Masterpiece Memo: 2001: A Space Odyssey

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So much theory has been written about 2001: A Space Odyssey. For this review, I’m siding with Mr. Kubrick who, when asked to explain the meaning of his film, said, “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.”

Instead, I give you the experience of seeing it the first time, on a massive screen, in a time that was simply unprepared for anything like it. Interspersed with personal observations on the film is the “experience”, as I remember it, in context/italics.

The film made the general rounds in 1969. Space was an obsession rife with conjecture and the so-called race was about to be “won” by a walk on the moon, computers were an unknown and frightening entity to the general public, Woodstock would mark the end of the drug culture’s age of innocence that summer and the closest anyone had come to decent special effects in films was Ray Harryhausen, the plastic bags and colored lights in Fantastic Voyage, and the rubbery masks Planet of the Apes.

Into this mix, three freshmen college dorm-mates decide to drop their tabs of Sunshine and head down to the Cinerama to catch 2001:A Space Odyssey. We’d heard it was supposed to be pretty trippy so we plopped down in the front row for full effect and placed our unsuspecting souls into Stanley Kubrick’s hands.

The last word was from Michael: “This better be good – space movies always look so lame. Hand me some popcorn.”

THE DAWN OF MAN

Deliberately slow and precise pacing of the tribe gathering and competing for food, huddling for shelter at night, mesmerizes us into complacency until the leopard attack sends a primal shock into the audience.

Michael: “f-u-c-k-m-e! Aw, man, where’s the popcorn?”

Barry: “ you got a piece on your head”

Someone behind tosses a few kernels over the seats into our laps.

Michael: “oh thanks, man – what the fuck is that thing?”

The “slab” has been given many names over the years ranging from some kind of portal to that “damn 2X4”. We soon learn that it appears after a setback or crisis in the story-line and propels the action, by way of planetary alignment, by stimulating the intelligence of the characters, to the next stage.

Moonwatcher sits and contemplates the tapir bones on the ground before him, leading to the first of several iconic sequences in the film. What starts as a tap, then a flip, becomes orgasmic as the smashing tool is used for food and eventually, intimidation and the first murder. In his triumphant euphoria, Moonwatcher tosses his weapon into the sky and Kubrick gives us the single most inspirational film edit in history, spanning tens of thousands of years but maintaining a clear and logical connection between the two scenes, that of something thrown into the sky. Thanks to Douglas Trumbull’s FX, we now float with the space station to the strains of the Blue Danube.

Michael, Barry and Steve: “W-h-o-a”

Even the banal can be fascinating in the weightless sequences under Kubrick’s obsessive direction as Dr Floyd travels by way of the space station to the moon. There is some kind of chess game afoot with the Ruskies over an “epidemic” on the moon, which is merely a cover story for an object discovered on the lunar surface. As we make our way down into the crater with Floyd, the object looks familiar. A touch and a look up show a familiar planetary alignment when a piercing sound lets loose.

Barry: What the fuck IS that thing? OK, tell me after.

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Kubrick’s famous single point perspective takes over the third section of the story almost as though most of the action is being viewed through the red eye of HAL, the rogue computer. Or is he really rogue? His soothing, parental – even condescending – voice seems to be programmed to keep the crew under control. When his janitors Bowman and Poole appear to be questioning his purpose, he kills the dormant members of the crew, snaps the lifeline of Poole outside the Discovery, and locks the door behind Bowman when he takes a pod to retrieve him. Repeated pleas of “open the pod bay doors, please HAL,” go unanswered as Dave cradles the body of Poole outside the craft. The pod turns and releases Poole into the void. Now Bowman will deal with HAL.

It was at this point, just as Dave blasted his way into the craft and starts disassembling HAL, that the theater projector begins to malfunction. The house lights come on, go off, “I can feel it Dave” “Computer malfunction” flashes onscreen and disappears, lights on, screen white, film back, lights off, “Daisy, Daisy”, all the while two of us taking it all in as part of the show.

Barry suddenly grabs my arm: I think HAL killed Michael, too.

Me, looking over: You’re so fucking stoned man, he’s asleep.

I punch Michael’s arm and he wakes up just as we enter the Stargate sequence

The StarGate sequence – likely responsible for Stanley Kubrick’s ONLY personal Oscar – is a rollercoaster barrage of planetscapes, showers of fire, mutating prisms, star bursts and protoplasmic clouds, all at the speed of light. – and suggest travelling through a tunnel at the speed of light. It is rumored to have been an afterthought and added to the film by Kubrick, but transitions us into the biggest mindfuck of the entire film.

Tripping to the tits, the three of us lean over and just look at each other

Hearing only his heavy breathing in his spacesuit, a considerably aged Bowman finds himself investigating an immaculate French Provincial set of rooms. He sees someone eating at the dining table and he becomes him. He looks at a dying figure in the bed and it is him, his old incarnation now gone. He feebly reaches for something at the foot of the bed and we see the monolith in an advancing close-up while, for the final time, Also Sprach Zarathustra begins.

Starchild emerges and heads to earth, rebirth or continuum? Is the cycle complete or does it continue to infinity?

Kubrick creates these spiderwebs of tangents, invited assumptions and interpretations because he wants us to understand that we humans are not the be-all/end-all of beings, the chosen, as it were, and are not capable of understanding or even visualizing the unknowns of the universe. The only way he can translate that into film is to create the feeling of being intellectually lost and presenting us with images that make no sense but still advance the story to its conclusion.

The final credit roll.

Once we get our earthly bearings in the cool night air:

Barry : Somebody tell me – what the fuck was that thing?

Michael: I don’t know – I fell asleep after the chick walked on the ceiling and woke up during the lightshow. Can somebody explain what that was all about?

Barry: How could you fall asleep – I’m trippin’ my ass off? (stops dead in his tracks) OH OH “what’s the letter after H? A? L? I-B-M FUHK! (both “FUHK” at the same time)

Michael: You’re not sayin’ anything, Steve – you’re grinning but not talking. Everything cool?

Me: I don’t know. I feel like I’ve just looked into the mind of God, or something. What is there to say? I’m just goin with it, man.

Barry: Hold on. My mouth is so dry – I need to get a Nehi or a Yoo-hoo or something.

2001: A Space Odyssey was not an immediate hit. Many viewers were like Barry – chatty with questions and the need for interpretations, wanting to provide or be provided with more explanation. He became one of the seekers; those who spend their lives searching for answers while advancing the lives of the rest of us. Some were Michael – fun night out that didn’t make much sense but not worth worrying about. He was relieved when Star Wars came out and was able to regain his sci-fi footing and become a fanboy pioneer. For me, the circumstances, the environment, the mindset – let’s just say — the planets aligned. I appreciate the work for its own magnificence and for the questions it refuses to answer. I’ve seen the film many times since, but that night was, and remains, the single greatest movie-going experience I’ve ever had.

As Joni wrote later that very same ’69 summer, “We are stardust.” Turns out, she was right.

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Steve Schweighofer can be found on Twitter @banjoonthecrag

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