Saving Stanley Kubrick

With A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg tries to rescue the world's most elusive filmmaker from an unhappy ending

Forget the meaning of that bone hurtling into orbit in 2001, or what those ghoulish twins were doing unchaperoned in the corridors of The Shining's Overlook Hotel. The real mystery of Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre is why such an exacting filmmaker would bequeath his long-planned A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Steven Spielberg, his aesthetic opposite.

A possible clue to this riddle emerges in Eyes Wide Open, screenwriter Frederic Raphael's memoir of his years spent toiling on the script of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. In one of the innumerable long-distance conversations-cum-chess-matches recounted by Raphael, the control-freak auteur obliquely complains about the bevy of Jewish signifiers in the author's latest draft. A prostitute character sounds to him like Barbra Streisand. The New York dialogue "kinda goes boom-boom and a boom-boom" (as in borscht belt shtick?). And an unspecified chat between two of the Gentile protagonists as they walk down the street and recede into the frame--the sort that would gently conclude a typical Hollywood scene--strikes the director as an unconscious admission that a "coupla Jews" like him and Raphael simply wouldn't know what "those people" might be discussing in private.

And then Kubrick drops the big one. "The Holocaust, what do you think?" Raphael stalls a moment. "As a subject for a movie. Can it be done?" The director's insinuation, of course, is that it hasn't been done; his strategy, akin to briefly exposing one's queen in order to snatch a few pawns, compels the writer to offer some examples from film history and then await their swift dismissal. Proposing the French documentary Night and Fog and a Polish obscurity called Passenger, Raphael withholds mention of the cinematic gantseh megilleh until, finally, he has no choice. "Well, there's [Spielberg's] Schindler's List, isn't there?" "Think that was about the Holocaust?" teases Kubrick, reaching for his rook. "That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List was about six hundred people who don't. Anything else?"

"Real" compared to what? Haley Joel Osment with the Hollywood machinery in A.I. Artificial Intelligence
"Real" compared to what? Haley Joel Osment with the Hollywood machinery in A.I. Artificial Intelligence

If Stanley Kubrick was a man who left nothing to chance in the creation of art devoted to extreme ambiguity, Steven Spielberg is a middle-aged boy who leaves no room for ambiguity in the making of extreme entertainment devoted to soothing what ails. Love (Always), war (Saving Private Ryan), racism (The Color Purple), slavery (Amistad), aging (Twilight Zone--The Movie), genetic cloning (Jurassic Park), parental responsibility (Close Encounters), absentee fatherhood (E.T.), unproven machismo (Jaws), international trade (Raiders of the Lost Ark), even the Holocaust: Spielberg shrewdly restores order to the known universe again and again, neatly resolving each of humanity's biggest problems in two or three hours tops. In a way, Spielberg only does what any dutiful contract director would want to do: He turns the multiplex into a temple, a sacred place where wounds are healed, sins are forgiven, and dreams are fulfilled. But it's the severity of both pain and recuperation in his movies, and the overwhelming authority with which the two conditions are rendered, that makes him the reigning master of movie escapism, the Dr. Feelgood of American cinema.

With so few obvious illnesses left to cure, the prospect of saving Stanley Kubrick from his reputation as a heartless enigma must have been irresistible to the most successful filmmaker in history. Besides, this undisputed blockbuster champ has nursed a serious case of auteur envy even before casting François Truffaut in Close Encounters, a movie for which he insisted on receiving sole screenwriting credit--his own close encounters with Paul Schrader notwithstanding. A.I.'s script is also credited entirely to Spielberg, who took control of the project after having received Kubrick's blessing in a conversation that no one but the DreamWorker can claim to have heard. According to Spielberg, the unlikely friends had spoken about the technical challenges of the picture; Kubrick, who found it a technical challenge to leave his house, apparently wished to try being a Hollywood player from his home office, proposing to produce the picture with Spielberg behind the camera. (For what it's worth, Kubrick's brother-in-law and executive producer since 1975, Jan Harlan, exec-produced A.I. after passing the deceased's story treatment along to Spielberg, and has dutifully corroborated his new employer's recollections.)

So the would-be raider of lost art was, it seems, an invited guest in the private study of the most elusive filmmaker in the world. How convenient for the creation of another reassuring fairy tale. But assuming for the moment that the director of 2001 had indeed extended such a generous invitation to the director of Close Encounters, what could Kubrick have hoped to gain in the bargain? Would the satisfaction of exposing Spielberg as a narrow-minded peddler of conservative mythology have been enough? Maybe: After all, A.I. is a damn funny movie, albeit unintentionally so. Given that Schindler's List had frustrated the reclusive perfectionist into canceling his own long-planned Holocaust epic, Kubrick fans might like to imagine that his "gift" of A.I. was actually a vengeful ploy to reveal the artificial intelligence of one Steven Spielberg.

As usual, Kubrick isn't talking. (Call it another sign of the director's supreme control that not even death could significantly alter his methods--or his productivity.) Also as usual, Spielberg owns the rights to this behind-the-scenes material, and will likely take them to the grave. (Call it another sign of his control that scarcely anyone has questioned the official story of A.I.'s origins.) So that leaves us with just two pieces of evidence: First is the knowledge, confirmed by Eyes Wide Shut, that Kubrick was ruthless, exacting, and ingenious to the end, even to the degree that his own fatal heart attack just days after screening the movie's "final cut" seemed calculated for effect; and second is A.I., which opened last week to reports of paying audiences howling with inappropriate laughter. Kubrick based his early treatment of the film on a Brian Aldiss short story called "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long." But something tells me that Spielberg's super-toy won't.

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