Blog Directory CineVerse: April 2023

The last word on Safety Last!

Friday, April 28, 2023

There are at least 100 reasons—and now, 100 years—why Safety Last! remains an all-time classic silent comedy. Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, produced by Hal Roach, and starring Harold Lloyd – one of the most popular and influential comedians of the silent film era – the film tells the story of a young man named Harold who moves to the city to make his fortune and impress his girlfriend. He takes a job in a department store and comes up with a scheme to climb the building to promote a publicity stunt for the store. However, his climb becomes increasingly perilous, leading to a series of hilarious and suspenseful set-pieces.

To hear a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last year, click here; to listen to our current Cineversary podcast episode on Safety Last!, click here.

Safety Last! deserves to be celebrated a century not just because it’s a timeless laugher with a higher ratio of yuks per minute than any silent film or classic movie ever made. It also features the most instantly recognizable image in silent films: a bespectacled man hanging from a clock face 12 stories above the ground. The ubiquity and – no pun intended – the timelessness of this image underscores how important and beloved this film remains in pop culture. As proof of how pervasive this iconography is, recall the CoverGirl Outlast TV commercial from 10 years ago featuring actress Sophia Vergara hanging from a giant clock face that resembles the one in Safety Last!

The events and incredible stunts appear and feel real, largely because the movie was shot on location outdoors in Los Angeles using actual buildings and featuring non-acting crowds that arrived to watch. It also looks authentic because Harold Lloyd and a human fly stuntman actually scaled that building, with a circus performer used for the foot-hanging-from-a-rope scene. Lloyd and these performers took significant risks and jeopardized their lives to make the action appear as genuine as possible. Bear in mind that the filmmakers don’t use special effects like matte paintings or rear screen projection. Lloyd’s stunt work is all the more remarkable considering that he lost a thumb and index finger on one of his hands a few years earlier.

Additionally, the picture goes non-stop without any slowdown or weak scenes and is chock full of great jokes and gags—the finest and most extended of which is the scaling of the building—but there are gags within gags and climaxes within climaxes that layer the film with comedy and thrills. Amazingly, however, this 73-minute film only has about 10 scenes. The cinematography here is advanced for a 1923 comedy. Safety Last!, especially in its last half hour, benefits from the use of varying camera angles – including POV shots – and recurrent movement of the camera.

Despite its reputation as one of the greatest and funniest silent comedies, arguably, Safety Last is more entertaining and fulfilling as an action thriller than a comedy. Some film historians and scholars credit Safety Last as the progenitor of a particular genre. “The structure of Safety Last! instantly recognizable to the modern viewer,” wrote Criterion Collection essayist Ed Park. “It’s still the template for the contemporary action flick, in which the story sets up a spectacular chase or fight sequence at the end.”

Interestingly, although the film is remembered for its outdoor climbing sequences and close calls, the movie’s first half primarily takes place indoors while outside scenes dominate the second half.

Lloyd, unlike Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, benefited from an everyman look and quality as well as his rounded spectacles, which gave him a more intelligent yet fallible appearance. Lloyd is billed as “the boy,” but his employee card clearly lists him as “Harold Lloyd.” Chaplin had The Little Tramp, and Lloyd had this character, often referred to as “Glasses.” Lloyd said in interviews: “Someone with glasses is generally thought to be studious and an erudite person to a degree, a kind of person who doesn’t fight or engage in violence, but I did, so my glasses belied my appearance. The audience could put me in a situation with that in mind, but I could be just the opposite of what was supposed…In the pictures that I did, I could be an introvert, a little weakling, and another could be an extrovert, the sophisticate, the hypochondriac. They looked alike in appearance, with the glasses, which I guess you’d call a typical American boy.”

Like Keaton, Lloyd’s characters also used improvisational resourcefulness to ingeniously get out of jambs. For instance, in Safety Last, he and his roommate hang hilariously beneath coats on hooks from the landlady, he crawls beside a box to get away from the floorwalker, and when he falls he immediately does push-ups to save face.

Chaplin infused more sentimentality, emotionality, and pathos into his characters and situations and typically portrayed a more lonely and solitary figure in The Little Tramp. Keaton leaned more heavily on getting laughs and incorporating slapstick and stunts in his pictures and often maintained a stoic, deadpan expression. Like Keaton, Lloyd often employed impressive and inventive stunt work and physical comedy and embodied everyman characters at odds with an increasingly chaotic world; in fact, several of Keaton’s films echo shots, gags, and stories from Lloyd’s works and vice versa. However, Lloyd preferred to play more optimistic, enthusiastic, likable, all-American types who commonly struggle to keep pace with a hectic contemporary world.

Speculating on how Chaplin or Keaton might have approached this film, DVD Savant Glenn Erickson posited: “Charlie Chaplin would turn tail and run, or blunder into the problem wearing a blindfold and find out only later how much danger he was in. Keaton would envision the crisis as a series of fantastic mechanical challenges, relying on the 'harmonious chaos' of physical reality to save his skin. Harold's extended building climb is a crazy gauntlet of dangers and accidents within accidents…Harold may be crazy but he never gives up. He's got the right stuff to (literally) reach the top.”

Longtime collaborator Hal Roach remarked of his friend: “Harold Lloyd worked for me because he could play a comedian. He was not a comedian. He was the best actor I ever saw being a comedian . . . No one worked harder than he did.”

Fascinatingly, Lloyd made more films and money than Chaplin and Keaton combined in their prime years. Roger Ebert wrote: “I could understand why Lloyd outgrossed Chaplin and Keaton in the 1920s: Not because he was funnier or more poignant, but because he was merely mortal and their characters were from another plane of existence. Lloyd is a real man climbing a building; Keaton, as he stands just exactly where a building will not crush him, is an instrument of cosmic fate. And Chaplin is a visitor to our universe from the one that exists in his mind… Perhaps that is what makes him special: (Lloyd) is determined to be a great silent comedian, and succeeds by experimentation, courage, and will. His films are about his triumph over their making.”

Perhaps a case can be made that certain later films by Chaplin and Keaton, including The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr., The General, and Modern Times, were partially inspired by Safety Last! Possibly the ascent of the Empire State Building in King Kong 10 years later took a cue from this movie, as did the first Die Hard film, in which John McClane must traverse the various stories of a skyscraper in superhuman fashion. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol features Tom Cruise performing extraordinary stunts along the side of a Dubai skyscraper, and the documentary Man on Wire details a gripping tightrope walk between The Twin Towers – two movies that instantly bring Safety Last! to mind. And films that pay homage to Safety Last! include Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Jackie Chan martial arts comedy Project A, the first Back to the Future film, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

While it’s not a thematically rich film, subtexts are present in Safety Last! if you want to look for them. One is good and bad timing: The boy is pressured to arrive at work on time, and frequently it appears that time is not on his side, yet an actual clock face serves as a lifeline and he continually has the benefit of fortuitous timing. Ponder, as well, all the visual nods to time: the clock face, his body swinging like a pendulum, and the work time clock. From the start, we are told in an intertitle: “The boy was always early.”

The economic and practical challenges of surviving and coping in an increasingly industrialized metropolis are other takeaways. From public transportation that can’t accommodate him to throngs of angry customers seeking service in a busy department store, the boy is faced with one obstacle after another. In his review for Slant Magazine, Calum Marsh commented: “Lloyd’s clock-stopping stunt, like Chaplin’s gear-worming in Modern Times more than a decade later, is so bound up in the shared anxieties of modern living that it can only function as a necessary comic release. The skyscraper and the clock aren’t incidental: They are central symbols of a society just settling into an industrialized, urbanized modernity. Lloyd’s sight gag not only taps into the feelings of the period, but fully and succinctly articulates them…Miscommunication and physical blunders abound in a metropolis seemingly designed to not only accommodate, but actively encourage both, and if Lloyd happens to walk unknowingly into one disaster after another, it’s less the fault of his own clumsiness than the unsound landscape he’s resigned to traverse.”

Safety Last! further seems to preach the merits of adapting quickly to your environment, thinking fast on your feet, and following a “fake it ‘till you make it” philosophy. Despite the numerous impediments and setbacks he faces, the boy learns to rapidly and intrepidly use surrounding resources to his advantage – from passing cars that transport him to work to coat hooks that hide him from the landlord to scissors he employs Solomon-like to settle an argument between two customers to a flagpole that helps him escape an angry dog.

Perhaps the film’s greatest gift to viewers, besides generating copious quantities of laughs and gasps from viewers, is its significance as a cherished evergreen work from the silent filmmaking era. Containing the most iconic and remembered visual from any silent screen film – a man dangling from a gigantic timepiece – affords Safety Last! the stature of silent cinema exemplar and ambassador of a vintage form of filmmaking that deserves recognition and appreciation in the 21st century. What better way to introduce to younger generations the charms and craftsmanship imbued in pre-talking pictures than to perpetuate this imagery and recommend a viewing of Safety Last!? When your movie has the most instantly recognizable shot of a film made more than 100 years ago, it carries a special significance and has the power to keep the low-tech, practical effects magic of silent movies alive for new audiences.

In the same way that Gen Y and Z have embraced the retro charms and aural intimacy of vinyl, perhaps Safety Last! can increasingly be appreciated for its old-school thrills and prescient preoccupation with the hurried pace of the modern world made all the more chaotic and stressful by technology. And if its visuals can continue to be evoked and echoed in future years, we can hope that Safety Last!, whenever it is referenced in pop culture, serves as a crucial gateway drug to other pre-sound masterworks crafted by Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, Lang, Murnau, Eisenstein, Dreyer, Lumière, von Sternberg, Vergov, and their ilk.


Playing in the key of erotic

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Released 30 years ago this May, The Piano, directed by Jane Campion, is set in the mid-19th century and follows the story of Ada McGrath (played by Holly Hunter), a mute woman who travels from Scotland to New Zealand with her young daughter (Anna Paquin) and her beloved piano. Ada is forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy landowner named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), and as she struggles to adapt to her new life, she forms a powerful connection with a local Maori man named George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who becomes obsessed with her piano.

The film was critically acclaimed upon its release, winning the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, along with Academy Awards for Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Jane Campion. The movie was also a commercial success, grossing over $40 million worldwide.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week, click here.

The Piano challenged conventional gender roles by offering a groundbreaking representation of female sexuality and desire. The movie's portrayal of women's experiences is complex and nuanced, paving the way for future filmmakers to explore these themes. Moreover, the stunning cinematography of New Zealand's landscapes and the haunting score by composer Michael Nyman are noteworthy elements that contributed to the film's success.

Campion fashions a fascinating female lead in Ada, who has remained mysteriously mute for much of her life. She is unable to fully express herself in a patriarchal society where females are suppressed and repressed. The message here could be that women often don’t have a voice of their own in a man’s world. This is a film about the power of sensory stimulation and the lack of it in some people: She cannot talk, but her other senses are highly acute. Her husband, meanwhile, is metaphorically deaf and blind to her needs and concerns.

Likewise, Baines is a remarkable character, especially in how he differs from all the other males in this story. He’s half settler/colonialist and half native, in a way. While he is not Maori (one of the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand), he has “gone native” and assimilated into their culture, even adopting their facial markings. Because he’s more in tune with the land and sympathetic to the native peoples, he perhaps personifies the opposite of what Stewart represents—arrogance, hypocritical puritanism, and patriarchal righteousness—especially to Ada. He’s symbolically half and half, which insinuates that perhaps he isn’t fully any one thing. As Campion said in an interview: “The face decoration is a half-hearted thing; he doesn't have the full tattoo that they have. Perhaps the pursuit of this woman is the only thing that he's ever really given his hundred percent to.”

The piano itself stands as a powerful representational symbol in the film. It could signify Ada’s voice, her means of expression, her personal freedom, and her route to catharsis. Moreover, the piano is an externalized symbol of Ada’s corporeal self and how women don’t often have ownership over their own bodies. It’s adrift and abandoned on the shore when deemed as unnecessary by her husband; it’s sold and bartered for between two men almost like a prostitute-like exchange; and then it’s finally set free at the end. It also exemplifies Ada’s individuality and agency. Her husband prefers that she doesn’t have an identity of her own, and thus deprives her of the piano and, later, her full ability to play it.

Campion’s work often employs unspoken images to convey emotion and meaning. Consider how Ada runs the back of her hand across certain objects, textures, and surfaces, underscoring the power of touch and sensory stimuli. Recall the overhead shot that shows her progress on the boat, without moving the camera. There’s the scene on the beach where three characters each choose a different path: Ada walks straight on, Flora proceeds in a dancing rhythm, and George takes a curving route; eventually, all tracks merge. Additionally, ponder the juxtaposition of the piano alone in the jungle, suggesting civility vs. savagery, decorum and expected etiquette vs. animalistic urges, and the European settlers vs. the indigenous Maori people.

Roger Ebert was perceptive to the film’s nonverbal, emotional design, writing: “It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling - of how people can be shut off from each other, lonely and afraid, about how help can come from unexpected sources, and about how you'll never know if you never ask… There is a moment in the movie that is among the most erotic I have ever seen…as (Ada) plays and (George) peers under the piano, he sees a tiny patch of her skin revealed through a tear in her stocking. And he touches that little pink oversight with trembling reverence.”

The Piano is also extraordinary as a cinematic text that differs from other romantic and erotic films and works of literature. As in many romance narratives, this involves a love triangle of sorts, in which two men desire the love of a secretive woman who only learns to love the man who shows her true affection and respect. However, there are long, lingering, relatively still scenes and significant stretches with no talking. The Piano communicates information about the characters and situations via implied content and suggestion, often more than through dialogue or direct exposition. The filmmakers build up erotic tension to almost unbearable levels, especially in the scenes between Ada and George. Unlike other romantic works, it doesn’t try to objectify Ada’s physical attributes nor titillate the audience with her physical charms. The woman isn’t necessarily shown from a man’s point of view as an object of desire. In fact, it often shows eroticism from a woman’s point of view; consider how we see George (Harvey Keitel) fully nude before we see Ada naked. And female characters in The Piano often do “unladylike” things, like vomit, squat down to urinate, and simulate the sexual act with trees.

The finale of The Piano continues to intrigue. While it appears to be a happy ending in which Ada and Baines have made a new life together in another part of New Zealand, she can play her beloved instrument again thanks to a prosthetic appendage, and she is learning to speak again, she admits to occasionally dreaming of still being tied to her piano resting on the ocean floor. One reading is that, earlier in the boat with Baines, she places her foot within the circle of rope tied to the overboard piano, which suggests that she intentionally chooses to be thrust into the water in a suicide attempt. Or perhaps Ada wasn’t so much attempting to end her life as to demonstrate agency and a desire to remain within the more comfortable silence she took refuge in for so long. Recall the Thomas Hood poem she quotes: “There is a silence where hath been no sound. There is a silence where no sound may be in the cold grave under the deep deep sea.” The epilogue of The Piano can feel unsettling, making us wonder if she still has morbid thoughts, nihilistic tendencies, or regrets about choosing to survive and begin anew with Baines. On the other hand, this ending hints that, while she is happier and more expressive with Baines, there’s a mysterious part of her psyche that yearns for solitude and a life removed from the world of men and their expectations of women.

Criterion Collection essayist Carmen Gray wrote: “Letting Ada have it both ways is perhaps, on the part of Campion, the ultimate rebellious license. Ada has given the grand gothic narrative the slip in its velocity toward full operatic catastrophe, for a more unassuming (and antipodean) nonconformity. She is allowed to keep her man while also retaining an unconquered mind full of roaming possibility.”

Similar works

  • The French folktale Bluebeard, in which a brutish nobleman murders his wives
  • Gothic romance novels by Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Jane Austen like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park
  • The eroticism of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • Jane Mandeer’s novel The Story of a New Zealand River
  • Anna Karenina
  • The African Queen
  • The Painted Veil
  • In the Realm of the Senses
  • Firelight
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • Sex and Lucia

Other films by Jane Campion

  • Sweetie
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • In the Cut
  • Bright Star
  • 8
  • Power of the Dog


Neighbors from hell

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Rosemary's Baby, directed by Roman Polanski and based on the novel by Ira Levin, is an unforgettable psychological horror movie that follows the story of a young woman named Rosemary who moves into a new apartment with her husband and becomes pregnant. However, as her pregnancy progresses, she begins to suspect that something is not quite right with her unborn child and that her neighbors are involved in a dark conspiracy.

When the film was released in 1968, it was a commercial and critical triumph and is now regarded as a classic in the horror genre. The picture’s significance lies in the way it shifted the genre's focus from traditional supernatural monsters to more psychological fears, exploring themes such as paranoia, loss of control, and isolation, which resonated with the audience, especially women. Today, it's especially praised for its feminist themes and remains significant for marking a turning point in Polanski's career, as it was his first American film, which helped establish him as a prominent director in Hollywood. Rosemary's Baby also paved the way for a new wave of serious adult horror cinema, including The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the 1970s.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this movie, conducted last week, click here.

What makes this film so frightening and disturbing? Rosemary’s Baby preys upon our fears of being alienated, conspired against, exploited, outnumbered, and ignorant about the dangers around us. The victim is an innocent, decreasingly naïve, and expectant mother whose unborn child is also at risk. This narrative depicts a horrifying world where a modern perverse subculture could be congregating right next door, and in broad daylight. What’s more, the film contains several unnervingly eerie dream sequences that have spurred innumerable nightmares for moviegoers, including a satanic rape scene that’s unsettling enough in its suggestive imagery without being tastelessly graphic.

Rosemary’s Baby benefits from proper character development, a story that builds patiently and reliably, realistic dialogue, and plausible personality behaviors. Moreover, this work is artfully directed and carefully crafted. Consider the scene where a distraught Rosemary walks aimlessly into oncoming car traffic, which was shot personally by Polanski using a handheld camera to capture the spontaneity and real-life danger of this event. Also, ponder the frequent use of a mobile camera as the lens increasingly tracks along queasily with Rosemary as she begins to uncover the truth; this choice lends the film a nervous “you-are-there” verisimilitude.

Rosemary’s Baby uses sound inventively, too, as proven by often disquietingly low-volume scenes in which we, like our heroine, must listen carefully for audio clues near her environment, such as a newborn’s cry or the voices behind the wall.

Much is also accomplished via ideal casting. John Cassavetes, underrated as an actor plays Rosemary’s husband, a conniving, down-on-his-luck thespian. Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer shine as Rosemary’s creepy next-door neighbors, and Ralph Bellamy and Charles Grodin are equally convincing as her physicians.

The movie can perhaps be viewed as an outmoded artifact of its time—the late sixties, when the youth counterculture was robust and the motto was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” But the concepts and themes explored in Rosemary’s Baby are ageless. This film is fueled by numerous ideas and messages, including isolation, mistrust, gaslighting, loss of agency, a woman’s right to her body, patriarchal subjugation, prevalent and persistent sexism in society, the presence of evil where it’s least expected—your own home—and the discomforts and anxieties that can accompany being pregnant.

Some argue that the conclusion is anti-climactic and disappointing. Others insist that the dénouement is chillingly effective. (SPOILERS AHEAD) On one hand, it’s a bit hard to swallow that Rosemary would ostensibly agree to nurture and mother her devilish offspring, considering how enraged she must be at the conspirators and the fact that she’s a Catholic. Yet it also makes sense that her maternal instincts would inevitably kick in and that she would want to protect her son from bad influences him. However, if it’s assumed that Rosemary acquiesces and enlists as the primary caregiver, it’s also doubtful that she will be able to thwart the designs of the coven or indefinitely resist the group’s persuasion to join them in their rituals and lifestyle. That reading layers an extra dark pessimism onto the ending that can be interpreted as, ultimately, evil conquers all.

For those unsatisfied by the finish, remember that it’s not as important that we got to this point: the unsettling journey along the way and the erosion of your comfort and confidence as a viewer is what truly matters.

Similar works

  • Hitchcock’s Suspicion, in which a wife begins to suspect the worst about her husband
  • The Omen, in which a couple’s adopted child may or may not be the spawn of Satan, and the parent cannot bring himself to kill the child.
  • Polanski’s earlier Repuslion, wherein a young woman gradually descends into a sexually-distorted paranoia and debilitating madness, and the director’s subsequent The Tenant, which tells the story of an increasingly paranoid and persecuted man renting an apartment in a building occupied by weird denizens.
  • House of the Devil
  • Hereditary
  • Gaslight
  • Lyle
  • The Witch
  • Suspiria


Cineversary podcast honors 100th birthday of Safety Last with Richard Correll and Suzanne Lloyd

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Richard Correll and Suzanne Lloyd
In Cineversary podcast episode #58, host Erik Martin honors the 100th birthday of the timeless silent comedy Safety Last, starring Harold Lloyd, by speaking with Richard Correll, chief archivist for the Lloyd Trust, and Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s granddaughter and president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment. Erik and his guests assess this film from a top-floor view and examine why Safety Last is worthy of celebration a century later, the ways it has stood the test of time, its influence on pop culture, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


ER meets Dante's Inferno

Monday, April 10, 2023

Released in 2005, long before Obamacare, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a Romanian drama, helmed by Cristi Puiu, that was representational of the Romanian New Wave, a film movement that emerged in the mid-2000s and gained international recognition for its socially and politically engaged cinema. The film dramatizes the story of a retired engineer named Mr. Lazarescu, played by Ion Fiscuteanu, who falls ill and spends a night being transported between different hospitals in Bucharest, Romania. We journey with Mr. Lazarescu's journey as he encounters a series of bureaucratic obstacles, apathetic medical staff, and overcrowded hospital wards, all of which make it increasingly difficult for him to receive the medical attention he needs.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse discussion of this film, conducted last week.

Shot in a documentary-like style, with long takes and a minimalistic approach to dialogue, which creates a sense of authenticity and immediacy, the film stands as a critique of Romania's healthcare system and the post-communist social reality of the country. It garnered significant critical acclaim and won several awards, including the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

How does this picture stand out and make an impression? It looks and feels like a documentary, as if the filmmakers were simply following this patient along his futile journey and spontaneously recording what they observed with no interference. But the truth is that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a carefully scripted narrative fictional movie with professional actors playing these roles, including the health care providers.

That knowledge is remarkable when you ponder how realistic the shots and performances are and the extended length of many unbroken shots. It’s also admirable considering how detached the filmmaking style is and how the filmmakers allow the narrative to unfold naturally, without sensationalism.

In his review, Roger Ebert wrote: “It lives entirely in the moment, seeing what happens as it happens, drawing no conclusions, making no speeches, creating no artificial dramatic conflicts, just showing people living one moment after another, as they must.”

Even though this is not a documentary, it’s loosely based on the true story of a man rejected by five different Bucharest hospitals in 1997 who was abandoned by the paramedics to die on the street; additionally, director Cristi Puiu had suffered from hypochondria years before and attempted to receive medical care, his experiences around which helped fuel this production.

While our attention is focused on Dante’s plight and deteriorating condition, the central figure in this story is arguably the EMT Mioara, whom we closely follow in her quest to get Dante the attention and treatment he needs.

The movie is a difficult watch for many, as it tries to play both sides of a delicate coin: tragedy and comedy. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn’t replete with outright jokes, witticisms, one-liners, or slapstick, but it is infused with a dry humor that can make the viewer feel bad for laughing at Dante’s increasingly frustrating predicaments and the inhumane treatment rendered by so-called caregivers. To some, the movie can feel mean-spirited, exaggerated, and implausible, as if the filmmakers are piling on and continuing to kick Dante while he’s down just to make an ironic point about the failures of the public health system. Others believe the tonal duality and morbid humor are expertly balanced.

Matthew Mosley with Collider wrote: “Its use of comedy only accentuates the cruelty Lăzărescu finds himself in, making an already tragic story into one of the most painful films in recent years. But it also serves as a necessary break from the injustice that swamps the film, with its careful placement ensuring the anguish never becomes too overwhelming, while still leaving plenty of room for Puiu’s searing critique of the industry… The line about his drinking habits recurs with such frequency it’s almost impossible not to laugh, and when combined with every obstacle under the sun blocking his path to salvation it’s as though the film is sucking away all your tears and common decency with every second until laughter is the only possible response you have left.”

Murphy’s Law, in which bad luck accumulates in a cascading, cosmically unfair fashion, is a prominent theme. Dante seems cursed and damnably destined to die after being refused care by one health practitioner after another, whether that’s due to their insensitivity, bias, or fatigue or because of coinciding misfortune like the bus accident that drains the health care resources of the surrounding community.

Another message espoused by The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is the value of the good Samaritan, and how we are our brothers’ keepers. Mioara the paramedic refuses to allow Dante to slip through the cracks and be ignored, persisting in shuttling him to four different hospitals and ultimately refusing to abandon him until he’s cared for. While she’s not perfect (consider the scene in the back of the ambulance where Dante complains of thirst while she asks the driver for a beverage, which she proceeds to drink while Dante suffers), Mioara proves to be the patient’s guardian angel of sorts, increasingly committed to ensuring that he is properly cared for. Perhaps being closer in age to Mr. Lazarescu reminds her of her encroaching mortality, which triggers a quietly empathetic drive that stands in stark contrast to the callous and cruel attitudes of the younger doctors and nurses who speak condescendingly and demonstrate no compassion for this terribly ill man.

The movie also explores the dangers of bureaucracy and overtaxing crucial public resources—in this case, the health care system, which this film savagely indicts. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a searing critique of the operational paradigm of institutions that practice Western medicine and what happens when the public safety net is pushed to its limits. This criticism here isn’t necessarily limited to health care providers and facilities in Romania— the finger is pointed at any country where many patients receive insensitive and deficient care from unfeeling practitioners who selfishly ignore their Hippocratic oath.

Lastly, Puiu and company are reminding us not to judge a book by its cover. Every healthcare professional who encounters Dante either assumes his condition is caused by intoxication or that he’s not worthy of their time and attention away from other patients because he’s drunk. They continually dehumanize the man and rob him of any dignity with their sneering attitudes and outspoken disdain.

Similar works

  • Dante’s Inferno
  • The TV show ER
  • Frederick Wiseman’s observational films and documentaries that explore American institutions, including The Cool World, Titcut Follies, City Hall, La Danse, and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
  • Dry humor dramedies like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos
  • L’Enfant and The Son, two works by the Dardenne brothers
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
  • Bringing out the Dead
  • The Waiting Room

Other films by Cristi Puiu

  • Stuff and Dough
  • Aurora
  • Bridges of Sarajevo
  • Sieranevada
  • Malmkrog


His love is real, but he is not

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

AI: Artificial Intelligence, directed by Steven Spielberg, the science-fiction drama released in 2001, depicts a futuristic world where robots have become commonplace, and a highly advanced robotic boy named David, played by Haley Joel Osment, is created to serve as a substitute for a couple's comatose son. As David navigates through a series of trials and tribulations, he sets out on a quest to become a real boy and find his place in a world that is both fascinated and fearful of artificial intelligence.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted last week, click here.

The film was inspired by Brian Aldiss's short story "Supertoys Last All Summer Long.” It received mixed reviews upon release, with some praising its ambition and visual effects, while others criticized its tonal inconsistencies. However, it has since become a cult classic and is considered a landmark in the genre of science fiction.

What’s impressive about this film? It’s an amalgam project that showcases the sensibilities and stylistic choices of the two directors associated with it: Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was enamored with Aldiss’ original short story and developed it into several screenplay iterations but couldn’t advance his vision for the film until special effects were up to the task of creating this world of ultra-realistic artificial beings. Eventually, he passed the project entirely onto Spielberg, who declined to make it until after Kubrick passed away in 1999.

Kubrick’s films were often known for their cool detachment, cynicism, and unsentimental narrative approaches, while Spielberg was famous for helming more humanistic movies and infusing sentimentality into his productions. But interestingly, it was Kubrick who insisted on the film’s emotionally bittersweet epilogue and many of the fairytale elements of the story, while Spielberg shows a deft hand by applying Kubrickian-like pessimism, violence, and sexuality.

The visuals in AI are often never less than stunning, with individual shots long remaining in the viewer’s consciousness, including dreamlike imagery of David and Teddy walking through the dark forest at night and spotting the impossibly rotund and glowing moon as well as the spellbinding shots of the submerged David staring wishfully at the blue fairy statue. The visual and makeup effects here are exemplary.

AI was not widely accepted or beloved on its release in the summer of 2001. It struggled to earn back its budget and wow many critics and audiences. Perhaps a reason for its box office failure and lack of mainstream acceptance is that audiences could not, at least at that time, identify with David and his ability to love unconditionally, even if it was human-programmed love. Additionally, the melding of messages about childlike innocence and storybook fantasy with decidedly adult themes of human intolerance, ugliness, and barbarism might have been a difficult bouillabaisse to swallow.

Interestingly, the film is roughly divided into four distinctive parts: David acclimating to and ultimately being rejected from his new family environment; David and friends on the run from human predators; David on a mission to find the blue fairy; and the realization of sorts of David’s dream.

Significantly, the artificial beings in this film are often more sympathetic and relatable to us than most of the human characters, many of whom are cruel, capricious, cold, and calculating. The filmmakers continually frame and shoot the narrative’s perspective from the viewpoint of David and other mechas. Time and again Spielberg gives us mirror reflections, shots of David looking through masks or eyeholes, and POV shots of artificially intelligent creations looking out upon the world (for example, the camera swings across to give us the point of view shot of the AI seer Mr. Know).

It’s also noteworthy that the harsh realities of climate change are reflected in this fictional story, which helps it age better after 22 years.

The picture benefits from being embedded with several crucial messages. Of particular thematic resonance is the exploration of an ultra-modern Prometheus. AI: Artificial Intelligence is a loose reworking of the Pinocchio story but also the Frankenstein myth, in which a brilliant scientist creates a new form of life with the blessing and curse of loving unconditionally and feeling emotional pain. Like the Frankenstein monster who was rejected and forsaken by his maker, David is discarded and abandoned by his mother.

The film also espouses that we bear a responsibility and moral liability as human beings for having created and promoted artificial intelligence, which may ultimately replace us.

Additionally, AI: Artificial Intelligence asks a vital question: What truly distinguishes a human being from an artificial being? Like the AI represented by David, we are machines of sorts, programmed by nature, instinct, and DNA, to seek love and acceptance and survive. Is it truly correct to assume that David is merely driven by human-imposed technological programming and that any emotion he thinks he is experiencing isn’t real – it’s instead a simulation of a feeling or clever puppeteering on the part of his human makers? AI: Artificial Intelligence challenges us consistently: If our ability as human beings to feel and express emotions and empathy is what separates us from lower life forms and makes us more “human,” is it then wrong to attempt to create an artificial human possessing or at least aspiring to the same qualities? If artificial intelligence outlasts and replaces us, as many predict, is it a more or less comforting thought that future artificial beings will aim to perpetuate the best aspects of humanity, including love, empathy, and tolerance (which seem to be among the traits expressed by the advanced synthetic beings who extract David from the ice and attempt to make his dream come true)?

As downbeat, bittersweet, and harsh as this film can feel through much of its run time, the conclusion is arguably an optimistic one. It suggests that, if it’s inevitable that humans will be replaced by the artificial intelligence it created, the upside is that future AI beings will represent the best of what humanity was capable of: empathy, compassion, acceptance, and kindness. Future AI will ideally adopt the best humanistic and emotional aspects of modern homo sapiens so that humanity lives on, in a way. The bridge between the 22nd century depicted in this story and advanced AI 2000 years later is David, who first proved that AI could, through human programming, love unconditionally and dream. The synthetic creatures – who are apparently not extraterrestrials but advanced versions of sentiment robots – desire to fulfill David’s wish and make him a “real boy” in a manner of speaking by using technology (another form of magic) to conjure up his dead mother and enable the boy bot to feel loved. Why would they go to the effort of finding and resuscitating David and processing all of his memories if not to fulfill his desires in a compassionate act? Otherwise, what’s in it for them?

Similar works

  • Pinocchio, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and other fairytale stories
  • The myth of Oedipus
  • Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Ex Machina
  • Bicentennial Man
  • Robocop
  • The early 1960s anime series Astro Boy


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