Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Movies of My Life #3

Note: I hadn't intended to post a third "Movies of My Life" piece so soon, but the recent passing of Arthur C. Clarke prompted me to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey yet again. However, I feel woefully underqualified to eulogize Clarke, not having read any of his work other than The Sentinel, the short story that inspired Kubrick's film. So instead of trying, I'd like to instead post my thoughts about the film itself. My apologies, Mr. Clarke, and rest in peace.

When I was 5 or 6, I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. This being in the couple of years prior to the Challenger disaster, I would always try to watch whenever the Space Shuttle liftoffs were televised. But what really captured my imagination were the children's books about space. I couldn't tell you the titles, but I do remember seeing the pictures of space stations and rocket ships and colonies on the moon, and my heart jumped in excitement. It blew my mind that there was another world out there besides our own. What I didn't know at the time was that these books were fantasy- I assumed that since there were other planets in the universe, we lived on them much in the same way we did on Earth. But fantasy or not, it mattered little- I wanted to go into space.

Eventually, that dream gave way to other lofty, short-lived dreams, which in turn gave way to much less ambitious ones. In the meantime, I watched movies, some of which were science fiction. It wasn't until my 8th grade year that I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on video, and after that first viewing I didn't like it all that well. But of course I didn't- having grown up on Star Wars and Star Trek had given me concrete ideas of what science fiction was, and 2001 didn't fit the bill. It was too slow, too quiet, and the last twenty minutes lost me altogether. I would imagine that it's this way for most people who see 2001 for the first time.

Yet there was something indeniably impressive about the movie. First off, the effects were mindblowing- I had a hard time believing the movie was made nearly a decade before Star Wars. And several sequences worked very well for me, particularly the first post-intermission sequence in which HAL takes his revenge. My respect for the film grew over time, and when I finally was able to see it again- on the big screen this time- I wondered how I could have missed so much the first time around. No longer an inaccessible piece of Art, it was now an object of endless fascination.

2001 is practically unique among Hollywood films in that it doesn't merely benefit from multiple viewings, but requires them. Kubrick famously challenged Arthur C. Clarke to help him make the proverbial "good science fiction film", and the big reason why the film can be so hard to digest on the first go-round is because it becomes so easy to get hung up on what 2001 isn't to appreciate what it is. It isn't until we've had our palates cleansed, so to speak, that we can finally approach it afresh.

Since then, I've seen the movie more than just about any other, watching it at least once a year on VHS or, later, DVD, and catching it on the big screen every time it comes to town. One reason why it holds up so well is because Kubrick refuses to pin down the story to any single discernible theme. Over the years, I've viewed the film through the prisms of various pet theories, usually of my own formulation. For example, I remember a time during my college years when I was obsessed with the idea that the entire Jupiter mission was a birth metaphor, with the Discovery being a penis, the "time slot" a vagina, and the hotel room the uterus. I remember being especially proud of myself for coming up with this without any help, as if the fact that the film ends with the birth of the Star Child wasn't clue enough for me to figure it out.

When I watched the film again tonight, what really stuck out this time was Kubrick's use of horizontal and vertical axes in the film. Time and again Kubrick portrays the characters' humdrum behavior on a horizontal plan, from the pre-humans in the Dawn of Man sequence scurrying back and forth, to the way Kubrick frames Frank as he jugs around the crew quarters as the camera pans laterally. Even the frame itself- the film is shot in Panavision and Cinerama- accentuates the horizontal plane.

Whenever an object is completely vertical in the frame, it breaks this comfortable plane and points the way into the great unknown. When the pre-humans first discover the monolith, it stands to defiantly against the landscape that they can't help but be in awe. Hell, it points in such an unfamiliar direction that the top of the monolith is above the top of the frame. Throughout the film, true progress is represented by vertical movement or positioning of an object. This is as true at the beginning of the film (the moon rises over the Earth then the sun rises over the moon) as it is at the end. Consider that the Dave's final act before becoming the Star Child is raising his hand and pointing upward.

Through this technique and many others, Kubrick jolts viewers out of their lazy viewing patters, and one of the common motifs of the movie is the way its human characters too must be shocked out their complacent behavior. One thing that always amuses me when I see 2001 is how nonchalant so many of the characters are about space travel. There's a short scene aboard a moon shuttle in which Dr. Floyd and some of his colleagues are discussing a newly-discovered monolith on the moon. Here are three guys talking about one of the most monumental discoveries in human history- one which by all available evidence "appears to have been deliberately buried" (!)- and they act like it's no big deal. They seem just as concerned with the quality of the sandwiches that were packed for them, and indeed one of the scientists interrupts the discussion to go get some coffee. Then there's the scene when the scientists see the moon monolith for themselves- their first impulse is to pull out the camera and pose for photographs like they're sightseeing. But the monolith won't be ignored, emitting a loud radio shriek that shocks not only the scientists but the audience as well.

2001 comes as close to the idea of "pure cinema" as any movie I've ever seen. Kubrick doesn't do away with dialogue completely, but it's purely functional and meant to help along the human story. Yet it eventually becomes clear that the human story in 2001 is fairly insignificant. If there's a character arc in the film, it's doesn't belong to any one person (or tangible intelligent entity) but to mankind itself, as we see the human race ascend from the apes, and later to help create a new, still more advanced, type of being. All the while we're guided "onward and upward" into the unknown by something larger than us- call it an advanced intelligence or even God- which calls us into space before pulling us, in the film's words, "beyond the infinite."

Truly visionary art has always served much the same purposes as Kubrick's monoliths- to show us the way. Yet I can't help but think of my own fantasies of space flight, which have long since given way to my current great love of cinema. As passionately as I love film, I nonetheless miss the days when I could freely dream without worrying how unrealistic such dreams were. I also worry that as art becomes capable of showing us practically anything, that more people will use it less to facilitate their own dreams than as a means to live vicariously through the dreams of others. After all, the year 2001 has come and gone, and the space station isn't even finished, to say nothing of lunar colonies and manned interplanetary exploration. Is it enough for us to view a big-as-life simulation of something wondrous rather than trying to experience it ourselves? Must we wait to be jolted out of our tiny lives before we see how much more awaits us?

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