The Spielberg, AI and I

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(On Facebook today a group of friends all took the AFI Top 100 Quiz, so, naturally I did too. The result was that I have apparently seen 90 out of the Top 100 Films as listed by the AFI. Two of Ten films that I have not seen happened to be Steven Spielberg films. And not just any Spielberg films: Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. From there a discussion started up on why I am not a big fan of Spielberg and so I pulled out this old article I wrote back in 2003 about my changing feelings for him as a Filmmaker. Since I pulled it out and I have been lax on contributing here and it is vaguely relevant to our discussions here I thought it might be worthwhile to post it here as well.)

Right or wrong, I haven't paid or gone out of my way to see a Steven Spielberg movie since "Jurassic Park". And that was a rather disappointing experience in itself (and this is without even getting into what he did to the sequel). I bring this up mainly because of "AI". I am a bit conflicted on whether or not I want to go see it.

"AI" is his posthumous collaboration with the late Stanley Kubrick. A sweeping futuristic tale about a robot child that is programmed to love - thus the AI of the title: Artificial Intelligence. Truthfully, though, I am not sure what 'Intelligence', artificial or otherwise, has to do with love. At least not based on the way it is portrayed in our popular media.

Maybe the release of "Pootie Tang" will redefine that for us, I don't know. I do know, however, that my experience with love ("Wuv..... twue wuv......") has little to do with what is portrayed in the majority of the TV shows, movies and songs that bombard us on a daily basis.

I used to love (there is that word, again) Spielberg films. Or more correctly, I was deeply worshipful of anything with which he was involved. Even though I cannot stand to sit through a viewing of "E.T." anymore, at one time I felt that that was about as good as a movie could possibly get. A 'film by Steven Spielberg' was the Holy Grail. Of course you understand this was back in the late 70's and early 80's. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (recently retitled "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" by Emperor Lucas), "Jaws", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (both versions) and "1941" were my manna. They were my lifeblood. I would read Time Magazine praising the Spielberg double punch of "E.T." and "Poltergeist", and would accept it as scripture (Tobe Hooper who?).

I don't know what happened, or when I outgrew him, but with each release I got less and less excited. I had hope for "Jurassic Park". In retrospect, I maybe shouldn't have read the book first. There were a lot of issues that Michael Crichton brought up that I found, at the time, quite compelling. In fact, the rampant dinosaurs were basically an analogy to science run amok (yeah, I figured that one out all by my lonesome). Whereas in the movie, science run amok was basically an excuse to have a lot of cool scenes of Dinosaurs stalking and eating people.

So, why don't I like Spielberg films anymore? Is it the self-important, politically correct, preachiness and the treacley, picture book world view?

Most likely.

In the book "Jurassic Park", the character played by Richard Attenborough was an extremely unpleasant industrialist billionaire, who died a painful and deserved death. This, albeit, a relatively PC portrayal of rich industrialist types, was keeping in line strictly with the thesis that Crichton was putting forth in the book. In the movie, he was a rich, kindly old man whose dreams and passions led him blindly to make some grave mistakes without thinking things through properly, putting those he loved at danger's door. He of course lived to the end of the movie, to embrace his grand-children again, to repent of his evil ways and to be back lit in lush jungle colors. In effect, the book had a cold glinting steel edge of smartness sewn into it, while the movie had over-emotional dumbness layered onto it like a french pastry.

I guess it goes back to "The Color Purple" and "Always", two movies that I have not seen (amongst others). I read all of the pre-release hype on "Purple". It was an important movie. It was an event film. It was polarizing the critics. It was educational. And I wasn't interested. It was a hard hitting, dramatic adaptation of the book by Alice Walker, detailing the rough life and relationships of a turn of the century, rural black woman? By the man who brought us "E.T."? And it brought us Whoopi Goldberg. I just was not interested. I will eventually see the movie (I have seen bits and pieces of it here and there, but not all of it, all the way through in one sitting), but I think I would like to read the book through first.

With "Always", my impression was: 'true love is wonderful, but out of sight out of mind'. Richard Dreyfus and Holly Hunter are deeply in love, they were meant for each other. Dreyfus dies tragically and comes back as a ghost to help Hunter fall in love with his replacement. I guess they were meant for each other, too. Isn't it great that both of her true loves just happened to have the same job, one right after the other. I've not seen the movie, so I don't know if that is an accurate summary, but that was my impression. I have always been of the supposition that in Hollywood, 'True Love' is like riding a horse, when you fall off, best to get right back on. No need waiting around. (For a great movie that deals with the same theme, see “Truly, Madly Deeply”, with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.)

I believe that I am a fairly open-minded filmgoer. I have pretty wide ranging tastes, and generally like most anything. In real life I am not nearly as critical as I appear to be here. But, I draw the line on emotional strong arm tactics. I dislike being treated like a child (even when I am one). I demand to be respected as a viewer, and do not appreciate being preached to and force fed obviousness. Though I am not a big fan of Stanley Kubrick, I do respect the faith he has in his audience to reach their own conclusion on the issues presented to them. That, in my opinion, is the sign of a mature artist.

And I repeatedly fail to find that quality in films by Steven Spielberg. I have, however, been continually bludgeoned about the head by his misplaced sentimentality. In "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", a movie that I loved as a teen, we are asked quite pointedly to identify with a man that abandons his family, home, job and life, all for a dream. This would be a great romantic notion if, in retrospect, it wasn't such a heinous and disagreeable action. But in the movie, it is portrayed as a noble calling. And it is trumpeted as such with loud, intergalactic trumpets.

He is a great and visionary director. I do not disagree with that statement. He has skill and ability that I could never hope to have. And it is his right to make his movies any way that he chooses. So, will I see "AI"?

Most likely, but I am in no hurry.

I fully expect to be disappointed based on the subject matter alone and Steven Spielberg's involvement. Can you program "love" (parental, filial, romantic or whathaveyou)? Only if you can program free choice, sacrifice, devotion and charity. In a word, in my world, "no".

Love isn't a switch that can be flipped on by reciting a non-sense phrase. And even when we, as humans, convince ourselves that it is ("But, she said that she loved me..."), it generally ends up poorly. If there is a story to really explore there, in the underlying theme of "AI", it is probably in the ambiguous nature of love and how we try to fool ourselves into believing it exists where it cannot, and not in the search of a machine for someone to love it in return.