Friday, December 2, 2016

Stanley Kubrick | 2001: A Space Odyssey

the real star
by Douglas Messerli

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (writers), Stanley Kubrick (director) 2001: A Space Odyssey / 1968

As I have made it clear in several of my writings, I am not a fan of Stanley Kubrick, which since he has a near cult following and is beloved by many directors better that him, such as Martin Scorsese, probably doesn’t matter. Large crowds came out to see the exhibition devoted to his work, films, sets, drawings, and ephemera at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a short while back, including my affable nephew-in-law, visiting from Iowa.

I did not particularly enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey when it was first released, and when I watched it again yesterday I found it, as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. described it to be "morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long.” And for once I agree with Pauline Kael, who characterized it as "a monumentally unimaginative movie." I might add the word “kitsch.”

      I’m not particularly a fan of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, parts of which Kubrick uses in several early scenes, and I detest Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, which this film repeats for what seems like an eternity during the spaceship docking. Nor am I drawn to bedrooms in the style of Louis Quatorze. Men jumping around in ape suits don’t much excite me, although I will say I found them rather convincing. Monoliths, having something to do with human evolution, do not register any awe to my way of thinking. And for in-camera manipulations of light and color, I’ll take Stan Brakhage any day over Kubrick and crew. The few banalities uttered by most the cast offer little entertainment value or evidence of acting.

     The models are fairly interesting, particularly the rotating space hotel with its modernist red Olivier Mourgue Djinn chairs. But these do not a good movie make.

     No, I only reason that I bore with watching the film again was the wonderfully intelligent Hal 9000, who has a kind of nervous breakdown (or perhaps one should say a “circuitry breakdown”) right in front of us because of what he begins to see as his own fallibility and possible “destruction.” As Alan Turing had predicted: “by 2001, we will have fully intelligent machines,” even if human error may have given them some flaws. And here he is, a bit like the large-eyed monsters in War of the Worlds, far more capable and perfect than any of us.
       Unlike the bland humans played by Willian Sylvester and, later, by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, Hal speaks loudly and reasonably—at least at first. And only he knows what their secret mission of Jupiter (it was originally to have been a voyage to Saturn, but the designers could get that planet’s rings right). Neither the the only survivor, the Dullea character, nor the surviving audience ever quite finds out what that mission was to have been: maybe just to check out the even larger monolith that exists on Jupiter. 
       Hal, much like the replicants of Blade Runner goes awry because he cannot deal with his own mortality, making him even more human than the homo sapiens in this work—who, after all, Kubrick suggests, in their collection of spacecraft and nuclear weapons, are not much different from the apes who learn to wield clubs. And Hal is wily, lying about a malfunctioning part, refusing certain commands while willfully performing others. He can even read lips!

      When Dullea finally gains reentry to the space capsule, Hal knows, like a bad boy, that he has done wrong, apologizing and promising to be good, then pleading for the astronaut not to kill him. It is indeed touching when, having lost nearly all his marvelous memory, he sings the first song that has been taught to him, “Daisy Bell.”
      After his death, who needs all of that technical artistry and mysterious goings on in a neoclassical bedroom? Or even a gigantic embryo floating back to earth? Hal, Turing’s invention, is the star of the show.

Los Angeles, December 2, 2016

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