Thursday, July 05, 2018

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

A space prodigy

The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey was in a basement, in a projected 35 mm print. I was maybe ten twelve years old, had heard about the film, and was eager to watch.

Bored me out of my skull.

Seeing it again and again over the decades is like coming to know an old friend. You weren't impressed at first, you learn to appreciate his better qualities, your growing admiration has been a part of your youth adolescence adulthood. 

Now you've seen him in full splendor--projected from a 70 mm print in all its unrestored glory, with flickers and scratches and cigarette burns and all--you realize you hardly knew him, or still have much to learn.


(WARNING! Plot--what little that's comprehensible--closely and explicitly discussed

To the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) the moon slides away from the Earth; over the Earth--like an awakening eye like arc lamp electrodes making contact like an igniting atomic candle--the sun rises. The sequence introduces film and director and of course theme: that powerful forces shape the confluence of planets and the destiny of their inhabitants.

We're pulled down to earth, literally. The wide screen drinks in unending Namibian landscapes, suggesting a bleak expanse against which the camera locates (or rather stumbles upon) a family of hominids, scratching out food in the sparse grassland. Leopards hunt them, rival tribes drive them away; the hominids are weak and visibly dying and it's only when a member of the group (Moon Watcher in the script, unnamed on film) picks up a thighbone and swings it--against prey and fellow hominid--do prospects improve. Moon Watcher roars in triumph flings his thighbone in the air--

And the film takes flight.  

Moon Watcher's bone with a single cut becomes a falling satellite, with a series of cuts a series of satellites, their barrel lengths and ominous hollows suggesting recesses for thermonuclear missiles (Except for one intriguing spacecraft sprouting cooling fins at one end what looks like a focusing dish at the other. Some kind of orbital laser?). Rising into the frame: the slim dart shape of the Orion lll, a Pan Am spaceplane, its sharp nose pointed at the great spinning wheel of the Space Station V. The plane takes aim like a toreador's lance; the station coyly turns away like a Southern belle's crinoline hoopskirt. Below is the blue of the Earth itself, a vast pellucid ballroom floor on which plane and wheel can waltz with joy.

Compare Kubrick's to the smash 'n grab fighters in Star Wars and its more acrobatic brethren--the X-Wing and TIE fighters are the sleek and shiny future, but somehow feel weightless, unreal; they barrelroll into crisply digitized space that somehow lack depth. Kubrick's spacecraft are real models hanging in (mostly) real space; they are meticulously researched* to make sense--from the aerodynamic lines of the spaceplane (for cutting through Earth's atmosphere) to the splendidly spinning station (for simulating gravity). More, they possess character, grace, majesty--they don't bounce around like shrieking pinballs (in vacuum?) but defy gravity and soar. 

*(An indirect tribute to Kubrick's mania for realism is the informal game played by viewers trying to spot inaccuracies--classic example being the liquid sucked up a straw dropping back down again, which it would do under Earth's gravity (not necessarily so; if the container had a plastic bag inside the liquid could be pulled down by suction). Arguably more glaring is the strap on a space stewardess' helmet--it's loose and visibly hanging down)

Cut to Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) going through international customs and the contrast couldn't be sharper. Outside the machines dance to glorious music; inside the humans make inane chatter against strikingly designed backgrounds (a window against which the Earth spins every few seconds; an upwardly curving white hallway (the inside of the station) populated by brightly carmine furniture). The climax to all this insipidity is a conference where Floyd addresses a group of scientists; behind them Kubrick positions a great unspoken gag--the conference members are surrounded by wall-sized video screens, and while Floyd talks ominously of a discovery that "may well prove to be among the most significant in the history of science" the screens remain coyly blank, keeping Dr. Floyd's secrets safely hidden. 

I first saw 2001 decades ago and was unimpressed, but one image did make an impact: the spaceship Discovery reaching from one end of the screen to another. Watching it recently the ship stretched twice as far, from one end of the theater to another, like a spermatozoa trailing an extended steel flagella on its way to (Fertilize? Contaminate?) other planets; or a cannonball flung by length of chain defiantly at the gods--the most elaborate and technologically advanced descendant yet of Moon Watcher's bone. 

Kubrick had earlier established a dichotomy: dance music for machines, banal silence for humans. Discovery is different; it travels to the strains of Aram Khatchaturian's doleful Gayane's Adagio. Why melancholy, you wonder? Because a machine is traveling with humans, who retain control? Or because a machine is to be pitted against humans, with results that are less than certain?

On board are six crewmembers, though the film focuses on three (the remaining three are in cryogenic sleep): Frank (Gary Lockwood), Dave (Keir Dullea), and HAL 9000, the supercomputer with ubiquitous camera eyes, a seductive voice (by Douglas Rain), a soothing bedside manner. 

Final word on onscreen inaccuracies: I've always looked at Discovery with doubtful eye, wondering where all the giant spaces and equipment can fit into the obviously limited habitation sphere. Looking at a few online schematics I have to admit it all does fit but feel a tad disappointed. In 70 mm Discovery is huge, the centrifuge a great Ferris wheel (where you can run to your heart's content), the pod bay a spacious garage, the emergency airlock a dizzying plunge that Dave takes in a moment of desperation. The size of things on a 70 mm screen, alas, rarely match up to real life.  

Kubrick shows us everyday life onboard. Significantly we watch Frank view a recorded birthday greeting from his parents on a tanning bed, with lethargic patience; later we watch HAL beat him handily in a game of chess. HAL is graciously apologetic ("I'm sorry Frank I think you missed it.") Frank lazily grouchy ("Mm. Looks like you're right.")--if this were a reality show where Frank and HAL were candidates to be voted off into space (Wasn't that a Doctor Who episode?) you would say the footage was edited to cue viewers as to who was leaving first. 

On the other hand there's this exchange between Dave and HAL: Dave is sketching and HAL calls him over; HAL asks what he's doing.

"A few sketches."
"May I see them?"
"Sure." 

Of course HAL is probably programmed to show interest and engage the crew whenever he can, but what if he's genuinely curious at this odd skill of scribbling lines and smudging graphite to create representations of things? 

"That's a very nice rendering, Dave. I think you've improved a great deal. "

What's beautiful about Rain's performance is that it's so silkily ambiguous you hear all sorts of things in his line readings. 

"Can you hold it a bit closer?"
"Sure."

A touch of jealousy there? 

"That's Dr. Hunter isn't it?"

And I may be stretching--probably am--but the fact that Dave can scribble and smudge in such a way that a computer--even a high-speed high-performing superprocessor like HAL--could recognize the resemblance someone it actually knew--

Is HAL fascinated by Dave's powers of imagination and improvisation? Does he recognize a skill beyond his own capabilities, somehow finds it disturbing? Right after this HAL asks: "By the way--do yo mind if I ask you a personal question?" Can't see any kind of programming that would justify the straight-out-of-left-field inquiry, except (as Dave wryly asks) "You working up your crew psychology report?" Curiosity leads to unease leads to confession leads to humiliation--and from there error defensiveness deceit paranoia madness murder. Kubrick doesn't connect the dots but the miracle of HAL is that there's no need; you provide all the connections as you stare at the baleful rubyred eye gazing serenely unblinkingly back at you. 

We see images rhymed throughout the film. Floyd flew to the space station on a plane, later to the moon on a lunar lander; the ship settles on Clavius Base's landing field (thanks to the 70 mm screen you spot the blast marks on the field) and is lowered gently inside. Irrational, but I find the moment surprisingly tender, even moving--Strauss' music fluttering in place while the little ball (continuing the sexual metaphor) descends into the base's gigantic inner chamber, rendered comforting by a warm red glow--talk about return to the womb, I wanted to pull myself into fetal position and suck on a thumb. The image plays in reverse later when one of Discovery's  space pods opens and Frank drifts out--the moon is a familiar commercial destination, to be ignored or taken for granted; Discovery is meant to explore, its passengers leaving familiar environments to seek out the unknown.  

When we first see the station turning to the tune of The Blue Danube it's a giddy romantic image, filled with boundless exuberance; when we see the giant centrifuge inside Discovery the moment is more solemn, even if the effects if anything are more startling (Dave descends a ladder at one end of the centrifuge and walks down its inner rim till he reaches Frank, who has been sitting at the other end obliviously eating). It's not just Khatchaturian's Adagio (which does set the tone beautifully); it's that station and plane are seen through Kubrick's eyes, who regards them with awe. The arguably more amazing technological achievements of Discovery are seen through the eyes of the astronauts who regard them as furniture, and HAL as at most a somewhat obsequious companion. Kubrick, the Adagio suggests, considers this a shame even a tragedy.

Perhaps the most significant rhyme involves the only three faces in the film shot in giant closeup: Moon Watcher as he sits in the dark, alert and fearful for the next leopard attack; and Dave's time and time again as he ponders one threat after another (first HAL then the monolith): again alert, again fearful. Only the Starchild gazes with any sense of serenity, acceptance, perhaps even hope. 

But it's not unqualified hope. If he's the first to look with calmness out from the big screen, he may be the first to stop striving. He may represent the evolutionary dead end that concludes Moon Watcher's and Dave's life-and-death struggles; the finale to us all.

I wouldn't call 2001 the greatest science-fiction film ever made. It doesn't have Stalker's profound sense of mystery (an alien force so powerful it ultimately has little to do with humanity itself), or Tarkovsky's ability to make a simple Estonian landscape as strange as the far side of the moon. It doesn't have The Incredible Shrinking Man's elegantly structured story, or transcendence done on a fraction of Kubrick's budget (lines and smudges, representing someone). It doesn't have Bride of Frankenstein's sly sophisticated humor (the humor in 2001 is more ironic (Teutonic?) or sense of humanity (The Creature--an abused child if you like--confronts his Creator, developing a moral sensibility). 

But Kubrick's film is great, and in 70 mm (projected on a really big screen or in Blu-Ray) an experience like no other. Still is, despite all the digitized and Marvel-ized wonders tossed at us along the way.  

First published in Businessworld 6.29.18 

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