Sunday, July 25, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) A Film by Stanley Kubrick

All of the cliches that one could say about Stanley Kubrick's revolutionary sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey - that it's "the ultimate trip", that by the end the odyssey is "really just beginning", or that it's the definitive work of cinematic science fiction - are actually quite true, making it a rare example of a cultural artifact whose reputation is so formidable that the so-called tall-tales forming the foundations of its legacy don't sound preposterous. Fifty-somethings can wax nostalgic about the utopian experience of seeing the film in its initial release, the way it's "supposed to be seen", and I can firmly endorse their enthusiasm. Film scholars and professors can emphatically proclaim it as a monumental turning point in narrative cinema, or that it revitalized the medium's fundamental visual and sonic capabilities, and I can nod my head at their grand declarations. The point is not to say that Kubrick's enigmatic space opera, which catapulted the director into the most creatively vibrant period of his career, is unassailable, but rather to acknowledge its unanimous potency, the way in which it has a visceral impact on anyone who sees it regardless of whether or not they agree with Kubrick's ambitious philosophy, his aggressive nonconformity, or his wayward storytelling structure. Love it or hate it, 2001 leaves its mark.

The question remains, however, unanswered: why exactly does 2001 make such an impression even 40 years after its premiere? In lieu of so many erratic, spellbound personal essays written about the film, and so few serious critical pieces that look with the painstaking precision of Kubrick at the film's peculiar rhythms, there still ceases to be, perhaps inevitably, a definitive written work on it. I think much of it has to do with Kubrick's crafty, subversive manipulation of our expectations, as well as the film's frequent propensity to tap into the collective unconscious with imperceptibly subtle associations. Both of these theses are supported in the film's opening moments, which, to be sure, are where any linear artistic work either grabs hold of you or doesn't. When the film begins, it actually waits. Kubrick holds a black, featureless screen (an abysmal canvas of nothingness that many have proposed to be the vast torso of the rectangular monolith that periodically reappears to thrust the film forward with forceful ambiguity) for all of three minutes while a haunting choir of subhuman "oooh's" churns circuitously underneath the blankness. For a culture automatically programmed to expect an onslaught of imagery right as a film starts (otherwise it would be wasting time, right?), Kubrick's deliberate pause, his curiously vacuous preface, is an enormously destabilizing move, and it sets an immediately apprehensive mood for the proceedings. Kubrick makes the viewer rustle in his seat and scratch his head by literally doing nothing.

The second instance I was referring to arrives right after the three-minute black screen, where many would say the film enjoys its traditional beginning. As Richard Strauss' now-ubiquitous classical piece "Also Spoke Zarathustra" sounds its opening notes, Kubrick's camera peaks up over the Earth to reveal a breathtaking special effects shot of the blue planet, the moon, and the sun in perfect eclipse. But even an ostensibly harmless introductory shot proves to be rife with mysterious associations in Kubrick's grand, prophetic vision. Strauss' musical score utilizes three harmonious tones - two octave pitches and a perfect fifth - that resonate interestingly with the exact pictorial and spatial alignment of the cosmos onscreen, a moment of pure harmony in sight and sound that complicates the prior three minutes that suggested menace, hollowness, and uncertainty. This tonal ambivalence leads the film into its opening chapter, "The Dawn of Man", where a colony of apes perform their daily rituals of howling, hopping, and consuming, before the black monolith inexplicably appears one morning in the middle of a shallow ditch, bringing with it Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's eerie vocal drone again. The entire sequence is at once supremely matter-of-fact (the detached, anthropological eye, the natural pacing) and faintly off-kilter (the just barely believable ape costumes, the arrival of the monolith and subsequent cosmic reverse shot, or the sudden eruption of the established pacing when Kubrick delivers a series of briskly-cut slow motion shots of an ape demolishing a pile of bones with his newfound weapon).

What results from this long, abnormally wordless introduction is a sense of constant alarm, a desire to look back and find allusions that might supply a hint at what in fact this earthbound foreword might mean in the context of an otherwise largely space-set film. Kubrick does not provide answers by way of plot, dialogue, or other methods of narrative reasoning though. Instead, 2001 is a film, like all of Kubrick's great later works (and to an extent his earlier films too), whose thematic crux lies solely in the dense tapestry of visual and sonic rhymes littered throughout. The bone comes to manifest itself as the orbiting space shuttle, one weapon destined to become another. The numerous symmetrical tube-like shots watching shuttle stewardesses jaunt around the ship visually foreshadows the climactic fit of color and light as what amounts to the film's main character, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), catapults through a narrow vacuum of space and time. I also suspect it's no surprise that the synthetic visage of the HAL 9000 computer - an uncannily human piece of mega-hardware that sabotages Bowman's partner Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) after he suspects them of planning to shut him down in the midst of their mission to Jupiter - resembles both that opening image of the Sun in deep space and the familiar aperture of a camera. Kubrick seems to equate one of the most sublimely mystifying "villains" in the history of the cinema, a symbol of the encroaching corruption of technology, with the very act of filmmaking.

Approximately halfway through the film, after HAL has managed to chillingly detect the words being spoken from the movement of Dave and Frank's lips, even against their careful precautions against HAL hearing them, Kubrick makes another unusual move that assures the film doesn't feel too comfortable. He returns to a black screen with Ligeti's music, only this time a bold title appears in Kubrick's characteristic typeface Futura: "INTERMISSION". This not only destabilizes due to the utter disregard of convention involved in the notion of providing an intermission in a film, as if it's primarily some theatrical event, but it also extends the extreme tension in an oddly effective way, insuring that the audience is pinned to their seat for the sudden reentry into the film's world. The ensuing hour of 2001 is one of the most exquisite, memorable stretches of cinema I can name, a quiet, brooding trip from the unknown to the unknowable in which Dave gradually disconnects HAL (in a scene of casually sustained death that instantly trumps the majority of conventionally "human" deaths in films) and as a result finds himself careening through psychedelic vistas and eventually a sterile, Victorian room of the soul where he participates as a voyeur in his own aging and death, kick-started by the third appearance of the monolith. It's difficult to write an all-encompassing essay on 2001 because of magisterial sequences like these, ones which can hardly be done justice to by words. Better to leave the film the lava flow of visual music that it is, a true celluloid oddity that is both Kubrick's greatest achievement as a filmmaker and one of the most convincing portraits of human self-destructiveness ever made in any medium.


Loren Rosson III said...

While 2001 isn't my personal favorite of Kubrick's, I agree that it's objectively his best, for many of the reasons you mention, and yes, it's not really possible to overstate praise for it.

The falling bone "becoming" the space shuttle is one of my favorite cuts I've ever seen in a film.

Stephen said...

This is one of the most interesting and convincing pieces on the film I've read, Carson.

I have to say that the languid rhythms, the slow motions and the hifalutin use of classical music didn't work at all for me.

I thought it was pretentious and a little ludicrous. It always felt like Kubrick was straining to create a sense of awe and deep meaning that the film couldn't sustain.

In terms of "visual and sonic capabilities", I think Terrence Malick's films do better at matching mood to story. The story in 2001 doesn't grab me and the visuals outstay their welcome.

Still, this review has made me want to revisit it. Maybe I'll have a different experience next time.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Loren, though every film Kubrick made post-Fear and Desire is substantial and worthy of great praise, 2001 is certainly his biggest quantum leap, a film that stands on its own as this crazy, unexpected, philosophical work of art. And you're right about the bone-to-shuttle cut. Not only is it visually splendid, but Kubrick also has the main theme music swell and naturally transform into the classical waltz associated with the space scenes. It's a beautiful, seamless aural transition.

Stephen, thanks so much for the lofty praise! It's too bad that 2001 hasn't worked for you. I do agree that to some extent it can draw too much attention to itself. I have a few friends that find it self-serious like you do, but for me it's so controlled and aesthetically immaculate that any of these complaints are overwhelmed. Terrence Malick is certainly a tremendous mood-builder too, but Kubrick is an even more masterful manipulator.