Monday, August 19, 2013

Pinocchio’s Timeless Appeal

By Steve Evans

Watching Disney’s classic 1940 production of Pinocchio last night with my children, who enjoyed their first viewing, I drifted along with the simple sentiments of this beautifully crafted film. Since I can no longer watch a film without making endless subreferences, before Monstro the whale could rear his terrifying head my thoughts wandered from Disney to Stanley Kubrick and finally to Steven Spielberg. More on that in a moment.

In this telling of Carlo Collodi’s most famous tale, the marionette Pinocchio dreams of becoming a real boy, and thus human, by proving himself “brave, truthful and unselfish.” These are the qualities by which Pinocchio can shuffle off his wooden coil and become truly alive. The basic morality of discerning right from wrong also comes into play as the pivotal point of the plot. When Pinocchio strays from the righteous path, his troubles multiply until he literally transforms into a jackass. His creator and would-be father Geppetto languishes like Noah in the belly of a whale.

With vivid strokes of the animator’s pen, Disney artists crafted a parable of the most desirable qualities that underline what it means to live the examined life -- or what it should mean. The Blue Fairy who imbues Pinocchio with the ability to walk and talk is playing at God when she gives the puppet the power of Free Will. It is, of course, inevitable that Pinocchio will choose poorly, take the easy road toward success and wealth, learning only by trial and challenge that life is hard and the path paved with obstacles.

On a more subtle note, Disney’s film poses no less a question than: what does it mean to be human? This idea intrigued and ultimately confounded Kubrick for many years as he struggled with the limitations of film technology to realize his vision for a picture known as A.I., the abbreviation for Artificial Intelligence. A.I. would have been Kubrick's final film, a reimagining of the Pinocchio story. Kubrick and Spielberg had many telephone conversations about the project. After several aborted attempts at writing a screenplay, Kubrick finally suggested that Spielberg take over the project, as Kubrick felt the material was ultimately better suited to Spielberg’s sensibilities.

Kubrick died suddenly in March 1999, leaving extensive notes and whole sequences of a screenplay for A.I. His death upset me greatly, as the thought that there would never be another Kubrick film bordered on tragic. I also remember thinking at the time that A.I. would make an intriguing film, since Kubrick’s passing made me realize another subtext buried just beneath the surface of that sturdy Pinocchio story: a wooden puppet’s dream of becoming human carries with it the inescapable fact of mortality. Some could argue that Pinocchio was actually better off before his transformation into a living, breathing boy who must then experience all the joys of life, but also all of the sorrows. Does this make life any less desirable? Can the sweet ever be quite so sweet without the sour?

Kubrick’s notes for A.I. are permeated with a fundamental riddle of existence: what does it mean to be human? Significantly, his screenplay drafts also focus heavily on the maternal attachment a robot named David feels for his “adoptive” mother, even though she already has a son of her own. This love a boy feels for his mother might seem uncharacteristic of Kubrick, who was often perceived as cold and misanthropic (although I would argue that all of his films are deeply humane, cautionary tales of people making bad choices).

In early 2000, less than a year after Kubrick’s death, Spielberg decided to complete A.I., using the late director’s notes as the framework for a screenplay Spielberg would write himself – his first since Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.

Released in June 2001, Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence was greeted with the sort of critical thrashing that typically accompanied a new Kubrick film. Years would often pass before the critical consensus would turn favorably toward many of Kubrick’s pictures.

Now 12 years on, I think it’s time to reassess A.I. Sure, it is basically the story of Pinocchio, jazzed up with state-of-the-art digital special effects and a remarkable performance from former child star Haley Joel Osment as the title character. But what really intrigues me about A.I., the puzzle I have yet to unravel, is the obsessive interest in this tale by Kubrick and Spielberg. Here we have two giants of the cinema, one revered almost universally as a genius and the other the most financially successful director in the history of the medium. Together and separately they expended endless hours of development and millions of dollars in production money on what is, at its heart, a very simple story.

More than a decade later, I'm still discovering subtle connections between Pinocchio and A.I.

And I'm still wondering why two of the greatest directors in motion picture history would be so interested in what is fundamentally the story of a boy who only wants to find his mommy.

Perhaps the answer is inherent in the question.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2013 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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