The modes of Spielberg
As everyone knows, Steven Spielberg's filmmaking career has different modes. Tim Kreider, writing at length about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) in Film Quarterly, says there are two of them: "movies for children" and "movies for grownups." (1) In the former category Kreider puts not just E.T. and the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies, but also Jaws and Close Encounters; and in the latter category, of course, he puts The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan. Kreider goes on to call Spielberg's "children's movies" "arguably the greatest made since Walt Disney's," and says more or less correctly that "since Spielberg and Lucas revolutionized filmmaking in the 1970s ..., every Hollywood movie has been a children's film." By contrast, he has a lower opinion of Spielberg's "grownup" movies, which he accuses of having "the same ingratiating, manipulative techniques that make his children's films so effective" (32). So far, so familiar: Kreider's analysis more or less duplicates what many writers have said about Spielberg's films.
In this context, A.I. has given reviewers and commentators something to think about. This is because some aspects of the film are so emphatically in Spielberg's "children's" mode as to make it seem the whole film will be so, while others are disconcertingly dark and pessimistic, and consequently "grown up," but not in the overtly serious and socially conscious way that The Color Purple or Schindler's List are. The disturbing qualities of A.I. have widely been traced to its origins in a project that Stanley Kubrick had under development for almost 20 years, and more or less willed to Spielberg to complete upon his death in 1999. The Kubrick connection, and the degree to which A.I. in its present form retains strong elements of Kubrick's development, is a fascinating topic, but it is not one I am going to spend much time on here. Instead I want to discuss A.I. as a Spielberg film, more particularly as a Spielberg "children's film," and most particularly as the culmination of an undercurrent of despair running through many of those films.
Movies like Close Encounters, E.T., and Hook occupy a position that is a continuation of a Hollywood phenomenon first seen decades earlier, during the late 1930s and 40s, most pointedly in the films of Frank Capra and in Disney's animated features. It is a syndrome that features a fervent idealism, a craving for a pure and perfect form of living, and it is accompanied by a corresponding anxiety, rising at times to hysteria, at the fear that the vision of a perfect world is not realizable, or is not strong enough to overcome the forces of darkness which range from laziness and cynicism to predatory greed and violence. Of course the phenomenon is a broad one, and needs to be seen properly as an aspect of mainstream American culture. But there is a very particular expression of it in Capra and Disney, and it is this specific variety that is resurrected in Spielberg. One thing that distinguishes the Capra/Disney/Spielberg sub-group is what we might call a battle of faith. The realization, or failure, of the idealist enterprise is founded in an internal, spiritual landscape--it is a battle between belief and its enemy doubt. Obviously there is a religious overtone to such a scenario, and it is related, too, to that program of simplification and intensification that can be encompassed by Kreider's term "children's films." But it is especially noteworthy that even when (as in Capra) the project is a social and national one, and calls for the radical recasting of political and commercial institutions, it is always grounded in the socially-virtual realm of spiritual faith. Change the way you feel and you will change the world. (2)
Avoiding all the bean-counting and negotiation and compromise, instead jumping directly to a massive, transfiguring solution to all problems--that is the Capra/Disney/Spielberg way. …