2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Hmmmm. Ok. I wonder where the best place to start is?
I know. Why don’t we start at the beginning?
“My God, it’s full of stars.”
(Is it funny that the most quotable line from the movie isn’t actually in the movie?)
Although shit – I have a memory of watching it and hearing Dave Bowman say the line. Although I think I was only about 11 or 12 and watching it in the downstairs living room at my Dads’ house (my house). Me and Dad and all of his mates were sitting around me and – in my memory at least – they’d all fallen asleep leaving me to transverse the Stargate by myself. Am almost 99% sure that they’d all been smoking something that wasn’t tobacco and it’s perfectly plausible that I was a teeny tiny bit high from the second-hand smoke but who knows? But still – hand on heart – I think I probably still found that whole last third to be a little bit boring (blasphemy!).
Earlier this year when we did The Shining I think I mentioned that I had a passionate love affair with this book: Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece. You know the kind of thing when you can’t stop reading it and you simultaneously want to devour the whole thing in one go while at the same time wanting to go really slowly just to make it last? Yeah. It was like that.
And it gave me such a craving to do 2001 as a Film Club thing that I couldn’t even wait until next year so you know: here we are. Altho now I’m here I can’t even remember half the things that I wanted to say all the way back in June…. (feels like another world).
Full disclosure: yeah. I’ll admit it – there was a time in my life. From like about 12 to 13 where 2001 was “my favourite film of all time” in a way that kinda makes me cringe when I think about it (and I’ll be the first to cop to the fact that my subsequent development has kinda been a reaction to that whole kinda mindset where “of course of course and well actually don’t you realise that all the most intelligent and worthwhile things require a bit of worth and mental effort and if you don’t get it then maybe you’re just too slow and should try something easier….?” when actually what it seems that mostly translates to is: things which are boring. And staying awake is the name of the game instead of being – well – entertained and and excited and moved etc).
Although the one factoid that stuck in my brain: did you know that in the year it came out (1968) 2001 was the most popular film? As in: most tickets sold and most money made? That is amazing to me. The fact that when it came out this crazy, surrealistic, uncompromising almost avant garde science-fiction mediation on life, the universe and hominids was the most successful film of the year just seems… I don’t know – somehow miraculous? (It gives me no real pleasure to be *that guy* but I feel a sense of duty to point out that the most popular film in the year 2001 was… Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Which well yeah: feels like it means something?).
(If you’re curious – you can see the whole year by year list here: but yeah – it’s a little dispiriting like watching steak and vegetables being slowly replaced by popcorn and sweets…).
Although if you gave me a choice between watching 2001 and the Sorcerer’s Stone…
Did you know there’s a Steven Soderbergh recut of 2001? I’ve never seen it but would love to. Apparently he cuts half an hour from it so that it’s all the more to the point. I’m not as much of a Soderbergh fan as I imagine Soderbergh himself is (altho I’ll admit that he does have his moments and if you haven’t seen The Knick already then you really should rectify now and then thank me later) but the idea of a 2001 that’s more awake does appeal to me (it is kinda boring in parts right?): altho I wonder if it would still cast as much of a spell as it does? I’ve seen it a fair few times and every time the whole “HAL going kill crazy” manages to sneak up on me. One second you’re watching these two norms having that staid space norm lives and the next second it’s like everything is on a knife-edge and you can’t even breathe.
(Other random factoid from the book – Dave Bowman’s breathing when he’s killing HAL? That’s actually Kubrick doing the overdub).
Not wanting to shock anyone unduly – but I’m kinda big into my science-fiction. If you wanna get high-brow about it then yeah: it’s pretty good as vessel on which to embark upon explorations of heady philosophical concepts like our place in the universe, what makes us human and what encounters with alien civilizations would be like but also it’s good for the visceral thrills stuff like spaceships and technology and malicious artificial intelligence. And yeah of course 2001 straddles both and does a lot – but what’s not so often remarked upon is how it basically minted a whole new story-type. I might be saying this to a lot of blank stares: but I’ve lost count of the number of books, films and comics I’ve read which have unashamedly ripped off the playbook established by Mr Stanley Kubrick… Everything from Brian De Palm’s Mission to Mars to two comics I read just last month (one called Ancestor by these people Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward and the other called Ocean by Warren Ellis, Chris Sprouse and Karl Story). I mean – at this point it feels like the twist that human beings where created by alien beings doesn’t elicit any bigger response from me bigger than a yawn… And any film that wants to get profound by shooting the audience with a bunch of crazy visual noise in their final third just makes me want to roll my eyes (the two which spring to mind right now are Berberian Sound Studio and A Field in England but there’s loads loads loads more).
LOL and oh yeah – Interstellar. Of course.
But the question I struggle with is: like – is it because everyone that came after is just a hack? And it’s in the nature of big cool ideas for one person to break new ground and then for everyone else…. just to follow? (I don’t really read Fantasy but I’m guessing you could probably say the same kinda thing with Tolkien and… everyone else who came after Tolkien). Or is it more than that – does 2001 set the limit of how far a film or a story can possibly go and going beyond it – just isn’t possible? It reached the outer most limit and so everything that comes after is stuck in the space that it first mapped out?
(Isn’t it funny that 2001 coined the term Stargate while nowadays the immediate association with that name is… not David Bowman tripping to lots of different colours?).
Or maybe it’s just the shape and size of it? Landing with such an impact (the most popular film in the year it came out remember). That it forever altered everything in it’s wake? If you’re making or writing science-fiction – you’re either following it or reacting against it – a third way… maybe just isn’t possible?
Does anyone else know about 2010? The much much lesser known sequel starring Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren and… Bob Balaban? No. I’m not making this up. Directed by the same guy who made Timecop. The best part of it is the first few minutes when it relives the whole of 2001 in a way that actually gives me goosebumps… (check it out).
It’s also the film that actually has the “My God, it’s full of stars” line in it…
Will leave it there for now.
I saw this for the first time a few years ago on a big screen at the BFI Southbank, which I thought was probably how you should do it. The BFI always hand out ‘show notes’ with the credits and a few articles / reviews to get you thinking about the film you’ve seen. For 2001 they handed out an interpretation by an American teenager called Margaret Stackhouse. When Kubrick read what she had written, he wrote back to her teacher to say her speculations “were perhaps the most intelligent that I’ve read anywhere”. It’s certainly an impressive thing for a 15-year-old to write. But it also reveals the somewhat adolescent preoccupations the film has.
By that I mean the philosophical concerns the film investigates are the sorts of things teenagers are most interested in. I did philosophy and ethics at A-Level and throughout that time everyone in my class thought the philosophy half was the most absorbing, because that’s where the big metaphysical speculations were to be found about the existence of God and the nature of the universe. It took me a long time to realise that these questions are actually rather trivial, particularly if you accept the empiricist idea that we really have no basis for conjecturing about God and that in practice it makes sense to proceed on the basis that He doesn’t exist. Even if you accept the Death of God as a teen, you’re likely to be drawn to the types of philosophers who were obsessed with the idea – Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus and the existentialists, who struggled to formalise a system of ethics in light of the absurdity you’re left with when there is no outwardly imposed meaning on the universe.
It slowly dawned on me at university that all of the interesting intractable philosophical debates were really on the ethics side of the course – particularly as much of it has a bearing on how to think about politics as well. You can argue that a lot of philosophers move in this direction. Marx started out writing around a very specific debate about religion created by the aftermath of the French Revolution, and later moved to more and more ‘concrete’ interpretations of alienation. David Hume’s Treatise starts with epistemology to ground the subsequent interest in ethics and politics. You could say that once philosophers redescribe the world to their satisfaction they want to say something about how we should live in it.
My problem with 2001 is that it’s just not very interested in the latter generally. The human is purposefully lost in rather abstract and ambiguous meditations on the development of the human race towards some ultimately inexplicable purpose, the teleological implications of which presume some higher intelligence, either capricious or benevolent as Stackhouse concludes. What’s the point? I found the lofty tone of 2013’s Gravity a lot more palatable because it strips out the teleology to become a parable about the incredible unlikelihood of life surviving on this rock in the corner of the galaxy, and humanised that achievement through the resilience of a central character you are invested in. The one moment of humanity in 2001 is when a space scientist has a facetime conversation with his daughter back on Earth, a moment Duncan Jones built an entire film around with Moon. Kubrick cast his own daughter in the role, which adds a further tenderness to the moment, given how much the work of a director must take you away from your family – almost to the point where you start to feel like an astronaut. That aside, is there anything left for us to do with the film apart from to marvel at its technical achievements?
“But what does it really mean?”
That’s the kinda question that people tend to ask about films a lot. Especially the films that I mostly tend to like. Obviously the idea is that there’s a few simple sentences and a handy explanation that someone can recite and everything just makes sense. Like there’s a simple key or a codeword that will make everything clear.
Inception is all about film-making and every member of the team is a different part of the film crew. Aliens is about the Vietnam war. They Live is about Capitalism. Dawn of the Dead is about Capitalism. Wall-e is about Capitalism.
Obviously I am a sucker for these kinda readings because well yeah – they make the rich a deeper experience and allow you to see more inside them. But I think there’s a danger of falling into this headspace which leaves you thinking that’s all it takes to watch and/or understand what you’re watching. Or in other words: there’s a difference between what Margaret Stackhouse wrote and 2001 and treating the first being somehow the pure essence (or whatever) of the second – to say that Margaret Stackhouse can help to explain what the “point” of the movie feels to be me to be actually missing the point.
There’s a theory about 2001 that I really love by Rob Ager. Here’s the main thrust of it but I’d very much recommend you go and read the whole thing here (“Kubrick: and beyond the cinema frame” An in-depth analysis of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY):
The answer can be found by noting one of the key differences between the film and Arthur C Clarke’s original short story, The Sentinel. Clarke described the monolith as a pyramid shaped piece of polished mineral surrounded by a spherical force field. Kubrick, in adapting the story for cinema, changed this to a black rectangular box …. Why? Because the monolith is a representation of the actual wideframe cinema screen, rotated 90 degrees.
I mean yeah – some of the other stuff Rob says is a little bit of a stretch / a bit Room 237 (or maybe my tint feeble mind just can’t comprehend it? I guess it’s possible) – the BBC letterbox thing (adding fake stars to the areas outside the letterbox screen) doesn’t feel like something that Kubrick opposed because it would change the meaning of the film or whatever – but just because it’s stupid and ugly but you know whatever lol. But the bit that my mind was most drawn to was an extract from an interview with Kubrick that goes like this:
Interviewer To take one specific, in the novel the black monolith found by curious man- apes three million years ago does explicit things which it doesn’t do in the film. In the movie, it has an apparent catalytic effect which enables the ape to discover how to use a bone as a weapon-tool. In the novel, the slab becomes milky and luminous and we’re told it’s a testing and teaching device used by higher intelligences to determine if the apes are worth helping. Was that in the original screenplay? When was it cut out of the film?
Kubrick Yes, it was in the original treatment but I eventually decided that to depict the monolith in such an explicit manner would be to run the risk of making it appear no more than an advanced television teaching machine. You can get away with something so literal in print, but I felt that we could create a far more powerful and magical effect by representing it as we did in the film.
Now it seems Rob takes this as evidence that instead of Kubrick making the monolith a television screen he made it a cinema screen instead which yeah ok – is by the by: but I think actually the point Kubirck is trying to make is a little bit (in a sense) mundane and a little bit (in a sense) more… mind-expanding? And also kinda relates to what Ilia said above – particularly “is there anything left for us to do with the film apart from to marvel at its technical achievements?”
Because here’s the thing: like Kubrick said – films in general and 2001 in particular are about creating “powerful and magical effects.” I mean – reading what Margaret Stackhouse wrote: it all just seems pretty dry and boring and I struggle to resist the urge inside me to say “yeah – but so what?” (Regarding Kubrick’s comments: “Margaret Stackhouse’s speculations on the film are perhaps the most intelligent that I’ve read anywhere, and I am, of course, including all the reviews and the articles that have appeared on the film and the many hundreds of letters that I have received. What a first-rate intelligence!” – I mean: can we at least entertain the possibility that Kubrick was just wanting to be nice to a 15 year old? Maybe?) I mean – there is an epic distance between reading
Movie implies that life has reached the stage when it is ready for inspiration, a divine gift, perhaps. [It is interesting that the apes are expectant, waiting for something.]
And the actual powerful and magical experience of watching this bunch of black-haired apes slowly wake up to this strange-as-fuck music that sounds like a crowd of angels having a panic attack and then HOLY FUCK WHAT THE HELL IS THAT? You know: it’s an honest-to-God actual moment that can only possibly exist as a piece of film – it’s unique and special and crazy and gives me these sensations and feelings that I don’t even know how to begin to describe about from in inadequate cliches (the hair on the back of my neck stands up and I can feel my skin kinda… shiver).
It’s… well… actual magic.
Point being: yeah there’s technical ability and all the rest of it – and yeah you can get all A Level Philosophy about it if you really want to… But the real juice and excitement and joy and thrill of the movie is in the things which are inexpressible and exist just a little bit further than feels comprehensible…
In other words: this is the good stuff =
REASON FOR MALFUNCTION OF HAL-9000…UNKNOWN.
MEANING OF LAST BOWMAN TRANSMISSION…UNKNOWN.
LOCATION OF BOWMAN…UNKNOWN (PRESUMED DEAD).
Yeah you want the known. Yeah you want the meaning. Yeah you want to understand it.
But it’s better without.
There’s a band called Idles. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them – but they’re on the up-and-up and you know: well – good for them etc. They’re like a hard rocking kinda art rock kinda punk band of the kind that I usually love – but I don’t know… I’ve been listening to their latest album (“Joy as an Act of Resistance”) a few times and I just can’t really get into it – because well – musically it’s just not that interesting? Every song just kinda sounds the same and it feels like most of the attention has been placed on the lyrics instead of the music which all just kinda chugs along in a predictable way with the guitarist seemingly playing the same kinda stabs in every song…
Seeing the things that other people have wrote about them / trying to understand their popularity – it seems as if the main draw is the message they have – which everyone says is “really good” and is “just what it needed right now” and well yeah – that makes sense: we live in dark times etc and yeah Idles are all about the good messages: one of the songs is based around the repeated declaration of “love yourself” and another (Danny Nedelko) is about how immigrants are good (“My blood brother is an immigrant / A beautiful immigrant / My blood brother’s Freddie Mercury / A Nigerian mother of three”).
Of course I agree with these sentiments. And of course we’d live in a better society and world if more people agreed with them and we were all joined together in unity and harmony – but oh my god: it’s all so fucking boring.
There’s a Susan Sontag article called Fascinating Fascism (which you can read here). It’s starts off on Leni Riefenstahl (the director of Triumph of the Will) before going on to discuss “Fascist aesthetics”:
More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.
The reason I’m quoting it is because of the sentence that comes after:
Such art is hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments. (To cite films only: Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here, and Kubrick’s 2001 also strikingly exemplify certain formal structures and themes of fascist art.)
So. Erm. Yeah…. It’s an interesting idea to consider – is 2001 fascist art?
I don’t think so – but I can see where Susan Sontag is coming from. If you want to think of the film in that way – there are plenty of examples of “preoccupation with situations of control” “ the turning of people into things” (as well as with HAL things into people) and well yeah – “the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force.” Except well – I think that maybe my definition of what makes something fascistic is slightly different to hers…
I mean the obvious modern example would be pretty much any superhero movie you can think of. I’m reading this book at the moment that talks about the right wing movies of the 70s like Dirty Harry and Death Wish which are all about the one lone strongman hero standing up against society and taking the law into their own hands and all I can think is oh wow – if only you could see the type of popular films we have now…. And you know – don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that this means that the films are bad or whatever – but only that’s the level they work on – spectacles and power fantasies.
(2001 is almost the opposite in the way no: less a power fantasy and more a powerless one?).
Of course I’m as much of a sucker as the next guy when it comes to this kinda stuff (the next film for the Film Club is Die Hard and spoiler warning: I’m a fan) – I mean: one of the films that movies do best is spectacles and in terms of a nice simplistic story that will fit a 90 minute run-time it’s kinda power fantasy thing where you start off with someone who’s a nobody and then – through a series of more and more dangerous and hair-raising obstacles – eventually becomes hero is the kinda of formula that’s pretty tough to mess up. But the thing I do object to (and which yeah actually feels kinda dangerous) are those films which are about the reduction of complexity and nuance and difficulty into something easy and simplistic: cookie-cutter movies that tell you exactly what to think and are obsessed on making sure that they’re morally proper and correct.
Or to put it another way I guess – the drum I’m banging is for more messy art that doesn’t tell you how to think. A hymn to uncertainty and doubt if you’d like? Or maybe just: something that won’t fit into a little box.
Back to Idles – the thing that makes me feel kinda nervous and brings on all my “old man yells at cloud” impulses is the way that (from the songs that I’ve heard / paid attention to at least – which isn’t a lot to be fair) is how the meaning of each song is plainly stated in a way that anyone can make sense of. When the singer sings “love yourself” then that just means… love yourself and etc. I mean – the real irony is: I first became aware of Idles when someone / somewhere posted a video of them doing a live version of their song called Stendhal Syndrome which has maybe my favourite first line of a song ever (“Did you see that painting what Rothko did? / Looks like it was painted by a two year old kid” which OMG is hilarious and brilliant). I mean – the music of the song is also pretty cool. Nice use of space and a guitar part that sounds like someone running a dentist drill over your fillings: you know – it’s a tune. And hell – I was going to use it as an example of how it seems as if Idles have dumbed down: going from singing lyrics that are sarcastic and ironic (something tells me that the song isn’t about how Rothko is rubbish because well) – only of course LOL now I look up the rest of the lyrics online it seems as if the chorus (which I couldn’t really understand before because of how he sung it and guitars) is: “Forgive me you sound stupid” just so you know – there’s no doubt as to what the singer thinks and feels (yawn).
I realise that this is pretty much classical music at this point and I’m doing myself no favours – but I can’t help comparing Idles to Nirvana (yeah yeah I know I know).
I don’t know how I knew: but I always knew that Nirvana had good politics (at least for their time). Even tho their music was loud and smashy – it never felt like mindless machoism. But here’s the interesting thing: even tho they talked a lot about their ideas in interviews and stuff I can’t think of any example of any of their songs saying “Don’t be a dick” or whatever. Instead they did the opposite – by writing about the opposite. Polly is written from the point of view of someone abusing a little girl (altho I think maybe someone has to tell you that before you could work it out). Very Ape is about the mindset of someone who’s well… very ape. Dumb is about someone who’s happy being dumb and Bloom has a singalong chorus about how the people who sing along “knows not what it means.” And yeah yeah yeah ok – maybe I’m just being nostalgic or whatever (always possible) but from my cultural vantage point – it feels like there has been a shift from art that leaves it to you in order to work things out and things that feel like they. Very. Clearly. Need. To. Spell. Out. Every. Thing. Clearly. in a way that just kinda leaves me feeling… depleted?
Ilia mentioned Gravity before – which yeah is a film I got a big kick out of: but I do kinda wish that Alfonso Cuarón didn’t feel the need to give Sandra Bullock such an obvious and boring motivation (and you know: isn’t wanting to get back to Earth enough?!?): but then that’s what people seem to think audiences need nowadays? If everyone ever wanted to remake 2001 for an modern audience then I’m guessed they’d have to include a thing about how Dave Bowman’s parents were killed by a rogue machine of some-sort just so we knew that things with HAL were personal… you know just so we’d know how to feel.
As opposed to… well this little scene:
(Which you know – just leaves me feeling something that I don’t even know how to describe).
And you know (getting to the point hopefully at last) – this I think is one the main draws of 2001. Even tho there is a part of the film that is very slow and boring and just people in spaceships flying off from one point to the other (yes – space travel would be boring: I get it) it is also a film which actively requires the viewer to make sense of it in a way that just doesn’t work if you need things to be spoon fed to you…
(There’s an interesting anecdote that I can’t find on the internet right now – but apparently according to Kubrick lots of reviewers when the film first came out thought that parts on the moon where actually on an alien planet called “Clavius” due to the dialogue (“I’m just on my way up to Clavius.” “Well, it’s just that for the past, er, two weeks some extremely oddthings have been happening at Clavius.” “And there’s another thing, Heywood. Two days ago one of our rocketbuses was denied permission for emergency landing at Clavius.” etc) obviously said reviewers being completely blind to erm – knowing what the moon looks like? But you know: is still a nice example of the language being given higher priority than that the images: which is basically the whole problem of the majority of film criticism in a nutshell).
(Guys: it’s not a book – it’s a film).
And it’s not as if 2001 is crazy complicated or whatever – it feels like one of the under-appreciated things is just how simple the whole thing is (so much so you could probably write the whole plot on a napkin and still get the major beats) – I’m not trying to glorify in pretentious art house films that are nothing but a random selection of images. I mean – I’m the guy that likes Speed Racer. But contrary to appearances – Speed Racer is not a simplistic film. I mean yeah – it’s a kid’s film and the basic plot is pretty simple: but in terms of the images and how those images work and the effect they have on you: it’s almost the opposite. I mean – Jonathan mentioned Iron Man which came out the same year as Speed Racer: and even tho Iron Man is more “gritty” and “real” and “adult” (he’s an arms manufacturer you know?) the language of the film itself and the way it presents all of its important information (spoiler: it’s mainly through people saying things) is well… pretty basic.
In 2001: not only do you have to decode what you’re seeing but for some of the things: there’s nothing really there that can be decoded: just unknowns and possibilities: which feels like the polar opposite of this idea of “Fascist art.” And instead of giving you easy answers or boring ambiguities (I don’t care what Scarlett Johansson whispered to Bill Murray – sorry): it creates a structure that points towards the infinite in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another movie before or since.
I remember my expectations of 2001 being poorly managed. Basically someone said “watch 2001, it’s like Star Wars. In fact Star Wars totally ripped it off.” Now I don’t recall who this reviewer was but in retrospect there is a lot to unpack in the above statement.
Firstly of course it makes the set up for 2001 take on a different meaning – “Ooh, a giant space station, it’s gonna be sweet watching that explode…. What’s this, Reginald Perrin is saying about and alien virus? That’ll pay off later.” I told myself as I waited, and waited and waited. Kubrick doesn’t help either. Space Odyssey is it? Now pretentious seventeen year old that I was, I had read the Odyssey and a fuck sight more happens to Odysseus by like page 20, then happens in this whole movie (although shit yeah of course Hal is a cyclops and Jupiter is Zeus, dammit Kubrick at least you did your home work).
So in respect of entertainment value, it seems silly to compare 2001 to Star Wars. But then if you didn’t really understand the finer details of science fiction, then maybe they look identical. In fact the debt to 2001 is so massive that hundreds of films could be mistaken for 2001 by the uninitiated and plenty of them would not look as good *cough* Arrival *cough* For all my griping about it, there are bits of this film that are truly great, it’s just where it’s trying to be clever that it seems to be so hard to watch.
Apparently Homo Sapiens have been around for 200,000 years but we did not develop language until 50,000 years ago. Now the theory changes all the time but it’s unlikely language was developed due to one big moment, or one individual brave enough to go that extra mile. So for me that makes the narrative in 2001 kind of annoying. Of course if the Line is that “aah the Film is saying that from our alien masters point of view there was no difference between the apes and the astronauts” then while that is quite a good own, even if it makes a non-sensical plot make even less sense.
So returning to the good stuff, the immense station, the lonely sterilised space ship, the calculating alien intelligence of Hal and its ever watching Eye is Kubrick doing what Kubrick does best and you can see how George Lucas could have watched it and thought “we need the baddies to have a massive space station, that’s what unassailable power looks like” or Ridley Scott coming up with the end of Alien “imagine being alone on this city scale science lab being relentlessly chased by the physical manifestation of murder” or even Doug Naylor “just imagine being the last human, stuck in space with a crazy robot for company… comedy gold!” Kubrick’s proposition, repeated in The Shining, is that Hell is not other people, it’s isolation.
The lack of society grows deliberately throughout the film in a sort of reverse mitosis: apes start off as one codependent society, then begin to fight and kill one other splitting apart; then skipping a few thousand years and the guy can’t event make it to his daughter’s birthday and his talking to her from millions of miles away through a screen; then it’s just two lonely guys; and by the end Bowman [slow clapping the Odysseus reference] is completely alone without even a pretend intelligence for company. The mimicry of society like the weird picnic on the moon bus or the message from Bowman’s parents makes the feeling of social alienation even more stark.
The star baby might seem like a happy resolution – man has finally evolved and is back near Earth – except we don’t know how long he was in that room and all we know about Earth is that Hal had an identical and therefore presumably also murderous twin who is presumably the grandparent of Skynet. In fact the most interesting question which doesn’t get answered is “what if the Star baby appeared in the sky?” They devote a good part of the film to talking about how people aren’t ready and maybe they aren’t. Maybe even if Earth has shut down all the rogue AI units, then the Star baby would drive them mad anyway.
“But Jonathan.” You might say “surely there would not be time to go into the ramifications of such a historic event?” And that is my main problem with this film is the pacing is waaay off. We spend a lot of time with monkeys, we spend a lot of time in weird meetings, we spend a lot of time jogging, and I’ll be honest, having seen the movie 4 times now, I have yet to stay fully conscious during the stargate scene, which last several days and may well have been cool in the 1960s but has not aged well. So we can’t cut to people’s minds being frayed by a orbiting infant? That sound that when the sun hits the monolith – That’s the sound of infinite booing!
Erm… I don’t think that 2001 is about Homo Sapiens developing language… I think it’s was more about them discovering tool use?
I’m not sure it would be quite as magical if it was about the development of language instead…
Hominoid 2: (gasps) He can talk!
Hominoid Group: He can talk! He can talk!
Hominoid 1: I can siiiiiiiiiiing!
(Oh, I love legitimate the-a-ter).
Altho – interestingly: that’s one of the part of the movie that’s dated the most badly… Seeing how at the time the film was made it seemed like tool use was the one main thing that distinguished humans from animals and if there was one thing that made us the superior species on this planet and the thing that marked as out as being unique and different and special (and something that was maybe gifted to us by extraterrestrial hyper-intelligence from beyond the stars) then it was very definitely tool use. Yes sir. a hundred per cent… using tools. That’s the stuff.
Except – ah – it seems as if maybe things are a little more complicated than that: Tool use by animals
A wide range of animals are considered to use tools including mammals, birds, fish, cephalopods and insects.
Primates are well known for using tools for hunting or gathering food and water, cover for rain, and self-defence. Chimpanzees have been the object of study, most famously by Jane Goodall, since these animals are more-often kept in captivity than other primates and are closely related to humans. Tool-use in other primates are lesser-known as many of them are mainly observed in the wild. Many famous researchers, such as Charles Darwin in his book The Descent of Man, mentioned tool-use in monkeys (such as baboons). Both wild and captive elephants are known to create tools using their trunk and feet, mainly for swatting flies, scratching, plugging water-holes (so the water doesn’t evaporate), and reaching food that is out of reach. A group of dolphins in Shark Bay use sponges to protect their beak while foraging. Sea otters will dislodge food from rocks (such as abalone) and break open shellfish. Carnivores (of the order Carnivora) can use tools to trap prey or break open the shells of prey, as well as for scratching.
Corvids (crows, ravens and rooks) are well known for their large brains (among birds) and subsequent tool use. They mainly manufacture probes out of twigs and wood (and sometimes metal wire) to catch or impale larvae. Crows are among the only animals that create their own tools. Tool use in other birds is best exemplified in nest intricacy. Warblersmanufacture ‘pouches’ to make their nests in. Some birds, such as weaver birds build complex nests. Finches and woodpeckers may insert twigs into trees in order to catch or impale larvae. Parrots may use tools to wedge nuts so that they may crack it open (using a tool) without launching it away. Some birds take advantage of human activity, such as some species of gulls which drop shellfish in front of cars to crack them open.
Several species of fish use tools to crack open shellfish, extract food that is out of reach, cleaning an area (for nesting), and hunting. Octopuses gather coconut shells and create a shelter. They may also construct a fence using rocks.
Of course this just makes me want to see an enhanced cut where the first 20 minutes of the replayed for every single single animal – so we see a monolith for elephants, a monolith for dolphins, a monolith for sea otters, a monolith for crows, a monolith for octopuses etc: but I understand that’s maybe not everyone’s cup of tea… (oh well).
It’s an interesting question whether or not that adversely affects the movie tho: I mean the whole thing kinda operates in the realm of the mythic anyway that it feels like doesn’t really matter if any of it is actually true or not (I mean: the line on what separates humans from the other animals is probably way more vague and porous than we’d all like to think – but if it was up to me: I’d say it’s not tool use or language but the ability to tell stories: but I realise that most definitely makes me sound like a bit of a massive hippy).
I mean – the year 2001 is now 17 years in the past but that doesn’t make the spaceship future stuff feel any less realistic – like part of me wants to say that instead it feels like looking at a future that could have been but that’s not quite right: instead when you watch it those kinda questions and considerations don’t really seem to apply – the spell of the movie is so deep and so strong: you’re just transported – and everything you see – you believe: you know? Yes it’s boring and yes you’ll have to fight off a yawn now and again but in terms of verisimilitude – it’s hard to think of any other sci-fi movie that comes close…. Yeah yeah Blade Runner and Alien and all that – but both of those films are so stylized that they’re more like reading a comic than anything like real life. Watching 2001 (for better and for worse) feels like watching something real.
(Dumb question tho while we’re talking about it – which part of the movie is set in 2001? The middle part of the movie opens with this:
So the pedantic part of my brain always asks me does that mean that all the moon stuff takes place in 2001 and the Jupiter Mission is in 2002 (or 2003?) or does that mean that the moon stuff is in 1999 or 2000? Inquiring minds demand to know.
Plus also: what the hell was the Jupiter Mission plan anyhow? I realise I’m setting myself up here for someone to roll their eyes at me and patiently explain things – but why didn’t they tell Dave Bowman and Frank Poole the whole story right from the start? Is is because they were being interviewed by the BBC and stuff? But wait – what – does that mean that they couldn’t trust the highly trained astronauts to keep a secret? And hell: if they didn’t know they were going to Jupiter for Monolith Stargate fun times then… erm… what did they think they were going to Jupiter for? Just to look around and do some floating or whatever?
I’m rereading 2001: The Novel which might explain things a bit better? Altho so far – oh my god – I don’t care if I’m going to sci-fi hell for saying this but it’s not very good? It feels less like something written by a science-fiction master and more like something written by Alan Dean Foster… The basic plot of the movie recounted with loads of boring inessential bits added… (the monolith controlling the hominoid’s minds anyway and making them literally dance like puppets? Way to go literal Arthur).
“Watch 2001, it’s like Star Wars.” is an awesome statement by the way. Makes me wonder what it would be like if there was a version of 2001 if it was more like Star Wars (cut to: Dave Bowman and HAL having spaceship laser fights) or Star Wars was more like 2001 (cut to: Luke Skywalker losing his mind in the Stargate)
“Oh my god. It’s full of star…. wars.”
Although it does raise the question: where are the children of 2001? Jonathan mentioned Arrival before which obviously tries to ape some of Kubrick’s moves – but the only problem with that is that Kubrick had a mind like an impish God and the guy who made Arrival followed it up with a movie about how the main difference between humans and robots is that… humans are born and robots are made? (GROANS AT THE STUPIDITY LIKE SOMEONE JUST PUNCHED ME IN THE BALLS).
The one good thing that I remember 2001: The Novel doing tho from when I first read it as a teenager is that there’s a little section after Dave Bowman kills HAL when it’s just him by himself on The Discovery – more isolated and alone than any human being has ever been in history which really gave me chills and yeah I like Jonathan’s theory that the whole movie is basically about the disintegration from the wholesome family monkeyman tribal unit to an old guy eating a meal by himself in a luxury hyper-modernist flat.
Of course it’s only watching it this time that I realised the obvious thing about how there’s no door until the monolith appears… The way out isn’t using tools – it’s intelligence and creativity and all that stuff.
The empty and inviting potential of the blank cinema screen.
Barbican Comic Forum
The Greek gods are fairly badly realised. I guess they were maybe a satire on the ruling class – interfering with mortals lives on a whim and making a nuisance of themselves, while ordinary people got on with the serious business of sacrificing stuff, certainly there was little in the way of awestruck majesty. They come off largely as needlessly petty, for example the story of Arachne is of a woman being turned into a spider by a jealous god for being too good at weaving or something. Even God basically started coasting after the first 6 days of impressive performances, the odd flood and smiting notwithstanding, as Al Pacino said, he’s been an absentee landlord, and at best he’s an underachiever.
But then as Tyler Durden says we have to consider that in all probability god doesn’t like us. Although they do a nice line in obelisks and weird hotel rooms the gods/aliens/pranksters in 2001 don’t seem to be necessarily benevolent. Sure they showed us how to use tools (or whatever) but it doesn’t make humanity any happier. Although that’s maybe our own fault.
Similarly the Star Baby is alone in the depths of space, too big for its own species, but not an all knowing alien god yet. It would be like us intervening in ants lives, letting them build up their own civilisation and then made one super smart and big and just hung it over the colony to troll the other ants. J Michael Straczynski took this one stage further in the Babylon 5 series where the Vorlons and the Shadows (the elder races) are shown to be intervening in the civilisations of the galaxy over time, appearing as angels and such like to inspire “progress.” In the end however the bemused younger races throw off their social gardening and tell them to get lost.
But while exploring the sci fi potential of intelligent design, however malevolent, of evolution is amusing, it’s less interesting to me as the line in Mountains of Madness “…in some of the very last and most decadent sculptures a shambling, primitive mammal, used sometimes for food and sometimes as an amusing buffoon by the land dwellers, whose vaguely simian and human foreshadowings were unmistakable.” which places humanity in our rightful place as sort of performing cattle. This view makes more sense for 2001 – The room at the end of the film is described by Kubrick as a human zoo – and so maybe the whole obelisk thing is just an experiment on lab rats.
To give Kubrick credit he is attempting to go beyond age and scale to describe superiority. Indeed he deals with both of the alien’s temporal and technological superiority early on in the film to demonstrate that to the alien gods we are not even ants but merely a flat smear on their kitchen table to idly play with while waiting for their pan-dimensional breakfast cereal. Maybe the star sequence is so boring (I genuinely just fell asleep watching again it just now) because my primative brain is not capable of grasping its multi-dimensional beauty, just as to a 2 dimensional creature I would appear like a sort of undulating CT scan as different slices of me came into focus. Perhaps the film made so much money, because people in the 1960s, unused to special effects, felt they could suspend disbelief and see the face of god in the kaleidoscope, whereas of course anyone born after 1975 just sees a 90s screensaver.
Can’t blame Kubrick for trying, but attempting to show the unimaginable, while noble, is a doomed enterprise because the inherent replicability of special effects means their shelf life in terms of wonder is very short. Perhaps this is why since even before 9/11 directors took the easy route and focussed more and more on scale rather than ineffable mystery for their pay offs, and I for one welcome our giant alien overlords.
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00000000 / Kraken
Now see… I don’t think that exploring the “sci fi potential of intelligent design” is all it’s cracked up to be. In fact at this point – it’s pretty much one of the hoariest science-fiction cliches out there…. The human race was engineered by super intelligent aliens? Erm… do you have anything fresher?
Imagine if millions of years ago aliens came and did some crazy alien stuff to make life and/or human beings is an idea that once you’re heard it for the first time doesn’t really give you all that much… For me there’s not really any exciting ramifications that come on from that you know? If that’s all you’ve got – then you need something more. I mean: if you compare it to the big twist in the Matrix which yeah is nearly 20 years old at this point and nowhere near as cool as it was when I first heard it – at least it’s got more of a chewy centre that can sustain all types of nice little interpretations (omg Capitalism and Reality and Subjective Experiences stuff?) but yeah – we’re all made by aliens? I need more.
And you know: reading 2001 the book (just got up to the Stargate: which erm – is actually around Saturn according to Arthur C Clarke? Because apparently rings are too hard to film or whatever) and it’s obvious that even tho it’s telling much exactly the same story: the film has a power that the book doesn’t have a hope of getting close too. In fact I kinda feel like Kubrick screwed Clarke over in this respect: I mean as far as I know: it’s the only time that novel and a film were made in tandem like this (unless anyone else can think of any other examples??) but from where I’m standing it’s very much something that’s been designed to be watched and be experienced as a visual event.
Or in words – which one casts more of a spell – this:
It was barely audible, yet it stopped them dead, so that they stood paralyzed on the trail with their jaws hanging slackly. A simple, maddeningly repetitious vibration, it pulsed out from the crystal, and hypnotized all who came within its spell. For the first time—and the last, for three million years—the sound of drumming was heard in Africa.
The throbbing grew louder, more insistent . Presently the man-apes began to move forward, like sleepwalkers , toward the source of that compulsive sound. Sometimes they took little dancing steps, as their blood responded to rhythms that their descendants would not create for ages yet. Totally entranced, they gathered round the monolith, forgetting the hardships of the day, the perils of the approaching dusk, and the hunger in their bellies.
(Answer: the one that isn’t weighed down with having to actually put things in words obvs).
Because yeah – here’s the thing: I realise that probably most people agree with Jonathan when he says that “perhaps the film made so much money, because people in the 1960s, unused to special effects, felt they could suspend disbelief and see the face of god in the kaleidoscope, whereas of course anyone born after 1975 just sees a 90s screensaver” but I’ve gotta say that both my heart and my head say that if you agree with that then –fuck you: because for my money still – (if you’re watching it on a screen that’s big enough) it’s one of the greatest things / moments / experiences / whatever in cinema because it is nothing but pure uncut and total sensation – various coloured light shooting towards the viewer in complex and intricate formations (still don’t believe that the monolith is a screen cinema?) transporting to the viewer to a different state of consciousness (altho it sounds like for Jonathan that different state is just… being asleep).
I mean: if it just the lights by themselves then it would be pretty cool (just look at how pretty it looks) but the fact it’s supposed to be a head on eye view of what it looks like travelling through an intergalactic wormhole just pushes up that tickling sensation on the back of my head up to infinity….
I feel like I could watch this forever.
And don’t get me wrong: the bits of ink blobs in darkness (apparently the first bits of 2001 that were filmed) and the various landscapes with various colour flitters on them are pretty boring I’d agree (altho watching them time I have to admit that I did find them kinda compelling: I mean – living under a star that had a different light would make everything look strange and psychedelic – no? Which yeah – is an interesting thought). And that bit with the 7 crystals or whatever is way too close to looking like real things for me. I don’t want representation I want full abstraction and sensory overload and nothing else will do. And god bless Stanley Kubrick for just going all out and attempting to capture something above and beyond everyday human experience: in a way that’s both gorgeous and electrifying: just because of the sheer rush of it. I have a theory that the best bits in a film is when the camera is moving through something. So you know – give me the front view of a train or a car or (just behind a kid on a tricycle in an empty hotel) whatever and I’m basically a happy bunny. I think it’s just that feeling of movement that just tickles something really deep inside me – and I can’t get enough of it.
So yeah – I’m team face of god in the kaleidoscope all the way. And basically I feel sorry for you if you can’t see it too. :p
But hey yeah anyway: did you know that the first British nuclear weapon was called Blue Danube?
I’m guessing that’s probably one of those coincidences that come after the fact. Altho Kubrick is obviously a next-level genius so knows right? Is it strange to think that oh actually – he’s kinda the Quentin Tarantino of his time? In the sense of – taking songs from elsewhere and then dropping them into your films and making them your own. In the same way that no one today can hear Little Green Bag without thinking of guys in suits walking in slow motion – is there anyone alive who can hear The Blue Danube without thinking of spaceships? In fact: isn’t a sense in which the second is more impressive than the first? Tarantino mostly takes obscure cuts and makes them big – while Kubrick took one of the most consistently popular pieces of music in the classical repertoire and basically graffitied over the top of it and made it his: I mean – that takes balls right?
I really want to keep writing about this movie forever. There’s just so many levels and layers to talk about and it feels like I’ve only barely just scratched the surface of all the things I wanted to say.
Did you know that when it was first shown it was panned? Like utterly and completely? People walked out and Kubrick thought his career was ruined (Rock Hudson apparently famously said: “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” which seemed to be the common feeling). And yeah – that whole kinda thing is fascinating to me… How people talk about how some movies are just “Good” and some are just “Bad” without getting into the dirty fact that it’s all also a result of power and critical consensus and all the rest of it – that there is wrangling behind the scenes and critics are mostly herd animals and tend to follow where everyone else in pointing…. (But then does that mean that the people who panned 2001 at the start where wrong? Or they just hadn’t caught up yet or what?).
Did you know that Gary Lockwood was the one who came up with the HAL reading their lips thing? Apparently he complained to Kubrick that the story before didn’t make sense and so Kubrick suggested that he come up with something better… and he did.
(There’s actually quite a lot of stories of other people suggesting a lot of the big cool ideas of the movie – that famous spinning tracking shot in the central Discovery hub, not showing aliens – even the colour of the monolith was an accident – as originally Kubrick wanted it to be clear crystal but when they plexiglass arrived it looked… rubbish. Which you know: makes me think that maybe the real genius is in listening to other people and responding to the what life throws at you – and then picking out the best ideas and sewing them together).
The jump cut to the orbiting nuclear weapon platforms is a strange thing in the sense that: even when I was a kid (back before the internet) it seemed as if everyone knew that they were nuclear weapon platforms and not just innocent spaceships but erm: how did that happen? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that you can work out by watching the film… Did Kubrick go around telling everyone or what? Or is it something else?
I mean – it’s kinda a boring movie I know. And it’s a little too ponderous for my tastes and it’s not the movie that springs to mind when I’d list my favourite movies – but I should admit that I am a little obsessed with it. And I love thinking about it and writing about it and reading about it and pulling it apart and trying to understand what makes it tick. And not even the philosophy of it – but just the craft of it. How they created all of these challenges for themselves – how to make ape-men from the dawn of time? How to make special effects that still look cool today? How to make a story that tries to take in everything? How to make a compelling character that’s nothing more than a voice and a single red Terminator eye? And etc etc
And ha – one thing I noticed when I watched it for this is how there’s even thought in how the movie depicts the monolith… Like I noticed when it first appears at the start of the movie – the famous shot of it isn’t the most obvious one:
I mean: it looks cool and everything – but it’s slightly turned away from us? So you get a very good sense of it’s dimensions – but it’s not much of a money shot you know? It’s not a square bang in the middle of the screen like you’d expect and like you’d think would look best…
Of course yeah you also get this very nice (also iconic) shot:
But it’s still not the full one monolith shot that you’d expect.
Then – when they get to the moon: it’s still playing coy:
The stuff around it is all nice and symmetrical but TMA 1 is slightly angled away. In a way that makes you feel like you’re still not getting the full force of it… (such a tease!)
And then when you’re floating around Jupiter – it’s turned on it’s side…
Because of course of course: why it’s doing this and why Kubrick does it this way is because it means that you don’t get that monolith-money-shot until right the way til the very end when after travelling millions of years and untold millions of miles (not to mention the epic running time of the movie itself) you finally finally finally get this…
Oh yeah. There we go. That’s the stuff (and those lines on the floor are a nice way to almost literally underline the dead centreness of the beautiful thing. In a way that feels – I don’t know. Good. Right. Exact. Everything in it’s right place. Like every album in your itunes has it’s right cover art on it. Mmmmmmmmm.
And you know – yeah – maybe you can read stuff into it if you want to (maybe it’s only at the end that the monolith is showing it’s full power or whatever?). But for me that’s not really the point… Instead it’s more: this is a film and a film-maker that knows exactly what it’s doing at every point to ensure that it’s reaching it’s fullest possible effect. And I love it so much for that.
If you want to know what my favourite line of the movie is – it’s this one: “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
And watching 2001 feels like… experiencing the effects of that.
Which is a very cool feeling indeed.
Joel posted something on Facebook comparing Jack (from the Shining) and Bowman and I think choosing to look at both The Shining and 2001 sets up an interesting comparison because it reveals a consistency in Kubrick’s work which is kind of magical. As I said about The Shining, Kubrick uses the film’s and the genre elements as the tools to mould something more complicated and he definitely attempted to do the same things with 2001 only perhaps it wasn’t quite as tidy. With the Shining it was a sort of tangible menace whereas with 2001 it’s the breathtaking scale across several dimensions (which I guess carries its own menace).
I wonder if the price for making these intricate worlds within worlds is that both characters lack agency. Jack never has a chance to escape hell (he’s always been the caretaker), and the second Bowman fights back against the alien intelligence of Hal, he is immediately under the control of the aliens’ alien intelligence until he becomes an actual giant infant.
Is this just because there is something horrible about the characters never having a chance? Or is that if they could make choices it would be hard to justify their actions…
Senior officer at the Court-Martial: so let me get this straight Bowman, you destroyed an incredibly expensive computer and drove our spaceship into a wormhole before turning into a giant baby. Do you have any explanation as to why you might have done this?
Bowman: Well sir, at the time, I was suffering from serious emotional problems that had clearly affected my judgement. I had immersed myself in a fantasy world of my own creation and as a result I became very insular and uncommunicative.
Officer: Why do you think that was?
Bowman: [Shrugs] I dunno.
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00000000 / Kraken
Just for the record – this is the thing that I posted on facebook (taken from 2001: The Book):
“Poole and Bowman had often humorously referred to themselves as caretakers or janitors aboard a ship that could really run itself. They would have been astonished, and more than a little indignant, to discover how much truth that jest contained.”
Very tempted to add a few more things like: how I think there’s a Kubrick quote somewhere about how most drama and plot comes from miscommunication (maybe that’s why it’s the transmitter aimed towards Earth that has the technical issues rather than something else); how maybe 2001 with it’s meticulous and obsessional attention to every last small detail is responsible for the modern movie pedant pointing out every little plot hole and scientific inconsistency (yawn); or even the idea that hey – with all of these special effects shots and explosions of light directed towards the camera – maybe this is the place where Michael Bay and all of his ilk where first born?
Speaking of: as a final treat – this is what 2001 would look like if Michael Bay had directed it:
Speaking of labyrinths – I have a bit of a theory that in terms of meaning most stories are about constructing things just so that all the various parts will reverberate in different ways with different meaning depending at who looks at them at what time. Which is why for example every generation interprets Hamlet in a different way or whatever (it’s about Oedipus, it’s about Freud, its about Feminism, its about Existentialism, its about Postmodernism etc). I think that part of the allure and beauty of 2001 is kinda the same – Kubrick constructed a film where all the parts are just so that they’ll reflect different meanings and different ideas depending on how you look at it or how you tilt your head…
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last lines of the film are “Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.” In fact – I’m guessing that’s just how Mr Kubrick likes it.
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