Thursday, July 11, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “2001”

I’ve always had a very complicated relationship with 2001: A Space Odyssey. For starters I am not a fan of Stanley Kubrick: I see why people deeply worship him and I understand why he’s so revered, but I have never connected to his clinical take on cinema in the way I have with Michael Haneke and David Fincher for example. I love his perfectionism and admire his dedication to his craft, but his movies never click with me. Whenever I find myself in conversations about his work, people are baffled when I tell them my two favorite movies of his are Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut.

Besides my lack of excitement for its maker, my relationship with 2001: A Space Odyssey has very Oedipal undertones. Growing up I always tried to learn how to love my dad’s two favorite movies: Patton and 2001. I still remember that first time when he announced we’d be watching his favorite movie and recall being enraptured by the scenes with the monkeys and thought this would be an adventure movie in the vein of The Jungle Book which I loved. Things got strange due to a grammatical confusion; the Spanish word for “monkey” is “mono” so when the word monolith came up I assumed he’d be a king of the chimps, a King Kong figure. Next thing I know “The Blue Danube” is playing and there’s a lady with a weird hat walking upside down. No more monkeys fighting? The whole thing became so boring that I don’t think I made it all the way through the end.

As a teenager in love with cinema I approached it once more and finally finished the whole thing. It was my first time watching the murderous HAL, developing a crush on Keir Dullea and realizing that visual effects had once existed without the aid of computers. However, this time around I found myself being as bored as I’d been as a six year old. I just didn’t get it! Why did I love Citizen Kane, 8 1/2 and freaking Tarkovsky and still saw nothing of value in what most people regard as Kubrick’s masterpiece?

Two day ago I saw the BAM Cinematek in Brooklyn would be playing 2001: A Space Odyssey as part of its “Big Epic Screen” Series and said to myself it’s now or never. Those who know me know that going to the movies is my absolute fave thing in the world and I thought that maybe if I saw 2001 on the big screen it’d finally click with me. I feared that it wouldn’t and that I’d still be out of the Kubrick loop and I also feared that I’d be ecstatic about it, making my younger self feel like a shallow dumbass (but hey, isn’t that what all the classics are supposed to do when we approach them as grown ups?).

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen was unlike any other movie experience I’ve ever had. For once, I was immediately absorbed into its world. The way in which Kubrick plays with sound before we’ve seen a single image reminded me of the way in which we sing a hymn before mass begins. The movie is preceded by a pitch black limbo in which we listen to György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”, this was especially interesting to feel as part of an audience. Watching it at home it’s impossible to control external sounds (dogs barking, younger siblings nagging, bells ringing...) but in a movie theater people seem to know they need to be quiet. Sitting in a dark room surrounded by strangers sharing this same experience was almost mystical. For those who think the movie is about the history of humanity, this small moment of darkness was like conveying non-existence. We are born until we listen to Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and see light for the first time.

This feeling is repeated during each of the film’s four chapters, in which we are convinced we are being reborn as more complex creatures. The scenes with the monkeys and the first appearance of the monolith once again filled me with childlike wonder and joy, but this time around by the time I got to space with the characters, I felt a strange sense of accomplishment - as if I’d helped them get there. The last part of the Moon mission chapter also conveyed something I’d never detected in the film before: that final high pitched sound we hear as the astronauts approach the monolith seems to be a desperate cry towards the universe, as if asking why the hell are we here?

By the time we got to the HAL chapter I was completely enthralled, watching the images on the big screen added one more quality I’d never found in previous viewings, as Stanley Kubrick directs a literal ballet of machines. The way every piece of equipment moves and the way every note of the score accompanies these moves, is akin to watching Fantasia; the images and the sounds in perfect unison reminding us why we go to the movies. Needless to say so, the grandeur and majesty of the special effects - which despite their age are more impressive than CGI - had a surreal quality as I half expected the spaceships and pods to burst out of the screen.

In the HAL sequences I also noticed the way in which Kubrick humorously suggests we are being brainwashed by the system. There are several moments where his camera is fixated on the red light that represents HAL and it’s as if it could see into the souls of the audience. We know it can’t, but at the same time it instills a very primal kind of fear in us. These sequences also added a new dimension brought on by silence. Kubrick accurately depicts outer space as a place of complete soundlessness, so the image of an astronaut cut loose from his ship and floating/sinking away into darkness was more terrifying because we couldn’t listen to his screams of despair.

There was also another moment that struck me as inventively wicked: the scene where HAL stops life support on the dormant astronauts and we see their life stats go from natural peaks and valleys to the fatal straight lines. Because we can't look away from it, we're confronted right and there with the idea that there might come a time when we'll need to be saved from our very creations. This doesn't necessarily mean that we should be scared of machines, but that we need to be conscious of even the art around us. In his whole movie as machine dichotomy, Kubrick is reminding us that we are being shown truth by a device that might turn its back against us. This is repeated once again during the last chapter where we see Keir Dullea's character age in a matter of seconds. The fact that Kubrick represented this time advance within a room is an obvious nod to how we as an audience are also aging within the four walls of the theater we're sitting in...

By the time the movie ended, I was completely blown away. The famous light-tunnel sequence almost gave me a seizure, the flight over the canyons of Jupiter was more exciting than anything in Avatar and the eventual birth of the star-child, once again accompanied by Strauss’s ode to Zarathustra, was truly rapturous. Within seconds it felt like a movie and a symphony. The lights went on and I was sent out into the world with a myriad of questions: are all movies meant to be seen on the big screen? If so, does that mean that I haven’t seen many movies because I’ve only seen them at home? Kubrick proved to me that cinema is the ultimate hybrid of spiritual/human connection, but now I also fear that I’ve been spoiled, because I've been once again reassured that truly great movies aren't about story but about sensorial experience.


Brittani Burnham said...

Great post! I sadly just can't get into this one, no matter how hard I try. I'm not the biggest Kubrick fan either, but I really enjoyed reading this! I wish I could see the movie this way.

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading Brittani! That was me until exactly three days ago, it's weird right? Makes me think if many movies I don't like might be better on the big screen. Seek this one out if it ever plays near you. It'll be worth it.