2001: A Space Odyssey

[The following is the beginning of a longer article published in Bright Lights Film Journal. 2001 is first and foremost (and most apt) film in my personal Zodiac of Film.]

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) has inhabited a large part of my life. I have seen it more times on the big screen than any other film. I had also watched it more than twenty times on public television, cable, and video. I had purchased the vinyl soundtrack three times during the last 36 years. Now I own the latest CD version, which includes all of HAL the computer’s dialogue, and have read Arthur C. Clarke’s book three times as well as Jerome Agel’s The Making of 2001. I continue to read all of the English-language (and even some French and Spanish) criticism in books, magazines, and on the Internet dealing with the movie and/or Stanley Kubrick. I have encouraged my family to screen the film continuously at my wake and funeral.

How I have responded to the film reveals my growth as a thinker and critic, a growth I believe 2001 to be one of the causes. Not a dramatic growth that can be certified but one that effected an intellectual attention to the material/subject on the movie screen. Accomplishing this growth, in a sense, never ceased. Seeing and interpreting the film over the last 30 years has become analogous to the very process of change and growth happening in 2001. Put another way, no single interpretation of the film, no single answer to the film’s mysteries and meaning should prevail. 2001 dramatizes that there are no final answers.

* * *

I first watched 2001 on Memorial Day, 1968, but it was the second feature I had seen that day. The Indianapolis 500 was being shown on live circuit in 2001‘s theater. I didn’t know it until I got there. I was distraught and, having made the journey into Philadelphia, decided to see another movie that had also excited my interest, Planet of the Apes. This might have been enough for one afternoon, yet I decided to stay in town into the evening to attend the four p.m. showing of 2001.

Both movies had superficial resemblance, especially in their speculation about evolution. One said that men would eventually succumb to apes in the future; the other, a transition from ape to man was manipulated by an “outside” force. Each film presented apelike beings. At the time, Planet of the Apes was lauded and eventually rewarded with an Honorary Oscar for “outstanding make-up achievement”. I didn’t understand why 2001‘s apes were not also given consideration, if only because those apes looked more like apes than the Planet of the Apes apes.

Ape costumes aside, the “Dawn of Man” segment testified to the realism of the film and the impact it would have on a generation of moviegoers who have returned to the film many times. The realism supplied an overwhelming impression that 2001 speculated seriously about the fundamental nature of mankind. What had made humans what they were? Was our evolution actually affected by aliens? What had made humans so violent? Was there any redemption for our violent nature?

Carl Jung, in his book Flying Saucers, notes that the belief in extraterrestrial life represents a search for a transcendent answer to life’s complexities and mysteries. The decades of the 1960s and 1970s had a notable idealistic and even religious flair, such that this time has been called the Fourth Great Awakening. The response to 2001, in part, was governed by a mystical element. For me, the story of 2001 touched a similar nerve, especially in the way the movie held back much tantalizing information. Unlike Planet of the Apes, there was no definite moment of revelation (no Statue of Liberty broken in half on a beach). Only if one knows how to look would one find an answer. Much of my initial thought about the film focused specifically on figuring out how 2001 settled these many uncertain issues.

When one finally learns about Kubrick’s decisions to suppress any kind of narration or the appearance of images on the monoliths inside the apes’ encampment, it is apparent that few answers will be available. Why did he do this? This story of evolution was not meant to solve the mystery of a missing link or a prime mover (be it an alien, God, or an evolutionary leap). Kubrick had chosen “outside” intervention to stimulate the ape, but HOW it became stimulated and evolved comments on the effect that the monolith had on the apes. The monolith did not whisper into the ape’s ear or provide instructions for making tools.

Analogously, a film enters our lives, and we may or may not have responded to or been changed by it. No, the monolith appears. The ape commonly known as “Moonwatcher” touched the slab. An eerie sounding track from Gyorgy Ligeti filled this moment with mystical momentousness. Later, amidst the bones of dead animals, a bone in hand, Moonwatcher recalls the strange, unnatural shape of the monolith. Recalling it and using the bone as a tool/weapon coincide. That’s the stimulus. But it is enough. The enemy apes at the waterhole would have a big surprise waiting for them!

The infamous matchcut — a bone thrown into the air by the ecstatic Moonwatcher (the joy of killing, of power over another being especially when that being is fellow ape) transforms into an orbiting nuclear weapon — links not only two kinds of weaponry but the two parts of the film designated “The Dawn of Man.” Generally, many misapprehend this transition by assuming that the “dawn” was over (many articles often refer to the jump to the year 2000 as an “untitled segment”). Our illusion of progress encourages us accept this shift with little resistance. Yet, two signposts mark the perimeter of this “dawn”: the monoliths. One has been placed in the ape’s encampment; the other, buried on the moon. Man’s “dawn” has occurred not in a single bound to a smarter ape but within the whole space of four million years. This time marks a prelude to the journey to Jupiter, which will change man’s relation to the technological universe.


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