Monday, September 3, 2018

Kubrick Watch: 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968)

Watched:  09/02/2018
Format:  4K restoration at Alamo Slaughter
Viewing:  8th?  9th?  10th?
Decade:  1960s

I was born in 1975 and even as a very small kid, I recall he references to 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) that permeated the pop culture landscape, by the time I arrived and became modestly self-aware.  Back then a lot of those nods filtered through the lens of the disco era and America's joyful embrace of making everything just terribly cheesy come 1978 or so - if you've ever seen 1970's TV, which was variety shows and whatnot, and K-Tel records, you know what I mean.  And I did (and still do, as I am the keeper of the family vinyl collection) have a record containing the classical music which scored the film.

But if you grew up in the 1970's, people were still very keen on the future.  Technology, robotics, space travel, etc... was constantly pitched at us and how it would improve our lives.  It was pretty common you'd buy a book on, say, robots and it would be a mix of "here's C3PO" and "robots are now painting cars in factories" and "in the future you'll have a robot butler".  So any time you looked at a book on transportation or space, it was littered with imagery of 2001.  I grew up simply believing that the time table was off, but this antispectic airport living in space was our future.  And I was *fine* with that.  (And because I read severely dated books on atomic energy from my school library, I also firmly believed in the power of the atom and that nuclear fuel was just around the corner.  Behold: I am the walking example of "a cynic is just a disappointed romantic").

In the wake of 2001, sci-fi couldn't quite sort out what it was, especially as Star Wars arrived on the scene, and so I also grew up in the era with the heavily 2001-influenced Star Trek the Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

1984 saw the arrival of the Arthur C. Clarke approved 2010: The Year We Make Contact which The Admiral decided we needed to see, and I still remember standing in line to buy tickets when somehow it came up that we'd never seen 2001 and he sort of shrugged, not wanting to miss 2010, and said "I'm sure it will make sense."   It did not.  At least until my dad filled in some major gaps on the way home.  But, hey, I did see Helen Mirren in something and that ain't all bad.  Oh, and Roy Scheider was terrific, as always.

Then in the summer, I think after 8th grade, my brother and The Admiral rented 2001: A Space Odyssey in order to rectify the "no, we've never seen 2001" problem as my dad saw it - but I was out doing something with my friends, and came home after they'd already watched it.  So, after everyone else went to bed, I popped it in the VHS player and...  man...  I was not at all prepared.  I basically made it to the "the monolith is screeching at Jupiter" sequence, maybe five more minutes, and went to bed, my head awhirl.  The next morning, Jason joined me and we finished it off before the tape was due back at the rental shop.

With 2010 already in my mind, I *sort* of got 2001 on the first viewing.  Sort of.  I knew I'd seen something extraordinary, and it felt much closer to the scant sci-fi I read than other movies I watched.  But mostly I embraced the ambiguities and abstractions as an alien experience - admittedly not understanding the source of HAL's malfunction until college.

Of course when we hit the year 2000 and 2001, us Gen-X'ers made a lot of jokes about "where are our flying cars?" and "where's our jetpack future?"  We had, after all, grown up with the promise of space exploration and the curve of American futures leaning toward space travel and other glories that would reach down to middle class folks like ourselves.  All of which, of course, exploded with the Challenger and the slow bleeding of the space program.

At this point in time, I assume 2001 is just part of the canon for the kids the way it was for us.  Of course, 2001 is the distant past for today's young adults and what 2001 brought to movie screens has been so absorbed by other media, I am unsure what they see when they see this movie - or if - in a world of niche "fandoms", there's a common canon to even get them to refer to a movie that once was a shibboleth of modern American culture.

Stuart had been going off on how excited he was to see 2001 at the local IMAX, and I'd been lazy and not purchased tickets to see it myself.  And, frankly, (as I was telling him) they show the movie a few times a year, it seems, on the big screen in Austin - either the Paramount, AFS or Alamo find a reason to do so and have since I was in college.  But I don't think I'd seen it since college, and with the 4K un-restoration (whatever the hell that was on about) I decided to take it in.

And it was fully worth it.  I don't need to see you on 2001, I think, and if you haven't seen it - do so.  Preferably at the cinema.

As worthwhile as I've found the viewing experience on television in a variety of delivery methods,  it really is a uniquely cinematic experience - something that views a bit differently when you're in a darkened theater with a gigantic screen in front of you, dominating your field of vision.  If - after however many viewings, articles read about, over coffee discussions regarding, and having had read the novel - the movie is now far less an abstraction than upon those early viewings.  But the movie remains visually stunning, a brilliant technical achievement, and - of course - narratively, exceeds its ambitions.

This 50th Anniversary tour the film is on is a terrific celebration, but it's also a bit gutting, knowing that American studios can't seem to support the find of filmmaking daring that leads to a 2001 in our modern era.  As much as Bonnie and Clyde represents the sort of risk-taking cinema was making about this same time to show what movies could do that television could not and draw people back to theaters - in our current age of troubled movie theaters and stumbling attendance numbers - can we really imagine something like 2001 hitting today and not being a miserable viewing experience as bored movie goers reached for their phones, chatted and ran home to post blood-curdling fb posts - if anyone turned up at all?  I'm not saying it's on the same level - but Interstellar is maybe a second cousin to this sort of movie making and reviewers absolutely savaged it.  Imagine a film today ending this way and audience reaction?  People would lose their goddamn minds.

In its way, though, the gravitas 2001: A Space Odyssey earned upon its release and which has stuck with it since is as genuine an article as you're like to find.  Not many movies - scifi or otherwise - pull that off.  Not many movies have the guts to drop exposition and dialog in favor of imagery and impressionism and still manage to convey their meaning in quite the same way.  The movie is singular in its ambitions and achievements, full stop.

On a closing note - the movie does answer the question of the Fermi Paradox in perhaps the most satisfying of all ways.  The aliens are out there, and they're waiting, but they've basically set a multi-part puzzle for us to solve before we can begin our discussion, or the conversation won't make any sense, anyway.  And that, alone, is the sort of way we should be thinking of seeking and striving - that we need to keep reaching forward instead of turning inward and upon ourselves. 

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