Reading Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one mystery at a time.
The business of having a “best film” or “favourite film” is a difficult one—well, let’s be relative, it’s hardly surviving genocide—but still, cinematic achievements are so disparate in their qualities that contrasting The Piano Teacher to My Neighbor Totoro to Dog Star Man is less a case of apples v. oranges, more of a case of dopplebocks v. sunsets v. paragliding. And the business of selecting a single film, while stating positively what you value in film, also implies a certain denial of the pleasures your selection does not embody.
To both the questions of best and favourite my answer has often been 2001: A Space Odyssey, which returns to big screens courtesy of Autumn Events this April and May. It’s an answer I hate to give, because it implies my personality reflects the perceived attributes of the film (and, often, of Kubrick): elitist, boring, humorless. (That many of these attributes are flat-out wrong—what “elitist, humorless” film would include an elaborate toilet joke?—is rarely a point worth arguing.) Regardless, it’s an answer I feel compelled to give. I’ve made pilgrimages twice to see it on 70mm (Portland to Seattle and Auckland to Melbourne). I’ve owned three DVDs of it. I’ve read multiple books and articles on the making of it; Jerome Agel’s paperback on its making is falling apart. And yet, with every viewing, there are new mysteries.
I don’t mean from a story perspective. 2001’s plot is mysterious to a first time viewer, but for many years and viewings now, I’ve settled on the generally perceived interpretation, and I’m happy with that. What’s mysterious, though, is what it’s about. In each viewing, a different set of ideas takes primacy, and suddenly the film is reconfigured through that lens. For instance:
Language. Consider the possibility that 2001 is a film about language: its utility and its limits. From grunts and groans, we evolve into cumbersome explanations of how to poop, into convoluted presentations, into deliberate circumlocutions, and finally develop a machine capable of the nicest, most beautiful implementation of mechanised speech—which, inconveniently, also happens to be a kill-crazy computer. Language disappears entirely from the end of the film, coinciding with the next evolutionary step. It may also be a useful summation of a film whose totality works on me, as great art does, at a level beyond language.
Tools. I wrote my film-school admissions essay on the greatest cut of all time—from our hero ape (named Moonwatcher, not that you’d know it from the film) ecstatically celebrating his use of a bone as a tool of war to a space-station mid-orbit, covering the whole of tool-making humanity’s development in a single edit. These tools at first prop us up, then they keep us down—both in a useful sense (gravity boots!) and destructive sense, as HAL, the super-computer, attempts to thwart the mission’s progress to a post-tool society. He fails, and Bowman evolves to the Starchild—an entity encased in a sphere, seemingly incapable of any use of tools in a conventional sense. I came out of one screening, suddenly struck at the human hand behind everything around me, accrued intelligence made concrete, fabric, and light. It’s the sort of displacement I go to the movies for.
Craft. Let’s say that, ultimately, 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing but a technical exercise. I disagree, but that’s not the point: the point is that it’s a fucking great technical exercise. From the early front-projection to the model starships in space, from the gravity-defying centrifuges to the epic light show beyond the infinite, there’s a wide array of techniques applied, many of them ground-breaking. Time has done nothing to blunt their magic, particularly in the post-CGI era. (I just read today about Kubrick’s use of a live leopard, which explains why its eyes are silver in the film, and I can’t wait to see it again, while hearing Douglas Trumbull talk about slit-scan makes me want to try it myself.)
Hope. The conventional wisdom is that 2001: A Space Odyssey is sterile. But in its own way, it strikes me as a celebration, from Moonwatcher’s pounding of bones over ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ onward. If you key on to this reading, it’s a mood that can easily expand during a viewing, given the longueurs dedicated to observation in the film, largely dedicated to celebrating as vast a range of human accomplishment as possible. His score extends from the quaintly formal Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’ to the aggressively dissonant sounds of Ligeti; his set direction embraces not just the expected sterile futurism (itself undercut with splashy furnishings on the space station and colourful spacesuits) but ancient statues and Napoleonic furnishings. It’s not an accident; rather, it’s a giant celebration of what we have made as a society. And it all culminates in a traditional happy Hollywood ending, an instance of what Brian Cox exasperatedly describes in Adaptation as “overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.” Only here, the vision of Clarke and Kubrick of what we can become is exponentially more expansive than any other happy ending I can think of.
Food. Okay, I’ve only thought about this in passing before—the raw meat of the early scenes transmogrifying into unidentifiable pastes in space—but, this being the Internet, other people have thought about it a whole lot more. Whether this inspires me to bring popcorn into my next screening, I have yet to decide.
These readings are by no means offered as a complete decryption key for 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are merely the beams of light that sparked off the kaleidoscope as I’ve looked at in the past. I can only imagine what new facets will shine on the mighty Civic screen.