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