2002, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Cinema
issue no. 45 <http://www.ejumpcut.org>
Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence as Redemptive Memory of Things
by Drehli Robnik
To a consciousness that suspects it has been abandoned by human beings, objects are superior. (Theodor W. Adorno)
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 “influence” 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 “thing”—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).The intelligence of Spielberg’s blockbusters
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 conciousness. 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 pose”; 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 “touche” 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 “intelligenc” involved—than just the audience’s reflex response. It is even more than the “reflex of sympath” 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.
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 realit” from the destructive course of history, a concept articulated by Siegfried Kracauer in his aesthetics and phenomenology of film. 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 narrati” 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 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 phenome“
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.
Between Schindler and Ryan, I had a lot of complaints from my kids that Iím not making movies for them anymore. I think A.I. is a movie for my own kids.
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 intelligenc” 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 Fai“-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-narrative” 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 l” 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 “real” of the living, loving thing means that we cannot rely on binary differentiations between the truth of humans and the falsity of things.
With their criticism of A.I., some reviewers take part in a discourse which objects to the confusion of categories between human and thing; they reassert an ontology of the genuinely human. For instance, Worthmann writes,
In a peculiar way, the devotion to the sensing piece of progress is at odds with the current debate on evolutionary post-humanism. Without much ado, Spielberg sides with the Things to Come; what he celebrates about his favored object is, however, just something genuinely human: the capability to desire, far beyond reality.”
Worthmann seemingly objects to the lack of a reference point from which to judge the robot’s non-identity:
Instead of holding the mirror of a machine run hot up to the cold [humans] for the purpose of self-recognition, [Spielberg] digs in with his sweet little doll, all self-sufficient in plaything-paradise.
To Roger Ebert, things are more simple:
[b]ecause the robot does not genuinely love. It genuinely only seems to love. We are expert at projecting human emotions into non-human subjects, from animals to clouds to computer games, but the emotions reside only in our minds.
This criticism manifests a near-platonic insistence on essential, indivisible human properties similar to Searle’s argument: intelligence, love, emotions are all “ours” To reject the robot’s subjectivity as an illegitimate pretension (“projectio”) is to reassure oneself about self-identity, including melancholic self-recognition. To denounce the copy reinforces the model’s (humanity’s) power and self-sufficiency. As Ebert puts it:
‘What responsibility does a human have to a robot that genuinely loves?’ the film asks, and the answer is: none.
These critiques mirror Vivian Sobchack’s argument about two earlier Spielberg films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.—The Extraterrestrial (1982). To her these films exemplify a “conservative humanis” in postmodern science fiction, holding up a human model for alien resemblance and making non-adversary aliens appear “like us, only more “ In writing on A.I., Worthmann sees David as “the better human bein” who “finally re-discovers what [the humans] have l” and takes this presupposed humanism into his conclusion on the film’s Flesh Fair-sequence:
It would have been interesting in reversed terms: if the execution of machines had actually looked like a humane act, a beacon against the mechanization of all spheres of life.
However, Spielberg’s attitude towards subjectivized things is far from such Luddism. His empathy with the robot is closer to an idea promoted among others by Robert Trappl, director of the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence:
I could imagine at some point in time the existence of a movement that demands certain rights for robots and that one cannot just at will take out their batteries.
A fixation on childhood makes any indignation about reification impossible. This may sound like Worthmann on Spielberg, but it is actually Adorno on Kracauer. Adorno’s conclusion is worth quoting since it offers a revealing portrait of Kracauer’s thought:
In Kracauer the fixation on childhood, as a fixation on play, takes the form of a fixation on the benignness of things; … one looks in vain in the storehouse of Kracauer’s intellectual motifs for indignation about reification. To a consciousness that suspects it has been abandoned by human beings, objects are superior. In them thought makes reparations for what human beings have done to the living. The state of innocence would be the condition of needy objects, shabby, despised objects alienated from their purposes. For Kracauer they alone embody something that would be other than the universal functional complex, and his idea of philosophy would be to lure their indiscernible life from them.
What Adorno refers to negatively is a current in Kracauer that sets the latter apart from the negative views of reification as commodification that were promoted in Frankfurt School cultural theories. To Kracauer, reification is a precondition for redemption. His early, Marxist-theological writings see as ambivalent the reified aesthetics of physical abstraction in rationalized mass culture. To Kracauer, reification reflects taylorized work processes, but it also contributes to liberating the modern subject from organicist and individualist definitions of being human. With Theory of Film, Kracauer’s perspective on redemption shifts from advocating a revolutionary break with modernity to taking up post-war and post-holocaust questions of survival. Now, a mass audience is seen as having sensual intimacy with the cinematic image-thing that treats the actor as “object among object” and “explore[s] all of physical existence, human or nonhum” Such a cinematic experience provides viewers with possibilities for experiencing an indeterminate, fragmentized material world.
Film allows for confrontations, unmediated by narrative teleology, with the horrors and senseless ruins of reality. Thus it can make us sensitive to the measureless inexhaustibility of life. This view of Kracauer´s could be called his “post-apocalyptic vitalism” In it body and image meet in mimetic affinity, the distinction between living people and dead objects in the image is incidental, and death becomes part of the “flow of li“ This is what Gertrud Koch, in her interpretation of Kracauer, labels “redemption via reification“
In Spielberg, it is vital that “life finds a way” as a character in Jurassic Park (1993) puts it. Life will find its way through non-human forms if necessary. The task of film’s loving memory is to save what remains from mankind; it affirms post-human forms of survival. In Spielberg, those who survive are re-born not from organic reproduction but from the same history and reifying technology that they are miraculously saved from. His ambivalent stance towards modernity echoes Donna Haraway’s ambivalent concept of the cyborg. To her, the cyborg, “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” designates forced adaptations of lives to globalized capitalism but also a way to “dissolv[e] Western selves in the interests of survi” and make new forms of subjectivity suited for mass-empowerment conceivable.
The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us.
In both Spielberg and Haraway, the pervasive reification-as-technologization of life has destructive effects on those without power, but it also leads to the frailness of distinctions between humans and things. However, Spielberg and Haraway crucially differ in their respective affirmations of hybrid life. Spielberg’s ethics of responsibility and survival remain ideologically attached to the nation. His concept of reproduction is non-heterosexual; but in a manner highly distinct from Haraway’s Marxist cyber-feminism, it is focused on redeeming surrogate fathers and families formed through male bonding. If at the end of Kracauer’s Theory of Film, the pathetic image of a “family of ma” revealed by film “stands for the moment in which the fragments might find a new cohesi“ Spielberg’s paradigmatic community of survivors of history frequently forms a Band of Brothers.
However, more than reassert the importance of the family, as does much of Hollywood film, Spielberg shifts the task of reproducing/continuing the “flow of lif” from organic biology to cinematic memory. Therefore, A.I.’s final sequence does not so much exemplify regression into oedipal fantasy as it does an apotheosis of film’s usefulness for surviving history. In that sequence, super-intelligent post-humans who mourn the disappearance of mankind revive for one day, from images stored in David’s memory, the robot boy’s adoptive mother. What counts is not the “obliterating solipsis” of the “mother-and-child reun” lamented by Hoberman. Rather, as Hoberman himself notes, this “back-to-the-womb c” is “a simulation, which is to say, it’s a movie.” After all, at the end of his day with the simulated mother, with happiness displayed in TV-commercial-like perfection, David does not go back to the womb. Rather he finally goes “to the place where dreams are born” as it is said by A.I.’s voice-over narrator Ben Kingsley, who earlier personified witnessing and remembrance in Schindler’s List. The place where dreams are born is Hollywood. This is the womb to a robot-boy born from a cyber-technological entertainment industry, which now has extended its reach from targeting families to materially producing them.
A.I.’s post-human anthropologists, reminiscent of Spielberg’s aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, base their hermeneutics of a dead, yet unforgettable mankind on the storage of audiovisual memory-fragments. Hoberman reads this as an allegory of Spielberg’s memorial/revival relation to Kubrick:
In somewhat the same fashion, Spielberg imagines himself to be keeping the idea of Kubrick alive. A.I. is artificial intelligence.
In press articles accompanying A.I.’s release, Spielberg’s “intelligence of memory” was described in a variety of metaphorical ways that highlighted his role as heir to Kubrick’s project. The metaphor of archeology was a rather obvious choice for commenting on the work of the director of the Indiana Jones-trilogy, especially in the year 2001 which saw Hollywood blockbusters Tomb Raider, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and The Mummy Returns recycling parts of the Indiana Jones formula. Hoberman’s Village Voice review of A.I. was entitled “The Mommy Returns” and Spielberg compared his work to an archeologist deciphering hieroglyphs:
I felt like an Egyptologist, just digging up the past and trying to tell Stanley’s story without forgetting to tell my own.
I could read [Kubrick’s] handwriting because I’d had 18 years of learning how to read his faxes.
Commenting on the production of A.I.—in which Haley Joe Osment, the kid star from The Sixth Sense (1999), played the robot-boy—one critic also drew on obvious invocations of “shinin” and a sixth sense seeing dead people.
Spielberg and the cast claimed they felt the ghost of Kubrick lingering over the production.
Finally, Spielberg makes this ghost appear as a kind of vampire:
Most of our relationship was Stanley asking me questions, sucking my mind dry… I sort of infused the whole story with my way of telling a story… I had to kind of lose myself in his world… After his death I lost myself in my own world, having assimilated all this information, and then I had to tell my story.
In A.I.’s relation to both invoking Kubrick’s “ghost” and its larger cultural project, as I have traced above, the film intimates a connection between vampirism and historical anomaly. That connection allows another kind of reading of the film, a strong allegorical reading of a basic promise of cinema, namely that it allows an endless love to flow that can defy death. Such a flow of love occurs narratively and somatically, but also through the intertextual recycling of movies or other media elements stored in the memories of mass-cultural cinephilia. Thomas Elsaesser makes such a point about the vampirist aspect of cinephilia manifested by Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992):
[T]he very theme of the undead lies at the heart of cinema’s power and cultural presence… [B]ecause of its undead nature, the cinema perhaps does not have a history (of periods, styles, modes). It can only have fans, clans and believers, forever gathering to revive a fantasm or a trauma, a memory and an anticipation… [W]ho does not want the cinema to be the love that never dies?
Spielberg’s ethics are haunted by Kracauer’s ghost. Such an interpretation can be drawn from another essay of Elsaesser’s, in which he comments on Schindler’s List. As a framework for understanding Spielberg’s ethics of death-defying memory, post-messianic theology might be a concept even more apt than vampirist mythology. A “cinéaste’s theodicy” is Elsaesser’s term (borrowed from Leon Wieseltier) for Spielberg’s belief in the redemptive powers of cinema. In Elsaesser’s view, Schindler’s List manifests a “typically postmodern hubris” that is “the faith that the cinema can redeem the past, rescue the real, and even rescue that which was never re“
In Miriam Hansen’s reading of the Schindler’s List, this memorial melodrama represents Spielberg’s attempt to revive a “popular modernis” which “would be capable of reflecting upon the shocks and scars inflicted by modernity on people’s lives in a generally accessible, public horizon.” The way the film’s conversion narrative transforms a glamorous showman from a profit-obsessed cynic into a responsible savior appears to Hansen to invert the narrative of Citizen Kane (1940). An even stronger case could be made for narrative and visual similarities to the conversion narrative of Casablanca (1942). Oskar Schindler’s cool-guy attitude and his drinking with SS officers in a fashionable night club at the beginning of Spielberg’s film are reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick character. Schindler is an industrial entertainer. His redeeming what he preserves in lists stands as an allegory for an entertainment industry’s redeeming what it preserves in images. Such a secular messianist affirmation of popular cinema´s cultural memory finds its full-blown version in A.I. “I also hope that A.I. has redemption,” says Spielberg. In a world without God or a Blue Fairy, “something has survive” because film gives life—just as “the list is life” The cinematic memories of just one resurrected robot-boy can redeem all mankind from oblivion: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world enti“
My toying here with promotional taglines from The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Schindler’s List brings into play an aspect of contemporary blockbuster culture’s role in creating remembrance. The recognition value of promotional slogans that condense whole movies is an example of the aesthetics and rhetoric of “high concep” blockbuster production and marketing. To characterize this contemporary form of filmmaking, Justin Wyatt quotes Spielberg’s claim that an idea comprised in 25 words makes a good movie. A film’s ad line provides an iron ration of sense in a highly abstracted and shareable form suited for maximum circulation in public spheres and popular memories. Seen this way, the abstraction performed by high concept enables the blockbuster’s “connectivity” its ability to attach itself to various media and consumer cultural events.
This is one starting point for Elsaesser’s concept of the blockbuster as both “time machin” and “life calend” Blockbusters modulate between different media, contexts of consumption and temporal orders. They fold our everyday habits into unforgettable-event-time, dwelling on spectacle, which in Spielberg’s recent films has come to include historical wars and catastrophes. Blockbuster culture´s temporal modulation is also manifest in its obsessive revival and recentering of older pop cultural modes and formats. This kind of intertextual remembering forms a background to Spielberg’s recycling of fragments handed over to memory from Hollywood history. Thus A.I. combines reworkings of moments from Spielberg’s own films (e.g., the full moon from E.T., the aliens from Close Encounters) with treasure-hunting in Hollywood’s waste deposits turned to vaults: Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz (as Dr. Know), Gigolo Joe’s sampling Fred Astaire as a GI Joe on the frontline of reified eroticism. In Elsaesser’s perspective, the blockbuster’s fusion of anticipation and memory (which abstractions of films in taglines, trailers and a variety of merchandise modulate) can be seen as tracing a “flow of lif” in continuous cycles. A constant generation of memories, a remembrance of previous identities, takes place in commodified, reified terms—to the point of “engineering childhood” as Elsaesser puts it.
[Spielberg’s films] have realized to its fullest illusion of presence the cinema´s ability to connect past and future into a mythic ‘now,’ extending it to stories taken from history, and making even the disasters of the twentieth century fit family fare for the theme parks of the future… Across mythical stories of disaster and renewal, trauma and survival, [the blockbuster] also reconciles us to our mortality.
To affectively heighten our sense of this “mythic now” blockbusters rely on the strong somatic impact of their images and sounds. The phenomenology and temporality of the blockbuster experience is comparable to trauma. Blockbuster memories are possessive and hard to get rid of. As modulating image abstractions, they pervade media, markets and thus cultural memory. As spectacles affecting audiences sensually, they pervade consumers´ sensoria and memories. These are the terms of Alison Landsberg´s concept of film as “prosthetic memory” Drawing not least on Kracauer, Landsberg argues that prosthetic memories are sensual, instead of merely narrative, memories of other people’s experiences in other times. In this way, prosthetic memories are what remain from film experiences. They circulate in public spheres, affect and implant themselves on perceiving bodies, allowing us to re-experience “with skin and hai” a past never lived through, thus potentially contributing to an “ethics of differe” and alliances of empathy with regard to politics of historical memory.
The blockbuster culture of memory roughly sketched here situates Spielberg’s miraculous project. It is within this specific historical context that his films explore ambivalent usages of that consumer culture’s memorial potentials. Paul Arthur points to the ambivalence of cinematic memory by referring to Schindler´s List:
Amon Goeth’s factory of death and Oskar Schindler’s factory of life (“They say no one dies here”) are equally integral to Hollywood’s Dream Factory ethos.
The dialectics of selection and list making in Schindler’s List and all the brightly lit spaces reminiscent of movie sets or cinemas in Spielberg’s films, especially A.I.’s Flesh Fair, let us put to the test the possibility of distinguishing between the two factories. Fascist mass destruction and capitalist mass exploitation of lives are not entirely unrelated. In this context, a similar problem is allegorically played out across the images and rhetorics of Spielberg’s project. That is, can cinema be distinguished from any other factory? Does it have an intelligence different from the pragmatic know-how of efficiency? Might film be the one object among objects, the one commodity among others that has miraculous powers beyond those of exchangeability?
Miriam Hansen posed this problem in her redemptive critique of Walter Benjamin’s essay on cinematic reproduction. Is there a potential in film, she asks, that would resist the historical mainstream of modernization? Can cinema be a “medium of experienc” and thus at least something else than a medium for flows of informational capital and a technology of social adjustment, “promoting and consummating the historical proc”? In just slightly less messianic terms, this question is also raised by Elsaesser:
The evidence accumulated by the new film history that the cinema has behaved like any other capitalist industry… is insufficient for approaching the social and cultural role of the cinema … [and its] existence in a cultural imaginary: that is, after all, where its aesthetics, its form, its coherencies and intensities, its pleasures and its limits take on meaning.
One of these limited but meaningful pleasures of cinema is the cultural memory it helps to form. Redeeming reality from history through memory, cinema also redeems itself from being just another medium rehearsing capitalist modernization. However, capitalism’s ongoing move from a disciplinary power mode to that of the “control societies” that is, from moulding fixed subjectivities to modulating flexible ones, raises another question: Does cinematic memory’s countering the traumatizing history of disciplinary modernization contribute to people’s adjustment to “control cultur”? Has not the cinematic memory of the blockbuster promoted subjectivities, temporalities and normalized modes of experience which are oriented towards the kind of self-control, flexibility and affectivity that capital nowadays expects from people? I think that the answer is yes, but I will not address this question further.
Spielberg’s promotion of belief in cinema’s redemptive promise is more than just liberal ideology, despite its inherent contradictions and shortcomings. Such a concept of film’s potential keeps open the possibility of still posing the problem of historical remembrance through objects and affect in the mass-cultural terms of popular entertainment rather than relegating the problem entirely to arthouse innovations.
In A.I. the promise is also a problem and is finally unfulfilled. At the film’s end, without his wish being granted, David gets happy, happy as the poor thing he remains. He cannot become a real boy since real humanity is some thing to be remembered. “However sentimental its intent though, this ending may actually be more hopeless than anything in Kubrick” writes Hoberman,. In contrast, Kubrick’s long-time assistant Jan Harlan is “more than happy about [A.I.]; I’m ecstatic. It’s exactly what Stanley would have wanted. Well, second best to living.” Only a thin line separates Kubrick’s analytic understanding with its objectification of the all-too-human from Spielberg’s synthetic understanding through empathy with the object. It is as thin as the line that may keep blockbusters distinct from just a medium of market-based control. In the historical context of capitalism’s “self-perfection,” the achievement of Spielberg’s cinematic memory is this—it reconciles us to the ultimate second best that film can offer, to a cyborg life’s potentials for surviving disciplinary modernization and maybe even for becoming a little uncontrolled. Cinema´s post-messianic and post-human second best is the memorial intelligence of a love that is real when we are not.
1. John R. Searle, “Naturidentische Gefuehle” Die Zeit 37, Sept 6, 2001, p. 43.
2. Kent Jones, “A.I. de Spielberg: du pur Kubrick…sans Kubrick,” Cahiers du cinéma 560, Sept. 2001, p. 52f (my translation).
3. J. Hoberman, “The Dreamlife of Androids” Sight and Sound, Sept. 2001, p. 17.
4. cf. Thomas Elsaesser, “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions: From Holocaust, Our Hitler and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler’s List,” in Vivian Sobchack (ed.), The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event (New York, London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 149f, 172.
5. cf. Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), esp. chapter 1.
6. Merten Worthmann, “Verfuehrungsmodul A.I.: Wie uns Spielberg mit nichtmenschlichen Helden ruehrt,” Die Zeit 37, Sept. 6, 2001, p. 44.
7. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960, 1997), esp. chapter 16.
8. Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things Before the Last (New York: Oxford University Press), 1969.
9. Kracauer quoted in Miriam Hansen,”'With Skin and Hair': Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseille 1940,” Critical Inquiry 19, Spring 1993, pp. 458f. On Hollywood slapstick and action genres cf. Kracauer, Theory of Film, pp. 57f, 280f, 305f.
10. I develop this point in “Koerper-Erfahrung und Film-Phaenomenologie” in Juergen Felix (ed.), Moderne Film Theorie (Mainz: Bender Verlag, 2002).
11. cf. Peter V. Brinkemper, “Die Suche nach der Blauen Fee: A.I. oder der Pinocchio der Zukunft,” Telepolis, Sept. 20th, 2001. <http://www.heise.de/tp>.
12. Spielberg quoted in: Hoberman, “Dreamlife of Androids” p. 18.
13. Worthmann, “Verfuehrungsmodul A.I.,” p. 44.
15. Roger Ebert, review of A.I., Chicago Sun Times, June 29, 2001.
17. Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (New York: Ungar, 1987), pp. 293f.
18. Worthmann, “Verfuehrungsmodul A.I.,” p. 44.
19. Robert Trappl interviewed by Klaus Taschwer, “'Die simulierten Menschen werden kommen,” VISA Magazin 4, 2000, p. 32 (my translation).
20. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracaue” (1965), New German Critique 54, 1991, pp. 159-179.
21. cf. Kracauer, “The Mass Ornamen” (1927) in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. translated, edited, and with an introduction by Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press 1995).
22. Kracauer, Theory of Film, pp. 97, 45.
23. On Kracauer’s concept of “life as such” cf. Theory of Film, pp. 167-71.
24. Gertrud Koch, “'Not yet accepted anywhere': Exile, Memory, and Image in Kracauer’s Conception of History,” New German Critique 54, 1991, p. 97.
25. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Centur” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149, 157, 180.
26. For a convincing critique of the nationalization of memory in Spielberg’s recent films, see Catherine Gunther Kodat, “Saving Private Property: Steven Spielberg’s American DreamWorks,” Representations 71, 2000.
27. Heide Schluepmann, “The Subject of Survival: On Kracauer’s Theory of Film,” New German Critique 54, 1991, p. 123.
28. Band of Brothers is the title of a big-budget TV-mini-series spun off from Saving Private Ryan by executive producers Spielberg and Tom Hanks in 2001. I offer an interpretation of Band of Brothers in the context of cinematic memory in my forthcoming article “Affekt-Gedächtnis und nachträgliche Wunder. Der Zweite Weltkrieg im ‘traumakulturellen Kino,'“Zeitgeschichte 5, 2002.
29. Hoberman, “Dreamlife of Androids” p. 18.
31. Spielberg interviewed by Steve O’Brien, “Spielberg’s Write Stuff,” SFX Magazine 82, September 2001, p. 42; interviewed by Jenny Cooney Carillo, “Resurrection Man” Total Film 57, October 2001, p. 75.
32. Steve O’Brien, “Kid A.I.,” SFX Magazine 82, September 2001, p. 50.
33. Spielberg in “Resurrection Man” pp. 74f.
34. Elsaesser, “Specularity and Engulfment. Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in Steve Neale, Murray Smith, eds., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (London, New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 198, 197, 206.
35. Elsaesser, “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions” p. 166.
36. Miriam Bratu Hansen,” Schindler’s List Is Not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory” (1996) in Yosefa Loshitzky, ed., Spielberg’s Holocaust. Critical Perspectives on “Schindler’s List” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 97.
37. Spielberg in “Resurrection Man” p. 76.
38. Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), p. 13. In an earlier analysis, written together with R.L. Rutsky, Wyatt subjected high concept´s “rationalization of sign” to a neo-Marxist critique of commodity-fetishism; see Wyatt, Rutsky, “High Concept: Abstracting the Postmode” Wide Angle 10, 4, 1988.
39. cf. Elsaesser, “The Blockbuster: ‘Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes” in Jon Lewis. ed., The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties (New York, London: New York University, 2001), p 21f.
41. Alison Landsberg, “Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner” in: Mike Featherstone, Roger Burrows, eds., Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage, 1995).
42. Paul Arthur, “Primal Screen” Film Comment 37, 4, July/August 2001, p. 25.
43. Miriam Hansen, “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,” New German Critique 40, 1987, p. 202, 205.
44. Elsaesser, “Cultural Studies and the ‘Crisis’ of Cinem” in Thomas Elsaesser, Eloe Kingma, Frans Willem Korsten, eds., ASCA Brief 1 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), p. 33.
45. On control societies see Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societie” (1990), in Negotiations 1972-1990 (New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 1995).
46. Hoberman, “Dreamlife of Androids” p. 18; Harlan quoted in O’Brien, “Kid A.I.,” p. 50.
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