Monday, February 04, 2008

Mondays With Stanley - The Ultimate Trip

For Xmas, the girlfriend (thanks, honey!) gave me a spiffy new boxed set with five of director Stanely Kubrick's best films - 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. All have been lovingly transfered to DVD, with remastered sound and amble bonus features. Since they're all epics in their own way, I decided that the best way to work through them was to set aside a day a week to watch a flick. The idea to blog about it only came to me on the way home from work today. Thus, a special two-for-one for our first Monday With Stanley!

If there is a single iconic Kubrick film, it is 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was so different from anything else at the time and really hasn't been matched since. All of the things for which Kubrick sometimes gets slammed - deliberate pacing, underdeveloped characters, a generally cold feel - works to perfection in what has to be the only movie ever to cover hundreds of thousands of years in a fleet 2 hours and 20 minutes. Part of the accomplishment, of course, has to be shared with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, with whom Kubrick developed the screenplay.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up like this - an ancient alien intelligence messed with humanity, wackiness ensues. Well, not "wackiness," exactly, but some fairly weird shit. In the first of the film's three epochs, our ape-like ancestors on the African plain find themselves in the presence of a strange, perfectly smooth, black monolith. A touch of the monolith inspires one of the apes to pick up a bone and start using is at a tool and weapon. In the mother of all cut scenes, the ape flings a bone into the air, where it turns into a satellite circling the earth. The cut to 1999 brings us to another monolith, this time buried under the surface of the moon. After the monolith poots forth an ear-slitting signal of some kind, we cut again - this time to 2001 and aboard the Discovery.

That, believe it or not, is where things really get started. Discovery is on its way to Jupiter to explore the target of the monolith's transmission. Three of its five crewmen are in suspended animation, to be awakened once the ship reaches Jupiter. Two other crew members attend to the ship's functions, as does Discovery's super advanced computer, the HAL 9000. Things go badly, HAL kills one of the living crew members and all the frozen ones (to be fair, in self defense), and the surviving crewman sets out to explore yet another monolith that is orbiting around Jupiter. The last half hour of the film, as he journeys "beyond the infinite," is surreal in the extreme and ends with the birth of a "star child" somewhere near the Earth.

What does it all mean? I have no fucking clue. Kubrick himself may not have, really - as he admitted in a 1968 Playboy interview (via Wikipedia):

You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don't want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he's missed the point.
So if I admit I don't really "get" it and the man who made the movie doesn't want to explain it, then why do I consider 2001 such a great film?

Well, for one thing, it makes such great use of cinema's visual and aural potential. It's a movie that is brief on the "whos" and "whys" - it's got only about 40 minutes worth of dialog in it. If you want more depth on those issues, read Clarke's novel. The movie is a series of brilliantly designed and choreographed visual pieces, perfectly matched with a non-original soundtrack or - in the most effective cases - no sound at all. The contrast between the Romantic-era pieces from Strauss and Brahms and the haunting modern choral pieces by Ligeti are striking. The visual/aural narrative structure is something that could only be done in film.

For another, Kubrick and Clarke got the science right, for the most part. Which isn't just a positive for its own sake, but for the way it helps develop tension. The most intense parts of the film - when things start to go to hell on Discovery - are when the only things you hear are a spare voice here and there, breathing (lots of breathing), and nothing at all. HAL's first homicidal act, for example, is done entirely in silence.

It's also worth noting that for all the ground breaking work done in this film, it was still released by a major studio. It's hard to imagine modern Hollywood getting anywhere near such a different film, even with their quasi-independent indy boutique subsidiaries.

2001 is not for everyone - I'll grant that. But for those who get it, on whatever level, it really is the ultimate trip.

1 comment:

RedZeppelin said...

Roger Ebert touched on one of the great aspects of 2001: it's a movie that is meant to be deliberated over. Kubrick takes his time with every scene, so much so that ADD-challenged viewers of our time would have difficulty sitting through it. Every scene is paced to be savored and experienced, as opposed to force-fed.