I’ve been wondering where to start with my ‘Favourite Films’ series of posts and the answer was staring me in the face, as this month is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental movie, so here we go-
There isn’t really much new that I can say about this extraordinary film, a film that exists as a piece of culture almost beyond cinema itself, a film whose impact resounds even today, some fifty years later. Where to begin? Well, I’m one of the Star Wars generation, too young to have seen the film when it first came out in 1968 (oh what it must have been like for those first audiences) but old enough to have been around when the film was still part of the then-recent cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s. I’d read the book by Arthur C Clarke, seen some images from the film. I read the Marvel comics 2001: A Space Odyssey by Jack Kirby, one of the strangest, weirdest comic book series anyone might ever see, certainly at the time. It all added to the strange mystique surrounding the film. It was something enigmatic, something I’d heard and read about but never seen. Of course, little did I realise it would remain just as enigmatic even after I had seen it, only maybe even more so.
So yes, eventually the stars aligned and I saw it, on its first UK network screening, which was, I think, sometime around Christmas 1979 or 1980, I’m not certain which it was. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to think. Which was as true of audiences back in 1968 or indeed in 2018- the first time you see 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Its only on the second viewing, or the third or fifth that you really ‘get’ it. Or maybe you don’t really ‘get’ it even after the fiftieth time. Maybe you’re not supposed to ‘get’ it. Arthur C Clarke said “if you understood 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise more questions than we answered.” There, in a nutshell, is the magic and fascination of the film and why it still remains the very antithesis of traditional cinema, and particularly current cinema which feels the need to force feed audiences everything. Most every film these days feels the need to explain, rationalise, feed endings or tease new beginnings/sequels.
I read a comment back when BR2049 came out last year, about the ending where K and Deckard reach Dr. Ana Stelline’s office, and they stand in the snow and Deckard asks K why he has done what he did, what Deckard is to K. Following a pause, K just smiles and tells Deckard to go see his daughter, and they part. What was interesting is that this really pissed off the guy writing the comment. “Why doesn’t K say something?!” railed the guy. “Its stupid! I want K to tell us why!” To me, this is the genius of the film. Attentive viewers will know why K did what he did, and what Deckard meant to him, what Deckard represented. We don’t need it spelled out for us. Well, some of us don’t.
Which is the deepest heart of 2001. Its never got the slightest intention of explaining anything or everything. In a way, it rather does, but it leaves it up to the viewer to extrapolate meaning or sense from the film. So anyway, when school resumed after that Christmas holiday, members of my form came over to me (as the class resident sci-fi geek and film nut) and asked me what the hell 2001 was on about. I remember shrugging my shoulders and giving some general summary of the plot and what I thought but didn’t feel entirely sure myself. 2001 wasn’t Star Wars. 2001 was something else.
So began a fascination that followed for all the near-forty years since.
I re-watched some of 2001 in art school, particularly the effects shots. Even back then, the film seemed particularly slow (God only knows what it seems like to new viewers coming to it now). I remember how control of the image, fast-forwarding and rewinding the VHS tape still refused to reveal the films secrets to me. I remember that the film was one of the first catalogue films sold on VHS in the very earliest days of affordable sell-through, and it was of course an inevitable Christmas present to me. Of course it was pan-and-scan version that mutilated the framing and the image quality was typically poor of VHS, colours blooming and dropouts etc. Well, it was long before DVD and even Blu-ray, and no doubt a 4K UHD is due eventually.
All the books. I have read so many books about 2001. There’s still books coming out about it, fifty years later, and surely in another fifty years time there will be more.
The first and probably best was ‘The Making of Kubrick’s 2001‘ edited by Jerome Agel. Its a paperback published in 1970 which is utterly brilliant in its approach. Its basically a compilation of quotes and reviews and articles surrounding the film from its genesis and the months immediately following its release, complete with a 96-page insert of b&w stills and behind-the-scenes images explaining some of the technical aspects of the production. It includes Arthur C Clarke’s original story The Sentinel which formed the basic foundation of the plot, sections from the MAd magazine parody, the instructions from a model kit of the Orion Pan Am clipper. Letters to Kubrick from confused/angry/ecstatic viewers. Its a brilliant book, and I only wish someone had done something similar for Blade Runner.
The funny thing about 2001 is that it was never about prediction. Even the rosiest predictions from the mid-sixties with the manned moon landings planned and NASA’s huge budget at the time couldn’t really have led to the films visions becoming reality by the year 2001. But as the years and decades passed everyone was making the comparison of fiction vs reality. Probably pissed Kubrick off no end, and how unkind and yet almost fitting, that Kubrick himself didn’t live to see the real 2001? So in a weird way, passing the real year 2001 was something rather liberating for the film, far as I’m concerned. Yes, the film is partly a fascinating glimpse of what the future looked like from the optimistic and thrilling vantage point of the 1960s, when everything was possible. And yes, it also looks rather quaint and retro-’60s, now, from our 21st Century perspective. But it’s really only reinforced the mythological intent of the film all the more clearly. As such it feels all the more powerful and allows fresh insights. Its cinema as art. Its Pure Cinema. Its a timeless masterpiece.
Or its breathtakingly self-indulgent, boring, slow, frustrating, stupid.: the film still maintains the ability to thoroughly piss people off. I’m not going to suggest that those people are wrong and that I’m right about it being a masterpiece. Oh, go on then.
Marking 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of my favourite films is almost redundant and almost as boring and predictable as had I started this series of posts with Blade Runner. But the fiftieth anniversary of this film clearly is apt excuse to start with this particular film. How many films that are made today will still be so hotly talked about/praised/hated in fifty years time as this one? How many films have really measured up in the years since? When Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar came out a few years back, so many people were comparing it favourably to Kubrick’s 2001 that it drove me nuts. People thought Interstellar was groundbreaking and intelligent and thought-provoking, but it’s nowhere near the same league as 2001, no matter its ambitions. No sci-fi film director has really come close to what Kubrick achieved in 1968. No-one has pushed the envelope, challenged how people ‘see’ sci-fi or that genre as a whole, or what it might be capable of. It is one of my saddest observations that for all the technological breakthroughs we have seen from CGI etc, that no-one has carried it through to some new Odyssey for our own age.
Stanley Kubrick said “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written a the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001” There’s not many films that could possibly ever be compared with the Mona Lisa, as a piece of art of such magnitude, but 2001 surely can. A film for the ages then, and yes, one of my very favourite films.