Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Trouble With "2001"

("2001: A Space Odyssey" turned 40 years old last month.)

Talking with the various co-workers I work with (most of whom are under 21 years old and can't be trusted - I can't take them drinking) I like to quiz them on the old movies they have or haven't seen. When we get to Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey,” pretty much everyone to a man who's seen it...or tried to... says it's boring.

Boring. Kubrick's “2001.” What has the world come to? At one time this film, and Kubrick, were considered to be the greatest creation/creator the art had known. An iconoclast who was also a classicist, a formalist who embraced yet ultimately exploded every Hollywood genre he worked in (seemingly going through them one by one, film by film), remaking them and making them irrelevant at the same time.

Now Kubrick is irrelevant to the audiences of today. “2001” asks too much of the audience, who has been raised on the ever-moving pie-fights of “Armageddon” and “The Matrix,” and has regressed into the stuffy past of retrograde artifice, as has his importance to a generation of filmgoers.

Be clear. “2001” was a continuation of a creative arc that began with “Paths of Glory” and travelled through “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove,” each more assured, darkly ironic and surprising than the last. Imagine waiting for the next Kubrick film to be released - and actually being confused, pissed, and amazed. Nothing could have prepared anyone for “2001.” There was no movie like it before.

Or since. Still. (And he'd follow that with “A Clockwork Orange” for crissake - then “Barry Lyndon.”) Its audaciousness announced a whole new realm of cinematic and artistic possibilities that heralded in the '70s. The sky was the aesthetic limit in 1968. The studios were just about to fall, and the asylums were about to be taken over by the likes of Coppola, Friedkin and Bogdanovich.

When's the last time you had that feeling at the movies? Did “Pirates of the Caribbean” reawaken you to the potential of cinematic narrative and language? Of the role of mankind in the universe, of the way a film could change the way you looked at the world? Or did it make you feel like your pocket had just been picked?

I wasn't on the “2001” bandwagon the first time I saw the film either - the first time I was about 10, one Saturday afternoon on a double bill with - believe it or not - “King Kong Vs. Godzilla.” I'd like to shake that booker's hand. And even then I knew it was something completely outside my possible understanding - that it didn't make sense - that it was portentous while somehow avoiding to be pretentious. It was wrong. But not in the same way “King Kong Vs. Godzilla” was wrong. “2001”'s straight-faced and documentary-realistic depiction of seemingly amazing events with a lack of any over-baked pizazz haunted me. So much so that the next time I had a chance to see it (at a science convention years later - by that time its reputation had overtaken most critical discussion and moved it to fetishistic adoration) I didn't pass it up.

And so I saw it again, with older eyes. And then again, probably at a repertory house (double-billed this time with “El Topo”?). Over the years, I've probably seen “2001” 20 times projected in a theatre, an amazing number of times nowadays. Most films don't last 20 days in a theatre. (Yes, Chris, I did know the intermission comes right after the lip-reading scene.) I've seen it 20 more times at home. The only other film I think I've seen more is maybe “Sid and Nancy.” You should not read anything into that.

Clearly, what “2001” does - and doesn't do - has to do with its aesthetic pull on me. Amazing and epic events that change the course of man are laid out, calmly and with perfect taste, which such balance and reserve that it belies its stature as a baroque artifact.

Audiences today are familiar with the film - they know about “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the monolith - they know about the apes who throw a bone at the moon and the monotone voice of Hal, who gets some astronauts into trouble. But they haven't really "watched" it. In a movie theatre, where they can't easily escape or turn the channel. They don't live in that world, so perfectly created. Nothing happens in it.

Maybe they have a point. People make small talk in an airport lobby. Astronauts jog and doodle and play chess. Oh, and mankind passes through an intergalactic gate and is transformed to a race of new super-beings. Nothing.

The film is passive-aggressively mundane on the surface, yet so abstract and symbolist in its story-telling it's practically avant-garde, a surrealist masterpiece. Kubrick's notorious and famous smashcut from the bone in the air to the spaceship in space about 30 minutes in is so obvious, so expected, and in a way so anticlimactic now, that modern audiences waiting to be jolted seem to miss it. When the impact of a shock cut is this underplayed (the music is fading, and cuts to the quietest strains of Strauss) you can't be faulted for calling it...”boring.”

Kubrick's films were never emotionally charged. Their ironic distance aren't tinged with condescension. “Full Metal Jacket” with its 2 out-of-balance halves, and the intentionally flat “Eyes Wide Shut” have hurt “2001”'s reputation by association. I suggest that Kubrick's narrative style has recently been best personified in the Coen Brothers' “No Country For Old Men,” with its poker-faced narrative drive, with all editorializing kept carefully out of view (and not, against our first impulse, P.T. Anderson's languid “There Will Be Blood” which wears its silent Kubrick-esque long-held shots on its sleeve (but he got the soundtrack right) yet fails to layer intangible nuance into each corner, edit, and composition as Kubrick would).

2001” keeps its metaphysical and spiritual secrets hidden behind a veneer of casually astounding set pieces as simple as a stewardess walking in a weightless circle, or 3 astronauts eating sandwiches in a spaceship. Each viewing teases out subtle nuances of human behavior, and suggests a prison of the human condition trapped in their own fate that resonate with larger concerns the film whispers around but never openly confronts. That's for us to discover and ponder. How important is man in the universe? How insignificant does man make himself in his own world?

40+ times, and I don't think I've seen it enough. I'm not able to explain the immeasurable and intangible mystery of this film - and ultimate simple beauty - to these 19-year-olds I work with. It's just another film, shot in Panavision, with sets, and a script, not unlike “Love Actually” or “V For Vendetta,” eh? They also prefer “Boogie Nights” to “Barton Fink.”

The trouble is - the trouble isn't with “2001” - it's with the audiences.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

(2/28/2009 Addendum: I've since seen "There Will Be Blood" again (8 months later) and find it much more nuanced than I did originally. I, along with many people, was too harsh at first. (Change of mind here.)


Kenn Fong said...

If “2001” wasn’t the worst movie I had to sit through in a theatre, my memory can’t be trusted. From the hour-long opening sequence with the men in ape suits prancing around (yes, I know it was only about 90 seconds, it only seemed to be an hour, and yes, I knew what the maestro intended) to the final frame (by that time I was nearly comatose). This was the longest movie I've ever sat through. I would have left, except I was attending on a pass, and I felt it would be bad manners to leave early.

I enjoyed drinking a whole bottle of Ipecac and its aftermath more than I enjoyed this movie. It left more of a bitter taste on my mouth than any other medicine I'd ever taken.

And I use the word "medicine" advisedly. After decades passed since its release, I'd been ignoring the critics and intelligensia who were on the brink of orgasm when describing this. Now I know the celluloid wasted would better be employed as collar stays.

One day I noticed that The Castro was playing a new print. I decided I'd avoided it (like a trip to the dentist) long enough. I’m an idiot. I ignored all my instincts, and went to see it.

However, I don't resent having seen it, and the six hours of my life which was wasted. (I'm including travel time to and from the theatre, although the whole experience seemed like a lifetime.) Now I can truthfully say I'm now part of a shared tradition, like a horrific hazing.

The wise Buddhist monk Chogyam Trungpa said,

First thought, best thought.

Truer words were never spoken.

I'll end this self-indulgent rant because my point is clear. However, I must say in my defense, that the esteemed film critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle tore it a new one.

Alameda, California


Roger Leatherwood said...

The reasons why we decide to see any film says a lot about what we think we will respond to. Doing our research ahead of time is always the best defense against being too disappointed.

Forewarned is forearmed.

If we're lucky, we respond much better than we expect, and to something pleasant. I'm not sure audiences today would respond to "2001," or something like it, like in the old days.

Uncle Chumley said...

Is Mick LaSalle really your best defense here?

Anyway, I took my 11 year old kid to see a 70mm print of 2001 in 2001. He was incredibly bored at intermission and a bit angry with me, so I asked him to indulge me and that I'd owe him one.

Now a college student with a delightfully open mind and much broader film tastes, he made a special point to call home to thank me for that experience.

garv said...

I saw a 70mm print of 2001 projected at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. It was a grand experience (as was the annual silent film screening with live accompaniment).

I will pick one nit with you. I am amongst those that prefers BOOGIE NIGHTS to BARTON FINK. I will concede that BOOGIE NIGHTS is P.T. Anderson's worst, most derivative film. Still, I'd rather watch it than BARTON FINK (one of the Coen Bros. few clinkers). The Coens often include a visual metaphor or aspect in their films that seems to be a private joke with no narrative purpose (such as the hat in MILLER'S CROSSING or the character of Mike Yanagita in FARGO). The entirety of BARTON FINK seemed to me to be a joke on the audience. It had beautiful passages, but all in all, it seemed to be a film about wallpaper peeling.

Roger Leatherwood said...

I think the beauty of "Barton Fink" is that after a series of genre exercises (which would continue after), with "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," etc., they actually went beyond the curtain and explored _how_ these studio films were create - who wrote them (Clifford Odets, apparently) and what financial situations dictated the art.

An inside joke, but for all the lovers of '40s genre studio fare.

A post-modern film about the artifice itself.

Thanks for the comment.