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Friday, January 3, 2014

2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick's opening segment ape-shot--man's evolution begins.
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke,
two great minds, one great movie.
People often make a point of watching a film several times. James Cameron made his fortune with Titanic because teenage girls turned it into something of a cult classic even during it's first run in theaters. I've seen many movies multiple times inasmuch as I taught "Movies as an Art Form" for more than a quarter century. I'd be a contender for the record number of times anyone has seen Gone With the Wind, and Ben-Hur. Aside from teaching about them, some movies people watch repeatedly for the sheer enjoyment of the story, or the characterizations, perhaps the stars, or simply in observing again and agan great examples of cinematic art. One film, however, simply must be seen more than once...more than a few times, actually...in order to appreciate and understand its story, its characterizations, and its artistic and historical importance. It's another film I've taught occasionally. I've seen it at least half a dozen times--Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
 
The science was accurate, the concepts were close, the images
somewhat grandiose, but the timetable was decades off.
Even allowing for Dr. Stangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is arguably Kubrick's greatest masterpiece. However, Space Odyssey is not an easy film to watch, which is why it must be seen more than once. First of all it takes a strong bladder; it's 142 minutes long (161 minutes in its original cut). Thankfully, there is an intermission. But that's a minor factor. The second difficulty in seeing the film only once is its organization. It's really three (perhaps four)separate movies, the first segment set 400-million year ago and without a single word of dialogue or narration (the opening 20 minutes of the movie). From that point on, the dialogue, what there is of it, during the other two segments is, in fact, one of the most trying elements of the film. It's not only minimal, it's mostly rather bland, barely interesting, even boring at times, but all with a very distinct purpose. Although it does serve to convey the plot somewhat, mostly the minimalist dialogue is designed to encourage (even force) the viewer to search for the meaning of it all as the film progresses. The dialogue's banality also serves to make room for the film's greatest strength--its visual impact. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards. It won only one, for its visual effects (above).
 
A trip to the moon via Pan Am. I'll have the Gerber special without the sauce.
The second segment is basically a "traditional" trip to the moon. The science is accurate; the cinematography, groundbreaking; the hardware is fascinating, the scenery--out of this world. It's Jules Verne on steroids. I'm not going to get into plot here any more than absolutely necessary, both because some readers may not have seen the film, and it's too deeply complex to even contemplate in this limited space. It's only during the film's third segment that the story really gets interesting. Two space travelers, played by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, embark on an extended voyage to Jupiter (below) along with the most riveting character in the film, the spacecraft's on-board computer HAL 9000. If you should ever be asked what the film is about, say it's about the evolution of mankind and our ever-growing reliance upon the tools we've invented--HAL being the ultimate tool.
 

Jogging to Jupiter, artificial gravity and suspended animation.
Clarke and Kubrick re-wrote
the book on sci-fi.
Though technically part of the third segments, the arrival at Jupiter actually constitutes a fourth segment of the film. The final fifteen minutes of the movie are visually stunning, a psychedelic light show of incredible film-making proportions never before seen when the film was released in 1968 (and seldom seen since). I must confess, as I sat in an uncrowded theater in Cincinnati watching Space Odyssey for the first time, toward the end, I had absolutely NO idea what I was seeing or what it meant in the context of the rest of the movie. It's probably the only movie I ever saw in which, even after seeing it, I didn't know how it ended. It was several years later that I saw the film again, and even then, I wasn't sure I understood. To say the least, it's ambiguous; though now, in hindsight, having seen the movie several more times, read about it, and taught it, I have a fair inkling of what Kubrick and his co-author, Arthur C. Clark, were trying to say. Their book, (left) written jointly as the movie was in production, is clearer in that regard.
 
Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea privately plot against HAL
If Space Odyssey's special effects, visual effects, and cinematography were its major strengths, not far behind was Frank Cordell's musical score. He flawlessly integrated classical pieces by Gustav Mahler, Johann Strauss, Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, and of course HAL's favorite song, Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) by Harry Dacre. At times, the musical score literally takes over the film. One night, as I was previewing the movie on TV in writing a study guide for my students, the strange music sent our dog scurrying behind the couch where she stayed for the rest of the night. The dramatic opening strains from Richard Strauss' tone poem, sprach Zarathustra have become somewhat trite in the futuristic film genre.
 
The iconic 2001 face of awe...I was bug-eyed too toward the end.
Very few films from the past century have had the profound cinematic impact of Kubrick's space classic. Before Space Odyssey, hubcaps dangling on nylon fishing line served as special effects. Weightlessness had seldom been explored; and murder and mayhem came at the point of a ray gun rather than by computer. Kubrick spent 10.5-million 1968 dollars (some of it his own money) and, except for a little judicious pruning to reduce the film's running time, every penny can be seen on screen. Space Odyssey has grossed $109-million since its release, proving that well-done sci-fi could be a winner at the box office. Quite apart from the lessons Kubrick taught Steven Spielberg and George Lucas about style and content in making space "cowboy" epics, had it not been for Space Odyssey, Strange Encounters, E.T., Star Trek, and the Star Wars saga would have been seen as high-risk investments, and might never have been made.
 
The one thing HAL feared most--a screwdriver.
Several months ago I created a list of the Top Ten American Movies of All Time. Despite what I said above about Space Odyssey being Kubrick's greatest masterpiece, I chose to list Dr. Strangelove instead (number nine on the list). The seeming conflict in even my own opinion (critics have argued between the two films for years) is in comparing the content of Kubrick's filmography, one to another, as opposed to comparing Kubrick's films in general to every other American film ever made. Visually and thematically, Space Odyssey hovers head and shoulders over Kubrick's black-and-white, low-budget, cold-war farce. Even so, it's a tough call. However, I would deem Dr. Strangelove as the more "important" of the two, both in terms of its sociopolitical message and certainly, it's entertainment value. Moreover, Strangelove is fun to watch. Space Odyssey isn't.

The slender, monolithic thread that tied it all together.
 

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