May 16, 2015

Getting lost in the mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey

It was a Sunday night, February 13, 1977. It was also a school night, which meant I was already in a funk, as you would be too if you went to school in the World’s Worst Town ™. Maybe the surrealism of my own life, having spent the first 12 years of my life in the big city before winding up in a Hicksville town of less than a thousand, made me more susceptible, I don’t know. What I do know is that this was the night that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey made its television premiere, and since the only two television stations we had access to were Channel 7 and Channel 10, it was either watch 2001 or Masterpiece Theatre, and I wasn't ready yet for British costume drama.

It may be hard to appreciate now, when movies seem to be on TV or in stores before you even knew they were in theaters, but back then it sometimes took years before a movie made it from the movie theater to your television screen.*  Even at that, however, it was noteworthy that nearly ten years had passed since 2001 had opened, which made that Sunday night's premiere on NBC a real event.

*Oftentimes, movies would be re-released every few years, and in the days before DVDs and streaming video, studios and theater owners were understandably concerned about protecting the investment on a real blockbuster.  

For most of the movie I was like everyone else, equal parts impressed and confused.  The movie's reputation preceded it, of course, so it wasn't as if I were expecting an episode of Star Trek or any other run-of-the-mill sci fi flicks.  Still, that didn't prepare me for the movie's climactic scene, the trip through the Stargate - but then, I don't know that anything would have prepared me for it.

Not before nor since have I felt that I've actually been hypnotized, but if that isn't what happened as I watched that scene, it was damn close.*  It wasn't just that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen; it was almost as if I'd actually entered the screen, that somehow the picture on television had come alive and filled the entire living room.  I was enveloped by it, and the fact I couldn't really understand what the ending of the movie meant became almost irrelevant.  I may have been watching on a small black-and-white television, but neither that nor NBC's inexplicable decision to split the scene in two with a commercial could dilute the impact.  I was hooked, but good.

*The critic Andrew Sarris famously reversed his negative review of 2001 after seeing the movie again "under the influence of a smoked substance"; I can assure you that this was not what happened in my case.  It is possible, I'll grant, that I was starting to nod off with my eyes wide open - after all, it's not as if there was a lot of action in that movie.  However, I've done that many times while I was watching TV, and those times never seemed quite the same.  

Fast forward a few years; by then the movie had gravitated to local television.  I don't think I understood it any more than I had the first time, but I was able to notice more: the acting, low key to the point of surrealism, especially by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood; the score, hand-picked by Kubrick - everyone remembers "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss in the opening and closing titles, but I was struck most by the music of Aram Khachaturian and György Ligeti*; the disquieting use of the silence of space; the extreme close-ups, the soundless dialogue, the white room, and of course the glowing red light of everyone's favorite computer, the HAL 9000.  Was HAL's voice the inspiration for Marvin the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?  There's something so gently sinister about him, so discomforting - I mean, not only does he have the best lines in the movie, he probably has more lines than anyone else.  I don't know for sure what HAL symbolizes, and I'm not sure I want to know, but whatever it is isn't good.  There was a Bud Light commercial a few years ago that was a spoof of Dave and HAL; I thought it was terrific.

*A word or two about the music.  Strauss' theme may be the most famous, and Ligeti's "Atmospheres," played during that Stargate scene, may be the most notorious (our cat hated it so much she used to run from the room whenever I played the soundtrack), but for my money the most affecting is Khachaturian's Adagio from his Guyan Ballet Suite, which is played in the scene where Dave Bowman watches the birthday video from his family.  Once you know the fate for which the astronauts are destined, it becomes profoundly moving.

Since those days, I've seen 2001 twice on the big screen, the way it was supposed to be seen, where the sheer scope of it is even more overwhelming.  I've got the DVD, and every once in a while I'll run across it on TCM, where I'll still pause and see how close I am to the Stargate scene.  In much the same way that Raymond Chandler's books transcended the mystery genre. 2001 transcended the science fiction movie.  Check that: it transcended film, period.   In a year when the Best Picture Oscar nominees included Oliver, Funny Girl and Romeo and Juliet, 2001 should have garnered a nod, but it was too far ahead of its time.  Kubrick's win for Special Effects and nominations for Director and Screenplay (with Arthur C. Clarke) would have to suffice.

Things have changed since then.  Pan American's no longer in business, nor is the Bell System, and Gravity testifies to how the Oscars have evolved with the times. Special effects, too, have changed dramatically since 1968, but would this have made 2001 any better?  I don't think so, because it was never really about the effects, nor was it really a genre movie.  It was about a lot more than that.  Do I, at the end of the day, really "get" 2001?  Probably not, though I do see something new every time I watch.  It changed me in many ways: not just the way in which I watch visual media, but in the visual aspect that's so much a part of the way I write, and in the soundtrack that can influence those words even when the reader doesn't hear it.

The fact is, I don't think I ever want to understand this movie, in the way that one might understand Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.  In the end, 2001 is a mystery, one of those ethereal substances that never quite settle into a solid object.  When you understand too much about anything, you lose some of the mystery, and it was the mystery that first captured my attention all those years ago - and continues to do so today.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.  And then watch a classic movie!


  1. "2001" can be such a polarizing movie, especially when one tries to explain why they love it. I may never "get" the movie, but I get why it is your number one. A wonderful read.

  2. Maybe it's because I had a literary scifi background, but I was never confused/confounded by this. It lays its cards fairly on the table, with forced evolutionary scenes fore and aft. Any middle-evolved denizen of Earth should be able to "get" it. I do object to its "stoner movie" rep, but that was partly MGM's fault. Early in the run, the studio saw who was going to the film, and in what mental state. It quickly changed its ad to "The Ultimate Trip", with posters showing The Stat Child.

  3. Your first viewing of 2001 on network TV was my first viewing as well (you are so right about those being the days of "event television"). I wasn't sure what to make of Kubrick's classic. Decades later--after studying it in a film class and reading a book about it--it still seems open to many interpretations. But that's how it is with art and I wouldn't want it any other way. This is a great start to this blogathon.

  4. This film is completely lost on me, but your enthusiasm for it has almost softened my stance towards it. I loved your description of seeing it on television for the first time. So vivid!

  5. Think I watched this one at too young an age to truly 'get it' and subsequently have never been able to fall in love with it. But I love your enthusiasm - perhaps it's time to give it another go!

  6. I've only watched 2001 once and I am glad at your assessment as to it being a "mystery" helps me feel better in that I really didn't understand the film at all. Now that I can watch a film and "get" why some scenes were framed they way they were, and can apppreciate the special effects before cgi was ever thought of, I do plan on watching 2001 again, with a more nuance eye. Enjoyed your review!

  7. I must admit, this is far from being my favourite Stanley Kubrick's film, but I enjoyed your review very much. So interesting! I love the fact that you explain how you came to love this film. I have to say, despite the fact that it's not my fav Kubrick's film, I was really impressed by the cinematography.

  8. Watching that first telecast,I noticed the stars matted on the top and bottom black bars,which the Discovery disappears into as it passes....the abhorrence of empty areas of TV screens at the time.....


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