Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A.I. and IWTB con’t (The Limits of Myths and Fables)




In past pieces, I have written about Hero archetypes, and interpretations of prophecy, with part 1 and part 2 of The Ophiuchus Code. My nagging question has remained, to what degree to we just accept the narratives or memes we have been told? What role do genre fans play in the selection of the kind of commercial product that is released?

The reason why I drew parallels between the public’s reaction to both A.I. and I Want To Believe, was due to a larger picture concern I have, which I will explore further here. A few historical parallels can be made between Kubrick, The X-Files, and Chris Carter. Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey thematically dealt with Ancient Astronaut Theory, the meme that Extra-Terrestrials influenced our early development as a race. This meme was frequently explored within The X-Files, and especially in the later seasons. But, from a mythological standpoint, what the about the inverse of that meme? Once you take a look at the overall thematic arches of A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, is it possible that the humans that built the machines, might have inadvertently influenced the advanced mechas to develop a soul? If other races might have influenced our development, could we do the same with our own creations? An interesting thought. Kubrick was known to have a fondness for Robots, and he was known to comment that machines with Artificial Intelligence would replace humans, as humans hold an inability to evolve. As some would argue, if Religion is a human construct, if Mythology is a human construct, shouldn’t we think outside the box and admit that other species would create their mythological construct about us?

"If man merely sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should he bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?" – Stanley Kubrick


Again, an interesting thought, and one that parallels along the line of Chris Carter’s monologues from “Syzygy” 3x13

Which brings us back to some questions about Spielberg, what brought him to do A.I., and what developed afterwards. Setting aside his relationship with Stanley Kubrick, could Spielberg have sensed that there were limits to the commercial narrative of Fables, and wanted to dig a little deeper?

Spielberg: The Evolution of an Artist.

In 1991, Spielberg released Hook, a collaboration with James V Hart that addressed issues concerning Peter Pan. Admittedly entertaining, with its share of interesting moments, the film is flawed. One is left with the feeling that it takes only half measures on the issues it attempts to raise.

It should also be said in many respects that Hook embodied Spielberg’s desire to let go of childish things. Soon, his development, his maturation as an artist would make a radical shift. In 1991, Spielberg could have made Hook, but could not have made A.I.; his sensibilities had not matured enough to do so.



Following the commercial juggernaut that was Jurassic Park (1992), Spielberg created the Oscar winning Holocaust drama, Schindler’s List in 1993. With this film, Spielberg tackled more adult, and darker material, and was unflinching and unrelenting in his depiction of the subject. In 1997, he followed it with Amistad, a period film about an incident concerning the American slave trade that was just as unflinching. That same year, he created Jurassic Park: The Lost World, but his sensibility had already progressed, so the second Jurassic Park didn’t quite work; Spielberg could not sanitize some of the more darker aspects of the themes he was addressing. He followed this with his other Oscar winning film, Saving Private Ryan, another WW II film that was forthright in its recounting of the occupation of Germany.

In many respects A.I. was the culmination of Spielberg’s artistic growth. The potential of the film raised the question if Spielberg could delve back into the Science Fiction genre with a more mature outlook, and be as unflinching in his depictions, as he had been with Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. The argument from the general public seemed to have been; ‘No’, considering the outcome of the film’s release. But fans, due to their assumptions, might have missed what was there. The ramifications have been steep in their way – there’s a personal feeling that Spielberg has artistically back peddled away from tackling more adult themes within escapist genres, after the mixed public reaction of the film. For actor Haley Joel Osment, the ramifications were a little more hard-hitting, regarding the public’s perception of him as a screen presence since 2001.

A number of his smaller independent films have not seen commercial release. For example, Edges of the Lord, a WW II drama about Jewish children who were hidden by Catholic families to be spared from the Nazi’s, was filmed in 2000 within Poland, and was a film whose distribution was bought by Miramax, then was shelved until it was released to DVD with little fanfare. The same problem faced Home of The Giants, another example from 2007, a high school sports drama that ran into distribution problems when the studio that financed the film ran into trouble. His last wide commercial release was 2003’s Secondhand Lions. In fairness, it should be noted that Haley Osment slowed down his acting career to finish high school, and attend NYU to study experimental theatre. His willingness to remain out of the spotlight was his choice, which allowed the opportunity for other young actors who grab the spotlight in his absence. Therefore, the perceived decline in his movie career might be less a reflection of a lack of box office appeal on his part.

Spielberg did follow up A.I. with Minority Report (2002), a science fiction thriller based on a Philip K. Dick story, which was a showcase for Tom Cruise. While the film is nearly on par with A.I., and the visual sensibility shares a lot with A.I., as well as hints at a Kubrick influence, there is an impression that Spielberg felt a need to pander to the audience, a pattern that would become more apparent with each new film. Spielberg then followed up this film with the more escapist fare of Catch Me If You Can (2003). Based on a true account of a conman who played with various identities in the 1960s, the film was a showcase for Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks. While enjoyable, and full of nostalgia, this felt like another step towards Spielberg’s artistic back peddling. In 2004, he followed that film with The Terminal, a film I cannot comment on as I have never seen it.

Yet the real nadir for Spielberg came in 2005 with his adaptation of H.G. Welles’s War Of The Worlds. A film that was the antithesis of A.I., it fails to offer any insight into the human condition, and just offers shallow spectacle. While I never had any issue with changing the setting from the Victorian era to contemporary times, Welles himself had commented in the 30s, that any adaptation of his book should reflect the era of its production. The script adaptation by Josh Friedman and David Koepp was riddled with so many plot holes and lapses of logic, as well as characterizations so poorly written they failed to evoke any credibility, that the script undermines whatever good intentions there might have been. The cast, while capable, had little to work with. Tom Cruise remains one note throughout, and Dakota Fanning’s character is so shrill as to render her almost unwatchable. Tim Robbins, an otherwise fine actor, is saddled with a character that likewise plays as one note insane. There is also the issue of pointless plot threads which do nothing for the story other than serve grim sensationalism. One example is that of the red vines. In Welles’ novel, the purpose of the Martian’s red vines is to change the atmosphere of the Earth for their own means. Here, the red vines are only used for more ghoulish and pointless effect. Yet the greatest disloyalty to Welles’ classic work has to be the end. While the film is effective in establishing a certain dark tone, that tone is betrayed by an ending that just panders to the audience, and one is left with an intellectually dishonest film that is inconsistent in tone. Ironically, some of the past accusations about A.I.’s intellectual dishonesty applied less to A.I. and more to this film.

Spielberg followed this film with Munich (2005). Based on true accounts after the assassination of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972--Black September--of the black box operation to hunt down and kill the terrorists involved, it was closer in form to Spielberg’s late 90s work. Yet the film was highly controversial, as it presented moral gray areas between the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Spielberg reteamed with George Lucas for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008), a film that indeed does deal with aspects of the Ancient Astronauts theory, yet is many years late in exploring the subject, after The X-Files explored the same memes. It should be noted that David Koepp was the co-writer, and the film does suffer from some of the same structural narrative issues as WOTW. It is difficult to access Crystal Skulls as a true reflection of Spielberg’s interests, when you consider the heavy influence of George Lucas on the story, except to add that again, one is left with the impression at this point that Spielberg had creatively back peddled, and had just about reverted to his escapist inclinations of the late 80s, while producing work that hasn’t really satisfied many demographics over the last decade.

Some fans have steadfastly insisted that Spielberg re-create the kind of work he was producing in the 80s, yet this has created a conundrum. Spielberg, like all artists, has grown, and it has become impossible for him to replicate a sensibility he no longer shares. When he tries to pander to these demands, or second guesses his artistic needs verses the demands of commerce, it feels half-hearted in a subliminal fashion. This inclination is within most people, to expect an artist to turn out what is comfortable. Many of us as genre fans, myself included, do suffer from our own Peter Pan Syndrome.

The Peter Pan Syndrome



Over the summer, I had the fortune of seeing a faithful staged production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and I was left with a few impressions. I was surprised by the very dark aspects that could be found in the production. There was a higher ratio of death than I expected, Pan’s avoidance with growing up, at moments, was disturbing, and the ending is truly a tragedy. Despite his adventures, Pan must suffer eternally because he refused adulthood, whereas, Wendy decides to come back and produce children and dream of the Never land and die. This aspect is made clear in the play, and perhaps while Barrie celebrated childhood, he understood that the idealized notion of Pan, a boy who never grows up, indeed had great limits.



Production still from 360 Productions, "Peter Pan" 2010

Indeed, Peter Pan as a fable has a real bite that has gone missing with the more Walt Disney flavored interpretations. When Spielberg and James Hart attempted to tackle head on the theme of “Pan” with Hook, they adhered too closely to the themes already touched on in the play, and did not take it far enough, emotionally, to offer a way out of the dilemma that the story presented. Yet in 1993, horror maven, fabulist, and dark fantasy author, Clive Barker, did find a way to invert the subject with his children’s tale The Thief of Always.



The story involves Harvey Swick, a ten-year-old who is living in a Middle American town, suffering from post Holiday doldrums. He is enticed by Rictus, and is lured away through a threshold to a place called Holiday House, run by the mysterious Mr. Hood. Harvey befriends two other children at the house: Wendell, and the melancholy Lulu. Within this wonderland of childhood delights, each season is cycled through an entire day, and a nearby lake is inhabited with swarms of mysterious fishes. Harvey soon begins to see there’s a price to be paid for such delights. Lulu disappears within the lake, and Harvey with Wendell escape back into the real world, only to be faced with a cruel discovery. In what appeared to be a one-month escape, it has in fact been thirty-one years since Harvey left his home. His parents are old and decades have been robbed from him. Harvey and Wendell find their way back into Holiday House, defeat Mr. Hood’s deceptive minions, battle Mr. Hood, who we learn is a psychic Vampire King, an entity who feeds on the youth of children, and Harvey outwits him, destroys him and frees the souls of past captive children, or brings back the children in human form from the Lake. Harvey becomes a good thief, a boy whose stolen years are back in his possession.





Illustrations by Clive Barker

As pointed out by Clive Barker’s official biographer, Douglas Winter, from his book The Dark Fantastic, Clive’s story inverts Peter Pan with The Thief of Always.



“It stands for me,’ Barker says, ‘at the crux of the problem of fantasy, because a great deal of fantasy is adolescent, reductionist, misinformed about the human condition, and masturbatory. I don’t mean that in a sexual sense; I mean it’s unproductive, sterile…The beautiful pain of that story (Peter Pan) is at the basis of what I want to do in fantasy. I want to examine how we deal with that problem. How do we deal with the problem that, if we embrace Neverland too strongly, we are forever sucking our thumbs, but if we die without knowing Neverland, we’ve lost our power to dream…If you merely write to escape, you are not interpreting the world, and true fantasy is a way of interpreting the world.”


One could argue that The Thief of Always is also taking a deconstructionist approach to an aspect of Fables and Myths: The child hero archetype. The above concern is a fundamental problem with some genre fans. Great Myths, Fables, Science Fiction and Horror should have an edge; they should have some emotional truth about the human condition. If genre fans as consumers, just embrace the surface aspects of their interests, there is no growth, no real insight.

"deconstructionism".

We have freely used the term “Deconstructionist” and we really should clarify its origin and how this applies to genre film and television and offer a working definition. The term often applies to the field of literature, and as an approach, was introduced by French Philosopher Jacques Derrida, which seeks to rigorously pursue the meaning of a text to the point of exposing the supposed contradictions and internal oppositions upon which it is founded – thereby showing that those foundations are complex, unstable, or impossible. This approach can be deployed in philosophy, literary analysis, or other fields. The sources for this approach that influenced Derrida’s work can be found with Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Andre Leroi-Gourhan, and Ferdinand de Saussure. Deconstructionism was a partial reaction to Structuralism.

It should be noted that the Deconstructionist approach is very open ended. It should also be noted, in forewarning, that due to some of the work of Paul de Man, Deconstuctionism has been viewed as fascist in nature. The theory in its purest form, admittedly, can be elitist, and inaccessible to the public. Opponents will often accuse Deconstructionism of being a threat to traditional values, while proponents will often argue that this approach encourages originality, and an ability to think outside the box. But for our purposes, should this approach, in a more direct form, be used to examine the narrative of Myths, Fables, and genres within film? The deconstructionist approached has already been applied within the Comic book field, once you consider Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s masterpiece Watchmen. Some have argued we are already in a post deconstructionist phase, and have entered a Reconstructionist phase.

Joseph Campbell’s seminal "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" has had such a profound impact with the commercial television and film industry, since George Lucas applied Campbell’s work for Star Wars (1977). Campbell followed the work of Sigmund Freud, and especially Carl Jung, and it should be noted that Campbell’s conception of Myth is closely related to the Jungian method of dream interpretation, which, of course is heavily reliant on symbolic interpretation. It is interesting to note that author James Joyce had a great influence on Campbell’s work. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus about Campbell’s work, and little, if any dissent about his interpretations. But the problem may lie within a selectivity of his breakdowns about myths and archetypes.

Screenwriter Christopher Vogler created a seven-page memo based on Campbell’s work, "A practical guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces," which lead to the development of Disney’s 1994 film, The Lion King, and was later developed into the late 90s book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. But there is a fundamental problem when Myths are commoditized, commercialized, and so distilled that they lose their rough edges. Not everyone had adhered to the structures of Campbell’s work. Author Neil Gaiman has stated he started reading "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," then refused to finish it, and finding himself thinking that if it’s true, he would rather not know, but do it because it’s true, and because he accidentally winds up creating something that falls into the pattern, then be told what the pattern is. The problem might have less to do with Campbell’s work, than with how other’s interpret the work and how to use the symbols. In this respect, Deconstructionism and Reconstructionism might hold constructive tools to bring back more emotional meat and weight to genres that have fallen stagnant.

The Limits of fables and myths

Come away O Human Child,
To the Waters and the Wild,
with a fairy, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping,
than you can understand.

- William Butler Yeats, used in A.I. from "The Stolen Child"

We live in a world full of potential pain and peril for children. Even for a well adjusted child, they can face setbacks, and disappointments. The original constructive use of Myths and fables, as told to children, was to offer roadmaps to understand the world, and to help them find their place in the world, and in a best sense to lay a groundwork for growth, both spiritual and emotional. But what happens, as one gets older, when the symbols and archetypes that are so deeply conditioned in us as children, begin to ring hollow? When we recognize that the world is full of far more gray areas, then the idealism of Myths, fables, and genres, that have become sanitized?

An interesting revelation was found at the following site:

Kubrick's final collaborator on the 'A.I' script was English novelist Sara Maitland whom he felt was necessary in shaping the story into a cohesive whole. "By the time I came to the project it had become enormous, unwieldy and unfocused," said Ms. Maitland. Upon perusing the piles of unfinished scripts, she concluded that the story needed to make emotional sense as a myth or fairy tale does, and believes that Kubrick realized this. In fact Kubrick also was adamant that the story should work in terms of myth. "He never referred to the film as 'A.I.'; he always called it 'Pinocchio.' "


It is interesting to wonder why Kubrick viewed A.I. as a Fable. I won’t claim to have any greater insight into Kubrick’s intentions, for I would be no better than others that claim to be an authority on Kubrick. We are only left to speculate. Within Philosophy, the field of Deconstructionism and Reconstructionism took hold in the early eighties. There’s no evidence that Kubrick was adopting these theories, so therefore, we can only speculate that, from an intuitive level, if Kubrick sensed a new void had to be filled in addressing fables as one of the most potent, and deep-seated, forms of storytelling.

To reiterate, all story telling is about exploring the human condition and making sense of the world. If it is just about escapism for the genre fan, for the consumer, then there can be no real insight, no real depth of meaning. Fables, Mythologies, and genres like Science Fiction, and Horror, should be allowed to address themes, memes, and subjects that are uncomfortable on some level, that touch on deeper philosophical issues, or aspects of the psyche, to overcome, or embrace the shadow self. Incredible strides have been made within Science Fiction and Horror literature, thanks to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Ramsey Campbell, and the afore mentioned Clive Barker. But if the genre fan of genre television and film just embraces the surface aspect of such genres, if they reject material that is difficult to absorb, they will miss out on opportunities that could truly be personally transformative.

While this appeal might seem presumptive on my behalf, I am hoping this will not be misunderstood. To address the issue of how this concerns the future of Chris Carter’s work, at present, it cannot be determined if the box office for The X-Files: I Want To Believe has stifled Mr. Carter’s willingness to take risks in furthering the narrative of The X-Files mythology. While the outcome of Spielberg’s artistic trajectory has become evident over the past decade. That outcome remains unclear for Mr. Carter. Let’s hope he will continue to listen to his inner muse, and produce the kind of work that remains truthful to himself first, and foremost, and then will feel truthful to fans of his past work.

Addendum

The following above points are directed at adult genre fans. In an age where the celebration of childhood has been diminished, where children are oversaturated with information that seems to be leaving a segment of this generation jaded, where children are being compelled to ‘act above their age’, and at time when children are being conditioned to accept things, they should not be asked to accept by society. I do find great value in the fables, myths, and fairy tales, that are shared between a parent and child, my hope is that such tales, when told, are explained contextually by a parent to such children, on their own terms, and with clarity.

Special thanks to XScribe for some great editorial work.

I would highly recommend reading The Thief Of Always.

Please check out 'Come Away O Human Child', an exceptional tribute and archive site about 'A.I. - Artificial Intelligence', and thanks to Daniel Chia for his years of great work.

I also must acknowledge the brilliant analytical work of Bryan Harrison, Dave Corcoran, and Bill Coronel, regarding 'A.I.'

3 comments:

Raj said...

An excellent, insightful post!

Mark Hayden said...

I set aside some time to read this and I'm glad I did so in a leisurely rather than a hurried read. Congratulations on a well constructed and very detailed summary of you thoughts. It is rare to see blog posts of this quality and extremely refreshing to see anyone in fandom serving original opinions rather than trading solely in gimmicks and celebrity news. The art of delving into subjects with this degree of effort has been lost in our bitesized world of condensed Tweets and Facebook shouts and I applaud you for it. It's a great article and I'm delighted that you continue to deliver value to your supporters.

The X-Files Lexicon Blog said...

Hi Raj, and Mark Heyden, Thank you for your great comments and being so attentive about reading it, this does warm the heart to know the work is worth it.