Saturday, February 4th, 2012 https://adamkhan.net/rambles/2001-a-space-odyssey-exemplary-luminous
ach of our opening shots is a stunning landscape, more sky than earth, in keeping with Eastern sophistication. Our first signs of life are subtle: sounds of insects and birds. When we do have a sighting, it’s death, the skull of a fellow beast of some kind — or was our second view of life actually the words “THE DAWN OF MAN”? Next: a recognizably human skeleton alongside the skull, unburied. Our man, or at least our apelike and hairy precursor, is a resigned vegetarian, living in groups among other herbivores, passively ignoring them until one of the four-legged fellows gets too close, then, irritated, he makes a display of aggression: I’m telling you, step away from the bush! Or, or, I’ll tell you to step away from the bush again!
Within moments it’s the richest, most intelligent depiction of prehistoric man I’ve ever seen or read. The uncredited and unknown people in the ape-suits must be dancers; how they move is an incredibly energetic output for us. Contrast their physical reactions when witnessing the monolith to those of the astronauts in the newly-minted 21st century. Even while the song remains the same, the men in the space suits are practically motionless whereas the men in the ape suits go apeshit; you must wonder if the term wasn’t coined on this movie set. The crazed gesticulations are perfectly convincing, the repeated jolting back from touching the monolith a modern choreography.
I’m jumping ahead to the spaceship docking in orbit—isn’t that the done thing? Here is a very differently modern choreography, as engineered, precise, arid and graceful as the previous was frenetic, shabby, fearful and explosive. Somehow we feel the director’s presence as narrator; apparently there was originally going to be a voiceover, though surely that would have diminished the operatic grandeur of synchronized orbit.
2001: A Space Odyssey was huge in the culture; people lined up and saw it multiple times, apparently a first. It was Star Wars until with the Spirit of ’77 our delight with the characters of that adventure overwhelmed our reverence for the stateliness of this one. A year more astounding than 1977, 1968 seems long ago; as I write we’re passed 2010, the year of even the sequel. Both Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke are gone. I mentioned to my Dad that I’d watched this film. He was struck for a moment: Yes, I’ve seen it many times, he said. I don’t remember him saying that about any other.
The mysterious moments of creativity are depicted so artfully. No speech, obviously; no living alien to impart the knowledge, at least, not a recognizable one. We bear witness to the creature bearing witness to the object. He’s seen a straight line before, every day along the horizon, on the surface of the water, but nowhere else. Neither the shape nor the color of the monolith is like anything in his natural surroundings, yet it’s so obvious to him, so appealing, so kindred. Unlike the four-leggeds around him, he was ready to be influenced by the awesome implications of this object—indeed, the eclipse informs us that he was only ready at this precise moment. And it’s the eclipse that seems to be what finally moves him. The novelty of the monolith has passed; he’s scrubbing for grubs near it. He looks up and sees even more symmetry behind the monolith: the sun and the moon are lined up behind it! Mindblowing, if you’re able to reflect on such things, and at last he is. There has to be a moment, doesn’t there? Stories seem to be inevitably about that moment—Aristotle’s reversals and recognitions—and this film is going for the grandest ones in human history. Or at least, using this early one to buttress the grandeur of the one to follow.
Nothing was as big as this discovery, Kubrick tells us, taking up Nietzsche’s challenge that we investigate the long dawn of man then affronting our sensibilities just as Nietzsche loved to do: what the newly-minted toolmaker first does with his tool is kill these others alongside which he has lived so peaceably. Together with the terrible grandeur here is some comedy, it seems to me. It’s comical how these funny-looking four-legged creatures, sharing his patch, were so irritating to him; it must have felt extremely undignifying to be lumped together, prey for leopards, with them, so much so that you felt like murdering them. And indeed we cut to the weaponized apes feasting on the raw meat of one of these creatures, while its fellows carry on foraging nearby as if oblivious. And here’s the black comedy: they’re not quite as oblivious as they seem; suddenly they’re keeping a respectful distance. This is probably one of the most chilling scenes in movies. There is a certain relationship we two-leggeds have to the four-legged. Man is evil from his youth.
The eclipses: what an exemplary cinematic method of communicating a philosophical idea. The first monolith was placed the night before the eclipse and was bound to be discovered the following day. But the second monolith has been buried underground—on the far side of the moon even—yet is viewed by Dr Floyd just as an eclipse occurs; whoever planted it prefigured the precise moment when it would be discovered by the human agent who could act upon it. In this graphic wordless way the film illustrates our great conundrum between free will and determinism. Like the astonishing beauty of the planet in Avatar being a riff on Earth, the fact that these interventions don’t happen in reality serve to render life as we know it even more amazing, in that, as Douglas Adams might put it, we invented the digital watch all by ourselves.
The man-apes are omnivorous although they apparently haven’t been getting much meat. At the risk of heresy, it appears when witnessing such a breakthrough that species have evolutionary energy directed somewhere. Each change in the body cascades to and coincides with others. Operating the thumb, for example, requires more brain, more brain requires I suppose more meat or deeper sleep—things like that: mini teleologies. Perhaps I love Darwin more for the down-to-earth believability of the story and his enfranchising us with our fellow creatures rather than the sharpness of the logic. Or perhaps I need to properly read Origin of the Species. Ah, how a detailed convincing story can inspire us to grapple with issues.
The credits are so classically Hollywood it seems old-fashioned. Given the music, it never could have been any other way, but Kubrick has a lot to live up to when he splashes his and the film’s names on those quintessentially towering notes in Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (hence I can mention Nietzsche because the film does, its theme being after his most famous book). The stilted symmetry he may be mocking later he does not eschew for the intro to his own work. And before the credits there is the empty black screen that looks like the monolith itself, the rich interesting music making clear the program has begun, the movie claiming to be able to provide what its homologue within does also. Ah, the ambitions of the 60s. Then after that cold formalism he gives us the great warm landscape compositions before we arrive at the apes. I love how the intermission comes with the scene of HAL lip-reading —“OK, you can talk now”—and has its own music and timing built into the film. I’ve missed this intermezzo in movies, bestowing grandeur, making it more theatre-like. When I saw 2001 as a kid at Aaron’s house on VHS I was pretty bored, disappointed and baffled by the parts in Infinity. Now they seemed shorter and more straightforward, a brief climax really containing the coda of the very lovely screensaver shots.
The scenes with Dr. Heywood R. Floyd arriving at the space station and speaking at the conference: are they glamorizing or satirizing our modern social ways? It looks and feels a bit like Mad Men but is that because it’s commenting on its time or merely because it’s a product of it? Floyd has four interactions. With the hostess, he fusses with his suitcase while she looks away until it’s time for him to leave the giant elevator (how visually glorious are the two-dimensional moving patterns on our screen that are the door’s squares as it rotates in three dimensions within the story); it’s polite and distant. He calls home to his child, a conversation that just about passes muster as humane. He has a seemingly social conversation with the Russians. He gives a talk to his colleagues, going through the charade of taking questions despite having no intention of stating any more than he already has. This seems to run the gamut of human interaction for 21st century man. Then it’s over, nothing has happened to these characters except Floyd witnessing the monolith—they’re all gone in the movie’s past. Like an historic novel by James Michener, man’s journey is our subject here, not one particular hero, and the ebb and flow of our coming and passing is more central to the tale than any particular one of us.
Ultimately the film seems with the StarChild to lead to messianism, a conclusion I don’t much like. Maybe when you introduce something like the monolith you stiffen things philosophically—adding actual alien monoliths to human history is like adding midichlorians to the Force—so you end unavoidably with a stiffened conclusion. So that’s probably why we decided we prefer the Force, and Han Solo and Princess Leia, R2D2 and C-3P0. Nonetheless, the shots and the aesthetics, the designs of the spaceships, the hostesses’ egg-shaped hats, the way of depicting zero gravity: nobody has done it so delightfully, and those who’ve tried since took obvious cues from it. The story may be linear and dry, but the way it’s told is juicy and luminous.
- The redoubtable, coffee-out-the-nose inaugural article of Typeset in the Future by Dave Addey
- Roger Ebert, caustic and taken in 1968 then again in 1997
- What It Means, and How It Was Made — a 2018 discussion of the film by Dan Chiasson The New Yorker
- 2001: A Space Odyssey Predicted the Future—50 Years Ago by Stephen Wolfram, no less, in 2018