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.

"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

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?"

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.

 

Set in a near-future world half-drowned by melted ice caps and increasingly dependent on android intelligence, Spielberg's latest reflexive allegory begins with the director--in the form of William Hurt's aptly smug Professor Hobby--wondering aloud whether it's possible to build a big-budget robot that can actually love. (You'd think his Hook would've answered the question definitively.) Enter the angelic Haley Joel Osment, who, like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan, is entrusted to provide some good old-fashioned star power in order to ease the burden of all that "realism."

Trouble is, Osment's immaculately conceived child-replacement "mecha," whose rather telling first comment to his new parents (Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards) is, "I like your floor," seems more creepy than cute throughout--one of several Kubrickian elements that Spielberg strains to make palatable but can't. And while the director tries to honor his mentor by avoiding the emotional highs of mega-hits such as E.T.("challenging" for Spielberg means dreary, if not boring), there's nevertheless a constant disconnect in A.I. between the filmmaker's sense of the profundity of the material and the shocking emptiness--or artificiality--of what's actually on screen.

In interviews, Spielberg has spoken of having tried to include as much of "Stanley" in the movie as possible, and indeed the all-digital panoramas of the Manhattan skyline--with the Statue of Liberty up to her neck in ocean--do match the color sketches that Kubrick commissioned in the Eighties. But it's hard to imagine the maker of The Shining bathing A.I.'s domestic scenes in heavenly backlighting, as Spielberg does here, or lathering on John Williams's latest syrupy score for maximum sentimentality, or allowing an omniscient narrator to summarize the movie's themes lest we kids in the audience get scared or confused or listless. (God forbid the viewer should be allowed to decide for herself what the film is about.) Spielberg gives of Stanley with one hand and airbrushes his image with the other, resulting in a movie that not only lacks the unified vision of either director, but casts the fierce ambiguity of a legendary artist as another grave crisis to be resolved. (If Spielberg wanted to "explain" Stanley Kubrick, he should have directed 2010 in 1984.)

What A.I. does understand, perfectly, is family dynamics--or, at least, demographics. The story of Osment's young David, including his struggle to move from one stage of compliant conformity into another, is, like most Spielberg fables, an apparent cinch to lure kids of all ages. Adopted siblings will get a special charge from the director's harrowing scenes of fraternal competition between the wimpy robot and his parents' blood-related son (Jake Thomas), miraculously cured of a crippling disease and eager for preferential treatment. And what father couldn't relate to the secret, threatening bond that develops between mother and child? What mom would fail to see herself in the O'Connor character's frustration with her failure to control little David's every action? Still, the early "joke" of the mecha walking in on Mom while she's perched on the toilet introduces a level of near-sexual unease--likely inherited from Kubrick--that Spielberg proceeds to handle with unwont awkwardness, as if he were desperate to find the laugh track. And once fickle Mom decides to dump the unruly David in the middle of a forest (talk about separation anxiety), female viewers will need to look elsewhere for identification--but not, alas, to the mecha's mass-produced counterpart, Darlene, who never comes out of the box.

Left with only his fuzzy companion Teddy, a "supertoy" whose ironic status as the film's most sympathetic and intelligent character seems to go unnoticed by Spielberg, David wanders the wilderness and decides that his mission, per Pinocchio, is to prove that he's a "real boy." In this, his Jiminy Cricket is an even more effeminate "love mecha" known as Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), whom he meets when the two are thrown into an android concentration camp that doubles as a carnival sideshow for the redneck anti-technology crowd. By default, this nightmarish "flesh fair" is A.I.'s most deeply felt set piece, fearfully imagined by Spielberg as a cross between Ozzfest and a monster truck show--if not the multiplex on opening night, teeming with humanity. Not surprisingly, the billionaire visionary appears much more at home in Professor Hobby's tastefully appointed corporate boardroom than with the hordes in stadium seating. Which is to say that when David locates the missing father in what looks like an office showroom at Restoration Hardware, it's a happy ending--or, rather, the first of a half-dozen happy endings. (Stop reading now if you don't want to know the other five.)

If A.I. seems programmed to perpetuate the comforting male myth of reproduction without the mother, poor David--feeling "real," after all--can't resist the urge to win back the love of the one who abandoned him. So, with the help of the ceramic Blue Fairy (small wonder Spielberg's perfect female is a perpetually smiling statue) and a band of benevolent extraterrestrials (this is the point in the movie where the risk of giggling is greatest), our robot hero miraculously reunites with Mom--but only for a day. Then (I told you there were a half-dozen endings, right?), the mecha crawls into bed and falls asleep like a good little boy. Fully actualized only when he's passive and unconscious, David, his eyes shut tight, journeys to "that place where dreams are born"--otherwise known as DreamWorks™. As Kubrick said of Schindler's List, A.I. is "about success"--although, at least relative to E.T., the grosses may tell another story.

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