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 but you learn to appreciate his better qualities, and your growing admiration has become part of your youth adolescence adulthood. 

Now that 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 rising 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 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 pellucid ballroom floor of Brobdingnagian size on which plane and wheel can freely 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 food sucked up through a straw dropping back down again, which it would do under Earth's gravity (not necessarily so; if the container had a collapsible plastic bag inside the liquid could be pulled down by suction).)

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; a vast curving white hallway (the station's interior) populated by brightly carmine furniture). The climax to all this insipidity is a briefing that begins with Floyd addressing a group of scientists; behind them Kubrick poses a great unnoticed 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 walls remain coyly blank. Just as the briefing is about to start--and the folks in the room are about to learn more of the 'discovery'--Kubrick cuts to the next scene. 

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 the 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 fit into the obviously limited habitation sphere. Looking at a few online schematics I have to admit it all fits but can't help feeling a tad disappointed. In 70 mm Discovery is huge, the centrifuge a great Ferris wheel (where you run to your heart's content), the pod bay a spacious garage, the emergency airlock a dizzying vertical plunge. The size of things on a 70 mm screen, alas, rarely match up to real life.  

Kubrick shows us the onboard routine. 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 contestants 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 which contestant 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?"


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 anything in his line readings. 

"Can you hold it a bit closer?"


Is that jealousy in his voice? 

"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 to 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 find 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 all the dots but the miracle of HAL is that there's no real need; you provide all the connections as you stare at the baleful rubyred eye gazing serenely unblinkingly back at you. 

**(In Arthur C. Clarke's novel HAL's malfunction is explained as a conflict in programming--HAL being forced to keep the mission's true objective (the monolith) secret while he carries out his other prime directive, to seek out and present the truth in as accurate and timely a manner as possible.

It's a bit of computer psychology that Kubrick--and I agree with him--possibly felt wasn't necessary on film; leave it to Rain to suggest HAL's secret flaw, and leave it to the audience to puzzle over the mystery. I offer this, my own half-assed alternative explanation)

We see images rhyme 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 flutters to the ear while the little ball (continuing the sexual metaphor) descends into the base's gigantic inner chamber, comforted by a warm red glow--talk about a return to the womb, I wanted to curl into fetal position and suck on a thumb. The image later plays in reverse when one of Discovery's space pods opens and Frank drifts out of his smaller far less comforting uterus--the moon is a commercial destination often taken for granted; Discovery sets out to explore, its passengers leaving familiar environments to seek out the unknown.  

When we 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 walks down its inner rim till he reaches Frank, who has been sitting at the other end all this while eating). It's not just Khatchaturian's Adagio (which sets the tone beautifully), it's that station and plane are seen through Kubrick's eyes, and are regarded with awe; the arguably more amazing technological achievements of Discovery are seen through the astronauts' eyes, who can't help but treat these wonders as mere equipment and furniture, HAL as at most a somewhat obsequious companion (they take him considerably less for granted when he starts acting up). Kubrick, as the choice of Khatchaturian's Adagio suggests, considers this treatment a shame even a tragedy.

Perhaps the most significant rhyme involves faces in giant closeup: Moon Watcher as he sits in the dark, alert for the next leopard attack; Dave's time and time again as he ponders one threat after another (first HAL then the monolith; the former with anger, the latter with something close to panic). 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, that may be because he is the first to stop striving--to fail to feel any need to strive. The Starchild may represent hope, or the evolutionary dead end that concludes Moon Watcher's and Dave's life-and-death struggles. He may be the finale to us all, bringing with him everything that statement implies.

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), or Tarkovsky's ability to make a simple Estonian landscape as strange and implacably hostile as the far side of the moon. It doesn't have The Incredible Shrinking Man's elegantly structured story, or moment of transcendence done on a fraction of Kubrick's budget (lines and smudges, representing humanity). It doesn't have Bride of Frankenstein's sly sophisticated humor (2001's has a more ironic (Teutonic?) flavor) or sense of humanity (Boris Karloff's Creature--an abused neglected child if you like--confronting Colin Clive's irresponsible Creator, developing a moral sensibility along the way). 

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 being tossed at us along the way.  

First published in Businessworld 6.29.18 

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