Saturday, January 24, 2009


The movie called “A.I.” or “Artificial Intelligence” -- a necessary translation around here where AI means Artificial Insemination -- is not for children. In fact, there are probably some adults who should not see it. The most obviously upsetting parts are in the war between Organos (humans made the old-fashioned way) and Mecchos (near-humans constructed as machines). In a “Flesh Fair” (meant only for organic persons) Mecchos are destroyed in a kind of gladiator spectacle, except that the victims are bound, restrained and destroyed in ways that cause our “mirror cell” empathies to writhe and suffer. The organic people are repulsive, depraved, drunken and clearly enjoying the suffering. Is this what it means to be really human? It’s a Stanley Kubrick question.

This movie began in a sci-fi short story about a future couple who have a robot child which they casually discard when they become able to have a genetic child. This short fable morphed into a version of Pinocchio, not a child’s story except in the ambiguous hands of Walt Disney who wasn’t always aware of his own subconscious. He also muddied the waters with Bambi, which originally raised a lot of adult subjects we still have not resolved a hundred years later. Both 19th century stories ask unsettling questions about what humans are: what makes us human? Are we more than animals? More than puppets in the hands of an angry god? Who among us is entitled to moral protection from suffering and death and on what grounds? VERY relevant right now, maybe more than when this movie was made or, indeed, throughout the several decades while it was in development.

The slippery aspect of “Artificial Intelligence” is that it slides back and forth between asking about the line between human and robot even as it slips back and forth over the line between child and adolescent. As soon as the “adult” meccho was changed to being a gigolo, sex was in the story. Neither an inflatable doll nor one of Dr. Masters’ mechanical penile cameras nor a robot like the charming “Angel Lips” of Lopez’ radio fantasy called “Ruby, the Galactic Gumshoe,” this robot is a supposedly pre-calculated unemotional being who is pressed into being protective of a child. The little bear, who has no power, is mostly confined to Jiminy-Cricket-type comment, though thankfully he speaks in a gruff male voice instead of a piping superego rebuke.

I think our culture somehow combines the question of moral maturity (I’m told fourteen in some European countries) with the nature of sexual maturity, with the legitimacy of killing, and with just plain “otherness.” We are shocked by child soldiers in Africa but willing to treat young black boys in this country as adults in murder cases. The movie artificial boy is white, necessarily purchased by a prosperous family, also white. Does this make a difference? What if the puppet had been a little Chinese girl? Or would the story have been different if the gigolo had been black? (I suspect it wouldn’t to Kubrick but maybe it would to Spielberg, who draws on a white suburban childhood.) I was a little worried by the denim-indigo, androgenous, racially inclusive IBM clones at the beginning of the movie. I’ve come to associate the actor William Hurt with characters who are morally unreliable and unconsciously cruel.

I’ve been thinking about starting an illustrated memoir of my child years -- mostly because of a trove of photos my father took. Still, I was startled to Google “pre-adolescent child” and see that most of the early list are photo sources. First entries on Google lists are there because of high frequency, popularity. Why are photos of that age group so much in demand? Can child photos be considered pornographic even when the child is not nude? Would my photographic memoir be put to perverse uses? The other striking thing about the lists is that so many of the pre-adolescent scholarly papers are not about “child” at all, but rather all in terms of preparation for “adolescent” with a lot of emphasis on sex. Surely it is only since WWII that figures like Christopher Robin or Alice in Wonderland have been seen as sexual objects. Did “Lolita” do that? (That was a Stanley Kubrick film. I’ve never seen it. Maybe it’s time.) Or were we all in denial?

In the articles “childhood” is variously described as years 3 to 12, or 8 to 14, or sometimes divided into early and late childhood, along the lines of primary and elementary school. There are also quite a lot of articles about suicidal or depressed children, but they are hard to access. One needs subscriptions to medical libraries.

“David,” the little robot child, is a CHILD -- not a pre-teen -- and his love is clearly meant by Spielberg (the final developer) to be innocent child-to-parent love. In the final scene he is under the covers with his sleeping mother, but not in a clinch. The nuance of the endings (they are additive) is debated but Spielberg seems to come to conclusion that the meaning of life is happiness and that it is an entitlement. I’m not so sure, regardless of the Constitution of the United States. Anyway, a robot child cannot commit suicide or become depressed.

For quite a while I’ve thought about why it is that “outsiders” are always so interested in Native American children until they hit adolescence. Everyone thinks the little kids are “darling” and “adorable,” but they pretend the teens don’t exist. The obvious answer is that at that point they begin to be trouble: they can get sexual, they can get drunk, they can get violent. They can begin to worry about what it means to be an Indian and whether they smell bad or are dirty in some other way. Teaching junior high school is totally unlike teaching primary and elementary grades, and yet one can’t impose high school standards on children. I found that one seventh grade class can be way out there working on the issues of sixteen-year-olds, while the next set of seventh graders can be preoccupied with crayons and stuffed animals.

The confusion and seeking of childhood is not over when one gets to adolescence, but once there at least the budding person can rely on a body of experience. We probably haven’t given enough importance and attention to the early school years, the primary years when one’s identity is forming. For instance, it is appalling to contemplate the number of high schoolers who still can’t read or figure and who have no study skills or ability to manage their own consciousness. Too many children have parents who are immature, under so much economic pressure (some of it self-imposed) that they are out of the home most of the time. It is fantasy to think that most parents are monitoring television and computers, much less friends or even neighbors.

We have not yet evolved effective social compensations for the break-up of old family patterns. It is past time than we did.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent observations and musings, and all of them started from A.I.

You raise more ethically pertinent questions here than any dozen other film critics.