Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Defending 2001

2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. Those real cinemaniacs out there will totally empathize with this, while the people who didn't understand the film or whose attentions drifted away while watching it will be baffled at the logic of my tastes. They'll say "Ewww, it's so boring" or--like I heard my dad say when I was a small child--"What the hell? There was a baby floating in space at the end?"

As if that were a bad thing...

I mention this because I recently revisited a post I wrote on the IMDB replying to someone who was quite harshly criticizing this masterpiece of masterpieces. And this is what I wrote in response to anyone else who shared this view of the film after inevitably and understandably watching it on TV for the first time:

Before you read this, keep in mind that I am a lover of all types of movies, regardless of their ambitions. In other words, I could just as easily be defending Meatballs or The Incredible Melting Man or Showgirls here. But I am here, specifically, to come to the defense of the greatest, and perhaps the most misunderstood film ever made. I am sympathetic to, even a little bit in pity of the people who don't get 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Because I believe you are all victims of the hype machine which has taken over the movie industry since 2001 premiered in April 1968. It is not a movie, like many, that you run out and rent once someone declares in astonishment their surprise at your having not seen (or experienced) it. It is a movie you must realize is so far above all other movies in terms of how it uses the specific artifices of cinema--it is so far above that, that those who have never seen anything like it are sure to react negatively once they've been challenged by it. And, so, in realizing this, you must psych yourself up for this experience. You must say to yourself "A week from today, I will see 2001, and I will read about it beforehand to prepare myself, and then I will see it, and hopefully reap its full benefits." To treat the watching of this movie cavalierly is to doom yourself to being hatefully mystified by it from the start.

Because let me state it plainly: 2001, whether you think it boring or not, is the greatest movie that has been made or will be made. It is completely successful in dramatizing the history of man from ape until superhuman. No other movie will ever even attempt to do such a thing without being compared to this progenitor. And no movie could ever do it. As it is a film that takes this tremendous leap, it cannot be held to the same accountability that other lesser-scoped movies are held to (and let's face it: ALL other movies are lesser-scoped).

So, those who are used to conventional plots where everything is dutifully spelled out in some way or shape; those who are used to the snappy dialogue to keep them connected to troubled but identifiable characters; those who are too used to the formulaic, to the charming, to the loud and boisterous, to the conventional---those viewers are going to have to look elsewhere for satisfaction. As for those who carp about the lack of memorable characters in 2001--well, the movie has one of the great characters in movie history. That that "person" is a semi-faceless computer should not matter much; if it's humanity you're after, remember that HAL 9000 is very much a mirror of the human condition: friendly, hard-working, prideful, suspicious, fearful, curious and, ultimately, murderous.

The danger I fall into here is that I, and anyone else who loves 2001, could now attempt to explain its mysteries to you. But that would rob you of much of its fun. So I will avoid this temptation. As Kubrick said, "The truth is in the feel of it, not the think of it." I should say now that, beyond all this, I know that it is unfair to initially judge 2001 while watching in anything other than a movie theater--one with a screen that is not only large enough to demand your undivided attention, but is also the beneficiary of the lulling yet engaging powers of film projection.

Perhaps most do not realize this, but when you watch movies on DVD or VHS or TV in general, the brain is not as engaged as it should be. When you watch a film, in the theater, projected through celluloid at 24 frames per minute, your mind is the object that's really creating the illusion of movement. You see a picture, and a picture, and a picture, 24 times a second, and your brain makes the connection between all of those little still pictures, and is thus automatically always engaged, and thus transported. Mind you, this goes for all films that are projected in this way. This adventure is what we pay big money to experience when we go to the movies.

When watching a film at home, or at a theater using digital projection, this work that so delights many human brains in movie theaters, and hopefully will for a long time--this work is done for you. There's no 24 frames per second bullcrap at home. These images are electronically blended together for you, like processed food. As a result, if a film is not loud or dramatic enough to punch through to the viewer by sheer force, one can find themselves meandering away, easily distracted by a ringing phone, by a light or a noise, by a lover or friend, by a pet, or by one's own thoughts. This might be something most movie viewers have never thought about. Or maybe, if they did, their distractions were merely attributed to the small size of the TV screen, or to some perceived fault of the movie or its makers.

Well, size is important, as we all know, but it's not the only importance. Film demands your attention, unless you just refuse to give it, which is your right, of course. But don't always blame that lack of attention on the film. Blame your dislike of any movie on what you PERSONALLY like or dislike. If you dislike quiet, laconic, even what might be called boring films, then just admit to this. Admit that you need a lot more to keep you engaged--emotional or physical explosions and catharsis, if you will. Then, upon admitting this, one discovers something about themselves. But don't always go blaming the movie itself--whatever movie we may be discussing. That movie in question is what it is. So you can only blame yourself.

This is the joy, in essense, of watching movies. They can help define us, define who we are, what we love, what we enjoy, what we value. Ultimately, then, 2001 is a movie for people who look beneath the surface, whose brains crave the deeper thinkings. This is not intellectual arrogance; this is who we are--accept it or on your bike you go. 2001: A Space Odyssey was made by Stanley Kubrick, and co-written by Arthur C. Clarke--both of whom were geniuses on the level of Mozart or Picasso or Michaelangelo. It was targeted, as few movies are today, to other people who had the seeds of genius in them, or at least the appreciation of those who have it. And, hey, if you're not one of those people, it's fine. Nothing against you. You're not a lesser form of humanity. Calm down. But these sorta people, these seeds, they find entertainment in places those without this mode of thought can't find it. These people, their entertainment can be in other great things like GoodFellas, or The Matrix, or The Godfather, or Deep Red, or The Music Man, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Ran, or The 400 Blows.

But--and nothing against these other examples of filmic perfection, mind you--those who revel in the notion of big art, and big thinking, and celluloid answers to the gigantic questions, like where did we come from, and who are we and where are we going...well, 2001 is their movie. It's my movie, that's for sure. To those who don't understand or accept all I have written, or how I have written it, or who detect a sense of mental superiority in my tone, I advise you to trust me: reevaluate your position only after you've seen 2001:A Space Odyssey projected on film, on a massive scale, during one of its many periodic theatrical revivals. Then we can have a real debate.

P.S. Anyone who has not yet seen 2001--you are in a lucky position. Look at these images included here. Get engrossed in them, as I was before I thought I had seen the film. Imagine them all coming from the same movie. Be confounded by them. Be amazed by them. And then treat yourself to them fully, with your mind completely open, with it expecting something totally unique. In this brain state, you will not be disappointed. Take these images. Soak them in. Love them. They are yours forever.


Eric Gilliland said...

I recently showed 2001 to my freshman english class. Judging by their reactions I don't think any of them had ever seen anything quite like it. During the famous shot of the primate throwing the bone into the air followed by the jump to the future, I noticed a girl turning to her friend and raising her eyebrow as if saying, "that was pretty cool." So I guess Kubrick's still got it.

Dean Treadway said...

That's terrific to hear your kids were loving it! Makes me have hope for the human race. But then again, how could they not love it? Thanks for the anecdote, Eric!