Thursday, 14 January 2010

Study of a Single Film: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

What makes A.I. Steven Spielberg’s strangest, most interesting, and (though it may sound ironic to say it) most mature work is that, whether by accident or design, it’s the first of his movies to be both a “children’s” film, ingratiating and manipulative, and a film for adults—complex, ambiguous, brutal and cold. Or, to put it another way, both a Steven Spielberg film and a Stanley Kubrick film.
Tim Kreider, 'A.I.: Artificial Intelligence', originally published in Film Quarterly, Vol. 56, no. 2, December 2002

Although Stanley Kubrick spent almost two decades developing A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Steven Spielberg would eventually write and direct the final film after Kubrick’s death. While it may seem odd for a single work to result from two creators—especially two directors so distinct in style and temperament—this combination of minds actually reflects the themes and motifs of the film. Within its visual text, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is obsessed with patterns of doubling and circular design. Throughout the film, faces become superimposed on top of one another, different characters repeat similar actions, and even the film narrative circles around on itself. In addition, specific characters are repeatedly framed through oval structures or reflected against rounded surfaces. These repetitions of shot choice and composition suggest multiple readings and underlying themes, including an interconnection between humans and machines that spans both desire and destiny.
Ben Sampson, ''Intelligence Doubled: A Visual Study of A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, UCLA, 2010
Way back in the increasingly dim and distant past, when Film Studies For Free's author used to teach film studies in a real classroom ... to real people ... (imagine!), one of her favourite courses was called Study of a Single Film. It fruitfully took a single film as its subject and object, for a whole semester,  revealing -- even to students who had hoped they might be able to choose the film themselves... -- the many benefits of truly concentrated film analysis and scholarship.

FSFF was reminded of these benefits when its attention was drawn to a marvellous new video essay on a single film by Benjamin Sampson, a graduate researcher in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. Sampson is the creator of another visual essay that this blog loved, on Orson Welles's F for Fake, originally published in the online UCLA journal Mediascape. According to the Mediascape website, prior to his graduate studies, Sampson worked for four years as a freelance videographer and video editor. His current research focuses on the later films of Orson Welles, audience segmentation in the 1950s, and essay films

Sampson's magnificently edited and profoundly argued new essay, embedded above, studies in detail the design and purpose of the many motifs of duality in Steven Spielberg's 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence. As Sampson himself notes in his commentary, duality is a particularly interesting aspect to study in relation to A.I., as it was the film with which Spielberg 'completed' Stanley Kubrick's original project in his own fashion. The essay is very timely, too: while somewhat derided by serious film criticism at the time of its release, A.I. recently found its way into some of the most discerning 'Best Films of the Decade' lists (see here [Reverse Shot], here [Glenn Kenny], and here [Jonathan Rosenbaum]), very deservedly in this blog's humble opinion.

In honour of A.I., as well as in celebration of Ben Sampson's wonderful, multimedia essay on it -- a piece of work which really begins to show what scholarly video essays can achieve, FSFF today launches its occasional series of 'Study of a Single Film' blog-posts.

There'll be links galore to online and openly accessible film scholarship or criticism of note (as below), all pertaining to great films of particular relevance to academic film studies. More of the usual, really...

But if you'd like to suggest a fruitful film for this series on which FSFF might base future such blogposts, or if, like Sampson, you have produced a really good scholarly video essay on a single film (or know of someone else who has) that might be centrepiece of future posts, do please get in touch by email.


Dan North said...

This is an excellent idea, Catherine. I'll look forward to more of the same.

At the Film and History conference in 2008 I noticed a large number of papers about A.I., so it's clearly exercising a lot of critics in varied and interesting ways. I'll take a look at the video essays later, but it sounds fascinating. I also think it's one of Spielberg's strongest films, marred as ever by his fumbling over the ending(s).

J. Leddington said...

Thanks for this. It's really useful and interesting. Adding to your list of texts, here's a great review of this film by Jonathan Rosenbaum: