In A.I. the surrogate child’s pre-programmed love for his human adoptive mother sets a tone for the film’s affective register. Love in all its mind-blocking, sentimental naivety is stubbornly acted through—like a program.
In A.I. the Flesh Fair sequence reworks elements of the concentration camp in Schindler’s List, the slave ship in Amistad, and the landing sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
Much like David in A.I., the boy protagonist of Empire of the Sun is victimized by history, infected by a delirious techno-mysticism, refused the possibility of being just a boy, and thus left not knowing quite who he is.
History is the “list of death.” But cinema can rewrite it and miraculously turn it into a “list of life” which takes care of victims of modernization.
In his 1990s films such as Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg focuses on moments of the characters’ suffering and also .....
.... on what remains from humans who have suffered violent actions.
The following is a tentative exploration of affinities between Steven Spielberg’s and Siegfried Kracauer’s conceptions of cinema and memory. This filmmaker and this cultural theorist have missed each other in the histories of film and theory, but the visibility of concepts in Spielberg and the concepts of visibility in Kracauer echo each other. My point is not, however, that Spielberg is in any way “influenced” by Kracauer. In general, I am not drawing on notions of linearity and causality as they inform culturally hegemonic ways of understanding history, its temporality and its cinematic images. Rather, my emphasis is on memory: on cultural memory and cinema’s contribution to it. The empathetic and affective aspects of cinematic memory; questions of survival and redemption, as they are posed by the history of modernization; the possibility to reevaluate reification and the love for “things”—these are key concepts and perspectives I will employ. My essay offers an interpretive reading of Spielberg with Kracauer (and vice versa) and of Spielberg’s role in blockbuster culture from the vantage point of A.I.—Artificial Intelligence (2001).
In an article on Spielberg’s A.I.—Artificial Intelligence, philosopher of language John R. Searle accuses the film of missing the point of the research field of A.I.: In his view, Spielberg´s film creates the impression that science is on the brink of creating machines with a consciousness. However, research on artificial intelligence, Searle asserts, has only striven for computerized simulations of human intelligence. Some film critics also disconnect Spielberg’s film from concepts of intelligence. To critic Kent Jones, A.I. shows once again that Spielberg’s intelligence is just “typically American know-how.” The spiritual dimension of intelligence, he implies, rather belongs to Stanley Kubrick from whom Spielberg took over the A.I. film project at an early stage. According to Jones, Kubrick placed his project “in the hands of someone he knew to be utterly incapable of grasping the problems it posed”; still, every image in the film is “haunted by Kubrick’s genius.” In his review of A.I., J. Hoberman poses a similar dilemma: “Does the artifice belong to Spielberg and the intelligence to Kubrick?“
It’s easy to find Spielberg’s films simple-minded. It’s also easy to see a lot of intelligence in Kubrick’s, especially since many of his films take up the theme of intelligence. Kubrick’s films deal with intelligence by analyzing its cultural-technological artificiality—from evolutionary quantum leaps into using tools and computers to trained short-circuits of reasoning and to a boy’s sixth sense, back then referred to as “shining.” Spielberg’s films, on the other hand, can be cast as notoriously retrogressive and romantic. A.I. is so obviously not about questions of robotics and neurosciences, a more adequate title might have been Artificial Love. The problematic gift which robot-boy David is blessed with is, after all, not his outstanding intelligence, but his capability to love. The surrogate-child’s pre-programmed love for his human adoptive mother sets the tone for the film’s affective register; love, in all its mind-blocking, sentimental naivety, is stubbornly acted through—like a program.
To dissolve the deadlocked opposition of (artificial) intelligence and love, I propose to take a larger look at how Spielberg conceives relations between cinema and love. His filmmaking involves an intelligence radically different from what Jones called a pragmatics of “know how.” My discussion of Spielbergian intelligence does not relate to a man/author but to a cinematically defined project recognizable in global mass culture by Spielberg’s name. To make an argument about his specifically cinematic kind of intelligence, I will make detours through Spielberg’s conceptions of history and memory and discuss his affinities with the film-aesthetics of Siegfried Kracauer before taking us back to Spielberg’s love with a difference.
Intelligence can be basically described as the ability to understand. In Spielberg, the ability to understand means to understand and sympathize or rather empathize with others. To convey this kind of intelligence, Spielberg relies on the blockbuster – a type of film that appeals to most audiences and is as universally easily understood as it is globally profitable (A.I.’s relative box-office failure notwithstanding). Most blockbusters, especially Spielberg’s, are upgraded versions of a cinematic mode that has proven to be most reliable when it comes to ensuring the audience’s ease of understanding and empathy: the Hollywood genre movie. Hollywood blockbusters provide recognition value: their mode of address relies on a stereotyped audiovisual shorthand, but also on spectacle and affect, which is undergirded by cinema’s phenomenology of “affection by attraction.” That is, film can provoke understanding through empathy as a function of its capacity to provide sensual stimulation to the audience’s perceiving bodies.
Seen this way, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) relies not only on sentiment and melodrama but also on its mobilizing near-compulsive mimetic emotions. These are the means it uses to unlocking apathetic indifference towards Jewish suffering in favor of something close to empathy in the film-consuming public spheres—even German and Austrian ones. This is not to underestimate the value of an audience’s gaining understanding through being “touched” by images and sounds, and having empathy generated in the sensual dialogue of the film experience, in the sense that Vivian Sobchack describes the phenomenology of film. There is more at stake—more “intelligence” involved—than just the audience’s reflex response. It is even more than the “reflex of sympathy” which film critic Merten Worthmann sees triggered by A.I.
Spielberg uses the intelligence contained in genre and affect in quite specific ways. He brings to contemporary Hollywood a concept of temporality and subjectivity not frequently found in U.S. genre cinema. The latter is predominantly pragmatic in orientation. It celebrates the attractiveness and sheer presence of problem-solving human action taking place in the here and now and directed at future goals. In contrast, Spielberg not only focuses on moments of the characters’ suffering and inability to act, but particularly in his 1990s films also on what remains from humans who have suffered violent actions. Spielberg´s orientation toward these remains disengages genre cinema’s intelligence from its usual pragmatics of an embodied consciousness active in present space, and instead links the cinematic image to culturally mediated memory. One might argue that many recent Hollywood blockbusters manifest an obsession with memory, especially with the remembrance of disastrous historical events. If blockbuster sensibility can be seen as turning to appropriations of the past and its most critical moments, Spielberg´s recent work—especially after the meaning-effects produced and symbolic capital accumulated by Schindler’s List—is paradigmatic to this turn.
Redemption from oblivion
Spielberg understands memory as offering a possibility for redemption. His concept of the relation of cinema and memory is close to the “redemption of physical reality” from the destructive course of history. This concept was articulated by Siegfried Kracauer in his aesthetics and phenomenology of film and re-evaluated in recent work by Heide Schleupmann, Gertrud Koch, and above all, Miriam Hansen. To Kracauer, film has the potential to form a cultural memory based on perception instead of on narrative. The cultural memory unique to film remains outside, even opposes the teleological mainstream of history. To be more specific, cinematic memory can oppose a historical dynamic determined by “grand narratives” and disciplinary forces of modernization. Film’s images can redeem material fragments of everyday life from oblivion; they can confront us, to the point of bodily encounter, with the detritus of reality left behind and neglected by ruling powers of history.
According to Kracauer’s version of realism, realist film breaks with modes of narrative closure, psychological motivation and centered subjectivity (the very aspects which contemporary film studies regard as “realist” in the classical Hollywood sense). This realism allows cinematic memory to gather up modernity’s waste product which is, as Heide Schleupmann insists, still modernity’s product. This means that film can affect our senses with images of a life that does not fit into the streamlined continuity of rationalization. To put it differently, in more Foucauldian terms: film can contribute to a memory of dispersed moments of potential resistance to disciplinary “bio-power.” Kracauer insists on film’s potential for alienation, for shifting a mass public away from normalized modes of perception. His view of film is thus linked to his concept of history, which he understands as a mode of experience rather than as a way of making meaning by narrative closure. In Kracauer, history provides for near-sensual encounters with a past which is indeterminate and in ruins and which eludes the grasp of teleological narratives.
In the context of my argument, it is important that Kracauer attributes film’s capacity to encapsulate memory not only to neorealism with its attention to the dispersed details of an unbearable everyday life, but also to Hollywood´s sensation-oriented genres. He refers to slapstick comedy with its affinity to the undetermined and fortuitous, and to the way thrillers, war and disaster movies toy with somatic perceptions of horror. In this latter respect, Kracauer’s 1960 Theory of Film is a liberalized version of the radical sensualism articulated in his unpublished notes to this book. In his 1940 notes, as interpreted by Miriam Hansen, Kracauer saw film as seizing “the human being with skin and hair,” which is why “[t]he ‘ego’ of the human being assigned to film is subject to permanent dissolution, is incessantly exploded by material phenomena.”
We might compare this statement to the landing-sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). This sequence plunges its audiences into a cinematic immersion in 20th century’s destructive materiality. It exemplifies a sensualist aesthetics which highlights some of the affinities between Kracauer’s and Spielberg’s conceptions of history, memory and film aesthetics. A.I. does not explode our sensorium in this manner, but equally partakes in Spielberg’s blockbuster-version of cinematic memory as escape/redemption from the history of modernization. While Saving Private Ryan provokes empathy with the experiences of disciplined bodies threatened with mass destruction through modern warfare, A.I. deals with destructive effects of disciplinary modernization itself. The fact that this film appears like a science fiction-version of Pinocchio does not contradict such an interpretation. Pinocchio—the late 19th century novel which in Kubrick’s drafts to A.I.’s script provided a guideline for the robot-boy’s quest for self-knowledge—can be read socially as narrating the effects of industrial and pedagogical discipline on an instrumentalized docile body.
Spielberg’s words here might be understood as calling A.I. a children’s movie. Given the wide-spread prejudice against this type of film, it would be easy to use such a definition as an argument for the “lack of intelligence” that some critics see in A.I. But Spielberg’s statement also might imply that A.I. extends certain kinds of experience and subjectivity predominant in his 1990s films to the universe of children. A.I. once again shows that the memorialization of holocaust-survival is paradigmatic to Spielberg’s conception of memory and history. In particular, the “Flesh Fair“-sequence in A.I. reworks elements of the concentration camp in Schindler’s List, the slave-ship in Amistad (1997) and the landing-sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The Flesh Fair articulates in spectacular terms, invoking the aesthetics of cyberpunk, a master race’s deporting a minority, denying human rights to commodified living beings, and threatening horrifying physical dismemberment. Spielberg’s closest precursor to the confused robot-boy amid the Flesh Fair’s baroque architecture and destructive technological wizardry is, however, the kid protagonist of an earlier Spielbergian attempt at dealing with traumatic moments of World War II: the British boy in the Japanese internment camp of Empire of the Sun (1987). Much like David, that child is victimized by history, infected by delirious techno-mysticism, refused the possibility of being just a boy and thus left not quite knowing who he is.
In Spielberg’s world, being human means living a problematic identity since people face the threat of being turned into expendable things. Seen another way, what does not fit into the historical course of rationalization-as-reification is the surplus of life within the thing, its suffering, need for love and protection. The living thing is in danger of a neglect which film has to counter. Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. acknowledge the traumatizing impact of a historical dynamic that leads to reification on a mass-scale. The rupture which the Shoah marks within disciplinary bio-power’s historical rationality is as paradigmatic for Spielberg as it is for Kracauer. In both Spielberg´s film and Kracauer´s reading of the philosophy of history through film aesthetics, the problem of surviving mass destruction is posed in terms of a crisis of memory. History appears as a narrative of destruction and loss; it cannot account for its victims and their experiences of suffering in a way suited to create empathetic memory. The creation of empathetic, affective memory is the key role of popular cinema. Cinematic memory can wrestle anecdotal “micro-narratives” of rescue and survival from the grand narratives of history. It can keep reification from producing nothing but oblivion by testifying to the life contained within the thing. The affirmation of cinema´s redemptive power over history becomes a tangible image in Spielberg´s films. History is the “list of death.” Cinema, however, can rewrite it and, almost miraculously, turn it into a “list of life” which takes care of the victims of modernization.
Both Kracauer and Spielberg see the modern mass-subject as having been uprooted from bourgeois definitions of being human. Modernization breaks with notions of organic, individual, self-evident personhood. With David, the robot-boy, this kind of radically modernized subjectivity is projected into a future (our present) in which life is really—not just formally—subsumed under technological capital. As A.I.’s tagline “His love is real. But he is not,” puts it, David is a thing and therefore not a real boy. But his suffering from the need for love is all-too real. This grants the thing a degree of reality which is problematic. The “realism” of the living, loving thing means that we cannot rely on binary differentiations between the truth of humans and the falsity of things.