Sunday, May 17, 2009

467 - Play It Again #14 - 2001: A Space Odyssey

It's a good thing that I kept most of Scott Cawelti's handouts. In the event that I teach film one day, his material will serve as an invaluable aid for the teaching of film. But that shouldn't be too much of a surprise: Scott has taught film at the University of Northern Iowa for over 40 years, nearly double my entire lifetime. Hardly a day has gone by where I haven't applied something I learned in one of his courses to my own study and analysis of the medium. In addition to his storied career as a professor, Scott has long written editorials for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, inflaming the nerves of local conservatives with devastating critiques of all things right. He is currently working on a book about a grisly Cedar Falls murder that saw one of his high school classmates sent to prison for life.

Scott's entry is on "2001: A Space Odyssey," Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi masterpiece about the evolution of man from the earth to the stars.

From a traditional cinematic perspective, Kubrick’s magnum opus does almost everything wrong. Its lead villain amounts a super-computer in the form of a glowing red light (“HAL”) that speaks in a mechanistic monotone. Yet HAL’s dialog seems sparkling beside the engineerese of its human characters as they fight boredom on their interminable voyage to Jupiter. “2001” may be one of the few films ever made that captures how little humans have to do on a long space voyage. How do you show boredom without being boring? Kubrick makes no attempt to solve that problem. Hence it’s one of the few really great films that are downright boring at times.

Kubrick’s human characters, only one of whom survives HAL’s attack, seek to discover the meaning of a rectangular monolith, which looks for all the world like a slab of granite countertop. How’s that for an exciting alien? Not a single threatening or even humanoid feature. This utterly pedestrian object seems to have somehow influenced the very evolution of humanity from its earliest savage pre-history to development of weaponry to advanced space technology. Without the monolith’s “guidance,” the film seems to show, humanity would still be huddling in caves, or more likely, extinct. Now that’s an interesting premise, and certainly raises a theological issue or two.

Hang on, it’s not God in that slab, but something far more mysterious and—malevolent? Beneficent? Some combination? Kubrick and his co-creator, Arthur C. Clark, don’t seem inclined to reveal more than the bizarre “fact” of extraterrestrial origins in the form of a slab as a plot premise. This space epic has all the earmarks of a pretentious cinematic muddle.

Yet it’s one of the most fascinating and unforgettable films ever made. It becomes so after a couple of viewings, and more so after multiple viewings, though I’ll admit that multiple viewings take perseverance. It’s the very antithesis of an action/adventure film, but it challenges viewers both visually and intellectually like few films have ever.

What does “Beyond Infinity” in the title of the final sequence refer to? What happens to the surviving human after his wild ride into the force field of Jupiter and his jump-cut aging into a dying man, then into a space-fetus or “star child,” seemingly gazing down at the earth? What does all this say about humanity and our divine aspirations? The film defies rational analysis, making it all the more engaging.

Unfortunately, “2001” works best on the largest possible screen. I saw it after its first release in 1968 on a standard screen masked as wide as possible for a “Cinerama” viewing. Even that large theater screen seemed cramped for what Kubrick wanted to show, and watching it for years on a standard 4:3 TV screen or in letterbox was all but a travesty. Few viewers ever get the chance to see it as Kubrick intended, in a 70mm theater screen format.

Even so, that single cut from the slow-mo tumbling thigh-bone to the massive space station, floating freely against the stars to the strains of a Strauss waltz still gives me shivers. Even for the nth time, and even on the small screen. - Scott Cawelti

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