Once or twice a year, I watch 2001, my favorite movie, although I don’t always watch it straight through. I have seen it so many times!
2001: A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and, I believe, one of the greatest movies of all time. It is a poetic statement in movement and music, almost a ballet, of ideas and fantasies about the nature of man in the universe.
The brilliance of this movie is apparent in so many ways, but I will list a few of them that always strike me:
- The special effects are stunning, imaginative, and convincing. No other science-fiction film has produced imagined futures that continue to look so credible after forty years! The technology he presents is not flashy, sometimes it even seems dull, but it always looks real.
- There are several profound themes at play in this movie: the nature and source of intelligence; man’s condition as a special sort of animal; man’s relation to his machines and the danger of dehumanization in technological society.
- Kubrick has succeeded in distilling the poetic essence of the story that Arthur C. Clarke produced, and he has jettisoned the adolescent and simplistic element that Clarke’s writing always has. [See my post.] In much of sci-fi writing, a good idea is given a poor treatment. Kubrick takes Clarke’s idea, and turns it into an epic meditation on human consciousness, and he avoids the literalness that torpedoes Clarke’s writing. The story ends up ambiguous, provocative, puzzling, and engrossing the more you allow yourself to be teased by it.
- The pacing of the film is wonderful – slow and stately, with minimal dialog. The images and the music tell the story at a level below the consciousness of speech.
Take a look…
At the “dawn of man,” a mysterious slab appears and excites the ape pre-men. They act as if they worship it. What would you expect them to do in such a situation? Is this the nature of religion? What is this slab? We never know, except that it is clearly sent by a superior intelligence. This idea, fundamentally absurd, was seriously believed by Clarke, and is championed today by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. What was the origin of that life, I wonder? Kubrick isn’t fazed – he grabs the essential weirdness of the idea, the feel of wonder about how we got here that is at the center of it.
Contact with the slab sets off a spark in the ape’s mind. The notion of a tool is born. Tools to hunt with, to get meat, to make the group stronger. The entire clan must know of them. And tools for defense, or offense against rival clans!
Ape men excited Hmm..tool. Good idea. Visions of meat!
Power! Culture…teach the kids Power for life or death!
The ape roars and throws his bone tool in the air – it rises, rises, falls, rises and falls into the most breathtaking cut in history, leaping across four million years into the Space Age. It’s such an outrageous edit, it demands that we accept it as artifice (Imagine a caption…”Four million years later…”) yet it astonishes and delights.
Exaltation: the power of life, and the power to bring death!
A space shuttle and an orbiting station dance to the Blue Danube’s waltz. A man dozes, alone in the passenger cabin while a pedestrian romance plays on the screen in front of him. Of course, it’s a man and a woman in a car – a machine had to be there! The shuttle lands on the station in a choreographed rotation, the first of many images of penetration acted out by machines. [A Kubrick trope: Recall the opening refueling sequence in Dr. Strangelove.] Machines that have human traits, humans that seem devoid of human traits, machines pulsating with sexual imagery – it’s a strange Kubrick world.
Leaving the space station, a pod takes the traveler to the moon base. The seed-like capsule is accepted into the interior of the moon through an enormous set of mechanical petals. The interior is bathed in red light evoking the womb.
After a briefing, the traveler flies with his colleagues to a secret excavation on the moon where the slab has been uncovered. The men eat sandwiches and drink coffee, seemingly uncaring or incapable of absorbing the enormity of what they have found – clear and irrefutable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. They know nothing of the slab, except “that it was deliberately buried two million years ago.”
“Hmm…deliberately buried…Well, you fellas have certainly found something.” “More coffee?”
At the site, the men pose for a group photo, as would any tourist. Once again, Kubrick captures the cliche and the mundane, and puts it to work. While they pose, the slab emits a piercing signal directed at Jupiter.
A mysterious space mission to Jupiter is launched to get to the root of all this slab nonsense – the Odyssey begins. Odyssey, a mythic, epic journey. Also, let us not forget, a homecoming. Odysseus was going home to his wife and son – is the crew going home to Jupiter, returning to the origin of their intelligence?
The ship looks like a giant phallus, or a mechanical sperm. The all seeing eye of the on-board computer, HAL9000 is everywhere. He speaks with a casual, flat, almost cloying warmth. His ‘eye’ looks to me like an egg or a growth in a petrie dish – biologico/mechanico.
Hal has his problems. Only he knows what the mission is about, and he’s not sure that the men, i.e., the non-machines are up to it. It seems to go to his head, and he makes an erroneous prediction that a component is going to fail. Or was it all a clever stratagem to get the crew off the ship together? Frank and Dave realize that HAL is kaput, so they retreat to secluded spot to plan their next move. HAL, however, can follow their conversation by watching their mouths move. Some say we will know we have developed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.
HAL kills Frank, and Dave goes out to get his body. On returning, HAL refuses to acknowledge the command, “Open the pod bay, HAL.” An awkward conversation ensues across empty space; HAL on the giant ship, Dave in the pod. The mechanico-genital imagery is in evidence. HAL tells Dave the obvious – “This conversation can no longer serve any purpose.”
I offer the image below – Dave cradling Frank’s body with the mechanical arms of the pod – as an example of the only scientific “error” I have noticed in the film. The lamps of the space pods and of the lights around the excavation on the moon are always shown with a corona glare – there is no such thing in space where there is no atmosphere to diffuse the light rays. Was this an accident or poetic license? (Kubrick never gives us sounds in deep space, unless we are meant to understand that they are heard by humans inside their suits or vehicles.)
Here we have it, the epic struggle. Man vs. his monstrous antagonist. Man vs. machine. Man vs. himself, his own creations? Dave, in his haste to retrieve his comrade, Frank, left the Mother Ship without his space helmet. He resolves to re-enter the ship through the emergency airlock, something that HAL cooly observes “will be rather difficult without your helmet, Dave.”
Dave is, however, our Odysseus, and Odysseus was always called “The wily Odysseus.” He is clever, and never at a loss for an idea. The essence of man the tool-maker triumphs over his own super-computer. Dave blasts himself into the vacuum of space inside the airlock in the climactic moment of the struggle, and manages to activate the mechanism to close the door. The abrupt transition from dead silence to the defeaning roar of life-giving air rushing into the sealed lock signals his sucess.
Dave moves resolutely to wreak havoc on the brain of the one-eyed cyclops, HAL, disconnecting his “higher functions” while the repentant computer pleads piteously with him to stop. Are not these higher functions, the same ones that sent man on his trajectory to meat eating and war?
HAL reaches his second childhood and asks if Dave wants to hear him sing a song. “Yes, HAL, sing it,” replies Dave. Dave, too, will get to his second childhood.
With HAL shut down, the rest of the crew killed by the computer while in their coma-cacoons, Dave learns from an auto-activated recording the purpose of the mission, and sets off in his pod to Jupiter, led on by the slab that mysteriously appears in front of him. In a tour-de-force of special effects beloved of potheads and acid-freaks everywhere, Dave goes to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.” What that means, we don’t know exactly, but we don’t care. Dazzling sights, weird sounds, and frightening stop-action imagery, derange our sense of time and space as we join Dave for his, and humanity’s last voyage.
The cold, airless, and lifeless reaches of interstellar space reveal themselves as strangely organic in yet another metaphoric transformation by Kubrick. The mineral shall be made flesh – is that not what we ourselves are, living, thinking matter, all of a piece with the elements of the universe? We are mostly hydrogen and oxygen, i.e. water…
There is a hint of the birth to come in an image that resembles the star child at the end, and the purpose of Dave’s journey is made clear in the interstellar spermatazoa shown at the lower right below. He is the seed.
The mind-bending sequence that follows goes way beyond surrealism. It succeeds in totally disorienting the viewer in his conceptions of narrative, time, space, and location, without resorting to easy avante garde tricks. The music by Georgy Ligeti is wonderful.
Where am I? Where is where? When am I? Where am I going?
Why am I here? What was that noise? Oh, there I am. On my deathbed.
The slab returns once more. Dave knows what he must do, he must touch it.
Something new is born.
The enigmatic blogger, Pancime, commented in an exchange begun on the esteemed blogger Jahsonic’s pages (He thought 2001 was boring!) that he thought the story of David Bowie’s Man Who Fell to Earth might be the tale of what happened to 2001’s starchild once he actually landed back “home.” An excellent observation, as that film is clearly influenced by and a comment on 2001.
With all the talk in the City about the poor and overcrowded state of the subways, I thought it would be a nice time to revisit this video of mine – 40 years old! – made as an homage to the trains. It is followed by a clip paying homage to 2001 which uses some of the same visual themes.
I made the piece during a summer class in video at NYU. The camera was about the size of a very large dictionary, and the the recording mechanism was slung over your shoulder and weighed a ton! I converted the video from 3/4″ tape to DVD several years ago at a video restoration lab in San Francisco.
The late sequence of the train moving through the tunnel as the Saint-Saëns music builds to a climax links the piece to the following bit inspired by 2001 and my night driving on the NJ turnpike. I have always been a time-space traveler! 🙂
These videos, and others I have made, are available on my MUNDO VIDEO!! page at this blog.
click here for larger image
I just cannot stop thinking about this graph that appeared with this article in the NYTimes recently. The piece discussed how the number of hot summer days, those above 90 degrees F, are projected to increase in the future, and it allows readers to enter their town and date of birth to see how the weather has changed between then and now.
Hmmm…. Well, we all know that climate is always changing, and we all know that it is warmer now, in general, than it was 100 years ago, but beyond that what does this article and its interactive graphic tell us?
I imagine that a lot of readers misinterpret the data plot and believe that it represents the rise in temperature in NYC over the recorded period: my experience is that most readers of these articles in the Times are not too concerned with details of data and data presentation. In fact, it is more accurate to say that the chart shows the number of “above 90-degree F days” in NYC over the period. That is, a count of days, not temperatures. Except that it doesn’t show that… On the left there is some text that says that it shows the “average number of days above 90-degrees F.” What does that mean?
If we look at the data point for the year 2010, we find a value of about ten days. Ten days above 90F in 2010? You could easily check the record to see if that is accurate. But the text says that ten days is the “average number” in 2010. In that year, there were either ten days above 90F or there were not ten days. An average does not enter into the discussion. That would be as if we said that June, on average, has thirty days.
The confusion is eliminated when we read the FAQ and Methodology document to which a link is provided at the end of the article: How many people do that, do you think? We learn that the data plot shows a twenty-year moving average of the above 90F days for each year. For example, for the year 2000, the number of above 90F days for 1990,1991, 1992…2000…2008, 2009, 2010 are added up and and divided by twenty-one (there are twenty-one years’ values) and an average is obtained. For 2001, the same process is used, but the summed years begin with 1991 and end with 2011. Moving averages are often used to smooth out the data curve: in this case, without doing it the plot would be very “spiky” with sudden changes in the number of above 90F days from year to year. Smoothing the data gives a better idea of the trend, but it is good practice to make clear up front that you have done so, which the authors of the piece do not do.
On the other hand, what about the years 2008 through 2018? For example, take the year 2015: we get a twenty-year moving average by summing the data from 2005 to 2015, and adding that to the data for 2016 to 2026… Oops! There is NO DATA for the years after 2017!! The kindly scientists at the Climate Impact Lab of Columbia University have used model data, simulated data, or shall we say, created data in place of actual historical data. They do, obliquely, note this fact in their FAQ and Methodology text, but you’d never know it by looking at the graph.
Consider this: their models show temperatures rising and above 90F days increasing, so the tendline after 2017 is rising. But unlike the rest of the graph, that is NOT actual recorded data. For all we know, the data record during that period is flat, or perhaps moving downward.
And speaking of flat data records, at least in NYC, the period from 1990 to 2017 (keeping in mind that the data for 2008 to 2017 is not actually the historical data) looks pretty much horizontal, i.e. constant, not increasing. But sure enough, we can be completely confident that the upward trend that begins…next year, will come about.
Well, we cannot be completely sure because the Climate Lab also tells us – they are honest, if not forthcoming – that the results plotted here represent the data range that two-thirds of the models project. I’m used to hearing the IPCC and other outfits talk about high or very high confidence in projections, i.e. a 90 or 95% confidence interval, but here we have a “just likely,” …mebbe… confidence interval of 66%. Of course, this is simply a statistical sample of modeled results, described with the unspoken assumption that the models are correct, or nearly correct, or more correct than not correct… 🙂 If all the models share a few assumptions and parameters that later are disproved, then the fact that 66% predict this is hardly something to inspire confidence. This, by the way, goes for all the climate projection models.
It would be nice if this graph for NYC were to be published every year in the NYTimes. Then we could see each year how accurate the projections actually were. Instead, this plot will be forgotten, and next year there will be a new batch, showing the rise in this or that frightful metric after the fateful year at hand.
Of course, it could happen exactly the way they are claiming it will. We shall see…!
Frederick I. Ordway III, the science advisor to Stanley Kubrick during the making of 2001, died last week.
From Raw Deal:
I always said I like talking to a sharp guy. You don’t waste breath. Precious thing, breath.
When people think of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, they think of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but the soundtrack is suffused with the sound of breathing, which is what I think of. The breathing in the space suits, in the space pod, as Dave decommissions HAL9000, and in the final scene, as the old man Dave meets his end.
I visited the Blue Lagoon, one of the most popular tourist spots in Iceland. Fun and nice, but a little weird, as are all hot spring resorts, I think. Eerie blue water that is nice and warm, with pots of white silica clay to slather onto your body. People wading about with clay-white faces, taking pictures of one another.
For those who want to avoid the pricey admission fee or the tourist scene at the Blue Lagoon, there is still the possibility of a refreshing soak in runoff from the many geothermal hiking areas around. I don’t know why, but this just brings Chaucer to my mind.
Besides hiking and bathing, there are other amusements in hot-spring land. Here are two people off to boil an egg in the runoff from a steaming borehole.
Much of the landscape around Reykjavik is rather forbidding, but I find it very beautiful. It has large plains covered in black lava flows, with thick, uneven carpets of moss.
I suspect that Iceland may have been featured in the final landing sequence of Kubrick’s 2001.
This one looks like something out of Escher.