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At the Movies

Off the Path


A.I. is the biggest movie of the summer, its big advance promotion trading on the prestige of both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. The former worked on the project for several years before he died, and Spielberg says he tried to make the movie the way Kubrick would have. The director of “E.T.” again demonstrates his extraordinary skill (Janusz Kaminski did the superb cinematography) in creating strange -- sometimes quite lovely -- computerized images, but the overall Spielberg-Kubrick “collaboration” has produced a wildly disjointed movie. “A.I” deals with such basic emotions -- Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) abandons David, her robot son (Haley Joel Osment) after programming him to love her eternally -- that many moviegoers will be deeply moved, but this story of a doom-ridden future collapses into a mixture of sentimentality, pretentiousness and sensory overkill.

“A.I.” begins in the frightening future with a solemn voiceover by Ben Kingsley informing us that the polar ice cap has melted, leaving New York and other cities underwater. Strict regulations on family size protect the existing population, which depends more and more on “mecha” servants, androids that look and act human. At a supposed science seminar, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt) announces that he has developed a new robot with the capacity to love. When an African-American woman asks how can we be sure that humans will return this love, the answer is glib: “Didn’t God create Adam so that he might love Him?” The mindset of the company that makes mechas obviously has no real interest in God, nor does it ever question the unhealthy assumption that children exist simply to satisfy their parents’ needs. David is handed over to the Swintons --husband Henry (Sam Robards) works for Hobby’s company -- since their terminally ill son Martin (Jake Thomas) has been cryogenically frozen while a cure is being sought.

Haley Joel Osment, even more remarkable than in “The Sixth Sense,” makes this paragon robot as unsettling as he is sweet; we know he’s not a real child when he asks, “Do you want me to go to bed now?” Monica has been warned that if she uses special code words to imprint David, she will have his undying love; at that point the only alternative would be to destroy him. Charmed by his unblinking attention, she pronounces the code; very soon afterward, however, a medical miracle brings Martin out of his coma and home to his strangely expanded family.

The sibling rivalry behind Martin’s nastiness to David is consistent with an overall presentation of mechas as far more attractive than humans, a theme that probably derives from Kubrick. Urged on by Martin, David even enters the Swinton’s bedroom at night, frightening Monica by cutting off a lock of her hair with large scissors. Henry tells his wife that the robot-child is a threat she must get rid of, setting up the movie’s key scene, in which Monica leaves the frightened David alone in the forest with his super-toy teddy bear.

Since Monica had read “Pinocchio” to David, he sets off in search of the Blue Fairy in order to become a “real boy” -- and win back Mommy. Whereas Pinocchio lies, makes mistakes and goes through a learning process, David, programmed for innocence, is dragged to the Flesh Fair, at which Nazi-like humans persecute outcast robots. He and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a pomaded charmer David has met along the way, are herded into cages while Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson), who presides over the fair, calls for the destruction of “artificiality” in the name of “a truly human future.” The contradictory emotional claims of the scene were preceded by pathetic images of robots patiently searching for spare parts in a junk pile. When they break out of their cages, Joe takes David to Rouge City to consult Dr. Know (a TV image with the voice of Robin Williams) about the whereabouts of the Blue Fairy. Directed to “the end of the world,” a submerged Manhattan, David dives from the top of Radio City into the frightening waters deep below. Since this would hardly make a successful commercial ending, Spielberg adds a two-thousand-year-later epilogue that, if taken seriously, would encourage discussion of Oedipus.

Spielberg forgets that, though mommies are wonderful, we ought to learn to love people in general. My advice is to avoid this cornucopia of technology and reread “Pinocchio,” a genuine work of imagination.

Divided We Fall, a Czech treatment of life in a small town under Nazi occupation, is an Oscar-nominated foreign film that highlights the ambiguity of moral choice. While reminding us of the horror of Hitler’s efforts to exterminate the Jews, its central character is Josef Cizek (Bolek Polívka), a cynical, lazy husband with a minor physical disability that allows him to lie on the living room sofa all day and escape the attention of the German authorities. When David Wiener (Csongor Kassai), a Jewish refugee whose family once employed Cizek, shows up one night looking for refuge, Josef grudgingly gives him shelter in the attic, fearing that a German patrol would trace David to the house if he left him to wander on the street. Marie, Josef’s wife, shows more instinctive compassion and brings David an extra blanket, but Josef’s sarcasm continues unabated, directed not only at Nazi propaganda but at his wife’s desire to have a baby, which is dramatized by a large picture of the Blessed Virgin hanging over the sofa.

Polivka makes Josef’s basic decency plausible, especially in contrast with the toadying of Horst Prohaska (Jaroslav Dusek), who keeps dropping in, mostly to admire Marie but also to encourage Josef to join him in working for the local German authorities. Josef goes along, fearful that Horst will accidentally discover David’s presence in the house, and the movie’s best comic moment comes when Horst tries to teach Josef the resolutely unconcerned facial expression that the Nazis will interpret as loyalty.

Of course, the neighbors show contempt for Josef when they see him with Horst and the local German supervisor, and the plot turns farcical when Horst asks him to give shelter to a Nazi sympathizer who has fallen into disgrace because his son has become a deserter. Marie explains that this is impossible because she is pregnant and they will need their extra room for the baby. When he is alone with her, Josef asks Marie how she can lie so well after receiving a strict, traditional education. Since medical tests have revealed that Josef is impotent, there is a huge problem to solve in explaining the situation to Horst.

“Divided We Fall” preserves a genuine sense of danger in the whole situation while working toward a hopeful resolution -- aided by the end of the war. The unwillingness to see things in terms of black and white continues with the Russian takeover of the town, since its new masters at first believe Josef is a collaborator. The sly Czech sense of the absurd contributes to a sense of ultimate reconciliation, in which even Horst establishes his basic humanity.

The movie will not satisfy those looking for a resolutely realistic depiction of Nazi terror. It is far more interested in emphasizing the decency of ordinary Czechs as they are forced to adopt ridiculous strategies to deal with impossible moral dilemmas. Although director Jan Hrebejk includes some false notes -- Marie’s face is suddenly superimposed on the living room portrait of Mary -- Polivka’s performance as the likably sardonic antihero gives the movie both credibility and complexity.

Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher is well worth seeing for its celebration of Appalachian mountain music in the early 1900s. The story centers on Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a university musicologist who, after refusing the promotion she deserves, goes to visit her sister Elna Penleric (Jane Adams) in western North Carolina. Elna and Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr) have established a school in this desolate area, and when their teenage protegé Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum) sings songs of her childhood in a pure, clear voice, Lily realizes that the mountain folk have preserved earlier Scotch-Irish versions of music she has long admired.

The scenery is inspiring, and the soundtrack of Lily’s musical “discoveries” (performed by Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement, Hazel Dickens and Taj Mahal) is so spirited that we begin to believe that there are first-rate fiddlers and singers in every mountain cabin. Lily is indefatigable in pursuing out-of-the-way leads in almost inaccessible areas, dragging along the cumbersome recording equipment of the period, and making singers repeat their songs until she can make manuscript transcriptions. Her most enjoyable encounter is with a primal grandmother figure, Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), who dispenses homespun wisdom and even enlists the help of a frightened Lily in a bloody, pre-modern childbirth. Less successful is the more predictable relationship between Lily and Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), Viney’s handsome, roughhewn grandson, who mocks the professor and accuses her of exploiting his neighbors. He is unfair, but his attack serves to underline the central plot thread of the staid Lily’s long-needed non-academic education.

“Songcatcher” seems too programmatic in its presentation of mining company representatives trying to buy up the coal-rich property of its inhabitants. More discouraging, its laudable intention to praise the mountain people and their culture is radically undermined by dramatizing the savage response to the sight of Elna and Harriet embracing passionately outdoors: both their home and the school they had founded are burned to the ground. We can accept the fact that in such a time and place fundamentalist preachers might fulminate against indiscreet lesbians but wince at such a melodramatic plot device.

Even more disappointing is the resolution of the Lily-Tom romance. The romantic comedy scene in which Lily sheds an article of clothing in the woods every time she hears the cry of a panther is so successful that we feel let down when they decide to go to the city to support themselves by selling recordings of the music she has collected. In a movie ardently promoting folk and anti-capitalist values, this seems almost as bad as if they had become vice-presidents of the mining company.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001