From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: My Own Journey to 2001

Yesterday, April 2, 2018, was the 50th anniversary of the release of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, still regarded as the best (or at least one of the best) science fiction films of all time, and as among the best films of all time, according to any number of polls of cinema fans over the decades. I had the good fortune to experience it at that so-called “golden age of science fiction” — i.e., when I was age 12, the age at which, traditionally, many SF fans first experience the “sense of wonder” of science fiction and become devotees of the genre for life. It’s also the age when one’s tastes begin to form, and some people stay fixed with those tastes, defending their interest in what they first experienced at that age, against all following change. I think I’m fortunate enough not to have to defend 2001 on those grounds, as the verdict of history has vindicated its status.

(When the film was released, there were, for example, middle-aged and senior science fiction writers, whose tastes had been formed by pulp magazine stories of the 1930s and the “golden age” of magazine science fiction in the 1940s, who dismissed 2001 as New Wave nonsense. These were some of the folks who rejoiced when Star Wars was released just nine years later; a film I felt regressive and was embarrassed by.)

In retrospect, I went through a fairly quick maturity in my experience and understanding of science fiction, both dramatic and literary, in just a few years of my young life. 2001 was the culmination, at age 12 1/2. My exposure to SF began with the TV series Lost in Space, which debuted in the Fall of 1965, when I had just turned 10. I discovered the show via a neighbor kid — it wasn’t the kind of show my parents would have watched — and so I missed the first few episodes (which I saw only 6 years later, when the show was in syndication), but thereafter watched it whenever I could, a fan of Will Robinson and the Robot and mysterious aliens like the Keeper. By the time LIS went camp — became utterly ridiculous — in its second season, Star Trek debuted, in the Fall of 1966. It was a much more serious show, with a cohesive premise and serious themes, and which I’ve recently rewatched, with posts here on this blog.

In parallel with those TV shows, I’d discovered science fiction books, beginning, ironically, with film and TV adaptations by Isaac Asimov and James Blish (Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek respectively). Via book sales at school and bookshops, I discovered Bradbury, and Clarke.

And then came the sublime: when 2001 debuted in April 1968, my family had moved to suburban Illinois, and I was just old enough to be aware of it and want to go see it. I’d already read the book! I knew what it was about. My parents took me to see the film in a movie theater in downtown Glen Ellyn, Illinois. I had no problem understanding it; I’d read the book. I remember my mother complaining that much of the music was just noise, and she had expected the movie would be something like a grandiose Star Trek; she didn’t understand it. My parents didn’t read anything, much less science fiction.

I got my father to take me to the film again, a few weeks later, but he got home late from work that night, and we got to theater late, walking in after the opening Dawn of Man scenes. The theater was full and I was stuck behind a tall man in front of me, partly blocking my view. (Funny how you remember such things, 50 years later.) To compensate for our late arrival, my father and I stayed until the next showing began. And then… we left after the Dawn of Man scenes. In retrospect, I am mortified, to have left a movie — THE movie — part way through, like some simpleton who leaves a movie they don’t understand or approve of.

(I probably didn’t see the movie again until 1980 or so, at a campus screening at Cal State Northridge, a showing in their steeply slanted auditorium. Videotapes and DVDs came out in subsequent decades, of course.)

And at about the time I saw this film, I was beginning to discover the more sophisticated and mature science fiction writers, past Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke — beginning with Robert Silverberg.

And I bought the 2001 LP soundtrack, which not only introduced me to the music of Richard and Johann Strauss, but also to that deeply introspective, mournful music of Aram Khachaturian, and especially to the strange soundscapes of György Ligeti, giving me a taste for unusual music that has lasted my entire life.

The movie itself is unconventional, even paradoxical, as has been explored in many books (perhaps in the new one by Michael Benson). First of all, it’s a visual splendor, but it has little story and no likeable characters. (One take: the movie is merely an *illustration* of a story you’re expected to deduce, or might know from reading the book.) Especially: almost all the dialogue is superfluous. When characters do talk — beginning some 20 minutes into the film — they are not saying anything that’s necessary to understanding the overall story. (Only one speech, which David Bowman hears by transmission after he has decommissioned HAL, that explains the point of the mission to Jupiter, is key.) But this is part of the film’s strategy: to depict the evolutionary advance of the human race as one about the discovery and use of tools. The bone at the end of the Dawn of Man is the first tool — which is used to kill. The flash-forward to the orbiting device, is to a device that is an orbiting nuclear weapon — not clear in the film, but clear in the book — another weapon intended to kill. HAL, the computer on Discovery, is another tool, programmed to hide the Jupiter mission’s true objective from the two astronauts who remain awake, and so, given conflicted programming, tries to kill those astronauts to assure the success of the mission. And language is another tool, with little value, that we see. The finale, a trip through a ‘star-gate’ (in Clarke’s novel version), is a closing advance in human evolution, triggered by the outsiders who deployed the monolith, that parallels the advance in the Dawn of Man scenes. And so on. (The story recalls the theme of Clarke’s famous 1953 novel Childhood’s End, about a similar advance of humans into another kind of race, due to alien intervention.)

No other science fiction film since has measured up to 2001, in my opinion; not in grandeur, not in special effects, not in seriousness of its theme.

Yet there are a couple small scientific errors. (I rewatched it a year ago, and noticed them.) For one, as we see the Discovery slide through space, we see stars that *do move*, albeit slowly — nothing like the firefly cloud of stars passing the Enterprise, in Star Trek. They do move. They wouldn’t move, from any reasonable vantage point; the Discovery is moving from Earth to Jupiter, and compared to that distance, the stars are so far away that their relative motion would be extremely slight. And then there is the famous one about Heywood Floyd, sipping his meal through straws, where we see the liquid food sliding back down the straws, despite his being in freefall, on his trip to the moon. And: Kubrick did a better job than most, for his time, showing his astronauts walking in parts of the Discovery that are in freefall, but these scenes aren’t perfect. (Why aren’t Bowman and Poole *floating* inside the pod, as they discuss the problem of HAL and are being lip-read, rather than obviously sitting?) For that matter — the idea that HAL can read their lips… is a stretch. Clarke avoided that in his novel version.

For now, here are a few good links from a quick Google search of the many, many articles about the film’s 50th anniversary in the past few days.

NY Times op-ed, in today’s paper, by Michael Benson, author of the just published Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece: What ‘2001’ Got Right [comments and quotes below]

NY Times: Happy 50th, HAL: Our Favorite Pop-Culture References to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Guardian: 50 years of 2001: A Space Odyssey – how Kubrick’s sci-fi ‘changed the very form of cinema’

Metro UK: Six reasons why you should rewatch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on its 50th anniversary

Michael Benson’s op-ed ties the film to current interest in A.I., and to recent controversies in social media and their effect on American politics.

Traditional media — “one transmitter, millions of receivers” — contain an inherently totalitarian structure. Add machine learning, and a feedback loop of toxic audiovisual content can reverberate in the echo chamber of social media as well, linking friends with an ersatz intimacy that leaves them particularly susceptible to manipulation. Further amplified and retransmitted by Fox News and right-wing radio, it’s ready to beam into the mind of the spectator in chief during his “executive time.”

Democracy depends on a shared consensual reality — something that’s being willfully undermined. Seemingly just yesterday, peer-to-peer social networks were heralded as a revolutionary liberation from centralized information controls, and thus tools of individual human free will. We still have it in our power to purge malicious abuse of these systems, but Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others would need to plow much more money into policing their networks — perhaps by themselves deploying countermeasures based on A.I. algorithms. Meanwhile, we should demand that a new, tech-savvy generation of leaders recognizes this danger and devises regulatory solutions that don’t hurt our First Amendment rights. A neat trick, of course — but the problem cannot be ignored.

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