Sunday, March 14, 2010

Framing David, Part 2

I wanted to listen more closely to a couple of different scenes that struck a chord with me while watching A.I. (directed by Steven Spielberg in 2001). One scene uses a circular framing visual motif that Ben Sampson touched upon in part 2 of his visual essay (noted in my last post). The second part of his essay shows the scene at the 1:04 minute mark. In the other scene, a different sort of visual motif is used, and I wanted to touch upon that as well. I pair these scenes together because they offer reflective, transitional moments in the narrative. Both feature a framing of David and a camera movement away from David. In light of V.F. Perkins' contribution to the last post, I also wanted to note how the details of these scenes might simultaneously complicate and clarify the film's viewpoint (as well as the viewer's viewpoint).

Scene 1 - 52:09 minutes into the movie

David's "mother" Monica takes David for a drive in the country. It is a ruse for her to take David to a remote spot in the woods to abandon him. David pleads with her to not leave him, and that he'll be "real" for her if she were to give him a chance. Monica, mind made up but still very upset, drives away and we see David fading into the woods in the car's rearview mirror.

I cannot isolate this visual motif and camera movement from the narrative, nor from other technical aspects such as the audio. All of the technical aspects work together with the narrative to form the filmic world we as viewers take in, and we cannot ignore them. The scene is a transition in the narrative from David's struggles at home to David's journey through the world to find the Blue Fairy who, he hopes, will turn him into a "real boy." It also operates as a sort of emotional climax to what has come before: Monica is abandoning him and he will be left to fend for himself in a cruel world. The visual focuses on David's devastated face briefly before it is shrouded in darkness and we're left only with David's receding figure. However, David's face remains etched in our memory as the climax comes with the swell of pianos and strings in John William's score. The shaking camera reflects the chaotic swirl of feelings that Spielberg invites us to share with David and Monica.

There is, on the other hand, an ethereal, meditative mood to the imagery that is mirrored in the otherworldly hum of the car that plays throughout. The staging of the receding figure, bathed in both shadow and an oddly bright moonlight, seen in the sideview mirror of the car, has a distancing effect that adds to this other mood. It is easy to notice a layering of visuals, audio, and emotions. This tension between the emotional climax and self-conscious, reflective aspect of the scene pull the viewer in different directions. There is simultaneously a desire to feel taken up in the emotional wash of the scene and to reflect deeply on the matters at hand.

Let's allow ourselves to give in to the latter desire. One of the central questions of this film is the question of "What does it mean to be human?" It is especially apparent in the framing of David that this question is at the forefront in the film. Poised at a moment of loss and devastation, the framing invites us to consider the humanity of the film's characters as well as our own humanity. One could argue that David's humanity is reflected in his face. Whereas at other moments in the film when David reacts unnaturally to a given situation (such as his odd laughing at the dinner table), here David vividly portrays feelings with which we can identify - feelings of inadequacy, rejection, etc. As David clearly feels these human feelings as we see them in his expression, does that make him human? Does it make Monica inhuman that she commits one of the most unnatural acts in abandoning her child?

Once the camera moves further away from David, we see his shadowy figure engulfed in the mist and moonlight of the forest. His figure appears as that of a lost little boy. The scene reminds us that in many ways, visually and otherwise, we cannot tell David apart from flesh-and-blood boys. Such is the case for the Flesh Fair stage manager later in the film who must use a x-ray device to see that David is NOT flesh and blood. The stage manager cannot rely on his interactions with David to tell him apart. Likewise, the Flesh Fair crowd, even after being told that David is a mecha, cannot tell David apart either. The figure of a little boy calling for help compels strong feelings of identification and compassion to consume even the cruelest of crowds. Through this figuring of David, we grow closer connected to his character, which further complicates our thoughts on his humanity.

Then there's the matter of the sideview mirror through which we, the viewers, are connected to David. The mirror throws the question of David's humanity back at us. What makes US more human than David? We can identify with David's situation and feelings. However, we are also disconnected from David in the fact that we are moving away from David with the car and with Monica. We are looking through the car's sideview mirror as Monica would look through it. We feel averse to Monica's decision but it's also possible that we remember in this moment that David is not human. David's presence in Monica's home-life was greatly disruptive for her family. Looking through the mirror in this way, we can identify somewhat with Monica to consider David's humanity in a more skeptical light. David is not biologically human. He has been programmed to act in the way that he does.

Even if we move in this direction however briefly, perhaps the emotional nature of the scene will call us back to compassion for David. Regardless of the question of David's full humanity, does he not deserve our compassion in this situation? David feels pain. David has been mistreated. David is an innocent. David is capable of love. These statements also demand our attention and ask us to consider how we should relate to our technologies, especially when the technology and the human seem to converge to some extent. The framing of David in this scene both complicates and clarifies our viewpoint of David as we consider the question of what it means to be human. This, it seems, is what the film intends.

Scene 2 - 44:45 minutes into the movie

David's "brother" Martin and his friends play a cruel trick on David to see if he reacts to pain at Martin's birthday pool party. David, panicking, grabs a hold of Martin, asks Martin to protect him, and the two fall into the pool. His defense mechanism stronger than his awareness of Martin's need for air, David has to be pried apart from Martin by adults. Martin returns to the surface to be resuscitated while David, not needing air, is left alone at the bottom of the pool, wondering at the consequences of his actions. The camera assumes David's point of view underneath the water before cutting to a receding overhead shot of David, his image shimmering as he still lies motionless at the bottom of the pool.

This scene works in a similar way to the one described above in that it allows a moment of reflection following an emotionally violent scene. Like the first highlighted scene, it also uses techniques for both the viewer's identification with and disconnection from David. The beginning of the scene has us looking through David's eyes up to the surface of the pool where the adults attend to Martin. We can understand, to some extent, the alienation David must feel as someone who doesn't fit in. We worry with David: did David just blow his last chance with Monica and the family? However, the scene then cuts to an above shot looking down at the figure of David below the water. The score sets a curious, slightly ominous mood with its tense strings, menacing brass, and otherworldly piano. For a brief moment, we are separated from David's plight to consider this odd character who does not need air and lies inert at the bottom of a pool. What is moving, however, is the surface of the water, and David's figure appears distorted and inhuman as a result.

This distortional framing portrays a different visual motif than the ones Sampson talks about. In this scene, and in others - such as at 15:18 where we see David through a paneled glass door - Spielberg plays with the image of David using light and an amenable surface. In the second scene, we see many Davids in the refractive surface of the water. As the camera moves, the play of the light on the water is different, and thus, David's image is constantly changing to reflect this. The distortion occurs in that different parts of David's body (head and chest, for example) appear to be disproportionate to the rest of his body from one moment to the next. The distortion is off-putting, but in this distancing effect, also invites our further consideration.

I see this visual motif as important in three ways. First, it foreshadows at times and mirrors at other times David's inner conflict with his make-up. David's vocation is to love Monica and his greatest desire to be loved back. He comes to the conclusion that if Monica is to love him, he needs to be a real boy. Cast out into the world where robots are second-class citizens, and hunted down for humiliation and destruction in the Flesh Fairs, David sees time and again that to be mecha is to be unwanted. David does, however, hold onto the fact that he is a special mecha, one-of-a-kind as he is told by many who encounter him. Still, David concludes that turning into a real boy is the only chance he has for his mother to love him. The distorted and at times fragmented image of David as a visual motif reflects David's turmoil over this matter.

Second, the motif accompanies the different perspectives that others in the film world have of David. David is many things to many people. David is a threat to Martin, a friend and companion to Gigolo Joe and Teddy, an object to be manipulated for people's entertainment to the Lord Johnson-Johnson, a creation of much pride to Professor Hobby, etc. The ever-changing image employed by the distortional motif exemplifies the variety of images of David that other characters have.

Third, and somewhat similar to the second, the motif allows us to consider our own struggles with how to define David. Who is David? Does David change over the course of the film? Is David human? What actions, feelings, identities, and motivations reflect humanity or inhumanity in David? How should the others relate to David?

Picking up on visual patterns that become motifs, such as the ones Sampson points out or the distortional motif, is helpful in our contemplation of what the film is speaking (or showing) to us. I hope I have shown that to some extent, the details surrounding these motifs both clarify and complicate the viewpoint of the film. V.F. Perkins would argue that the most successful films are able to accomplish this through a coherent organization of these details. Coherence, however, does not mean that the details blot out complexity or ambiguity. A.I. fits the bill in this regard, and certainly allows for a deep engagement with the theological questions of this study.


  1. I'll be eager to see what you make of these two framing devices. I'm conscious of how, for me, they frame our "seeing" -- they seem very deliberate attempts to get us to "perceive" self consciously.

  2. Yes, I do believe the devices deliberately try to get us perceiving self-consciously: both as a mirror to our own selves and as a framed image of this odd robot-boy who may or may not become human over the course of the film.

  3. I think I pretty much agree with your interpretations here. But then again, I've all along felt that the film is forcing us to think about what it is to be human -- and also, the extent to which emotions run wild is not, in and of itself, a good human characteristic. I suppose my larger question is: what does it matter? In other words, think out loud a bit about why moving through this kind of interpretive task might help people to engage the film more deeply.

  4. What affirmations and / or challenges does this film raise with you regarding your theological studies?

  5. Mary, I think by trying to understand what the film is attempting to say, do, show, etc. (and how it accomplishes or doesn't accomplish these things) inevitably leads us deeper into engaging with the film. It is an attempt at the kind of listening I wanted to do in the interaction with the films and the theology. I feel like if I can "hear" or "see" the film more clearly, I can put together what was meaningful in the film for me and make my own contribution. I think sometimes when I watch films, the tendency is to let the narrative and visuals wash over me and when I come out of the experience, I don't know heads or tails with respect to the film. Noticing and interpreting these filmic details are helpful for me to hone in on concrete thoughts I can take away from the film. Does this answer your question?

    So what do I take away from the film for my study? This is a rephrasing of your question, Ryan, no?

    I think I take away a profound sense of the ambiguity contained within the question of what it means to be human in light of our technology. The film is a thought experiment: what if we could create a robot boy who could express true human love. Would he be a robot? Would he be human? The ambiguity is both an affirmation and a challenge to what I'd been considering before. It is strange to think of David as a tool that was created for the purpose of filling the void of a child's love in an adult's life. There is this strangeness because over the course of the film in identifying more and more closely with David, he becomes a person to us. He is his own subject. Once we see David as a person, we no longer see him as a tool. David has transcended his technology in our eyes. And yet, we are reminded in the film (as David is) when we see the mask/face of another David robot that David is also still mecha.

    So, in light of our conversation concerning technology, a lot of our questions about rejecting or affirming technologies (or using or misusing them) go out the window once David becomes a person in our eyes. David is not a tool or a toy to be used or accepted or rejected. He has his own autonomy and set of rights as a person.

    But perhaps one way in which we can still ask these questions is: if we could create a robot who could love in this way, would we want to? What would the ethical implications of such a creation be? What would our responsibilities be to such a creation?