Best of the Decade Derby: A.I. liveblog with Keith Uhlich and Michael Joshua Rowin

Keith Uhlich in Black Michael Joshua Rowin in Blue Me in Green


KU - I saw it at the Ziegfeld on opening night. I remember a Rex Reed quote pertaining to another film he saw, where he maintained, "I'm not affected by the audience."  Well, when I saw A.I., it was the last 30 minutes or so when the hatred of the audience was palpable, I could feel the audience seething in dead silence, and it really affected me.

So I didn't like the movie when it first came out. But there was some discussion of it on the Brian De Palma Forum that was interesting.

So I saw it again on my own and this time it not only worked but it really turned Spielberg around for me. This film convinced me that Spielberg was worth my complete, devoted attention.

MJR:  I was in college. I was a huge Kubrick-head. I had a professor at the time who was great, but he was going on about A.I. and how he would never see it because it was Kubrick's project but Spielberg took it over, and Spielberg just wasn't worthy. I was impressionable and thought the same, and frankly I hadn't liked Spielberg since I saw E.T. as a kid. His name to me meant schmaltz, big budget corporate spectacle. So I never saw it when it came out. I also heard from my brother and other people that they hated it.

And then, later on, when I was a little older I came across other people I respected and had an appreciation of Spielberg and really liked A.I. I came around and checked it out - it was just a couple years ago. And I was blown away in ways that were deeply emotional and philosophical. But I was also profoundly agitated by certain things that were going on that I felt were classic Spielberg manipulation.

Also, one thing I want to put out is that Spielberg is the Michael Jackson of cinema - someone who has an innate brilliance in putting together the elements of mass entertainment into something truly exceptional. I'll get into that more as we watch the movie.

KBL: I saw this opening night at the Sony Lincoln Square. I had read the reviews by A.O. Scott and Jonathan Rosenbaum which were highly favorable. Especially Rosenbaum's which actually argued against what many other critics were saying, that Spielberg doing Kubrick was a disaster. Instead he claimed that they compensated for each other, Spielberg's heart joined with Kubrick's brain, or something. Anyway I saw it in a packed theater and near the end, like with Keith's initial experience, the feeling among the audience was one of disbelief and ridicule. It was one of those rare weird experiences where you're on a completely different wavelength than the people around you, and in a way I kind of felt like David in this movie, just alienated. But I left feeling like my mind had been blown, that a Hollywood movie had presented a slew of ideas about the nature and the future of the human race I had never thought about before.

CONTINUE TO THE FULL LIVEBLOG---------------------------------------

0:00 - KU: This is interesting because the voiceover here sets up the situation we see at the ending. So this is all a flashback, even though it's set in the future.

0:03 - KU: And this is the first mindblowing moment. This girl's face opening up! And for a director for whom it's said there's no sexuality to his aesthetic, here the way William Hurt puts his pinky in her mouth is very sexually invasive.

MJR: And also the way Hurt commands her to undress but then tells her to stop.

0:05 - MJR: And here with this mecha's definition of love we are introduced to the idea of love being a mechanized set of behaviors.

0:07 - MJR: This film was recently discussed in this online forum called Videogum, and it was nominated for this contest they're running about the worst film ever. And one argument against the film was "Why should we give a shit about this robot. It's just a goddam robot." But that's exactly the point of this movie, is that it makes us give a shit about a robot.

0:08 - KBL - And beyond whether it's a robot or a human, it's an image on a screen that we're responding to, which the film makes explicit by the end. So it's not just about humanity vs. robots, but also about the movies, and how the make us feel. It's an amazing paradox, how it's about both these intense emotions and the mechanisms behind them.

0:09 - KU: If you look here in the office of Prof. Hobby, there are all these images of Grimm's Fairy Tales in the back. They're kind of done in the classic storybook way, prettified and made innocent. Which belies the horrific elements that you found in Grimm's Tales, with people getting eaten or dismembered and stuff like that. And I think that's relevant to this movie, because Spielberg is also trying to bring out the terror within this fairy tale of David.

This scientist here in the lab is Matt Winston, son of Stan Winston, the legendary special effects wizard.

0:10 - KBL: When I first saw this movie, I'm not sure what made me so focused on this, but I couldn't stop finding references to other Spielberg and Kubrick movies. Like this first encounter of David is a visual reference to the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the skinny aliens backlit and emerging from the spaceships.

KU: Spielberg never focuses on people's faces when introducing them, he focuses on parts of them that give you an inside sense of who they are. Like this tap of David's foot gives you a peek inside his quirkiness.

0:11 - KU: Some people have an issue with some of the acting in this film.

MJR - Yeah, I do. This scene between the parents feels shrill and melodramatic. And their sterile bourgeois triteness. It's kind of appropriate, but still...

KU: When she comes back in the third act as the reenactment of the mother she's amazing.

0:12 KU: And this reflection shot of David projected onto the family picture, that's brilliant Spielberg shorthand.

0:13 - MJR:  The mother is really crucial and yet the father is a peripheral, almost a silly man - ha even here she even calls him silly.

0:14 - KBL: William Hurt is more the father figure in this movie. Father not just to David but to a new race of beings.

0:15 - MJR - Some of these shots can be a little too on the nose. But part of it is a satire of this kind of middle class propriety and the narcissism that lies underneath it.

0:16 - MJR: I'm also not a big fan of the music in this film either. These weird modernist touches, although I guess they're kind of Kubrickian.

KU - But it's a kind of mix of Spielbergian, so it's neither here nor there.

Look at what she's reading here in the bathroom.

0:17 - KBL - The way Monica is acting here, it's as if she's the child and he's the toy. And right now she doesn't want to play with him.

0:18: - KU: this table shot - look at the way he's framed. He's visually separated from the others. And yet it's also a halo.

KBL - Setting him up as the innocent.

KU - And also impressionable.

0:19 - MJR - I love how this movie makes explicit the whole process of childhood learning.

KU - It's all so programmed, there's almost nothing intuitive about it here.

MJR - And this approximation of human laughter is absolutely chilling.

KU - And there's also the issue of how did David learn to respond by laughing in the first place? It must have been some kind of programming by Prof. Hobby. Or is it something he's picking up in the moment with whatever intuitive abilities he has?

0:22 - KU: The way that she activates David to become her child, it feels like a spiritual exercise. The way that she touches him on the back of his head is like a shakra. And each word has a symbolic connection to the elements of our world and our existence:

Cirrus - clouds, the sky

Socrates - thought, ideas

Particle - material things

Decibel - sound

Hurricane - chaos

Dolphin - animals

Tulip - flowers

Monica - family

David - his name

0:24 - KBL: This is like a visual reference to Eyes Wide Shut. The parents dressed up to go out to a party.

MJR: If David has an Oedipus complex, I think you can say Monica has an Elektra complex - the female version of the Oedipus complex when he's a toy and she's getting off on him. She's substituting her lost maternal love on to him.

0:26 - MJR:  I still think it's incredible that this played in multplexes.

0:27 - KU: ah Teddy, one of the greatest things ever. And again this weird sexual thing with how his turn on switch is in his butt.

0:28 - MJR: "I am *not* a toy." it's weird how Teddy has more emotion than David.

0:29 - MJR: It's amazing how David learns things about voice by channeling the voices of others.

KU: and how he frames on Monica's hand  to express her emotional state - it's so Spielberg.

0:30 - MJR: The thing that gets me about Martin is that he's a dick. In any other movie you would have sympathy for this handicapped kid, and the way that Spielberg makes you sympathize for the robot over the handicapped boy is just perverse.

0:32 - MJR - Martin's human cruelty is disturbing, but David's purity is also disturbing. It's shown to be problematic in a real human world.

0:33 - KU: Now we see David trying to describe his first memory. It's this angel/bird figure. He remembers the statue outside the window of Prof. Hobby's office.

0:34 - KBL - Thes shots are impossibly beautiful. Idyllic mise-en-scene, soft-focus and over-saturated colors.

MJR: And this was the film Spielberg made after Saving Private Ryan which was de-saturated.

KBL: Some audiences and critics might find it kind of kitschy, but I think that kitschiness is intentional, like a Sirk movie. It's a comment on the idealized affluent lifestyle that we keep dreaming about. And Spielberg is making us aware of how manufactured it is.

0:36 - KBL: This dinner scene is interesting because on the one hand mechas have evolved beyond humans in that they don't need food, and yet David feels a need to eat these veggies because Martin can do it. And there aren't any words that are passed between Martin and David to convey this. It's like insecurity is a virus that humans can spread easily to others.

0:37 - MJR - David's face melting. What a fucked up shot!

KU - If that's fucked up what happens next is even more fucked up with the scene of him getting fixed. This shot of his face drooping is really chilling and yet what's really messed up is that it's misleading. Because we're trained to think that it's a sign that he's severely hurt, but in truth he doesn't feel anything, not like humans do, and that face is just a facade. And here Monica reaches out to him as he's getting operated on and him reassuring her that it doesn't hurt. And she finds that even more disturbing than if he was in pain, because it's not normal. She wants for him to have a soul.

MJR: And so do we. Because aside from David none of the other characters are that sympathetic. Purely because he's so innocent.

KU: And that gets to the idea of infantilizing and idealizing the child, which is such an American fixation. And it's perfect that Spielberg is the one making this movie. As well as the writer. He wrote the screenplay, his first since Close Encounters.

MJR: And this gets back at the Michael Jackson comparison. Michael Jackson was a wunderkind.- someone who can manipulate all our iconography and ideas about children and innocence and pop, and perform them in a way that comels us. Jackson's extollation of childhood was as obsessive as Spielberg's, and both were equally skillful about it.

MJR: Martin is using logic in a way that only humans can understand - this manipulative, political, exploitive way of using logic.

KBL - What this shows me is how much logic for human beings is an emotional thing. We all have our rational justifications for the things we do but ultimately they are driven by our feelings.

0:44 - KU: Another foreshadowing moment. David being left underneath the water.

0:45 - MJR: This is such a devastating scene. Just the utter neglect the humans have for David as they try to save Martin.

0:46 - KU: this is the eden thing in the story. And Adam was kicked out of the garden of eden because he bit from the fruit of knowledge

KBL - Whereas here David is being kicked out for wanting to feel.

MJR:  And picking up on your trend of finding Kubrick references. this moment kind of refers to The Shining. These letters being written obsessively. He wants to be find the right combination of words and sentiments to make Monica love him, and comes up with all these variations. First he says he hates Martin, then says he loves Martin because he knows Monica loves Martin, so then he says he hates Teddy. He needs an other to pick on to make him look better. He's becoming human in that he's projecting his hatred onto others.

KBL: And this idea of evolution - when mechas eventually supplant humans, it's because they learned from and have superceded humans. But then by the end the mechas have to go back to learn about being human.

KU: It's the question asked by 2001 - of who came first, humans or aliens?

MJR:  Yes, "Who Made Who"... which is a reference to AC/DC... which is what powers David! It all comes together!

0:50 - KU: Here the emotion is so raw - it's hard to watch this.

MJR: "a story tells what happens." - This really gets at the paradox of stories, stories aren't real and yet they are to us.

KU: It's the same power that's in the stories in the Bible or other religions. And here you're being told the origin story of the mecha - if David is to the Mechas what Christ , Buddha or King David are to their respective ideologies.

0:52 - MJR: and now we're moving to introducing Gigolo Joe. David's fall from eden segues to sexuality.

0:53 - KU: Oh my god, it's Trixie from Deadwood!

0:55 - KU: The Ain't It Cool News boys were so pissed off that this mecha sex slave was onscreen for less than a minute. She had been used in some of the posters so they thought they'd get to drool at her throughout the movie.

0:57 - KBL - Joe can't do anything against this guy who framed him for the murder, since presumably mechas are programmed not to harm humans. And yet he has self-preservation instincts, given that he knows to cut out his ID tag.

0:59 - KU: The central motif of this film is the search for the Blue Fairy. And the Pinocchio story as told in this story becomes a story about the god myth. You believe in something that you're never going to see for as long as you're mortal. Why?

1:00 - KU: Spielberg here plant some pretty sly things about race, like this Black mecha putting on a white hand.

MJR: These effects here are pretty incredible.

KU: The ultimate Spielberg reference being turned on itself - with the moon from ET, one of the most joyous and awe-inspiring images in his career now an icon of fear and menace.

KBL: It also anticipates the spaceship in War of the Worlds that sucks up and humans for fodder much like this one does with mechas.

KBL: David asks Teddy "What do we do now?" Teddy says "We run now" as if to acknowledge that this chase scene is an action movie cliche. And it's funny to think that David isn't familiarized with this cliche, that he has to ask what to do in this situation.

1:02 - KBL: Why is he refrencing Tron here? it's kind of cheeseball.

MJR: What doesn't fit the fabric for me is that the bikes are so fucking slow - how are they not catching up with the mechas?

1:04 - MJR: By this point David has become totally single-minded. If the idea that David is more human than human, then the problem is that it reduces this humanness to a single impulse.

1:05 - MJR: What was that, slow-mo?  That looked pretty bad.

1:06 - KU: Here's the long tracking shot that gives you a full sense of the Flesh Fair.

KBL: It's like a futuristic version of Monster Trucks Nite. It's a weird scene in that Spielberg betrays so much spite and contempt for his audience. I mean, this is the most explicit reference to a movie audience that we see on screen, and they are nasty, brutish and reactionary.

1:07 - MJR: It's another case of projection - taking his own anxieties about his audience and just putting it out there.

1:08 - KBL: The other thing about this sequence is that it kind of references Schindler's List with all these Mechas being exterminated. And when you combine these two subtexts, the Holocaust and the action movie audience, it really becomes something perverse that encompasses everything Spielberg has done and has wanted to be, both a respectable Oscar winner and a popcorn thrillmaker. And maybe it comments on the fact that he took something like the Holocaust and packaged it as a mass audience entertainment.

MJR - So he's implicating himself.

KU: And this image of Chris Rock's face - it says so much about race in America.

KBL: What I just realized that creeps me out is that if these characters were real humans, this film would probably get an NC-17 rating for this sequence, but because they're mechas we can watch them and not get too disturbed. But in the end they're all images, so the distinction is in some ways illusory. Although the mecha nanny getting washed in acid goes close to over the line.

MJR: It's just so ironic that this flesh fair that's supposed to be a celebration of real authentic human life couldn't be any more cruel and dehumanizing.

KU: What's fascinating about this scene is that the audience ultimately gets confused over David's humanity, just as we are. It's easy to make an audience turn on a dime, which is what Spielberg is showing here.

KBL: And that makes this scene another Kubrick reference, which is Paths of Glory. Remember the German girl in the end of that film, how she's forced to sing in front of a room of horny, catcalling French soldiers, and by the end they're all crying, missing their mothers and loved ones.

1:12 - KU: Crucifix alert!

KU: This monologue by Brendan Gleeson, you kind of wonder how much these words are Spielberg challenging his audience directly - don't you see that this boy is just an illusion, he's nothing real? Don't you realize how much you're being manipulated. It's like he's having a moment against himself.

KBL: "Remember, we are only demolishing artificiality!" It's like a Godard moment. Godard has been criticizing Spielberg for years, and now it's like Spielberg is mimicking Godard with what Gleeson says to the audience here.  He's occupying the position of his own critics.

MJR: “Let he is without Sim cast the first stone” - a pun.

KU: And they turn against the real human.

KBL: And they turn against Spielberg!

1:18 - KU: And now we get the whole backstory of Professor Hobby and why he made David the way he is.

MJR: Where's his wife in all of this?

1:19 - MJR - I wonder how much this idea of individuality in this moment is something deep in Spielberg - that feeling of betrayal when you realize that you're not the center of the world, and that you're not going to find unconditional love.

1:20 KU: Gigolo Joe: "I know all about women." Of course some would say that Spielberg doesn't know anything about women. Which may be true some time, but not all of the time.

And the crassness of Gigolo Joe's pitch here makes me think of Spielberg.  He also gets beaten up for being crass. Crass politicization, crass manipulation.

MJR: But I think there's a real pain in that, because to be who he is he has to work within those dictates of commercial cinema. You feel that in this movie that there's this artist who hates the marketplace in which he has to sell his art. The Flesh Fair I think is all about that.

1:22 - KU:  Listen to his pitch here. The only way he can relate to the world is by body.

1:23 - MJR: Look at how they enter the city, it's the mouth.

KBL: These mouths are straight out of A Clockwork Orange -remember the furniture in the Milk Bar?

KU: And now they're off to see the Blue Fairy, being Mother Mary - and it's a prop.

1:25 - KU: "The ones who made us are always looking for the ones who made them." That's such a great line.

KU: And now they're off to meet Dr. Know aka Robin Williams. Who has the perfect voice for a false god.

MJR:  I hadn't thought until now of Jurassic Park being related to this movie. Things being brought back to life and running amok, and what happens when you use technology to mess with nature.

KBL: Except that in Jurassic Park it was a moral cautionary tale, whereas here it becomes an inquiry into the relationship between technology and nature.

1:27: KBL This scene speaks to me about the whole history of how human beings have tried to organize their world with different information and knowledge systems. And yet the way that we organize information just keeps failing us like it's failing David now. There's always some way for what we want to know to fall through the cracks of what we've set up.

MJR: And it's also showing how knowledge is found through a dialectic process.

1:29 - KU: And so you combine the fact and the fairy tale.

1:30: KU: the way Robin Williams read this poem is beautiful. "The Stolen Child" by Yeats.

KU: Then we learn from this book that Professor Hobby is writing about how mechas are becoming orgas. in other words he's prophesying, like the Old Testament prophets foresaw the Messiah, which David is in this story. He's the new post-human being.

MJR: "that is why they call the end of the world "Man-hattan" - funny.

1:31 KU:  Man, that insistence, that child's sense of entitlement, they just nail it here.

1:32 KBL: Gigolo Joe talking about how people love what he does for people, and yet that pleasure is disposable, just like Monica's pleasure with David was eventually disposable.  Here I think is Spielberg making a distinction between art and entertainment. Because entertainment is endless gratification whereas art is what challenges us beyond what we simply want to enjoy.

1:33 - MJR: And again with David it's also Spielberg nailing this narcissism we have. "I am human, I am the most special human there is." We just think of what we want.

KU: And our toys will outlast us like cockroaches.

KU: If Spielberg reduces all of human and emotion into this infantalism and desire for love, ths pleasure, maybe it doesn't speak for everything but it's such a powerful drive that it cannot be ignored. So many films pander to that yet so few films dissect that.

MJR: God, another fifty minutes to this film. Most people at this point think we're nearing the end by now.

KBL: Well if we're going to hard-scramble everything else with our reactions to humans and robots, we'd might as well hard-scramble the three act structure.

KU: We had Genesis, we had the expulsion from Eden, we had the Jews in Egypt, and now we have the flood. so what's the ending?

KBL: It's the resurrection - he comes back to life in a kind of afterworld.

MJR: And that heaven is completely ersatz. And it's a complete ego projection. So is this a combination of Freud and the Bible? Freud wrote this book on Moses and Monotheism, and in it he theorized that the story of the Bible was a play of Christianity upending Judaism. The son overthrowing the father and so on.

1:39 - MJR: A lot of Lacan is bullshit but there is a really compelling power to the central myth that Lacan puts out, of the mirror phase and recognizing yourself in the mirror.  Being both your body and the awareness and the perception of your body is such a profound moment.

1:40 - KBL: and this set of Prof. Hobby references the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. And it's not an arbitrary reference. Prof. Hobby and Dr. Strangelove are both masterminds who inadvertently serve as architects for the end of humanity.

KBL: And David going apeshit, destroying his duplicate, it's like the ape in 2001 smashing a bone in Dr. Strangelove's War Room. Weird Kubrick mashup.

1:41 - KU: and here we get Prof. Hobby's explanation of everything to David, and yet it's clearly not enough. And it speaks to what James Ellroy said, that closure is bullshit.

MJR: And so here David has asserted his individuality and according to Prof. Hobby he gets his wish. Prof. Hobby tells him that he's a real boy. And like you said, Keith, it's not enough. But then even more chilling is that this realness can become commodified. That's one of so many devastating things about this movie.

1:43 - KU: And just now David says, "My brain is falling out" and it's just kills me, because i know exactly what he's talking about.

1:45 - KU: Oh god, what a fucking image. He realizes now that he's a machine. Is he going to realize that. Is he going to grow with that? Or is he going to go suicidal?

MJR: I love this packaging of all the Davids. As well as the female versions.

KBL: The silhoutettes are so creepy. This is all one take - from the point that he was approaching this face. Amazing.

1:47 - KU:  Here's the bearing witness shot. Joe watching David from the copter. And look at how he shoots David's fall reflected on Joe's face. Like a tear.

1:48 - KBL: This is a bit too much.

MJR: These fish and the twinkling sound are a bit too much.

KBL: - Though one could say that Spielberg is acknowledging his schmaltzy side. He's taking all the spielberg schmaltz and locating it and recontextualizing it in this story. Because in the end this is a fairy tale.

1:49 - KU: Here's like the "trials of Job" moment when he realizes that he can go on.

1:50: KU:  Joe's last line is amazing. "I am. I was."

MJR: Isn’t that the perfect summation of the human life?

KU: And he ascends. Into destruction.

KBL: And now the Coney Island theme park.

MJR: There's a deleted scene when David goes to Coney Island and gets a pint of Coney Island lager. And catches a Cyclones game. My god there's another half an hour left in the movie.

1:52: KBL: And now another face matching moment, where his face merges with the Blue Fairy. It's completely the opposite effect of the face matching with his replacement. He wants to meld with the Fairy. Instead of another being becoming you, here it's you becoming another being. Steven Spielberg's Persona.

1:53: KU: This is the total epitome of man's spiritual yearning. A boy pleading and pleading to God.

And the persistence of it and the futility of it all at once.

1:54: KU: Now with this part the big fallacy people make with this section that these beings are aliens. But these are advanced mecha.

I remember when I saw this the first time, the entire theater was silent and all you could feel was silent rage. All you could feel was anger around you.

KBL: I remember snickers of laughter, and just people being in disbelief that this movie would not end. It was like torture.

1:56- KBL: This vehicle, this box-thing. Look at the way it just floats away, like an application on a computer screen. This world that Spielberg is working in, in a sense it's just images. And maybe that has to do with how our existence is increasingly becoming tied up in ethereal online versions of ourselves.

MJR: These mechas are perfect compared to humans, and yet they're yearning for humans to complete something in them that they feel is missing. There's still this yearning for another

KU: God, what other filmmaker has killed off the entire human race? Spileberg kills the entire human race in this movie.

1:58: MJR: This ending, literally it's chilling!

1:59- KBL: The subtitles for the advanced mecha - I remember snickers about that among the audience- like on top of everything else, Spielberg is giving us a foreign movie.

2:00 - KU: Blue Fairy crumbles.  Your idol collapses. I remember my father telling me he bought my grandmother a Virgin Mary statue, and as he was bringing it to her he dropped it and it broke. And he was really shaken up by it, because he felt, "I've destroyed the mother of god." It's the emotions that we place into these objects and forms that matter more than the object. And also something about the sacred and the fragile coexisting.

KBL: What these Mechas do have is community. Look at how they share images with each other.

2:01 - KU: And here this scene is like 2001, the David in that movie wakes up in a room at the end.

KBL: The tone of this sequence grates on many people's nerves as manipulation. But this manipulation in terms of Hollywood codes. This scene at the end is a total movie set.

MJR: This whole movie is inside of you, it's a mirror bringing you out.

2:03 - KU: and we know who did the voice of the Blue Fairy - Meryl Streep - the greatest living movie actress.

MJR: And listen to how she tells him that he's special and unique. It's that narcissism gratified, but in such a perverse, chilling way.

2:05 - KBL: Teddy ex machina - the hair that brings the happy ending! Again, I remember the audience's groans and howls at this.

MJR: That initial act of violence David enacted on his mother is what leads to her resurrection.

2:06 - KU: Look at this. David's never cried before.

KBL: Maybe it's condensation from his deep freeze?

MJR: I didn't even notice that. By this point you don't even notice the significance of that, because he's so convincingly human.

2:07 - MJR: It's interesting that at this point David has a history of himself. We see him drawing pictures of his adventures with Joe.

2:08 - MJR: "Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence." Another expression of narcissism - narcissism of the human race.

KBL: And nostalgia.

2:10 - MJR: These mechas are the ultimate movie directors - god/ extrahuman omnipotent movie directors.

2:11 - KU: If I'm crying now they are very multifaceted tears. When I saw this the second time it just fucked me up.

2:12 - KU: It taps into the desire to see someone again who you can never see again.

KBL - Or relive a memory from your life that you hold so dear and whose passing you mourn.

2:12 - KBL The way Monica is shot here is so sexual - she's beautiful in a sensual way.

2:13 - MJR - We talked about the saturation of the colors in the first act of the movie and now we're seeing itagain - but this time Spielberg's cued us in to an awareness of how this is being presented to us. And now we're aware of how movies are stylized.

2:14 - KU: David is now an artist. Before he was only a writer, that earlier scene where he was writing the different letters to Monica. Now he's drawing as well.

2:15 - KU: and here's an E.T. moment. They're hiding in the closet.

2:16 - KU: "David drew the shades without even needing to be asked." That's just chilling.  And David not wanting to blow out the last candle. simple iconic shit like that that he does so powerfully.

MJR: There is this weird thing of him wanting to do something with her. Just wanting to hang on to her.

This film is so much about time and that's the great paradox of time that a moment can be everlasting and yet pass

2:17 - KU: Again, Teddy playing silent witness.

MJR: In the end, it's an ersatz human being loving a recreated projection of a human being while being directed by advanced ersatz human beings.

KBL: Dreams being realized and extinguished at the same time.


KU: This film Kubrick makes Spielberg strange, and Spielberg makes Kubrick strange. Kubrick's cold intellect challenges Spielberg's gut emotion, and vice versa.

MJR: I don't understand Kubrick being described as a cold director. Eyes Wide Shut is a very human, emotion-filled movie.

KU - I think Barry Lyndon is a very warm movie.

MJR: Even if someone doesn't like A.I., you have to confront this shit it stirs up, about myths, about desire, about humankind's legacy.

KBL: We're used to movies doing the work for us, telling us what to think and how to feel, but this one drops it all in our lap. it's a movie that the more you think about it, and all its implications about who we are as humans, the more it disturbs you on a deeply emotional level.

MJR: It makes you look at the world anew, which is the highest compliment you can pay a work of art.

KU: Even talking through it I felt it. If we hadn't talked during the last scene I would have started bawling.

KU: If you don't believe in god you still have a desire for an ultimate attainment. And you have the everlasting moment, and then the moment passes. So you have the afterlife and the moment passes. "He goes to the place where dreams are born." It's sentimental gibberish bullshit. And this movie poses the situation where we're past the point of where the goal is attained, but is there more than that?

KBL: And how many films are about that?

MJR: Every film.

KBL: Well yeah impliclty. But how many films call critical attention to the whole point of having goals, or even goal-oriented storytelling as a dominant genre?

MJR: And this film is about how that arc of achieving goals is not satisfactory. And narrative conventions such as having a resolution and even having real human characters. This film presents a premise that is completely and utterly fraudulent and manufactured. And yet it's so devastating and crushing. For someone so involved in manipulation and spectacle Spielberg is sincerely invested in what audiences are into and what they want. Only someone who is so attuned to that can produce someting that can invert and explore what it's about.

Following our conversation, Michael had this to add via email:

The transition between the first part and the second part of the film not only segues Eden into sexuality, but the feeling of childhood abandonment from the mother to the search for connection or completion in romantic union. As the first part of the film fades out and David is left alone we're also left disoriented in the dark, but now the gender roles are reversed: an unknown woman (who might be David's mother, or the Blue Fairy for whom he's searching) intones through a pitch-black image, "I'm afraid" to a man. Her fear of a sexual encounter with a non-human mimics David's fear of encountering the frightening human world, but there are also resonances between one's loss of innocence and one's first explorations of physical commingling.

Also, one more irony about the film's ending: David never becomes a real boy. In the Pinocchio story A.I. directly references, Pinocchio becomes a real boy by earning it, by learning right from wrong and developing a conscience (and consciousness?) It's a moralizing lesson that Spielberg rejects but also inverts in favor of something far more troubling. Professor Hobby tells David he's become a real boy, but qualifies that with something like "or the closest thing to it." So David's not really a real boy, but even if he were he would have earned it only through persistence and faith. David has not learned much else, he's only stubbornly clung to and sought out his vision of eternal mother-love. Thus at the end of A.I. Spielberg reveals that David's journey to become a real boy is an enormous red herring. What's more important to David is not becoming real (he's already learned that that's impossible and that he's been commodified and replicated), but simply obtaining mother-love. Artificial intelligence also means false consciousness, and the new Pinocchio myth of the cybernetic era becomes one of infantalizing womb-protected bliss, complete and stunted fulfillment of the fake person's solipsistic dreams, without even the faintest desire to "grow up."

Best of the Decade Derby: Looney Tunes: Back in Action liveblog with Keith Uhlich

In searching for the ten best films of the decade, I've taken a special interest in two genres that I feel are routinely given short shrift when generally thinking about the "best" films: animation and comedy. So I was happy to follow the recommendation of Keith Uhlich to watch Looney Tunes: Back in Action as part of the Best of the Decade Derby. Keith assures me that this film is highly likely to make his own top ten list (I think I know Keith well enough to predict what his list will look like: A.I., Five, Generation Kill, The House of Mirth, Inland Empire, Miami Vice, The New World...). It was fun listening to Keith take on a personal tour through Looney Tunes, especially after having watched The Incredibles, two films that seem diametrically opposed in their philosophies towards form, structure and sensibility in mainstream feature animation, as different as, say, the classic era of Warner Bros. vs. Disney. Given that I've been increasingly seduced by classical Hollywood form and craft (something that my re-watching of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein shook me out of, at least momentarily), it was good for Keith to remind me of how when I was a kid I preferred the manic anarchy of Warner Bros. over the impeccable prettiness of Disney. This opposition was definitely on Joe Dante's mind when he made this film, as Keith's liveblog comments (with my occasional interjections) bear out:

Keith in blue (me in black):


Man, this DVD menu is shoddy. It reflects Warner Brothers corporate attitude towards their properties - they're just out to cash in and make a quick buck, which Joe Dante makes as his target. This film was posited as Joe Dante's retort to Space Jam. Once Looney Tunes became corporatized by WB, which Space Jam epitomizes, the anarchic spirit of the original was lost, and that's what Dante is trying to recapture.

Another thing this film is about Bugs and Daffy as polar opposites.  When we think about Looney Tunes, we think about Bugs Bunny and how cool he is and how he always wins in the end. This film is interesting because it's more from the POV of Daffy, the perennial loser, which I think Dante identified with. And here I should bring up Mel Blanc. One special thing about Blanc is that he did both Bugs and Daffy, which is a really interesting duality. It's interesting that he was able to capture the god like omnipotence of Bugs and the patheticness of Daffy just through minor modulations of his voice.

After Mel Blanc died in the 90s it's no longer Blanc doing the voices, and I always felt there was something lacking in the replacement artists doing the voiceovers, there was always something off about them. But I think why it works here and why I don't miss Mel Blanc's voice in Looney Tunes: Back in Action is because of the timing. The tempo of this film is sped up and manic just like the old Looney Tunes. If you notice in recent Looney Tunes productions you notice that characters speak at normal speed and things are toned down. So Dante is trying to redress that as well.

Also, what amazes me about this film is that it plays like a grand anarchic tour through 20th century animation, fine art, music and culture at large. You really have to scour every single shot. And a lot of this should be credited not only to Dante but to animation director Eric Goldberg.


0:01 - They were originally supposed to begin with a Batman parody but I'm glad they didn't. Instead they jump into a reenactment of an old Looney Tunes cartoon, and they comment on it critically, with this quick montage of Daffy getting his head blasted over and over.

0:02 - This is Jenna Elfman's best role. And I love how these two identical twin actors play the Warner brothers. And this shot of the shelf with the Lethal Weapon Babies sequel poster on the one side and the Maltese Falcon on the other. Dante is just throwing one thing at you after another. And with this kung fu demonstration, it shows Daffy has to overcompensate for everything, whereas Bugs can shut Daffy down with just the flick of his finger.

0:03 - Look at this box of Daffy's. There's a picture of Daffy with Nixon and a Bugs voodoo doll. It's on the screen for just a second but it has so much going on.

0:04 - Brendan Fraser's character gets developed through an interesting way here. He's talking to Dick Miller and in the background is a billboard of Timothy Dalton in an action hero movie. And Dick Miller points at the billboard to identify Dalton as Fraser's father. In a way it's Dante saying that these screens and these images are our father, they are what we're raised on. At least it's true for him.

0:05 - This chase is just amazing.

KBL - It's really good at taking the anarchy of the animation into live action.

0:06 - I love the idea of Roger Corman directing a Batman movie.

0:07 - And here's where Dante's anti-corporate anarchy sets in with the Batmobile knocking down the WB water tower. And this dig at Finding Nemo is where I fell in love with the movie.

0:08 - This moment here is great because you see Dick Miller dressing down Brendan Fraser. And then the camera pulls out and you can see Miller stepping down from an apple box. You can barely see it. And that's what I love about this film, that Dante isn't waving all the things he's doing in your face. You get to pick them out yourself.

0:10 - In this dialogue Bugs is resisting his being commodified, so he's taking Dante's lead as well.

0:10 - This is kind of the 60s spy section. You see a portrait of Timothy Dalton who plays Fraser's dad, and he's playing a version of himself, a spy movie actor.

0:12 - This delusional rant by Daffy just nails his schizophrenia. And the film really takes off from that spirit.

0:13 - Here at the end of Dalton's message, and the earlier meet-cute between Fraser and Elfman, there's a moment when the film threatens to verge into sentiment, but Dante very quickly pulls out of that.

0:14 - This audio of the sputtering car (which by the way is a Gremlin, get it?) is from a vintage Mel Blanc recording, a nice touch.

0:17 - This is pure Frank Tashlin, the use of the split screen being pushed back and forth.

Now one of the problems that people have with this film is Steve Martin's performance, which we're about to see.

KBL: What problem do people have with Martin here?

It's him doing his wild and crazy guy schtick. It's very broad and Jerry Lewisy.

In this board meeting you get some random cameos - you get Mary Woronoff from the Warhol movies, you get Ron Perelman. I love how Dante is taking this big corporate Hollywood budget and lampooning it so broadly.

0:21 – This scene is a pure psycho parody, complete with a meta reference to the behind the scenes details.

KBL: It’s an example of Dante commenting on pop culture from multiple perspectives in just a matter of seconds.

"Why do you torture me" and this whole film is an act on torture on Jenna Elfman - she's like a live action version of Daffy Duck.

Meanwhile Bugs is so carefree, that's what I love about him. But there's also something distancing about his power that we can't relate to.

It's just perfect that Bugs tells Jenna Elfman that she has no soul. Too true.

0:24 - And just the endless resourcefulness of Bugs - this is what Space Jam got wrong. Like Matt Zoller Seitz said, why would the Looney Tunes characters need Michael Jordan's help?

0:25 - This Yosemite Sam casino - for a second I have to do a double take, because I was convinced that there is a Yosemite Sam casino in Vegas. It's another case of the film showing all the ways that corporate entertainment can cash out on its properties.

0:27 - This movie treats Heather Locklear like a cartoon, which is just perfect.

0:28 – Look at this shot. Even when he's focusing on plot, Dante is always trying to refocus your attention on different parts of the screen.

"How many galoshes did it take to make that luscious number?" That's my favorite line.

0:29 - The interaction between the human and the animated characters is so effortless and transparent. It's different than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which kind of wears its effort on its sleeve - you can see them always commenting on the fact that the animators had to do all this work.

0:30 - I think this action sequence is amazing because you get all these different layers and depth to the set. And again, the interaction of live and animation is effortless.


0:31 - And here's Nasty Canasta in a cameo. And a “Dogs Playing Poker” shot with all the Looney Tunes dog characters. Dante seems like he wants to include about as many Looney Tunes characters as possible.

0:32 - And there's this great stop-on-a-dime rhythm throughout the movie. We have Yosemite Sam busting into the casino in a fury, but then taking a quick moment to kiss a rug with his picture.

0:33 - And here we have a NASCAR appearance, which is another way for Dante to acknowledge how everything is being commercialized and commoditized. And he uses this car to wreak havoc on half of Las Vegas. Like with the Batmobile, he’s turning commercialism against itself.

0:34 - "You, me, her, him" again the timing is everything in this.

0:36 - this is such a random gag – “Mother!” It's just moving everywhere.

0:38 – Again, another case of the movie jamming our expectations of where conventional cues are supposed to take us. Here the scene is fading to black, but Jenna Elfman says "but it doesn't work that way" and it comes back from the black.

0:38 - Now we have this scene with the two couples. And Jenna is feeling nostalgic for Dalton. But then Dante says let’s go back to Bugs and Daffy. He never wants to get too comfortable with the human characters.

KBL: Which is really challenging, and maybe why people couldn’t latch on to the movie so well, unlike with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where you identify mainly with Bob Hoskins and you see the cartoon world through his eyes. Here you don’t have that ground to stand on.

0:39 – Here Dante shows how deft he can be with his character development – he let’s Daffy drop this quick line to Bugs: "You just munch on your carrot and people love you" and just like that Dante moves on.

This movie feels like a Technicolor movie even though it wasn't shot on it. This shot of Jenna Elfman in a pink dress walking across the desert is just gorgeous.

0:40 - And this Wal-Mart reference is just fabulous. "Nice of Wal-mart to provide us these Wal-Mart beverages in exchange for us mentioning Wal-mart so many times." That's Dante having his cake and eating it too.

0:42 - And now we're in the Wile E Coyote / Road Runner segment, and it's flawless.

KBL: And updated to a 21st century world. I love how Wile E Coyote orders his anti-Road Runner contraptions from the ACME website.

How many comedies, animated or otherwise, use the screen in so many ways like this?

0:44 - Now we're in the sci-fi section of the movie. I think is the section closest to Dante's heart. Here’s Robby the Robot and Joan Cusack as Robby's mother. And Cusack’s line delivery here is priceless: "I've known you ever since you were... that doesn't make sense does it?"

KBL: Elfman: "I can't go back to LA with duck soup." There’s a double entendre in there – Today’s Hollywood couldn’t handle the Marx Brothers.

Dante is just cramming all these references to sci-fi movies here: Marvin the Martian, the Dalleks, even Kevin McCarthy from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


0:47 - This is a quintessential Steve Martin delivery.

0:48 - Did you notice how they painted in the reflection of Bugs walking past the jar containing Marvin the Martian? It’s amazing that they took the care to do that, even though most people probably wouldn’t notice it.

And here’s a mention of giant ants and you hear the ant sound effects from "Them" in the background. And this tape labeled "Moon Landing Dress Rehearsal" – ha!

0:49 - This Peter Graves Mission Impossible mission debrief animation -  I think it has the style of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had its own anarchic qualities.

0:53 – So here’s the transition to the Paris/ Louvre sequence – Someone asks, "How do we get there?" And Bugs picks up a corner of the screen and pulls it like a drape, and instantly we're in Paris. This is Dante's way of looking at the world -  it’s all screens, planes and images.

0:54 - It's a Paris of the imagination - classic post-war American in Paris era stock footage, a shot of the Louvre with Madeline and her children walking across it.

0:55 - Even the critics against this film admire this Louvre segment. It's really a Louvre of possibilities, where it jumps into through all these immortal works of art and plays with them. And Goldberg animates the Looney Tunes characters in the style of each painting.

KBL: And there's a connection between the Looney Tunes aesthetic to each of these works being referenced - Dali's surrealism, Munch's emotional expressionism, Toulouse Lautrec's festive energy - these are all spiritual predecessors to Looney Tunes. And the music is the perfect match - Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Here’s Georges Seurat doing a cameo – and look at how he reacts to the Looney Tunes characters romping through his landscape. I love Elmer Fudd's gunshots here - the way it blasts the paint off the canvas.

0:58 - Here it just goes into overdrive. All these Looney Tunes characters dressed up as famous figures in paintings: Picasso's guitarist, Whistler's mother, Breughel’s hunter, the Vermeer’s girl with the pearl earring, I can’t even identify the rest.

KBL: And at the end Bugs has reconstructed himself fully while Daffy is using a paint by numbers dot technique to redraw himself. Ever the divide between them.

Here's a Jerry Lewis poster and the red balloon - the Paris references keep piling up. And here with these production values of this action sequence are incredible - you wonder why Warner Brothers put so much money. Dante had already screwed them with Gremlins 2, so he must have done something to get back on this project. But still this film bombed big time.

1:03 - Brendan Fraser did the voice of the Tasmanian Devil.

1:04 -Now we're in the Africa sequence. This was supposed to be the climax of the film.

Coming up is a gag that Charles Taylor criticized as why the movie doesn't work. When Tweety bird cries out "Cry Freedom" - He thought it should have been more of a comment on African politics, but Dante treats everything as a gag. I mean look here, he follows it up with an elephant ass gag.

KBL: It feels almost profound - everything gets mixed up into a neverending stream of phenomena, and they’re happening too fast for you to get hung up on any one of them.

1:08 - The humans are largely at the mercy of the animated characters.

KBL: Again, that's also an inversion of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the humans are the dominant class.

1:11 - The way this ends is crazy, the WWE wrestler Goldberg unveils himself as a Tasmanian She-devil and gets married to the Tasmanian Devil.

1:13 - And now this Martian sequence which is a total digression from what happened before. I think this got added in the final stages of post-production, and seems like it was just improvised.

1:14 - This is classic Looney Tunes, this assaultive comedy.

1:17 - The carrot lightsaber – genius.

1:18 - Now Dante is indulging in some of the cross cutting of Star Wars.

1:19 - And even with the heroic rescue, Dante ends the scene with Wile E. Coyote getting blown away - his sympathies lie with them.

1:20 - And because this is Joe Dante's picture, Daffy finally gets to become a hero.

And of course the corporate executive is reduced to a monkey.

1:21 - Here's the sentimental piece - but what's that out the window? Again, Dante can't resist any chance to destroy corporate space.

And the credits - this Junior Senior track works because like the movie it keeps encouraging to have fun and it pounds it into you.