My Year in Film Studies (Part 4)
For those who missed it, here is part 3
And but so now for my next trick....
My rationale for taking on 2001: A Space Odyssey next:
Up to now, we'd spent a fair bit of time looking at cinematic techniques and film narrative, with a minor devotion to the conventions of genre, so at this point in the course, I felt it was time to get into some serious auteur theorizin'. 2001 also allowed me to continue our study of genre, as this film pretty much sets the standard for sci-fi, while also getting into the kind of meaty intellectual material seldom afforded audiences of conventional Hollywood fare. So, pursuant of the rigourous study of auteur theory, and after surveying the class's ignorance on the topic and employing some book learnin', I reckoned it was time to get down to the dirty job of applying the newfound knowledge. And what better place to start than with the filmmaker who unlocked the magic of movies for me, one Mr. Stanley Kubrick. Specifically, I decided to show the students 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the folks who climb those tall ladders to place the titles on movie marquees must have HATED Kubrick.) I had little doubt, in this age of irony, that Strangelove's satire would be a good fit, but I was filled with trepidation about starting with 2001.
It was actually a bit of a ballsy move, if I must stay so myself, to kick things off with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film certainly has a devoted following, but it seems to me a eclectic crew made up of cinephiles and those for whom the film's tag line (The Ultimate Trip) would have been not merely a jumping off point for the movie, but a personal lifestyle, if you get my drift. And while these students had certainly proven themselves keen and capable up to this point, there was nothing we had seen that would challenge them and test their patience and open-mindedness like this film would. In fact, I had shown this film to a class of honours students about a decade ago, and the results were mixed. However, the film had done such a job on me as a ten year old, I couldn't resist the opportunity to see if the film still had that sort of power to shock and awe a group of youngsters.
Onward, outward and upward.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, USA/UK, Stanley Kubrick)
Picture this. I was an impressionable lad of ten when I wandered aimlessly into the movie theatre. My experience of film had been largely restricted by my own interests and the tastes of my disinterested parental units; I watched a lotta Disney. Which is to say, my cinematic aptitude was pretty much completely underdeveloped, and my expectations of what a film should look like, be and do almost entirely trite. I had pretty much no experience with the sci fi genre, and had never even heard the term "art film." I was a rube, in almost everyway imaginable.
Boy was I in for a surprise. Kubrick's film unhinged me. 2001:ASO lifted the skull off the top of my head. It rearranged my pia mater. This film shook me all night long. I mean think about it. What kind of film takes you on a four million year journey through space and time that begins in violence and ends with a birth? What sort of film has no dialogue for the first 25 minutes, and doesn't introduce its protagonist until the 55 minute mark (Keir Dullea's Odysseyian-monickered Dave Bowman)? And what sort of genius makes his computer antagonist (HAL 9000) compellingly human and his human protagonist cool and unaffecting? And how does one teach a film like this without getting bogged down in the interpretations and analysis, nevermind Kubrick's audacious decision to mix in the temporary score of classical music (Bach, Strauss) with the avande garde work of Gyorgy Ligeti, its undeniable technical brilliance (its special fx remain state of the art over four decades later) and crazy narrative courage? What kind of movie dares to bore the audience with the seemingly endless passages of what outer space must really be like, full of silences and inaction? What sort of filmmaker wears his coolness and aloofness like a badge of honour, defying the audience to find an emotional entry point into his work? The sort of film and filmmaker that hopes to blow our minds, apparently.
There were many approaches I could have taken to begin our study of this film, including a more literary study of the story's Odyssey-ian elements, but this was meant to be primarily a look at Kubrick as an exemplar of the auteur theory. I chose to analyze the material that made such an impression upon me as a child, as I figured this might mirror the experiences of students coming to the film for the first time. No easy task, however, given how startlingly unique this film is, not to mention the awesome scope of the story. Starting with a memorable sequence from pre-history featuring contact between some sort of apish homo erectus-like creatures and extra-terrestrial intelligence in the form of a screaming monolith, and finishing with the birth of a Star Baby, the next stage of human evolution, 2001: A Space Odyssey covers four million years of human evolution. Given the vast scope of its narrative, it seems somewhat frivolous to get into an extended discussion of the film's key plot points, but let me note the following. When I saw this film as a ten year old, the film's bookkends are the sequences did me in, and these are the moments that I used as entry points into the film in class. The opening sequence with the apes impressed me because I had just seen (and mightily enjoyed) Planet of the Apes, and Kubrick's creatures were creations of an entirely different order. Not only were there no visible signs that these were human beings dressed up in monkey suits, but also the lives of these early humans were grim in a way I had not seen depicted on screen before. Despite the fact that there exists considerable scholarship that suggests life in early hunter gatherer societies was actually pretty good, as people spent a minimal amount of time and effort foraging for food, with the bulk of their time spent socializing, I will cut Kubrick and Clarke (Arthur C., author of the novel and co-writer of the script) some slack here. While anthropologists may have shown that many of the innovations that resulted in human evolution came about as a result of co-operation, it remains that conflict makes for more compelling drama. Culminating in one of the most famous jump and match cuts in cinematic history, the ape section of 2001 proved a fascinating portal into the labyrinthian chambers of the Kubrick's often probing and inscrutible mind.
And it is to the film's great credit that even after the movie ends, the portal remains open. The film's concluding passages return us to the silences that greated us at the film's start. While man was once pre-verbal, it appears that in our next incarnation we will be post-verbal. And it is here that Kubrick unpacks some of his philosophical baggage. The film's finale attacks us with images that the director refuses to explain and actions he declines to define, leaving us with many questions, but charging us with parsing out the answers as well. In a provocative echo of the way that the film both starts and ends in silence, when Dave passes through the stargate and lands up in the alien zoo, his journey both ends and begins. And likewise, the audience's experience of the film must start as it ends, for the enigmatic imagery that concludes Kubrick's film allows us to either dismiss his work as pretentious drivel or challenges us to embrace the ambiguity, and use it as a springboard into interpretation.
I don't mean to put too fine a point on it, but my experience of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came at a time (the fall of 1968) when such a millenial date evoked images either utopian or apocalyptic, was life-altering. Kubrick's film not only changed the way I viewed film, but the way I experienced art and life. It raised the bar, opened me up, challenged my expectations and transported me to a whole new world. It bored me and thrilled me, exasperated and enthralled me. But probably the most important thing that 2001 did for me was to open me up to the idea that movies can be art. More to the point, I saw for the first time that a movie can ask all sorts of questions without providing a single conclusive answers, remaining open to the perceptions and interpretations of the viewer. This was quite a novel concept to me, one that I would come to recognize as the key that would unlock many of the great works of literature, music and painting to me, and to see film elevated to this status made quite an impression. And it has shaped my expectations of film ever since.
The film certainly framed the whole issue of the auteur theory nicely, as there are few narrative filmmakers who marry a distinctive style and challenging content like Stanley Kubrick. The open-endedness of the film also allowed personal entry points for individual response and interpretation that proved quite rewarding. Some students found the film's ambitions beyond their grasp, but because I maintained my policy that it was all right not to "get" the film, that experiencing it was enough, it seemed to alleviate concerns about the film's apparent inscrutability. And even more excitingly, some students actually embraced the film's baffling nature, and rather than being turned off by its WTF-ness, revelled in it. 2001 achieved pretty much everything I had hoped it would as a teacher, which is always a very cool thing. Overall, the film was rated 4.25/5 by students, and was in the upper half of the 20 films ranked by the class.
Despite reassurances that "getting it" isn't a necessary precursor to appreciating the film, some students remained unwilling to plumb 2001's cinematic depths, choosing instead to ride along on its occasional surface pleasures. Still, no one dismissed it outright, which is something I guess.
What I'd do differently:
I would put a little more time into establishing context, to clarify exactly how and why this film was so ground-breaking, as well as to explore the ways 2001 affected both genre and art films thereafter.
Would I do it again?
Overall Grade: A