A.I., A Butch-Dyke Fantasy
We queers have been finding ourselves in outer space for a very long time. When Elton "Rocket Man" John sang "I'm not the man they think I am at home," everyone nodded: That means he's gay. It was like pointing out drug references in the '60s. Style was always the pointeridentifying a mise en scene where you belonged. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie was just the kind of alien we admired: stylish, melancholic, dispossessed, and queer.
What lesbianwell, what butchy onedidn't find Sigourney Weaver not just hot but familiar in Alien as she climbed around the ship in a jumpsuit, saving her crew from the viral slime that threatened them. In a sequel, she had the slime's child, and by Alien: Resurrection her hands were deep (for medical reasons) in the torso of Winona Ryder, an android who, like us, thought Sigourney rocked.
In A.I., Steven Spielberg gives us David, a robo-boy who longs to be real. Is it necessary to explain that one of the quiet facts of lesbian life is that many of us prayed to be "real boys" in early childhood, or else were so often taken to be boys that things would have been easier if we actually were? Instead, one summer it was determined that unlike her brother, the boyish girl must wear a shirt (to cover nothing), thus marking the end of one time and the beginning of another. The butch lesbian enacts this moment all her life.
A.I. came to us by way of sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss's story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" and Stanley Kubrick's dying wish. Kubrick felt that robots should take over the earth. In his perversity, he believed ardently that humans had screwed up, and that artificial intelligence would definitely be kinder and gentler than man's. In a new intro to "Supertoys," Aldiss describes walking with Kubrick across the director's estate, after-dinner cigars in hand. They wrestled with plot lines to no avail. For weeks and months and even years, the men struggled to tell the story that Spielberg finally bedded in an oddly queer way.
What makes a movie queer? Well, it might feature an excessive love between inappropriate people as nonetheless human and true. Or at least interesting and worthy of our attentiongross though it may be. There's a relationship between the discontent onscreen and the discomfort residing in the body of the disheveled young viewer. In A.I. the kid is being thrown out of his home, trashed, left in the woodsall because he threatened the hegemony of real men and their dominant place in the affections of the women whose lives they control.
Monica is a wreck because her birth son remains frozen until science finds a cure. Out steps the incredibly cute Haley Joel Osment, an 11-year-old heartbreaker, a girl boy. He's a gift from her husband, a supertoy intended to take away his mother's painlike little girls or dolls. David is perfect. He arrives, an elongated shadow resolving into a pair of adorable white shoes, his toes tapping our eyes into an upward pan ending in a gay remark: "I like your floor." David is cute, cute, cute.
Unfortunately the "real" son, Martin, is soon cured, and David's perfect toyness (try lesbianity) begins to threaten his spot in the family. Remember, the dyke is always the no. 2 son. When a fat bully at the pool pinches David's flesh, saying, "So let's see what you don't pee with," David nearly drowns his brother in an attempt to save himself. Of course David doesn't eat or sleep or pee. He just looks like a boy and acts like one. It's a performance.
A little before his expulsion from the family, David watches Monica going out with her husband in evening wear, a bit of rare 20th-century perfume (Chanel) on her neck. Steeped in a desire to never let her go, David douses himself in her scent. Then the mother and son have an exchange about how long she will live (50 years). After that, he'll be alone, he moans, swearing he will love her always. The pact between Monica and David, the temporal-universal female and the immortal-artificial boy, is the inappropriate love at the heart of A.I., a love that's about the mystery of dovetailing time in a world constructed by "real men." The perfume of this androgynous kid's passion speaks to Monica's hot female mortality. Sigh. What dyke doesn't know about this?
Yet Monica leaves him in the woods, just yards away from the robot factory. David begins the litany that forms the emotional core of this prim, outlandish, and deeply revolutionary movie. If I become a real boy, like in Pinocchio, he begs her, can I come home? Stories aren't true, screams Monica. Yes, they are; stories tell what happens. David never accepts that he's not a real boy. His unshakable belief in his true self and his search to rectify the family's error through fantasy make A.I. the lesbian legend that it is. David is a story, like the one I'm telling; he doesn't have a birthday, he has a build day. Once upon a time he began.
A.I. is a toy version of the puberty of gay kids. To plunge through the sea with a chorus of fish flanking you, to float dazzled like a corpse till you see something blue and glowingConey Island and the Pinocchio arcade, and up on a hill the Blue Fairy. David finally finds his girl in a broken trellis; doll to doll, their eyes are locked. It feels true. Spielberg built those eyes to lock.
As Dr. Hobby, A.I.'s Geppetto, tells us, it's part of our greatness to wish for things that don't exist. I think he really means "we." In the way that Bill Clinton was our first black president, Spielberg has given us our first butch lesbian hero.
Predominant on A.I.'s soundtrack is The Rosenkavalier, an opera full of gender play and artificial flowers. That absolutely clinches it. Thanks for your courage, dude.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.