Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry which when taken together, I believe, leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poem. This week I tackle two of the greats, Steven Spielberg’s arguably most underrated film A.I (Artificial Intelligence) from 2001 and W.B Yeats’ early poem ‘The Stolen Child’ (1889).
Based on a story by Brian Aldiss, “Supertoys Last all Summer Long”, Stanley Kubrick was obsessed with its ideasof consciousness and links to Pinocchio, feeling ill equipped to make the film, he handed his ideas to his friend Spielberg. Kubrick felt the film needed more ‘hope’ then he could musterand Spielberg is the master of ‘heart’. Critics bashed this film when it came out, dismissive of Spielberg’s ‘candy and popcorn’ reputation. Over time notable film critics apologised to Spielberg for their haste in writing this film off.
Set in a post climate catastrophe future where fertility is controlled, Monica (Frances O’Conner) and her husband Henry (William Hurt) face a childless future as their son is in a vegetative state. Henry seeks solution in a ‘mecha’ child, mechanised robots that can ‘simulate’ complex thoughts and carry out complex actions using artificial intelligence. Henry gets Monica a little boy robot, David (Hayley Joel Osment). This little boy is programmed to love, to attach firmly to it’s mother, Monica, who can switch the imprinting ‘button’ when she feels ready; warned that ‘The imprinting is irreversible’.
Monica presses the button, evokes the robot boy’s love. When her ‘real son’ gets better and begins a ‘sibling rivalry’ that poor David is ill equipped to deal with, Monica decides they don’t want a weird robot kid when she has a weird real kid. She abandons David in the woods (a heart-breaking scene), “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about the world” she says.
This line echoes the refrain of the W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child”, that children are ill equipped to deal with all the heartbreak in the world. David will, like the child in the poem, come across an ‘enchanted world’ – full of horror and wonder. I argue the film is a fable about consumerism, cruelty and human hubris.
Animal ‘imprinting’ is hard wired, mechanical almost, just like Lorenz’s ducks, humans attach to anything in that critical period of childhood– whatever its shortcomings.
The film asks what the fundamental difference between ‘mecha’ and ‘orga’ (organic intelligence) is. Is it the environment we have to develop imagination, symbols, cunning, tools of survival and power? David, like all fairy tale boys, goes into the forest – with his only guide (‘Teddy’:“I am not a toy”).
Teddy, David’s supertoy, will never leave him unlike his mother. When David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a superior mecha male prostitute, they develop friendship. Their friendship is more important than the function they have been programmed for. For the Mecha, love and bonding to each other is a kind of revolutionary act; to break their programming. Artificial intelligence continues to adapt and keep learning. These are not toys.
David wants to be a real boy, to find love and the ‘Blue Fairy’. Like all children, believes what he’s told. Joe takes David to find the Fairy. The poem appears in the scene in the Flesh Fair where they look for the truth of the Blue Fairy. https://youtu.be/YUUs7ezHmfk
This capacity to believe in myths makes both Gigolo Joe and David so heartbreakingly convincing in their innocence and their other-worldliness.
Yeats’ The Stolen Child was written when he was 21. Published in 1889, it is a traditional Irish ballad form. We can see his exploration of good and evil using the ‘faeries’. Through the poem we see how the child is stolen and corrupted. Using words; “leafy island”, “full of berries” hecreates an enchanted nature world, with a lulling rhyming structure, it links us to David’s entry into the Flesh Fair, full of lights and magic, but ultimately danger. The use of the word “stolen” is important as it is luring “Come away, O human child!… to the wild”, just as David (Pinocchio) is lured into the Flesh Fair.
The ballad structure is used by Yeats to seduce us into believing the ‘faeries’, for David and Joe both want to escape as “The world’s more full of weeping then you can understand”, the refrain is repeated and has a heart breaking sense of abandonment and bewilderment. https://poets.org/poem/stolen-child
Here is a song version of the poem by the Waterboys.
Both poem and film are fantastical, but based in fact. Yeats was informed by the cruelties he saw, poor children kidnapped, often sold into slavery or worse; he blended this with the legends of children taken by the ‘folk’. Spielberg too is telling us a fable, of how humans can be cruel to children that are somehow ‘defective’ and treated like play things.
At the end of the poem the child is tempted away, an escape from the pain of the world. The poem, like the film, has disorientating elements, the lure is intoxicating. In the film advertising, the commercialisation of love is just as intoxicating, as Gigolo Joe whispers in women’s ears “You deserve much better in your life”. Ironically, the fairies pretend to be natural in the poem, just as in the film, the humans build a world that mimics nature. In the end it is the AI (artificial intelligence) that reach out to love, something bigger then itself. The humans are lured into the dream of disposable feelings. Both Yeats and Spielberg leave us with art about humanity. Perhaps real humanity is to recognise it in others, whatever species or form and to reach for it, not own it.
Jessica Mookherjee lives in Kent, England. Her poetry appears in many journals including Agenda, Poetry Wales, The North, Rialto, Under the Radar, Birmingham Literary Review and in various anthologies including the forthcomingBloodaxe’s Staying Human. Her pamphlets are The Swell (TellTale Press 2016) and Joyride (BLER Press 2017). She was highly commended in the 2017 Forward Prize. Her first collection, Flood, was published by Cultured Llama in 2018 and her second, Tigress, by Nine Arches Press in 2019. She is a joined editor of Against the Grain Poetry Press and she has a pamphlet/chapbook forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books in 2021.