I recently rewatched Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s a troubling piece of work, one that I’ll return to in later posts, I’m sure. Its growing reputation amongst critics, audiences and Spielberg scholars has muted a lot of the ambivalence that greeted it upon initial release. This time around, and because I’m looking for unusual angles on Spielberg’s work for these 100 blog posts, one of the things that has stayed with me are the times played on Gigolo Joe’s internal jukebox. To explain, in case you’re unfamiliar, Gigolo Joe is a love-model mecha (a robot prostitute) played by Jude Law. He provides a sexy service to his female customers (we’re never told whether or not he accepts male clients), though his techniques are left to our imagination, and we’re never told exactly what he’s “got down there”. I don’t think Spielberg is terribly secure talking about sex, and he’s certainly not keen on showing it.Anyway, this is a family show. Instead of detailing the processes whereby a robot pleasures the ladies, we see Joe going through his suave seduction routines, which are curiously vintage, based as they are on soft-shoe-shuffling razzle-dazzling dance moves and its-all-about-you patter. With a flick of his head, he can start a song playing to get you in the mood. We hear him play three different tracks in the movie, and they’re all significant and ironic choices. It’s odd in the first instance that he should play vintage tracks, seeing as the film is set in the future, but the film is partly about a battle between humans and robots over cultural representation, and about representation standing in for and superseding reality (again, I think this will require a separate post…); Spielberg often explores the world through film references, which are placed there to reward attentive viewing, and to insinuate the director into the historical legacy of the cinema.
One track Joe plays in ‘Guys and Dolls’, from the 1955 movie adaptation of the show of the same name. It is sung by Johnny Silver and Stubby Kaye (who had a role as the town crier in the 1957 Pinocchio with Mickey Rooney, which is surely too oblique a reference to be anything other than a curious coincidence), and aside from what the lyrics do to normalise relationships where helpless ‘guys’ ruining themselves over their desire for ‘some doll’, the significance to A.I. is obvious in the title ‘Guys and Dolls‘: the old-fashioned use of ‘doll’ as a slang term for ‘woman’ becomes a reference to the miniature doubles we give to children to play with. So, a love-doll is ‘singing’ a song that describes his clients, the targets of his attentions, as dolls.
The next track is Fred Astaire’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ from Top Hat (1935):
Like all of these tracks, it’s a song of singular, helpless devotion, of unique focus on a partner. As such, its a musical disavowal of the transactional, automated seduction that’s really going on in the film. It is from Astaire that Gigolo Joe has downloaded his dance moves, the twirling and toe-tapping that augment his walk with a smooth and confident glide. The historical remainder of Astaire’s star persona has become the “motion-capture” data for a robot prostitute a century later. But I’m also reminded of the ‘Astaire Bill‘, which was designed to protect the image rights of deceased stars: had this been successful, it would have restricted the use of the image of performers in advertisements and might have prevented the recent trend for digitally resurrecting stars to sell stuff. The Astaire Bill was under discussion from 1999, and throughout the production of the film. It was supported by the Screen Actors Guild, and opposed by most of the major studios. Maybe it’s too subtle a link for me to suggest it has much significance as part of Gigolo Joe’s repertoire, but the next song’s relevance is a lot more pronounced.
Finally, Dick Powell is heard singing ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’, from the movie Dames. First of all, this explains Joe’s act – while you are his customer, he will focus all of his attention on you and you alone. But there’s a pun in there for viewers of A.I. Joe has only been given eyes by his makers so that he can perform these kinds of acts with paying customers. David, the robot boy played by Hayley Joel Osment in the film, is programmed to love only his mother, exclusively and permanently, and it is partly his clinging devotion and unwavering gaze, yearning for a returned look of love, that alienates him from his adoptive mother (Frances O’Connor). Eyes and looking are a recurring motif in the film, as when David peers through the eye sockets of one his synthetic doubles, and finally sees himself as just one of many robotic likenesses, or when he gets locked into 2000 years of imploring eye contact with a statue of the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, like an everlasting Plato’s Cave in which two synthetic beings are stuck in a cycle of response/non-response.
In Dames, Dick Powell tells Ruby Keeler that he only has eyes for her. He begins to image that all passersby and advertising models have her face, and halfway through the song, we cut to an astonishing Busby Berkeley dance routine where all of the dancers look like Ruby Keeler, or hold giant masks of her face. It’s delightful, intricate, and more than a little creepy: what starts out as a sweet declaration of monogamous ogling becomes a whole world of singleminded obsession. The excess is overwhelming as a romantic gesture, and the replications of Keeler create an uncanny sense of her commoditisation, paradoxically extolling her uniqueness with an image of multiplicity. It makes sense, then, that this should provide the soundtrack for an android, especially one functionally designed to treat all-comers as the perfected image of his desire.