (master of popular spectacle and emotional
affect) remaking Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (a rare semiotic
exercise that was also a mainstream reverie). Spielberg’s uses of enchantment
(pace Bruno Bettelheim) elucidate age-old affective responses to tales like Pinocchio,
Hansel & Gretel
, The Snow Queen, Night of the Hunter. The
story is as sophisticated as the erotic deconstruction in The Company of Wolves
but, conveying Spielberg’s personal expressiveness, it searches beyond academic
rationale.

Think
of A.I. as a way of reinterpreting–and transforming–Pinocchio.
The plot follows childhood’s agitated state of grace (like Jim’s
in Empire of the Sun). But the "resilience" of children (as Truffaut
specified it in Small Change) gets desentimentalized here. It’s a
state-of-being unrelated to age: innocence. As David flies through the red-light
wonderland of Rouge City or is enslaved at the Flesh Fair (a public destruction
orgy cruelly testing the Mecha/Orga opposition while surprisingly encapsulating
the decadent pathology of Cronenberg’s Crash), his tabula rasa consciousness
survives all turmoil. He’s Pinocchio as "Nature Boy" (his wish
to be real essentially a desire to be loved); a state-of-being–and song–crudely
misunderstood in Angel Eyes and Moulin Rouge, recent movies that
only pretended grownup sensitivity.

Through
David, A.I. pursues the inner world of metaphor, intuition and dream. (Note
David’s symbiotic relation to Teddy, his Jiminy Cricket companion. It’s
too mechanical to be "magic," yet too dear to be trite.) Spielberg reaches
back to his own pop-mythological obsessions. Disney’s "Once Upon a Dream"
is heard in Martin’s hospital; David wanders through an enchanted woods evoking
Hawthorne, the Brothers Grimm, even E.T. (and an astonishing moonlight
sequence rivals the imminence of Close Encounter’s mothership). Few
instances of humanist filmmaking have been so immersed in pop mythology, or conveyed
dreaming so intensely.

Cinematographer
Janusz Kaminski helps by suggesting the inexplicable twinkling of light into color,
while John Williams’ best score since The Fury modulates delicate
emotional changes. And Haley Joel Osment provides exactly what is needed. Casting
Osment (creepy in The Sixth Sense and unbearably precocious in Pay It
Forward
) was ingenious. He achieves amazing transparency in A.I. This
looks like the most artless screen performance I have ever seen; David’s
naive conviction matches Tim Holt’s pathos in The Magnificent Ambersons.
Contrived to detach us from sentimentality, Osment’s performance does what
the past two decades of teen movies could not–it cleanses our self-recognition
of any immodesty.

There’s
been nothing in modern movies more grownup or sensitive than David’s fascination
with his sexy young mother. It’s as if Spielberg took that key image from
Bergman’s Persona (of the small boy reaching up to the huge opaque
image of Woman) and interpreted it from the inside out. Suspended in fascination,
Spielberg introduces Monica applying her makeup–a vanity gesture shared with
a female robot. Yet, where another filmmaker would stop at obvious irony, Spielberg
dissolves/resolves ironies in love. This view nearly shuts out the father–Freud
is both acknowledged and crushed by Spielberg’s awe at that first relationship,
the most powerful and baffling in everyone’s life. A.I. analyzes how
one loves by fathoming the need for love. "Are those happy tears?" David
asks his distraught mother. In such moments, A.I.’s unprecedented
combination of curiosity and intimacy is breathtaking.


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