Thursday, April 03, 2008

2001: It Is What It Is

Last night, I observed the 40th anniversary of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's original release by watching it for the first time (in its entirety) in Blu-ray. I intend to write a fuller review of the disc for VW, but seeing the movie in this ideal home format brought back vivid memories of its 70mm majesty, which I first experienced in the mid-1970s.
Warner's Blu-ray disc is magnificent, the first video medium to properly deliver the antiseptic essence of Kubrick, but even with a 60" Pioneer Elite monitor, a new amplifier and five Bose speakers, there remain areas where the translation of the 70mm experience to disc falls conspicuously short. I miss the gigantic curved screen, but I particularly found myself noticing that the both the DD and LPCM 5.1 audio failed to replicate the discrete audio separations of the 70mm six-track sound. It's most noticeable aboard the space station, where the sounds of paging announcements are pushed to the front of the 5.1 surround image, rather than sounding truly ambient and separated from the spoken dialogue. As wonderful as this disc may be, Kubrick's mastery of cinema, at least in the case of this film, remains ultimately exclusive to theatrical experience -- which is, I suppose, how it should be.
I include 2001 on my list of Top Ten favorites. My primary reason for this is its ultimate unknowability and openness to interpretation, which I feel separates it from the majority of films and places it among our greatest objects of art. Watching it again, perhaps because of the anniversary circumstances, my attention was particularly riveted to the black monolith, which not only heralds three stages of man's advancement -- from animal to thinking creature, from earthbound man to space explorer, from man to Starchild -- but may also be the catalyst behind these metamorphoses. Kubrick and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth take great care to have these graduational moments coincide, compositionally, with an exact alignment of the monolith with our moon, the sun, and other planets -- a harmonic convergence, to use a phrase that came well after the film's release. I've known people who hate the film because they claim it makes no sense, or because they find it godless, but I've always questioned why art should have to make complete sense in a world that none of us fully understands, and I have always recognized a form of godliness in the film's moments of celestial alignment; a kind of mathematic intelligence whose benign quality is expressed through a pleasing symmetry.
This symmetry doesn't begin and end with the three appearances of the monolith. The film itself is presented as three chapters or segments. The story also encompasses three birthdays, beginning with that of Heywood Floyd's daughter (sorry, Squirt, Daddy's travelling), repeating with the birthday greeting sent by Frank Poole's parents (alienation), and finally with Dave Bowman rebirth as the Starchild (the final shedding of human skin). There's a similar recurrence of references to liquid refreshment: the two warring ape tribes in "The Dawn of Man" are fighting over a watering hole, control of which leads one ape to commit the first murder; then, in the Howard Johnson Earthlight Room aboard the space station, a group of Russian scientists engage Dr. Floyd in polite but pointed conversation about the US government's secrecy concerning a rumored epidemic outbreak on Clavius, a tense dialogue between divided nations once again unfolding over Floyd's refusal to share drinks; and late in the film, Bowman, while dining alone in some kind of alien zoo recreation of 19th century earthly environment, accidentally knocks over a crystal water glass, breaking it. The monolith's appearances also find counterpart in the final scenes of Bowman, who, after travelling through a black hole (or "stargate") above Jupiter, arrives in captivity and spies a future tense of himself, who then replaces his younger self in the present moment... until he catches another glimpse of a future self that, once again, assumes his place to carry the narrative one more leap into the future. He sees as many stages of himself as we see appearances of the monolith, the threads ultimately coming together (aligning) in the moment when the monolith appears at the foot of Bowman's bed like a doorway to the mysteries awaiting us all.
These are just my thoughts of the moment, and I may have different ones the next time I see 2001. There have been times when I've watched it and found it very funny, which wasn't the case last night. (Has anyone else ever watched 2001 and wondered how differently it might have played had HAL 9000 been voiced by Woody Allen?) There have also been times when I've paid very close attention to the elliptic storyline and other times when I've let the experience wash over me like music. It's one of those rare films that grows and changes apace with us as we move through life.
If there is anything about 2001 that I feel should not be open to interpretation, that should be evident to everyone regardless of how well they understand the picture, it's that it was the creation not only of a genius but of something rarer still: a truly colossal artist. I don't think it is an exaggeration to place Kubrick on equal footing with Michelangelo, and the ways in which 2001 has enabled later generations to better interpret the universe and design the ships we sail into it may place him on a par with the likes of Galileo and da Vinci.
And herein lies my big thought about 2001, based on last night's viewing, which is that the film, in its own oblique way, is the black monolith. (On disc, what we see for the first several minutes of overture music is a black screen of comparable proportions.) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is something that suddenly appeared in theaters back in April 1968, that wasn't immediately a hit (certainly not with critics) but which happened to coincide with searching trends in art and music, science and cinema -- another harmonic convergence -- and gradually attracted a cult of viewers determined to have the experience and have it again from the very first row. (And this first generation of fans was, as it happens, quite hairy.) It inspired many people to become filmmakers, many more to become special effects technicians and model builders, and no doubt many more still to become scientists, physicists, astronauts.
Time has revealed Kubrick's masterpiece to be a kind of celluloid enzyme, a herald of our graduation as a species, the epicenter of a cultural force that changed the very face of our planet. It lives on as a kind of moveable milestone, a touchstone that we can revisit throughout our lives to keep track of how much we have grown or remained the same. If the black monolith represents an inscrutable source prompting quantum leaps in human growth and discovery, I ask you, what film better fills that definition than 2001?

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