I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica this evening, in a 70mm print that, while occasionally faded and scratched and dinged up, was often wonderfully sharp (you could almost read the tiny print on those ‘Explosive Bolts’ warning signs) and managed to convey all the majesty and grandeur one might reasonably expect for $12.50. One of the Aero’s treasures is that it brings not only big-screen projections of classic films, but also attentive, attuned audiences with which to watch them.
I have known and loved this movie all my life, almost since before I knew what movies were. At some inchoate age I was dragged to a revival screening of 2001, probably by my cosmically-minded mother. I struggle to remember those first impressions. I think Ligety’s Requiem, music that is heard in association with the Monolith, all crashing brass and restless sopranos, struck me at a very early age as something both sacred and terrifying. I remember most especially the glowing eyes of the apes in the nighttime. The bared teeth, the flailing limbs; the “Dawn of Man” sequence stuck with me the most powerfully as a young child, quite possibly because I’d slipped off to sleep sometime around when Heywood R. Floyd was setting foot on the moon. As a family we were early adopters of the VCR, and one of the first videocassettes we had was 2001. I’m not sure if I ever popped the thing in of my own accord, but I distinctly remember the box lying around the living room entertainment center cabinet. The film may seem absurd on a 13” screen at VHS resolution, but I’m sure it all seemed very high-tech in the late 1970s.
By the time I was a teenager coming into film school, I had decided that 2001 was probably the best film ever, and I’ve never fully been able to persuade myself that it’s not, although I don’t respond to Kubrick in quite the same ways now as I did then. I suppose my preference for the movie came down to its neat combination of two aesthetics: it was both a sci-fi movie and an art-movie. Consequently, a sci-fi nerd-turned-cinephile such as myself could embrace it. In a sense, 2001 was my bridge to (as Obi Wan would put it) a larger world: it provided safe passage from the Star Trek IIs and Aliens of my adolescence to the Jules and Jims and Floating Weedses I would encounter as I pursued more serious film studies. Kubrick’s film was always there, always obtuse and incomprehensible enough that liking it never seemed pedestrian or uncool; yet always entertaining with its eye-boggling production design, mysterious extraterrestrials, and insane murderous computer.
I tried this time to look at the film more skeptically than I have in the past. Kubrick was not some preternaturally wise Sage of Art; he was just a guy from the Bronx with a good eye for camera composition who got interested in new-age ideas of extraterrestrial influence and got caught in the wave of Apollo-era space frenzy and decided to make a movie about all that stuff. Right? Riiight? Only I can’t deny that here, on my umpteenth viewing, was a movie that still left me astounded, confused, rushing with thoughts. I’ve stopped trying to understand What It All Means, Man, and have adopted the approach of sitting back, observing the filmmaking technique (and boy, what technique!), looking for points of intersection with other films in Kubrick’s oeuvre, trying to understand how the particular storytelling choices work, and to what end. I guess maybe I am still trying to understand What It All Means, Man, but in a less cosmic sense. In any case, my attempt at critical detachment didn’t get very far. I found myself deeply, desperately engaged with this movie, yet again. I spotted minor flaws in the legendary visual-effects work. I wondered, at other times, how much damn rehearsal and planning it must have taken to get one of those shots right where the whole set has to be rotated and Gary Lockwood has to be strapped to a chair so he won’t fall out of it. At other times I thought of how the pacing of a sequence was so tightly wedded to the Strauss waltz that scores it, and realized that the oft-remarked “deliberate” pacing of the cutting must have been mandated to some extent by the dictates of three-four meter and the eight-bar sections of a waltz melody.
When Dave was in space, manipulating the pod to catch Frank Poole’s body, I thought: how very, very lonely he is out there. When HAL would not let him back in, I connected that icy isolation with moments in my own life when a woman has, with a glance, shut me out, and I have felt absolutely, terrifyingly alone in the world. When HAL murdered the three scientists in suspended animation, I tried to observe the shot selection, the pace of cutting. The sequence is not rapidly edited, but through sound design – that overwhelming beeping noise as the life functions expire – it acquires overpowering force. The sequence ends with a shot of HAL’s unblinking red eye, a leitmotif throughout the film’s third act, and a pure demonstration of something called the “Kuleshov Effect.” Kuleshov, a Russian film theorist, showed that an identical shot of a human face could seem to render different emotions based on what was shown before it. HAL, of course, is nothing but a red circle; yet at times that circle seems malicious, mad, calculating, all-powerful.
New observations crept up as I watched the film this time. I noticed how elegantly two characters, Dave and HAL, are introduced in the same shot: a shot of Dave coming through a hatch, reflected in HAL’s eye. Hardly a surprise, then, that these two characters are bound together so closely in my memory of the film. I wondered whether there was bad blood between HAL and Poole, and if this contributed to HAL’s ruthless murder of the hapless astronaut. Poole seems awfully dismissive of HAL in the scene where he watches a video of his parents wishing him a happy birthday. He treats him as a sort of glorified butler. Does HAL resent that? Did HAL actually malfunction when he reported the damaged communications module, or did he make up the whole thing in order to give himself an excuse to bump off those pesky humans? Yet he genuinely seems to like Dave; rather than kill Dave aggressively, all he can do is passively leave him to die. One supposes that the fates of Dave and Poole might have been interchangeable depending on whose turn it was to go EVA, but it’s hard to imagine HAL killing Dave as violently as he killed Poole.
The film’s recurring use of astronomical conjunctions – planets lined up one after the other – struck me more powerfully this time, and I noticed how the “conjunction” of the space pod coming up over the horizon of the Discovery’s spherical front node fits nicely into that visual schema. Surely the circular design of both spacecraft was no coincidence. Whether anything other than a purely graphical consideration, a desire to strengthen textual unity through visual leitmotifs, was at work here, is beyond me. I try to avoid the temptation to wonder What Kubrick Intended, because his intentions are long gone while the film remains.
I’ve long been struck by the “desaturated” quality of the acting in this film – Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and the other cast members are almost comically matter-of-fact, their emotions seldom registering beyond chummy bonhomie and competent professionalism. Those who claim Kubrick “couldn’t work with actors” have never persuaded me – when he wants, he teases iconic performances out of his stars, as a cursory viewing of A Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket readily demonstrate. In fact, I’d argue one of those iconic performances is in 2001 – the voice work of Douglas Rain as HAL. It may, indeed, be the most recognizable voiceover performance in the history of film. And it’s astonishing in its suppleness: look how with the mildest changes in inflection Rain brings HAL from absurd humor to deep poignancy in the scene where Dave is disconnecting him.
But yes, the other performances are deliberately grey. It’s a conscious aesthetic choice. To what end? The choice always felt right to me because this is not a story about a particular human or any one person’s emotions. It’s a self-consciously cosmic story, concerned with transcendence in the abstract, with yawning gaps of time and space and humanity as a concept rather than an individual.
Yet there’s more going on here. For one thing, the film is as quotidian as it is cosmic. We keep seeing the mundane details of daily life – in particular, eating. We see the apes munching on tapir; we see Heywood Floyd sipping Zero-G food and eating sandwiches on a moon shuttle; we see Dave and Frank chowing down while they watch a TV interview with themselves; and in the final moments in the alien menagerie “Beyond The Infinite,” Dave is having yet another meal. So what’s going on? Is Kubrick simply looking for something, anything to film that won’t smack of melodrama or contrived human emotion? Is he making a point about the fundamental similarity between the cosmic and the mundane – that life is no more or less than the simple biological processes and routines that make it up? What’s it all mean, man?
And here’s another thing. For an anti-space-opera, 2001 actually gets rather operatic in the second act. The whole plot device of HAL going bonkers isn’t really necessary to bring Dave to Jupiter; he was going there anyway. He could have gotten there as uneventfully as Heywood made it to the moon, and still been piloting a pod into the Stargate all the same. So what’s the point of this evil-computer interlude, anyway? Is Kubrick hedging his bets, feeling the audience will get restless if they don’t get some kind of drama in between all the space vistas and ham sandwiches? This is a filmmaker, after all, who is usually anything but abstract, and whose movies – from The Killing to Paths of Glory on up to Full Metal Jacket – generally don’t lack for plot and intrigue. In a sense, the HAL interlude doesn’t seem germane to the film’s main theme – yet it’s impossible to imagine the film without its most memorable character. Perhaps his nervous, discordant presence implies a false start on the path to human transcendence. He is in the end only a mockery of human intelligence, unlike the Star Child, who has truly gone beyond it.
The Stargate sequence, meanwhile, seems more structured than I remembered it. It begins with the slit-scan visuals that imply some kind of warp-space travel; in between are vague and globular organic shapes indicating by turns galaxies and embryos; and finally we have a series of color-altered landscape shots that very specifically imply that we have arrived somewhere, presumably on the extraterrestrials’ home world or something like it. These flying landscape shots point forward to the helicopter mountainscapes of The Shining, even as the shuttle docking sequence (scored to The Blue Danube) points backward to the sexualized in-flight refueling that opens Dr. Strangelove.
Finally, there’s the ending – the big baby in space, turning its gaze toward us. This ending has always seemed rather on-the-nose to me, but I never begrudged it; in a film with such wonders as the early scene of Moonwatcher discovering the destructive power of a length of femur, or the hurtling transportiveness of the Stargate sequence, it’s neither here nor there if the ending gets a bit literal in its attempt to sum things up. What’s important is the sense you get that Kubrick is striving here, reaching in his grab-bag of images, trying to represent transcendence as powerfully in visual terms as Richard Strauss managed to do musically. (And Kubrick’s debt to Strauss is so gigantic that one almost feels the composer ought to have been given posthumous co-director credit.) I react differently, on different viewings, to that last shot of the Starchild. Sometimes he seems enigmatic; sometimes frightening. This time, he seemed to represent a touchingly hopeful attitude that humanity will get onward and upward, that the best is truly yet to come. I don’t trust that sentiment, but some part of me clings to the idea that Mr. Kubrick knows better than I do, that he knows whereof he speaks; just as I feel upon listening to the finale of the 9th symphony that Mr. Beethoven knows what he’s talking about too. I cling to the idea of wiser men than myself who have peered over the edge, seen something to make them hope, and hurried back to give us the good news.
*Addendum: Upon rereading this entry I can't help noticing that I've given Arthur C. Clarke short shrift. Many of the concepts in 2001 no doubt originated with him, rather than his collaborator Kubrick. Still, I impute final authorial power to Kubrick insofar as, were there anything in the story that he didn't want to be there, it probably wouldn't be.