A Couple on Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
9Mar/120

A Couple on Kubrick: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

"The last note sounded.  At last it stopped vibrating
and the darkness was still again."
-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury-

"You partook in the miracle of human flight and now you're contributing zero?"
-Louis C.K.-

The early part of my adolescence was spent consuming the stories of Arthur C. Clarke.  I didn't find the same kind of enjoyment in the Lord of the Rings books as a lot of others in my nerdy circle, and instead started off into the realm of science fiction.  There weren't many pulpy novels in my library, though there were quite a few Choose Your Own Adventure books that led to your surrogate on the path to implode in the vacuum of space or liquified your insides.  I was drawn to Clarke because of a the image of a man fading into blue against a black monolith.

That image was filled with interesting possibilities, the idea of something noncorporeal beyond ourselves and the inescapable fact everything goes into the void.  Nowadays it feels we're growing less interested in pondering the infinite since it means taking a good hard look at our shadows.  They'll fade along with the same markings we leave on trees for our loved ones, or the next Apple product you have to buy.  Instead of wonder, we're faced with the cynical reality of technological consumption, the cycle of which is growing faster by the minute.

2001: A Space Odyssey was a meeting of two great minds who held vast mutual respect for each other and a deep cynicism about human evolution and achievement.  Both were staunch atheists, Clarke because of his interest in science and Stanley Kubrick on a more philosophical level.  They teased each other into working together, and their partnership blossomed into one of the mainstream anachronisms of film history, a nearly silent light show of evolution and fate.  Their version of humanity is one that never felt the wonder of flight, and based on their interactions never seemed to feel any kind of wonder at all, just a neverending cycle of reproduction and mild advancement.

Sometimes a partnership just gets the look and feel of each other's styles just right.  Clarke's original short story, The Sentinel, as well as his work on Rendezvous With Rama, revealed a deep love for the devoted professional.  For someone as staunch and strict with every frame of his films as Kubrick was, this was a perfect match.  For much of 2001 we see the professionals at their work, either in the distant past doing the very basic things needed for survival, or in the present day where it's always off to the next job for our characters.  Reality is work, and even when faced with the simple wonder of his child one astronaut can barely muster a bemused smile, because it's off to the next "unknown" soon to be ruined with facts and investigation.

Both Clarke and Kubrick have gone on record by saying they didn't really know what 2001 was supposed to represent, exactly, but stagnation in evolution is one of the most interesting anachronisms in the film.  The humanity of the present day may not be interested in using the tools of the monolith to wreak further violence on each other, but have long since lost the desire to use it as a means of self-improvement.  It takes the computer, HAL, a tool whose intelligence has surpassed their own, to actually ask the philosophical questions of existence and wonder if humanity is really worth preserving into the next generation or if we all deserve to join the eternal ash.

This is where most of my fascination with 2001 is, and also where my problems with the film begin.  As a technical exercise there is no better Kubrick film.  He won his only Oscar for the special effects he used, blending a careful ballet of weightlessness and mass into scenes of careful beauty.  But those opening moments reveal the blase personalities at place in the humanity of 2001,or an outright hypocritical stance to the idea we can get better.  One of the greatest ironies of the opening jolt of the soundtrack, that eternal moment when Also Sprach Zarathustra bursts into our ears, is that note of triumph comes from early man's discovery of how to better kill.  Then we evolve into a way of being bored with amazing technology, as humans can sleep through the amazing feat of surviving in space.

I never got the sense that there was anything beyond the veil for Dr. Bowman.  He may evolve to another state of consciousness at the end, or at least inspires the birth of a new species, but it was all at the whims of another intelligence we can never hope to understand.  Film serves as an unconscious reflection of the sum existence of its creators, and this is one of the most cynical universes I have experienced.  Humanity has no say in its own evolution, even Dr. Bowman's decision to go on existing at the end of time is one he was forced into by the unseen forces which drive the monolith.  The star baby watches Earth from a distance instead of doing anything else, we have evolved from violence, to apathy, and finally complete inaction.

There is no doubt 2001 is an absolute masterpiece, but this coldness and isolation which comes from completely embracing this philosophical nihilism has resulted in a number of hostile reactions.  Some recanted their stance in order to save face, but my favorite response to the near-universal praise the film has received comes from Pauline Kael.  Of Kubrick's masterpiece, she had to say "2001 is a celebration of a cop-out.  It says man is just a tiny nothing on the stairway to paradise, something better is coming, and it's all out of your control anyway."  I find little in my own reading of 2001 to suggest she's wrong though there are many who feel otherwise.

It's important to weather through 2001 because there are few distillations of a philosophic ideal so subtley put into film as they are here.  I don't have to agree with the philosophy, but I do need to challenge myself with it every few years.

With that, I will now tap out.  Feeling a little spaced out over there love?

Perhaps not as spaced as Dr. Poole, sweetie, but I do feel rather overwhelmed. This is my first foray into the entire movie, though I saw the part where Dr. Bowman travels into the Jupiter monolith and proceeds to enter the void and find himself in the midst of a recreation of the Big Bang (reminiscent of ink in water) and proceeds to encounter the epitome of 1980s computer aesthetics (but with more colors) to only then land on another planet with super saturated color filter reminiscent of 1990s music video aesthetics.

I know I'm focusing on aesthetics more than content right now, but considering how much work went into the look of the movie, which earned Kubrick his only Oscar (which was for Visual Effects), it's hard not to focus on them. The scenes of space ships floating through space are breathtaking, and the knowledge that those scenes were created through practical effects not only makes them more impressive, but also solidifies my stance of “Practical effects are still great.”

Yet what really caught my eye was the use of color, specifically of warm and cool colors. When we start the movie at the Dawn of Man, we see fire reds in the sky for the dawn and for the arrival of the monolith (though it is not seen yet at that point) and warm uncaring orange deserts that are home to the early hominids. When we see HAL, he is a red eye and a large computer that is completely red. When the pod is about to land on the moon for the discovery of the recently excavated monolith, the moon is bathed in blue whereas the astronauts in the pod are bathed in red. The space station is colorful, but most of the colors are on the cool side of the respective color spectrum (save for HAL). In 2001, warm colors are used to signify the excitement and horror of discovery. Sure, we have a computer that is smarter than humans; but what happens when that now technological discovery turns to an omnipresent monster? Dr. Bowman must shut down HAL in an iconic scene with a monochromatic.

The cool colors are for tranquility and the apathy that come from conquering the discovery (if it does not turn to horror first). Using your example, the humans are completely content and oblivious to the point of apathy towards the fascinating space station with its zero gravity toilets and its colorful yet sterile 1960s retrofuturistic look. Using another of your examples, one space station inhabitant is using a video communication device, which is pretty impressive for 2012 (it was used in Moon, which came out in 2009), and he can barely muster any feeling besides begrudging attention.

My color theory works until Dr. Bowman enters the Jupiter monolith (sans iconic phrase). All colors are thrown on screen in a dizzying and beautiful array. It does not mean the color theory is wrong necessarily, but it meets a similar fate to Dr. Bowman’s view of humanity within the universe (that being the limitation of measurement using anything regarding human parameters as a measurement of success and finality).

With that out of the way, the idea of a cynical view of humanity and the universe is not only sound, but completely supported on my end. Sure, someone watching the movie could take the completely opposite approach, saying that human being were nothing but animals until the being from the stars gave them knowledge, and humans became apathetic in spite of owing everything to said being from the stars (full of them in fact), and those humans will not achieve their full potential until meeting again with the being from the stars, ultimately leaving behind a terrestrial form and achieving its highest form of being. Do I think that’s correct? Not a chance.

Every shot of the space station floating in the endless void further signifies man’s ultimate insignificant presence in the grand scheme of the universe. Tiny space stations, tiny space pods, tiny dying astronauts in yellow space suits, tiny specks of infinitesimal irrelevancy. Man evolved from primal violent creatures, but man is also limited to terrestrial matters (most pressing being the body), and will not be the pinnacle of evolution of life (represented beautifully by the end scene of Dr. Bowman in the alien zoo).

I have to say that for all the primal hominid beatings, the floating space stations accompanied by classical music, and the Technicolor voyage into the monolith (complete with gestation symbolism), the part that sticks with me the most is the end scene. It is so short and yet says so much about what the authors saw of humanity and its place in the stream of life. We are beings trapped in a constructed world while our limited life span quickly exhausts itself, which cleverly represented by Dave turning around and seeing an older version of himself, and that older version of himself sees an even older version of himself, until Dr. Bowman is a dying old man in a bed, staring into the vast expanse of the universe and the unknown, knowing his humanity is only a stepping stone at best for the ultimate life form.

With all of that said, I think we can all agree that one of the best things to come from this movie is Homer flying around his space station eating the floating potato chips.

Next week we tackle A Clockwork Orange and struggle not to make mention of a prominent appendage which takes center stage.

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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