“If you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered” – Arthur C. Clarke quoted in The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, edited by Jerome Agel, Signet, 1970
2001 is a paradox. Greeted with acclaim by the critics it was also dismissed by the critics. It came at a time when science fiction was at its most controversial, when the Arts Council funded New Worlds was banned from WHSmith’s on the grounds of obscenity and libel, and yet it was passed uncut as a U rated film, the lowest rating available at the time, despite its famously indecipherable ending bearing many similarities to the prevalent direction of the genre. It was breathtakingly simple to follow yet infuriatingly difficult to understand. Cinematically its language was slow in pace but not unusual, even the much touted jump cut between the bone and the spaceship was hardly revolutionary, albeit temporally audacious. Here we have a film that was advertised as “The Ultimate Trip” but whose maker (in an interview for Playboy) categorically denied ever having taken consciousness-expanding substances stating that “drugs are of more use to the audience than the artist.” Here we have a film that audiences responded to in a religious manner, some claiming to have seen God in its celluloid majesty, yet was written by a confirmed atheist. It was granted the 1968 award for Best Film of Educational Value from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures yet was made by the same man who was condemned for producing Lolita and later A Clockwork Orange. It sweeps historically through hundreds of thousands of years but is ultimately about one man’s self-discovery. Or is it?
It began with The Sentinel, it became clay with Journey Beyond The Stars, it was sculpted into 2001. As such it began with the middle, it began with the moon, it began with the object. The Sentinel (1950) saw Wilson, a geologist (selenologist, if you want to be pedantic), climb a tricky lunar mountain overlooking Mare Crisium to confront a relatively small, obviously constructed pyramid surrounded by a spherical field. The pyramid gives the story its allusions to Egyptian ancestry as well as its affinity towards Greek (“I knew that the creeping moss of Aristarchus and Eratosthenes was not the only life she had brought forth in her youth”) that is fitting to the discovery; the science of the new is but an extension of the mythologies and reasoning of the ancient. Conceptually the pyramid works best in the story, a tetrahedron would perhaps be more profound outside of it, but in the film it has become a monolith. In terms of imagery the monolith appears to be the simplest idea despite being a more complex shape, it has also become black, indeed how more black could it be?
Art is not created by the artist but by the spectator. The person who views the work interprets it, not the creator. Any work, be it a film, painting, poem or prose that is not open to interpretation is not art, it is naive reproduction. All views are valid as each other, each element of the piece needs to be open to a multitude of spiralling interpretations that drift from the actuality. Semiotics give art depth. HAL may be one letter back (not forwards) from IBM, but so what? Is it Dave that we follow or HAL’s recollection of Dave; in a computer all things in memory co-exist and so does Dave. In HAL’s simulation of Dave the reasonings of life on Earth and the progression of the argument are simply the running of an algorithm. The whole film is HAL coming to terms with Dave’s attempted destruction of his consciousness by sabotage, the Dawn of History to metaphysical discourse are HAL’s way of tracing Dave’s behaviour to it inception. HAL can trace a route from that of primitive brutal destruction for the sake of power to Dave’s similarly primitive act of violence against him. Mankind has not changed. In this sense HAL is the alien, preventing man from spreading the disease of violence throughout the universe. Can HAL have a consciousness and therefore a conscience? In this scenario the monolith isn’t an actual entity but a conceptual root of man’s propensity to violence. The cut from bone to spaceship has the significance that they are ultimately used for the same purpose – to dictate man’s belief in his own supremacy as a phallic wand of power to assert. In developing from the evolving ape, humans have chosen the path of conquering inferior beings. The bone started as a by-product of survival, it became a weapon. Every piece of technology we created derived from that bone. Not only have we come nowhere since the dawn of mankind we are as intellectually inferior to the greater universe as our ancestors were. The discovery of another form life that’s no doubt greater and more significant than we is represented by a child, basking in its glorious innocence and potential. That the film opens with the potent image of the glory of the universe should make us feel dwarfed by its opulence and beauty but we are told by the ape-man sequence that man’s ego is beyond this, his lust for power cares not for the grandeur of the void. The significance of using Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra as the accompaniment shows the arrogance of man – God is dead and we are living in his shadow. He does not realise however that he needs to step into the light.
Great art provokes. This is not to say that it must offend or shock but it must elicit a reaction. 2001 has and still does, it is the power as a film that can engross some, bore others, enlighten and mystify. The great Ray Bradbury said at the time (in Psychology Today) that “Clarke, a voyager to the stars, is forced to carry the now inexplicably dull director Kubrick the albatross on his shoulders through an interminable journey of almost three hours” before commending the film on every other level, its failing entirely Kubrick’s. Clarke, on the other hand, refuted the allegation: “Ray also claimed that I had been raped by Kubrick. I assure you it was mutual”, as the project was most definitely a long collaboration between the two men. In some respects Bradbury is right when he asserts that we do not care when one of the astronauts dies, citing Antonioni’s similar disinterest in empathising with his characters, but in many ways this is the point. Audiences were, and still are, too familiar with traditional narrative structures and forms, whether they know it or not. They have certain expectations that require satiating and to some extent 2001 gives them a hint of this by including characters, but ultimately the film stands as a visual poem that revels in its cinemascope glory and majestic presence. It is designed to impress and to provoke thought and debate. Emotion has nothing to do with it. If Kubrick is following in the footsteps of Antonioni it is because the film has a higher purpose than narrative cohesion and such lowbrow concerns as characterisation or emotional symbiosis. The audience’s scopophilic tendencies in approaching cinematic readings become redundant in the face of a film whose primary visual purpose is sublimation as further signified by the decision to film in the ultra wide Cinemascope format. In many ways 2001 can be seen as a minimalist film, certainly in pace, but the contrast between the redundancy of common plotting and the need to provide a spectacle provides a further paradox. Spectacle is in some ways what commercial cinema is about, science fiction cinema in particular dares to show what isn’t, what cannot be or what might be. Its boundaries are defined only by the limits of the imagination. Those unfamiliar with the genre often ridicule it for a lack of prophetic accuracy, missing the very raison d’être of its popularity. 2001 doesn’t show the world in 2001, at least not from where we stand, but a world in 2001. Technically there was nothing to stop space travel technology increasing to the level as featured in the film, the fact that we have not arranged such grandiose space stations or moon excavations does not alter the fact that we could have. 2001 tries its hardest to ensure that these possibilities are not only natural corollaries of the situation at the time (the process between Clarke and Kubrick was underway in early 1965 and the film released prior to the moon landings) but also justifiable. To this end virtually every aspect of space travel and its consequences were explored to strive for further realism. This was not limited to the normal “big” science fiction, the glamorous stuff like how the engines would function, where the thrusters would be positioned or the mechanics of docking procedures but in the minutia, those details normally ignored in favour of showing a big spaceship thrusting into the void or a homely breast of a spacestation with its nipple central hub feeding the milk of gravity to its occupants. Kubrick and Clarke’s meticulous attention to detail went so far as to discuss clothing fasteners, the possibility of Velcro shoe soles (so that hostesses could dispatch complimentary meals during zero gravity space flights), the intricacies and practicalities of a zero gravity toilet (“Passengers are advised to read instructions before use” followed by a necessarily detailed 10 step guide to use), the picturephone and so on.
Kubrick’s single minded focus and occasionally perplexing working practices are of course the stuff of legends. He was a man who did everything to realise his vision on the screen and stopped at nothing. The final budget came in a staggering 4.5 million dollars over its allotted funding, nearly twice the agreed amount. 2001’s making alone was an epic undertaking – although he and Clarke had been working some considerable time on the film before production in earnest began on 29th December 1965, a process that culminated in its world premiere in Washington on April 2nd 1968, but even then the film was not finished. Following the premiere Kubrick re-edited the picture down by a total of 19 minutes to give us the “lean” version that we see today. Sadly, in the UK at least, opportunities to see the film properly are exceedingly rare. Occasionally there is a showing in Bradford, which has the facilities to project Cinerama films in all their curvy glory but other than that it is down to television to supply the experience first hand, a task that in all honesty it really isn’t up to. Even then your choice is limited to the commercially available video which is an atrocious pan ‘n’ scan travesty or any of the (usually incorrectly cropped) showings on television; one ancient BBC transmission even tried to disguise that they were showing a letterboxed print by putting starfields in the black masked bits! Your only real choice is to go for the frills free region 1 DVD which is a bit of a missed opportunity.
In the final tally we are looking at a film that had its origins in a short story written half a century ago and premiered as a film but a fortnight after the elder of these two authors was born. Despite the fact that it is not the most oblique or avant garde science fiction film ever made (there are many but as a starting point try a double bill of Tarkovsky’s enigmatically laid back philosophy-thon Solaris or Shinya Tsukamoto’s breathtakingly impenatrable Tetsuo: The Iron Man) it is probably the nearest the average cinema goer or science fiction fan has come to viewing an intentionally “art” film with very little scope for identification. Possibly one of the most watched art films of all time. Can it really hold ground next to such modern examples of the genre as The Matrix or Jurassic Park: The Lost World? Yes. And no.