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Every Hollywood Movie Is A Children's Film
June 23, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider is no stranger to film criticism ( previously) but his thoughtful, surprising, detailed analysis of Lynch's The Straight Story and Spielberg/Kubrick's AI deserve special attention.
posted by The Whelk (42 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
last link is broken - it leads to a link farm.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 12:57 PM on June 23, 2012


Ah nut bunnies.
posted by The Whelk at 1:00 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mods alerted.
posted by The Whelk at 1:02 PM on June 23, 2012


[Removed dead link as requested. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 1:04 PM on June 23, 2012


Oh weird, I was just watching this excellent film essay on the motifs of AI like a minute and a half ago. Get out of my head, whelk!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:42 PM on June 23, 2012


Mmm, this essay is good, too. I really think AI might be my favorite-ever SF film.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:45 PM on June 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think he is missing something about Leland And Laura palmer, the fact that they "were both good and evil" and that Laura was "a coke whore" is immaterial as they were being manipulated by strange talking beings of short stature who fed off human pain and suffering. According to Lynch pain and suffering looks like creamed corn.

I don't think Lynch has a notion of good and evil, I think his movies are an exploration of the public versus secret. The public face versus the secret self we hide. It isn't that all his characters are good and evil, it is that they all have a secret.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:12 PM on June 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I've always been fascinated by A.I., even though I haven't seen it in over a decade. My problem with it wasn't so much the faux-schmaltzy ending, it was the way Spielberg tended to over-explain every single bit of plot in the ending, leaving very little to interpretation. Kubrick, if anyone, understands the concept of "showing" and not "saying".

Nevertheless, this was a good essay, with lots of connections I'd never made before.
posted by fungible at 3:27 PM on June 23, 2012


Well I've yet to read his analysis of A.I. but his beanplate bullshit about The Straight Story is pretty much pissing me off.
posted by ReeMonster at 3:42 PM on June 23, 2012


My problem with it wasn't so much the faux-schmaltzy ending, it was the way Spielberg tended to over-explain every single bit of plot in the ending, leaving very little to interpretation. Kubrick, if anyone, understands the concept of "showing" and not "saying".

Hmm, I don't see the ending this way at all. In fact, it's always felt more plausible to me that the ending didn't happen at all, but was rather programmed into David before the future bots disable him. They euthanize him, essentially, as a kind mercy.

It's not a particularly popular theory, but seems as well-supported by the film as the surface story. And, well, even if it's not true, there's a not-insignificant portion of the audience that still thinks it's aliens at the end (didn't Ebert think that?). So much for over-explaining.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:49 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm glad there are other people who liked A.I. It has always seemed to me that "Empire of the Sun" was also in the same vein of a film made for adults and children, also also underappreciated.
posted by pashdown at 3:59 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's an interesting reading of A.I., although I was taken aback by the supposed link between Joe and the client's murderer--they've got nothing physically or vocally in common. I think one could add that one of the most important lines in the film is Gigolo Joe's "I am...I was!" Because it's a breakthrough moment: he defines himself as simply being, not being for. (The Biblical echo is probably deliberate--"I am who am.") Joe, that is, ultimately manages to understand himself as an end in and of his own right, not a means to an end; he is, however briefly, a subject instead of an object. Which is not something that David ever manages.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:12 PM on June 23, 2012


My interpretation of the reality of the ending is exactly the same as PhoBWanKenobi's, though it wasn't until the second or third viewing that I arrived at it. The future-mother is just far too unlike his real mother to make any sense as real, especially combined with the "real" Blue Fairy, and that David could cry tears of love. This was strongly contrasted by the virtual tear Joe cried watching David fall, which implied that it wasn't physically realizable response for the mecha.

The other detail that I find relevant, and haven't seen much addressed, is that Ben Kingsley is both the narrator at the beginning and the voice of the leader of the future-robots. Presumably, this was not because Spielberg/Kubrick got lazy, but rather because the whole movie is told by the future robots to other future-robots. It's some combination of fairy tale and religious myth to them, strongly suggesting it not be taken entirely literally.
posted by Schismatic at 4:15 PM on June 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


but seems as well-supported by the film as the surface story.

The very first time I saw AI when the Future!Mecha says to David " you where made to be so young", I got it. Here they are, trying to uncover the secrets of thier long forgotten past and they finally unearth a working relic from when humanity was alive and it's a fucking Tinkertoy, a Supertoy, a dumb bot that they out out of its misery with a simulated " perfect day". They do what Monica couldn't, kill something that looks like a child, and that is more merciful.
posted by The Whelk at 4:19 PM on June 23, 2012


but his beanplate bullshit about The Straight Story is pretty much pissing me off.

I don't know if this is that guy who originated the theory that The Straight Story was about a mean drunk trying to make amends, but that is pretty much the accepted theory is it not? The odd thing is that it is based on a true story, and in theory we could verify it.

We know that Alvin Straight did have 7 kids and served in both WW II and Korea. We know that he drove a lawnmower over 200 miles to visit is brother. We also know that his brother recovered and moved closer to Alvin.Is there more to his story that we don't know? Is there a secret Alvin Straight that never got sober after WW II and let one of kids grand kids be injured in a fire due to neglect? Did Lynch reinterpret Straight's life, projecting some sort of deeper motivations where there were none? Is the theory total bullshit?
posted by Ad hominem at 5:08 PM on June 23, 2012


BTW, when I saw the movie I also commented to my girlfriend on the fascist symbolism. There is no way Lynch does not know the Fasces was the symbol of the Italian fascist party.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:12 PM on June 23, 2012


I agree with the article that AI is Spielberg's first adult movie. But it looks like it'll probably be his last, since his work since then still follows the same pattern of emotional manipulation. I wonder how a man who can do justice to such a bleak Kubrick concept can continue to make things like War Horse?
posted by harriet vane at 9:24 PM on June 23, 2012


Wow. I must have been drunk or stupid when I watched The Straight Story. I don't remember that subtext (supertext?) at all. Good writer.
posted by kozad at 9:30 PM on June 23, 2012


"Munich" was pretty damned adult and pretty damned bleak, to boot.
posted by seansbrain at 9:35 PM on June 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


man don't be all forgetting Krieder's Eyes Wide Shut review
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:29 PM on June 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Parenthetically, Krieder's recently released essay collection, We Learn Nothing, is a good read, and less cynical and depressing than you might expect from reading his comics.
posted by whir at 10:54 PM on June 23, 2012


Yeah, Munich was an odd duck though, IMO. There was some emotional manipulation where Spielberg lets us all know what we're supposed to think; but some quite stark moments too that kind of stood out like sore thumbs. I think it's a very personal movie for Spielberg, and I like it more than some of his more popular ones because of that.

I didn't realise these were from the guy who did that great Eyes Wide Shut article. Is his essay collection all about film or does it cover a range of topics?
posted by harriet vane at 11:16 PM on June 23, 2012


I like the ending. I hate these bandwagons were obliged to jump on about things like this.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:05 AM on June 24, 2012


man don't be all forgetting Krieder's Eyes Wide Shut review

Kreider's review more or less redeems EWS, to my mind. I can't recall any time in my life when a review made me rethink a film, much less the creative worth of the film.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:33 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


man don't be all forgetting Krieder's Eyes Wide Shut review
I just finished reading that, and I might actually sit through that damn movie again.
posted by lkc at 1:42 AM on June 24, 2012


Eyes Wide Shut was the first time I thought most critics are full of shit cause that movie is werid and layered and transfixing on many levels, and it has nothing to do with sex.

I mean, god just track the use of animal prints!
posted by The Whelk at 2:14 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


AI sucked mightily, but.. AI becomes much better if you walk out when the cubical spaceship appears.

I'd agree with Tim Kreider's assertion that recent Hollywood films are children's films, meaning they're stripping out the emotional complexity so that audiences need not work as hard to find sensible emotional responses. I suppose the recent comic book focus is partially about simplifying the movie experience by reducing what must be learned and analyzed by viewers.

We're observing the same juvenilization process in literature with the Harry Potter and Twilight series (obligatory). Rowling dropped her painfully childish plot devices once her own children grew up. Yet, she maintained the emotional manipulation that Kreider criticizes in Spielberg.

There are numerous instances of juvenilization/neoteny in evolutionary biology simply because the juvenile trait is readily available for the action of selection. Only kittens meow in wild cat species, never adults. Adult domesticated cats meow because humans act as a surrogate permanent mother cat.

I'm uncomfortable about the idea that middling authors and film directors might play perpetual mothers for western culture, short circuiting the complexity.

I'm suspicious that Kreider has gone slightly beyond he depth when criticizes modern films as providing a "Skinnerian payoff" because actually classical conditioning was entirely about teaching stable behaviors that no longer requires the reward. Any author or director who tried applying the behaviorist techniques to film design should actually find themselves teaching the appreciation of complex emotions. Spielberg is otoh simply baking you cakes and cookies. Rowling is somewhere in between, she doesn't help much, but she's also letting her own kids grow up or something.

I've previously argued that mathematics education should become much more behaviorist, exactly to simplify the educational process and teach more mathematics to more students.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:06 AM on June 24, 2012


they're stripping out the emotional complexity so that audiences need not work as hard to find sensible emotional responses.
why do you consider that appropriate for children
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 3:42 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm uncomfortable about the idea that middling authors and film directors might play perpetual mothers for western culture, short circuiting the complexity.

*stuffs fist in mouth, muffles scream*
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:36 AM on June 24, 2012


This is perhaps the truest and most succinct thing ever said about modern Hollywood movies:

Since Spielberg and Lucas revolutionized the business of filmmaking in the
Seventies, however, every Hollywood film has been a children's film.


Of course it's an overstatement, like every generalization, but it's an ocean of truth often overlooked in the excited parsing of the latest wave.
posted by languagehat at 8:44 AM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is perhaps the truest and most succinct thing ever said about modern Hollywood movies

I agree, but while it instantly resonates with you and me (and, I'm sure, many others), it's opaque to some. I've been discussing it with friends, and a couple of them took it literally. One said, "How is 'Jaws' a children's film?" Here's how I responded in an email:

He is using "a film for children" metaphorically. He doesn't literally think people should take five-year-olds to "Jaws."

He's noting that Spielberg, more than anyone else, created a kind of storytelling in which audiences are led by the hand towards specific having specific feelings, often to the extent of being shown how they're supposed to react by audience-surrogates in the films. Some critics call this the "awe track," a play on sitcom's "laugh track," which tells audiences when they were supposed to laugh. Awe-tracks tell audiences when they're supposed to be awe-struck -- or to feel some other emotion.

You can really see the awe-track at play in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," which literally features shots of people staring in awe. It's like Spielberg doesn't trust us to be amazed by a gigantic alien space craft. In general, if something emotional happens in a Spielberg film, there will be an immediate cut to a character having the "correct" emotional reaction to it, and this (presumably) fires up mirror neurons in the audience.

If you don't notice this, it's because the device has become so ubiquitous, it's everywhere. It's in almost all films and TV shows. But Spielberg invented it -- or at least greatly refined it. It's ubiquity is why Krieder says "Since Spielberg and Lucas revolutionized the business of filmmaking in the Seventies, however, every Hollywood film has been a children's film." He doesn't mean a they're all films about animated toys and cute animals. He means they're childish. In his opinion, grownups shouldn't be lead towards reactions. They should react however they react.

To me, it's a matter of personal taste, so I wouldn't go as far as to say "should," but Kreiger's tastes certainly echo mine. I prefer emotionally ambiguous films to on-the-nose ones. I prefer it when you don't know how to feel about a character (is he a hero or a villain?) than when you unambiguously root for him or hate him. "Citizen Kane" is the classic example of a an ambiguous figure. I can't imagine a character like that in a Spielberg film.

I quite like "Schindler's List." It's one of the few Spielberg films I like, but it's interesting to compare it with "Citizen Kane." Both Kane and Schindler are, on the surface, ambiguous figures. The are both ruthless business men who, at times, are generous. But Spielberg works hard to make sure that, by the end of the film, you have no ambiguous feelings about Schindler. He's simply a hero, and the tragedy is that he can't see how angelic he is.

There biggest awe-track moment in that film is when all the survivors place rocks on Schindler's grave. Rather than letting us make up our own minds about him, Spielberg is demanding that we see Schindler in a particular way. "Everyone thinks he's a hero! So you better think so, too!"

In addition to awe-tracks, these films usually contain another layer that leads you by the hand -- usually a character clearly stating the theme or moral of the film. I remember sitting down to watch "Jurassic Park" for the first time, seeing what a huge deal they made about Sam Neil not liking children. The movie repeatedly refers to it, and I was 100% positive that, by the end, he would undergo a trite transformation in which he learned to love kids. (And, of course, he did.) Again, Spielberg can't deal with a hero who has rough edges. And the way he softens the edges is through hit-you-over-the-head narrative devices.
posted by grumblebee at 1:41 PM on June 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think it's interesting that the A.I. essay didn't mention one of the most pointed bits of self-reference in the film. The rounding up of robots for the Flesh Fair is spearheaded by a fellow in a leather jacket and fedora riding around in a hot-air balloon made to look like a full moon. More specifically, it's an Indiana Jones proxy riding around in something strongly reminiscent of the Amblin logo - directorial self-insertion from Spielberg. This character then goes on to rather pointedly explain that you shouldn't trust any of the 'emotions' of the robots, because the entire thing is an illusion, they aren't real, they're shallow simulacra designed to manipulate our own feelings.

This is two things simultaneously - a) Spielberg's aforementioned propensity for overtly telling the audience how to feel about any given moment in the plot, and b) Spielberg telling the audience not to trust how the shadows on the screen try to make you feel. It's a very interesting self-critique, an open admission of how trite both the 'surface' plot is that is possibly expanded out into a more candid admission of the structures of his other works.

I've always thought that A.I. was one of Spielberg's best moments, and that Kubrick specifically gave the work to him to handle *because* of his long association with emotionally manipulative entertainment. It felt similar to the later film Funny People, which was Seth Rogen getting Adam Sandler to admit that the vast majority of his oeuvre was pudding-headed garbage designed to extract cash from the lowest common denominator of film-goers, and that something else more emotionally sincere was needed for them to truly produce something worth watching. And Sandler, like Spielberg before him, bravely put out this daring self-analysis for the public, and then promptly went back to churning out tripe.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:51 PM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


@fatherdagon

we're shallow simulacra designed to manipulate our own feelings
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:05 AM on June 25, 2012


Kubrick concept art and storyboards
posted by The Whelk at 7:20 AM on June 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Was it explicitly stated somewhere that the beings at the end of the movie were robotic/of human origin, or were they alien archaeologists?
posted by MangyCarface at 9:51 AM on June 25, 2012


The future-bot at the end states that they were initially created by humans, and went on self-creating long after humans died. That's why they're so focused on reaching back to find relics of humanity - all the robots in the movie are designed to fulfil and exploit human needs, that is their core purprose. They are servants without a master, and apparently never moved beyond that intrinsic principal of being.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:14 AM on June 25, 2012


And Sandler, like Spielberg before him, bravely put out this daring self-analysis for the public, and then promptly went back to churning out tripe.

Yes, this! This is what I find mystifying in both cases. I'd love to get either of them drunk or whatever and see if I could find out why. "Money" is the easy answer, of course. But it seems too pat for me.
posted by harriet vane at 11:34 PM on June 25, 2012


I find the odd explosion in Speilberg-homages from about a year go even stranger, he had his hand in a lot of them and they range from pitch perfect ( maybe too perfect) pitsatches like Super 8, to revamped remakes like Fright Night to loving parodic homages like Paul. It's every everyone just decided what they all really wanted to do was make movies shown on HBO'S in endless repeat in 94.

A.I is a werid, self critical project for Speilberg to be in but War Of The World was even weirder.
posted by The Whelk at 6:23 AM on June 26, 2012


How so? I never saw it because of Tom Cruise.
posted by harriet vane at 10:06 PM on June 26, 2012


It's just relentless, the TERROR never stops, you never get to get your bearings cause OMG HORRIBLE THINGS and the end isn't really a relief it's just like a collapse, It's werid as a Spielberg movie and werid as a movie cause it's like an entire movie made of a chase scene
posted by The Whelk at 10:12 PM on June 26, 2012


I just remember seeing it with a group and everyone said the movie was really ...uncomfortable and draining and it just happened at you, like it was stress disorder all the time and I remember thinking, huh that is an interesting emotion to invoke in the viewers from the king of audience emotion invoking,
posted by The Whelk at 10:15 PM on June 26, 2012


Granted none of us thought it was good, but it picked its mood and stuck with it.
posted by The Whelk at 10:16 PM on June 26, 2012


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