In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler’s cool-guy attitude and his drinking with SS officers in a fashionable night club remind us of Bogart’s Casablanca role as Rick.

A.I. reworks moments from Spielberg’s own films and goes treasure-hunting in Hollywood’s 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.

Blockbuster culture
as empathetic memory

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.[31]

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 “shining” and a sixth sense seeing dead people.

Spielberg and the cast claimed they felt the ghost of Kubrick lingering over the production.[32]

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.[33]

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 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?[34]

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 real.”[35]

In Miriam Hansen’s reading of the Schindler’s List, this memorial melodrama represents Spielberg’s attempt to revive a “popular modernism” which “would be capable of reflecting upon the shocks and scars inflicted by modernity on people’s lives in a generally accessible, public horizon.”[36] 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.[37] In a world without God or a Blue Fairy, “something has survived” 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 entire.”

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 concept” 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.[38] 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 machine” and “life calendar.” 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.[39] 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 life” 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.[40]

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 hair” a past never lived through, thus potentially contributing to an “ethics of difference” and alliances of empathy with regard to politics of historical memory.[41]

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.[42]

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 experience” 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 process”?[43] 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.[44]

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 culture”?[45] 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.”[46] 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.

To endnotes

To p.1Print versionJC 45Jump Cut home