Return of the Monolith

Born again: The Star Child of Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey'
Warner Bros.

Last year, in what so far must be counted as the cinematic crime of the new century, Warner Bros. declined to give a wide rerelease to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one great film famously associated with--indeed, named for--the onset of the third millennium. Considering that 2001 was an enormous hit in its day (1968), and might have been expected to do significant business in a decently promoted revival (which, in fact, Kubrick had been preparing at the time of his death), the oversight seemed to bespeak commercial callousness rather than calculation. That the film is now creeping around the country in new 70mm prints (one of which will play at the Heights for three weeks starting Friday), with near-zero promotional support from Warners, is more than just a shameful case of too little, too late; in effect, it's one entertainment conglomerate's rebuke to the way Kubrick challenged, as he termed it in a 1968 interview, "our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than a visual work of art."

At the time, that was a strikingly novel, even radical notion--especially since the mode of "visual art" indicated was of the elegantly opaque, high-modernist variety, and the film containing it was no atelier-born European miniature but a hugely budgeted, Hollywood-backed sci-fi spectacular. In the context of the U.S. film industry, you had to look back to the idiosyncratic silent-era epics Intolerance and Greed to glimpse such breathtaking auteurist ambition, and neither of those films could boast the record earnings that were the icing on Kubrick's cryptic, cosmic cake. In that sense, as in many others, 2001 stood as a case apart, a work that rechanneled film history (especially in pushing the auteur idea into the American mainstream) while itself remaining outside every conventional channel, an anomaly even in the career of its chameleonic maker.

I will admit a personal concern for the film and its ongoing public career: 2001 was the first movie I reviewed at length--writing, in early 1969, as a 17-year-old high school senior in the student paper. Rereading that review now--it is on the desk in front of me--I am struck, first, by its air of distanced restraint. In truth, 2001 blew me away when I encountered it a few months earlier, in the same grand old Southern movie palace where my family had dutifully attended The Sound of Music three years before. Why didn't I mount a full-throttle rave of the film? One reason, no doubt, is that for once I was less enthralled by my own views than I was awed by the cyclone of opinion that 2001 kicked up as soon as it met the world, and that followed it thereafter.

The movie was, as I said, hugely successful at the box office. Yet news reports of the time revealed equally passionate defenders and detractors, with a sizable contingent of the just-plain-baffled in between. As to how a film that wasn't overwhelmingly liked became overwhelmingly well-attended: 2001 was the first grand cinematic evocation of America's race into outer space, which climaxed the following year when Neil Armstrong's boot hit the lunar surface. Still, this was hardly the movie to explain to Uncle Hank and Aunt Jenny why millions of their tax dollars were being shot into the stratosphere. On the contrary, its aims and textures had more in common with the cerebral psychedelia of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the literate, allusive symbol-mongering of European films such as Antonioni's Blow Up, Bergman's Persona, Fellini's 8-1/2, and others.

If the connecting thread here was one of sensibility, the main dividing line, in terms of audiences, was age. Quite simply, 2001 was a phenomenon among my peers, the 15-to-30-year-olds, whether they were drawn to its intimations of T.S. Eliot or to their own early experiences with LSD--or, not uncommonly, to both. The film's loudest, most querulous naysayers, meanwhile, were from the older set, and they included much of the New York critical establishment: Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Pauline Kael, Renata Adler in the New York Times, Judith Crist, Stanley Kauffmann, et al.

Today the difference of opinion that surrounded the film (and still does) strikes me as one of its notable attributes. 2001 was not born to be a settled, consensus masterpiece like, say, Citizen Kane. Rather, it is a volatile, protean monument, as mysterious in its effects as the black monolith at its center. Indeed, it would be fascinating to plumb the intellectual and emotional differences that led one viewer (then or now) to "get" the film and another to spurn it. The reticence of my initial review, in any case, reflected the unusual sense that all of these views were, in their own ways, correct and valuable; and that the film's achievement lies less in any objective standard than in the kaleidoscopic "thought about 2001" that it generated, and goes on generating.  

As I look back now, the thing that seems most obtuse about the New York critics' negative reviews was the extent to which they ignored the film's astonishing visual surface. Calling 2001 "ponderous," "slow," "overlong," or "pretentious" was one thing. But how could anyone, any critic, ignore that the film--in terms of its stylistic articulation, expressed in everything from Geoffrey Unsworth's photography to the innovative production design and special effects--was a quantum leap beyond anything the cinema had seen before? Granted, some of these qualities have since been surpassed, and technical changes have meant that others haven't survived the passage of time unscathed. (Today's print stocks render the colors with too much saturation and heaviness.) Yet the overarching brilliance of Kubrick's design still retains the power to amaze.


Seeing the film again after nearly 30 years, I was struck, too, by the unity that Kubrick's vision brings to the story's four movements, which, tonally speaking, are quite disparate. The initial "Dawn of Man" sequence, a peek at humanity's ape ancestors four million years ago, plays like the subtlest parody of a National Geographic special; the lunar mission of Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) coolly balances wonder at 21st-century space flight with a satiric take on the routine banalities of the human future; the unfolding battle of wills between astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the HAL-9000 computer, as they hurtle toward Jupiter on a mission to discover the source of mysterious radio signals, injects a passage of torturously intimate, almost marital drama (cf. Kubrick's The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut); and, finally, the interstellar light show and eerie transformation of Bowman into an old man, and then (apparently) into a newborn "Star Child," pushes conventional screen narrative to its "experimental"/apophatic breaking point, giving expressive form to the all-but-inexpressible.

But what does all of this mean? At the age of 17, I was too dazzled by the myriad possibilities of the film to do anything other than endorse Kubrick's unarguable assertion that every viewer can supply his or her own interpretation. Now, I'm more inclined to share a few of the thoughts that decades of musing on 2001 have left me with.

First, a bit of perspective that, surprisingly, was seldom a part of the original discussions of the film: Whatever else transpires in human history, the 20th Century will remain known as the point at which humankind attained the technological ability to both/either destroy the planet and/or leap beyond it. Future generations may well wonder that this development didn't give every artist the thematic focus of Stanley Kubrick, who brilliantly treated the suicidal and transcendent possibilities of the age in a pair of related masterpieces, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Second: Only the most banally literal minds will see 2001 as a set of predictions that didn't turn out to be accurate. The film's third act is a cautionary fable that points directly to the heart of this new century, warning that humanity will have to battle its most extraordinary creations--intelligent machines--over its own survival. (Check back in 2101 to see if that prediction isn't dead-on.)

Third: 2001--which of course owes much to the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick--implicitly identifies humanity's current crisis as a function of the split between scientific and religious modes of thought. More startling still, it proposes to bridge that chasm. In effect, it starts out endorsing the Darwinian view that humans evolved from lower life forms, but then proposes that the capacity that separated humanoid apes from other animals--the tool-making smarts of homo faber--came from Above, from intelligent extraterrestrials who return at the onset of the space age to usher humanity toward the next phase of evolution: transformation from earthbound beings into an interstellar life form.

Though this view of the human trajectory may be called "science fiction," from another angle it ventures a reconciliation that philosophy has searched for at least since the golden age of Islam. (A sidelight: Islam wasn't much on Western filmgoers' minds in 1968, which presumably is why no one noted the black monolith's kinship to the Kaaba.) In this sense, the scientific/rationalistic side of the equation descends from Aristotle, and the religious/mystical side primarily from Plato.

In 1968, one reviewer found that Kubrick's vision didn't equal "Rossellini's radiant religious films or Bresson's meditative asceticism." No doubt that has a lot to do with the fact that Rossellini's and Bresson's films are relatively conventional, both in being rooted in orthodox Christian thought and in telling stories in a more or less straightforward manner. 2001's metaphysic, in contrast, is most accurately described as Neo-Platonic, from its vision of "beings of light" descending from a higher order of existence to its sense of humanity "ascending" toward its true, macrocosmic Home.  

More unconventional and daring still, the film's form amplifies its philosophic thrust, the final act's resort to pure light and symbol being proffered as a "higher" form of understanding than the earlier sequences' more rational (indeed, Aristotelean) dramatic approaches. To be sure, this climactic cognitive/formal leap on Kubrick's part is extraordinarily audacious, as the carping puzzlement of many earthbound viewers attests.

But really--who doesn't "get" the image of the Star Child? Like all great mystical art, it is at once ineffable and undeniable, sublime and utterly simple. Beyond offering a vision of the human race saved from (literally) its own devices, the image promises the imaginative rebirth/evolution of anyone who takes 2001's dare and leaps beyond the ordinary limits of his or her own understanding.

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