Monday, September 3, 2012

A Look Back At Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"

 Over the past few years, I have found myself watching fewer and fewer movies.  I hardly ever go to the movie theater anymore and though I have a Netflix account and subscribe to HBO, I rarely use those mediums to watch a film.  I really would like to get better about watching movies, but there is only so much time in the day and I suppose I just need to stop thinking about it and just do it. 

I moved to Maryland a few weeks ago and started a new job.  I’ve been living with my brother and his family while I try to arrange a living situation of my own, which will hopefully land me in the Bethesda area.  One of the things I am most excited about is living in an area with so much to do.  Yesterday represented the first time I took advantage of that reality and I headed to the movies with some friends to watch a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center.  The theater itself is structured in an old-fashioned style with large stadium seating and a stage complete with drawn curtains.  The theater’s website describes its role as such:

“Increasingly, our notions about history, human relationships, scientific exploration, psychology and art are influenced by watching movies. The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center examines this phenomenon by presenting an unprecedented variety of film and video programming, augmented by filmmaker interviews, panels, discussions, musical performances and other events that place the art on-screen in a broader cultural context, while amplifying its power to engage and affect an audience.”

In more simple terms, this place rules.  I picked up a pamphlet of its events while there and was blown away by the scope.  They're currently holding a variety of events including series of spy films, classic 80’s films, and Stanley Kubrick films.  In most places in this country you can only see current releases on the big screen, but here you can revisit old favorites and classics for a relatively reasonable price of $11.  So when my friend Josh invited me along to view this classic on the big screen in 70mm I couldn’t pass it up.  I had seen it before, several times actually, but there is just something about seeing a film on the big screen that makes it all the more special, especially one as grandiose and awe-inspiring as this one.  It is also worth noting that midway through the film, the curtains started to close and the theater actually held a ten minute intermission, which was awesome timing for me and my bladder.  The whole idea is something so antiquated that you forget that this was commonplace back in the day.  I for one think that’s something we should bring back.

I first saw 2001 while I was in college.  I had just watched the television special on the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films of all time.  At that time I realized there were so many classic films that I had never seen before and I was intrigued by the interviews that were given by such prominent actors, directors, producers, and critics during the special that I decided to delve into some of the top films they listed that I had never seen.  So I rented 2001 and watched it in my dorm room on a very small screen.  And I was confused as all get out. 

Like many others who see this film for the first time, I found it slow, boring, and perplexing.  There seemed to be a great meaning behind the four parts the movie is divvied up into but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was.  The only part that I felt like I had some grasp on was the segment on the Jupiter Mission with the notorious artificial intelligence villain, Hal.  This was at least a somewhat familiar plotline where man creates a super computer, which may or may not have feelings, and it goes out of control and eventually turns on man.  Yep, seen that before, or at least some inception of it: Frankenstein, Terminator, Short Circuit.......well…….OK……Johnny 5 never turned on Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy, but damn if he wasn’t as alive as you and me I don’t know what is.  Anyway, other than that 45 minute segment, I was at a loss.  But I did very much enjoy that segment, particularly the famous scene where Dave learns that Hal has turned on him.

In the years since this initial viewing, I saw more Kubrick films and became more familiar with his style.  He often uses wide shots that just sit with the characters for painstakingly long times.  The dialogue he writes is very deliberate, drawn out, and ordinary.  His attention to detail is unparalleled and when you read stories about how many takes he’d order to get every last detail right in even the shortest of scenes, it’s a wonder he finished even one film, let alone the thirteen that he did.  So with my increased exposure to his films I became more patient as I watched them, and I can now say that I think he is easily one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

2001 is one of those films that the more you watch it, the better it gets.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this movie in the theater when it was first released in 1968.  The visual and special effects must have been awe-inspiring at the time and despite the fact that hardly anyone knew what it was all about, they probably could have put that all aside and just reveled in the audio and visual effects that permeated the film.  That was something I thought about frequently while sitting through this viewing.  Even by today’s standards, the film doesn’t seem all that dated.  The effects hold up very nicely for the most part and the times when you really see the 60’s come through are not so much with the scenes of outer space or the planets or the spacecrafts (however, the transport vessel labeled "Pan American" is quite humorous) but rather with the scenes shot inside the facilities and with the dress of the actors and the set props themselves.

Seeing this movie in the theater helped reinforce how great it is.  Yeah, there’s not much dialogue, and many of the scenes are dragged out, but it still manages to engage and excite you in a way that few other films can.  Take one of the most dramatic scenes in which Hal attacks and kills one of the two main astronauts, Frank.  Where most films would use music and sound effects in prominent ways to accentuate the tension and immediacy of such an event, Kubrick only uses the sounds of the oxygen tank and the breaths taken by Frank as his score.  After the deed is complete, there is only silence.  With the oxygen tank severed and the fact that Frank is no longer breathing, all that’s left is the vastness and absolute silence of deep space.  And it's utterly terrifying. While seeing this transpire on the big screen, I fully realized how gripping, suspenseful, and fantastically brilliant this style was.  Kubrick takes such pains to fully involve the viewer and to place him in the same environment the characters are in.  Just try and watch this film and not have your breathing be affected by it in some way.  It’s such a simple approach, but is immensely effective.  

I won’t go into the whole monolith/evolution/infinity theme that lies at the heart of the film, as that would serve no purpose (I still am not sure what the true meaning here is) and would only take up much more space in an entry that has probably already gone further than necessary.  Kubrick himself avoided any sort of explanation of the film’s meaning and wanted each viewer to interpret the film for himself.  For many, this aproach is alienating and turns them away from any meaningful discussion.  After all, people do not like ambiguity and want to have the questions answered in films so watching something like this will frustrate the majority of the movie-watching public.  I have mixed feelings on this.  On one hand I do like movies that force you to think and come up with your own conclusions, but on the other hand I feel that this film almost has too much ambiguity.  And when you talk to someone who knows a lot about it or you read articles dissecting the film itself, the answers you get are fairly general and ambiguous themselves.  But when you really think about it, in a film that addresses the extraordinarily complex topic of the origin, scope, and future of the universe and mankind, how can one honestly tackle this without laying some heavy ambiguity on it?  In the end, that is probably the largest reason this film has resonated so much over the years.

As a final side note, while watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think back to my collegiate days when I was working at the box office of the theater we had on campus.  I basically took phone orders for tickets to a variety of shows we’d have throughout the year.  There was one performance that came through that starred Keir Dullea, the very same actor who played the main role of Dave in 2001.  This was shortly after I watched the movie so I knew who he was.  For many of the performances, the groups would hold brief rehearsals during the day and I happened to be working on a rehearsal day for the play in which Dellea was starring.  Midway through my shift, I excused myself and headed for the bathroom.  A few seconds after I arrived Dullea walked up to the urinal next to me and did his thing.  You’ll be happy to know that I didn’t say anything to him (because what an awful time and place to do such a thing) but I do recall thinking to myself how cool it was that I was peeing next to Dave from 2001.  I’ve lived in a lot of different places and have had many different experiences but to this day, Keir Dullea is the only famous person I’ve ever peed next to.


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