On 2001: A Space Odyssey

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A couple of days ago TSO expressed disappointment with 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the first movie I saw more than a couple of times in the theatre, 2001 holds a special place for me. But I think it is an important enough film in one filmmaker's opus that perhaps some explanation of what is going on (as I see it) might be in order.

According to the Internet Movie Database Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001 has a surprisingly sparse but amazingly broad and penetrating film opus consisting of some 16 films, 11 of which could be considered "major." Starting with The Killing in 1956, Kubrick produced film after controversial film. 1957 saw Paths of Glory, an enigmatic statement about war and responsibility. This was followed up by the first "spectacle" in 1960's Spartacus. In 1962 Kubrick brought Lolita to the screen for the first time. Then, in 1964 we get the startling, amusing, but dark comedy Dr. Strangelove.This was followed by the work in question, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, and immediately (in Later Kubrickian terms) by the stark, frightening, and alluring A Clockwork Orange. 1975 saw the bizarre and slow costume drama Barry Lyndon made from a relatively minor novel by William Thackeray. His opus ends with a progressively less successful threesome of films, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut.

Now, Kubrick appears to have a couple of major obsessions in his opus--one of these is the (mis)use of sexuality, the other is isolation. It is with the latter that 2001: A Space Odyssey deals most; and I think of all of his opus, this film is the most exacting delilneation of the nature of alienation. in his entire opus. If we watch his films, from Colonel Dax and Phillipe Paris in Paths of Glory ("Paths of glory lead but to the grave.") to William and Alice Harford in Eyes Wide Shut we see a string of character--Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Dave Bowman, Alex the Droog, Jack Torrance, and so on, all of whom are completely alienated from all of those around them. Sometimes, as in 2001, the alienation is dramatically physical, other times it is within the intimacy of the marital relationship. The "repair" of the relationship at the end of Eyes Wide Shut really amounts to a simple seal on the alienation implicit throughout.

Like Orson Welles, Kubrick was a Hollywood outsider. So much so that he made his last couple of films from a studio in Great Britain. He was an outsider in part because he refused to compromise the vision of his films--and that vision is a starkly cool, perhaps even cold and minutely scrutiny of the human condition.

What I like so much about 2001: A Space Odyssey is the way the appeal can grow. From the first time I saw it at a very tender age and was just tremendously excited about the whole science fiction aspect, to my most recent viewing, in which I noted the extraordinary effect of the Ligeti music creating an eerie sort of landscape for the monolith and the tongue-in-cheek use of Strauss waltzes to convey the sense of lightness and freedom that is carefully restrained in microgravity, the film has something for the casual or the careful viewer of almost any age. When you are young you tend not to notice the coldness of Kubrick's view. But when you begin to really investigate the relationship of the Hal 9000 with the astronauts, you begin to see Kubrick's point. Hal and the entire Jupiter Mission spacecraft are human endeavors--human endeavors to achieve a god-like end. As such they "create" an environment and the results of human creation are the direct consequence of the fallenness of human nature. Hal is insane, the ultimate in human calculation and self-protection. And yet the systematic dismantling of Hal the deconstruction of his own creation at the hands of the "god" who created it is startling, sad, and frightening. This is the end of any human endeavor not guided by God. When man's reach exceeds his grasp without a heaven then there is literally hell to pay. The creation of the human mind unaided by grace will always end in destruction. I doubt Kubrick would have expressed the end of his vision in these terms, but the end of the film, which seems so charming and amazing--the birth of the transcendent "Star Child," which makes absolutely no sense at all is left much more vague than the quite direct end of the book, in which the Star Child proceeds to provoke nuclear crisis on Earth by setting off orbiting nuclear stations and satellites. We have seen the works of fallen man and when he is given the power of a god, what can one expect but more of the same. Many saw the end of Kubrick's film as transcendent and hopeful. I think Kubrick was masterful in not going beyond the floating transformed Bowman--in leaving the audience to derive what they can from the end of the film. What I once saw--the promise of transformation and the good that could result, I now see as the terror of transformation and the havoc men will wreak upon the world.

In many ways, Kubrick's films must be "read" as a whole. 2001 does not stand outside the line of his vision, but is the most definitive statement of certain aspects of it. Humanity is untrustworthy, grasping, destructive, and out-of-control. It is hardly surprising that the next film in the opus is perhaps his greatest expression of the destructive potential of humankind set free from any circumscribing bounds. A Clockwork Orange is not necessarily, as many would have it, a polemic against the state rehabilitation of criminals. Rather, I think it is the ultimate statement that fallen man is a criminal who cannot be redeemed by any human means because such redemption would only lead to destruction in some other form.

The greatness of Kubrick's 2001 is not merely a greatness in isolation. It is one facet of Kubrick directorial vision and his vision of humanity, fiercely and plangently illuminated by the experience of physical isolation and the abnormality of circumstances. It is the melding of story, framing of image, music, and each individual element of the film that gives 2001 the deep resonance it has as a film. It is unsurprising that, like most of Kubrick's work, it tends to leave many adult viewers cold. That is precisely what Kubrick was aiming at. If there is any word to describe every element of his major opus, that word would be "cold." Kubrick looks at humanity with a fierce flame that burns with the freezing of catabatic winds.

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Hmmmm ... points all well taken. But I agree with TSO.

Also, we were watching Star Wars yesterday. We were talking about the "no sound in space" reality of things versus Star Wars' noises of lasers, explosions, etc. during the fighter battle and George Lucas' comnment that it would be awfully boring to do it without noise. My husband suddenly said, "Like 2001." Now there's one that doesn't hold your attention ... big ideas but so remotely put that few people get it or care."

Granted that is not the point of true art, which is the category that 2001 seems to be in ... but just interesting in view of your post today. The truly great artists can communicate their big ideas and make it more accessible. (and I am NOT putting Lucas in that category of great artist ... he's mostly got that one note). Just thinking out loud here...

Dear Julie,

But we must understand that accessibility is all relative. For example, I find Star Wars and 2001 equally accessible. What Kubrick does is challenge the limits of genre. We come in expecting certain things from a science fiction film and we get yet another parlor drama.

Great art expresses the eternal--it may be accessible, it may not. Dante without the notes about who everyone is is virtually indecipherable. How many people truly "get" Shakespeare--or for that matter Austen?

Great art speaks across time, but it isn't necessarily instantly accessible or intelligible to people.

I don't know that Kubrick belong in the realm of great art, but I do know that his work forms a coherent whole. Kubrick never made a genre film, he made distinctly Kubrick films--his Historical Dramas are not (Barry Lyndon, Spartacus,) his war films (Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory) are not, his "comedies" or "political satires" (Lolita and Dr. Strangelove) are not. His science fiction films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange are not. His horror film The Shining is not.

Kubrick only directed Kubrick films--there is no other way to describe or typify them. In that way they are similar to Hitchcock films, but seem to show a much greater range of motion.

I'm not saying that everyone should embrace or like Kubrick, but rather that one cannot come to a Kubrick film with the expectations one would bring to a genre film as it would be made outside of Kubrick's vision. 2001 in other hands becomes the execrable 2010--both bad film and bad science fiction--and duller by far for lack of vision than Kubrick's original.

But Kubrick is not accessible, and he is not easy to decipher. However, I think his work is worth effort. He just confounds expectations. I think it's rather like trying to understand your first Fellini film. One must absorb context before the film can make any sense.



Those are good points because in terms of greatness that transcends the ages I was thinking of Michelangelo's David, Mozart, Rembrandt, etc.


My problem with 2001 is that I read the novelization before I saw the movie.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 18, 2005 7:08 AM.

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