Ben and I get lost in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (USA, 1968)
[Warning: Big Warm-Up Paragraph for a Long Review]
I seem to recall Geoffry O' Brian - in passing, not in a feature on Keaton - saying that Buster's art is perhaps even more meaningful now than it was back in his day. Or maybe this is just me talking. Dan and Ben may be in love with the meta-statement of Sherlock Jr. but back then the audience was still naive about how the camera could fool the eye. Folks were still bringing a documentary cognition to an increasingly imaginative medium. So the high-wire action knocked them out as if they were attending a new kind of circus. Today, we are in awe at the shots and the cuts that deliver this experience and yet, today, the physical aspect of it all continues to take our breath away - in fact, even more so. What with all our virtual this and computer-generated that, Keaton spins the fantastic out of real material. Yes I remember now, it was I who said that Buster is telling us to shove those flying Kung Fu monks up our asses. I am dead serious about this. Never mind ''soilent green,'' pretty soon the post-modern marketplace will sell us a photograph of food to eat, just a simulation of dystopian canned cannibalism. To steal from one of my old university papers, Marie Antoinette said, let them eat cake; today Baudrillard says, let them eat a similacrum of a cake crumb. So the status of Keaton's physicality has changed over the years. Back then it was comprehended by viewers as ''real,'' as something merely captured on film and not actually manufactured specifically for and through celluloid. That we know better today makes the on-location-human-bodies of it all even more ''miraculous,'' an ''impossibility'' that dialectically keeps us sane about what is possible in the material world.
In 2006, 2001 has an analogous impact. The special effects were mind-blowing back then. It was a trip just to look at the film, never mind think about it. (And I use the word ''trip'' to signal that for all the futuristic mood of the film there is simultaneously an inclusion of contemporary pop cultural style, especially in the final segment when the film becomes plainly psychedelic.) But, of course, those special effects were old hat even before Star Wars. The high-tech, spectacle-driven sector of the industry is most intimately linked to the forces of capitalist innovation, so it took about five minutes to add guns and hack story-telling to 2001, successively improving ways to show ships blowing up. The reduction of science fiction as a genre to cowboys in space is too obvious to require any more ideological or larger cultural discussion. What I want to focus on here, then, is the aesthetic aspect. Because it is through this that I will address my ontological argument about 2001 being analogous to Buster Keaton.
If a cheap TV show these days has better effects than 2001, what makes the latter still so aesthetically powerful today? No doubt, a number of aspects should be identified. I want to concentrate on just one, however. What is the chief characteristic of the militaristic treatments of the genre? Sure, sure, the short answer is violence. But 2001 has moments of extreme violence, albeit pure-Kubrick, super-cold, literally mechanical killing. OK, so let's answer the question more generally. Action. Even when the cannons are not firing, in the Star Wars paradigm the ships are always moving... fast. So fucking fast. Faster, faster. Everything is always accelerating. Warp-speed and all that shit. That this is a technological-artistic reflection of capitalist production processes as mediated through military-industrial-complex ideology, I promised not to pursue. For I have finally arrived at the aesthetic greatness of 2001. Slow motion. I don't mean the photographic technique, although this very well may have been involved. No, I mean that Kubrick's film gives us the feeling of being in outer-SPACE by giving us the feeling that TIME has all but stopped entirely. Indeed, in certain scenes it appears that everything is truly at a stand-still. The pace of the film as a whole but at its core the movement of the ship, it's all soooo slow, painfully slow. I believe that the power of the film resonates from this. It is against this general condition that everything else must be aesthetically - and also conceptually - assessed. The classical music, the breathing in the space suit, Hal's vocal delivery - all of this and more is highly effective in relation to our sneaking suspicion that we have been hung out to dry in the middle of fucking nowhere.
Take this as comedic, take it as tragic, take it as you will. I take it as ''realistic'' as I take Buster Keaton. The slow motion aesthetic in 2001 is more genuinely physical than every one of those cosmic car crashes they get better and better at generating every year. All that closet-spiritualism about approaching the speed of light in your battleship fails to put us in outerspace. Kubrick puts us out there man! And on this score, his passe special effects are dialectically more powerful today than they were when the film was first released. To get at this another way, 2001 no longer packs a powerful futuristic punch. But more than 35 years later, the sensation of space created by this two-dimensional flickering impression feels ontologically true compared to all the virtual overdrive today.
The exception proves the rule, of course, and Kubrick employs acceleration to the nth degree in the rush to Jupiter and beyond. As I have no idea what in hell is happening at this point, I am happy to go along for the ride and it is very stimulating after all of the slow motion that preceeded it. It is correct, however, that this concluding portion of the film is dated and smacks of mumbo jumbo. Personally, I dig it. But I wouldn't blame someone if they didn't like head-scratching confusion and felt compelled to read the book. I don't have this problem because I don't understand the film as a whole anyway. This boils down to not knowing how to interpret the black obelisk. I can come up with some notions within each episode, but I cannot connect these notions into an overall understanding. No worries. Being in space and hanging out with HAL is enough for me.
About HAL, I won't extemporize on the theme of machines becoming human (and humans becoming machines). Suffice to say that it's no surprise that Kubrick wanted to make A.I. and as far as I'm concerned 2001 still takes us into the problem with a potent mixture of brute force and sophisticated humour. With respect to this, I have to reverse myself on Singing in the Rain from CO. Bicycle Built For Two is the all-time winner. Where to begin? It works on so many levels. The song lyric speaks to Daisy but increasingly sounds like "Davey" and Hal is singing to Dave. The song refers to an item that exists for just two individuals and it's just HAL and Dave left alive on the ship. The song is a romantic overture and HAL attempts to seduce Dave into a trusting friendship one last time before Dave ends their relationship, literally ''breaks it off.'' But I'm just getting started. For the song is a pean to a piece of technology for Christ's sake! This technology is from a time when each new machine was another building block for a brave new world, so much so, it was sold as an instument for the highest personal fulfillment, as a tool of romance, a toy of love. But more, this conveyance of courtship is precisely that, a vehicle, a - give it to me - ship. Yes, the bicycle is HAL's great great great great grandfather, ladies and gentlemen. And don't get hung up on the point that HAL is the brains and not the whole ship. Or do. Because techno-worship (wor-SHIP) boils down to a fetish for ''the brains of the operation" anyway. Last and not least, our nostalgia for this tune is off the chart with respect to the ''time of innocence'' it evokes. Our the civilization (represented by -one more time folks! - U.S. society) was young and pure and all that. The song is just one sexual hair past childlike. Of course, this is mythical rubbish but damn if it doesn't make us feel HAL's pain. So, Singing in the Rain is heavy, but Bicycle wins hands down. Hands down! And by the way, Kubrick pulls a fast one in this scene. HAL's voice doesn't just slow down. It drops in pitch. This is the sound of audio tape grinding to a halt. This is technologically anachronistic. HAL is way past such hardware. But I give Kubrick his poetic licence. It is so emotionally arresting. A computer losing its ''mind'' by singing about a bicycle while sounding like a turntable breaking down. Fucked me up - and I knew it was coming!
I conclude by mentioning my pet peeve with the film. The opening episode in 2001 is one-sided, right-wing anthropology. Forget about the black box. Before it shows up, emergent human sociabilty is merely a function of biological reproduction under conditions of near-absolute scarcity. The extent of cultural development is basic us-vs-them violent struggle over precious resources between equally impoverished groups. Lauguage is expressive of nothing but threat and hostility. I could unpack more but let's cut to the chase. Technological invention is the product of a solitary individual and the original tool is a weapon. Do I really have to write a critique of this? Good, I didn't think so. I will add, nevertheless, that even after the black box shows up, the anthropology must be rejected. There is no shortage of unintelligable stuff in 2001. But when the club wielding proto-human throws his club in the air and it turns into a space ship, the message is technological determinism. As Marxism has often been misunderstood as a version of technological determinism - by both its friends and its foes - I am always on the lookout for this seductive but ultimately misguided understanding of history.
2001 is a great film. A masterpiece. In its way, the equal of Strangelove. One of the coldest stretches of cinema ever made and who better to reel out such ice strips as Kubrick? It blew me away the first time and it blew me away last night. Not at all the greasy newspaper from yesterday's fish and chips. The exacte opposite. I can only imagine what it will feel like it another 35 years.
Great review. I know I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. This is the film that formed my cinematic consciousness, such as it was, at the tender age of 10 (-ish) when I caught this in its first run through the local theatre in 1968. Bear in mind that I was raised in a very small town in the Okanagan, with only one theatre. Combined with the fact that my family received the signal for one television station (CBC, of course), my exposure to challenging films was pretty much non-existent. And of course I was ten. My critical faculties were a good decade away from bearing fruit. So, needless to say, the film blew my brains out the back of my head. Compounding my astonishment and amazement was the fact that I was alone when I saw the film, so I had to sort the damned thing out all by myself. I remember telling my mother that I wasn't sure what I had just seen, or what it all meant, but that it didn't really matter because I was sure that I absolutely loved it.
Nearly forty years have passed since that experience, and I feel pretty much the same way [At least, when I think of the film outside of the experience of reading Clarke's novel, which (unfortunately, I think) lays the story's themes all out for there for everyone to see, that is.] The film defies a single, authoritative explanation, which is the definition of most good art, while encouraging us to do some creative figuring on our own. But that is not to say that Kubrick was just making it up as he went along, or that he didn't have a precise notion of where he was taking us, because that is most certainly not true. He has about complete a handle on his artistry as any filmmaker has ever had, and the film is driven through with Kubrickian humour and intelligence, his cold, somewhat cynical detachment, and his command of all things audio-visual.
Certainly from a technical standpoint this is his supreme achievement. I mean, shit, here we are in the 21st century, with computer generated realities at most filmmaker's fingertips, and Kubrick's ability to evoke the look, sound and feel of space travel has never been matched, never mind surpassed. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If Kubrick hadn't gotten this just right, the whole film could have easily descended into the sorta impotent parody that ultimately scuttled Barry Lyndon. Which is not to say the film isn't funny, because it certainly it, thanks mostly to the presence of HAL, but the film's study of man's "evolution" into machine would have been pretty damned laughable if Kubrick hadn't managed to create a space environment that we completely believed in.
Thanks for the compliment. And thanks for the personal biography. I know that kids used to go to movies by themselves, shucks, kids used to do all sorts of things by themselves. Don't get me started on that topic, breaks my heart. But not too many kids went to movies by themselves solo. The standard thing was the Saturday matinee with a bunch of buddies, right? Personally, I didn't go to the movies very much at all, with or without other kids. But back to you. I am impressed that your mother was cool about you attending 2001 on your own. I can only assume that she simply had no real idea herself about the picture and what the hell, it is rated G after all. I am confused by a previous conversation, though, in which I thought I heard you say that you originally saw 2001 with your uncle. So do straighten me out.
I mentioned before about Kubrick in general that his commercially successful films made significant cultural impacts in their day. Surely the prime case of this is 2001. The film has its psychedelic hippie-pleasing scene but even more topical is Neil Armstong, Major Tom and all that. Correct me if I'm wrong but was it or was it not a must-see in 1969? Talk about zeitgeist! Strangelove too had its finger on the pulse but in 1964 it was simply too hip for everyone to dig. More accessible than Lenny Bruce and Charles Mingus but not too much more. Five years and a lot of cultural changes later, everyone went to 2001. I mean, even the middle-America types with their male hair still cut short and their female hair still in curlers. I mean, even a small town kid in the Okanagan went to 2001. And that guy never recovered. What I am trying to say is that we are dealing with a film that is bigger than a film. We are dealing with an event, a cultural event with - how much? I can't say but some - world historical significance. Tie it in to the space/arms race, the fact that a Soviet film-maker not only saw it but felt compelled to reply to it, and so on - 2001 is a milestone transcending the arcane considerations of the cinephiles. And yet, the film stands the test of time, continues to speak to us, is still relevant today and feels like it will be relevant tomorrow too. What else can such a thing be called other than ART?
Yes, I saw the film with my uncle, but several years after my virginal experience, after I'd given up all hope of figuring it out. He was my shepherd through the foggy parts. But even he gave up all hope of explaining it by the end, something I remain grateful for. Since I never had it parsed for me, nor been able to completely parse it myself, I continue to remain open to it's possibilities.
The film was indeed a huge hit, a cultural event, as you say. But it was not a critical hit. The film was given the boots by pretty much every one of the most influential New York critics at the time, including Pauline Kael (who never warmed to Kubrick)--the NY critics being given the first screenings of the film at the time. I reckon the studio's hope was that this incomprehensible, methodically-paced film had only one chance to make money, and that was if critics embraced it. Critics across the country were near-universal in their dismissal of the film. Roger Ebert tells a famous story of how he was at a screening for the film when Rock Hudson rose from his seat at intermission and bellowed complaints about the film's incomprehensibility as he left the theatre.
And then the film went into wide release, and what should happen, but the damned thing becomes the biggest moneymaker in MGM's history (up to that point). Many critics are nonplussed and make snarky remarks about how it's the drug crowd driving up the receipts (damn straight, though they're hardly the only ones). Eventually, some critics go see the film again, and make attempts at reconciliation with their readers, publishing
new reviews that hint at how they've come to see the errors of their ways. For once, the audience gets it right, and the critics eat crow.