Thursday, December 29, 2005

2001, five years later

Five years, or thirty-seven, thirty-eight . . . who's counting?
This morning, Karen watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on TV while I read through Miss Snark's Crap-o-meter critiques of novel synopses. This juxtaposition led me to wonder how I would write a synopsis for the 2001 story. Think about it. If you focus on the main story arc, your bullet summary will be: An alien artifact acts as a catalyst to human evolution. You would leave out the HAL 9000 subplot because it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. It doesn't further the plot. It even lacks a thematic connection to the rest of the movie. The trouble is, I like character-driven drama. HAL is the best character in the story, and the HAL subplot contains the movie's most poignant moments. Yet if your bullet summary reads: A sentient computer develops a paranoid streak and becomes a homicidal maniac, what will the agent or publisher make of the remaining 3/4 of the story?
I've been conflicted about this movie ever since I saw it in the theatre as a seven-year-old. Afterwards, I remember feeling bored, bewildered, and perhaps a little stoned. I can still hear my mother yelling at my brother, "What's wrong? What's the matter with him? Why is he acting like that?" Nothing wrong with me at all, except I had no idea what the ending meant, and when I read Arthur C. Clarke's book the following year, I was convinced Clarke didn't understand the ending, either. Opinions about this movie vary wildly. Pauline Kael, who never met a Kubrick movie she didn't execrate*, called 2001 "the biggest amateur movie of them all, complete even to the amateur-movie obligatory scene -- the director's little daughter (in curls) telling daddy what kind of present she wants." Over at IMDB, a Finnish fellow writes, "One has to be ready for it, or it cannot be understood. In fact I don't think it can be understood at all, at least not all of it at once. It is a philosophical journey to the infinite and beyond, a masterpiece of it's genre . . ." You won't find many reviews which are in-between. The film ranks #87 in IMDB's top 250. Read through the 1000+ reader comments if you like. Most are gushingly positive**. Well, folks, I fall in between. Yes, the movie is beautiful, right down to the non-whooshing*** spacecraft and HAL's glowing soul. The spacecraft special effects are so damned gorgeous, I'm willing to forgive Kubrick the LSD trip at the end. I'll even forgive him the Star Child.
Yes, HAL's story carries as much dramatic heft now as it did in 1968. Yes, it is ambitious and brave and noble to try to make a movie about enlightenment (Karen's theory re: the ending). But, holy cow, the story does not hang together. Without HAL, we have majesty and mystery, but precious little drama. Without the monolith, we have a fine space opera, but one which lacks a beginning or an ending. With HAL and the monolith, we have the cinematic equivalent of a grafted cactus. Samuel R. Delany, a writer for whom I have great respect, tried to pull it all together in this essay, but I don't think he's successful. Another Golden Age SF writer, Lester Del Rey, slammed the film in his 1968 review. What did Kubrick have to say about 2001? The man hated explaining his movies. I suspect the best we'll get is his endorsement of 15-year-old Margaret Stackhouse's notes on the film: "Margaret Stackhouse's speculations on the film are perhaps the most intelligent that I've read anywhere, and I am, of course, including all the reviews and the articles that have appeared on the film and the many hundreds of letters that I have received. What a first-rate intelligence!" I've read Stackhouse's notes, and you know what? I still don't think Kubrick is telling a coherent story. There. Glad I got that off my chest. In HAL's words, "I feel much better now, I really do." D. *Sorry for the two-bit word, but if you read Kael's review, you'll see that the words hate and detest are far too mild. **If you're interested in reading a more scholarly appraisal of the critical reaction to 2001, read this superb essay at 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive. This excellent website also has an excellent compendium of other resources on the web. ***In space, no one can hear you whoosh. PS: Craving more Kubrick? Here's another cool link.

6 Comments:

Blogger mm said...

I don't think I've ever seen it, though it seems to me it involves apes cavorting around a giant penis.

12/29/2005 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger Beard said...

Doug, thank you for reminding me of the first time I saw "2001". I was around 8 years old, and it was on, at 1AM, on a school night, on a UHF channel, with static. I was up with my Dad. He in his recliner, me in my bean bag, with popcorn. One of my favorite memories of me and my Dad. Mom peaked out, at 2 saw the two of us were still up and enthralled, and didn't say a thing about it being a school night. A wonderful memory.

We both agreed, the ending was a train wreck, but it was a spectacularly beautiful train wreck.

As an aside, I use wav clips from Hal for error messages on my computer.

12/29/2005 07:32:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Maureen, all sorts of rude comments come to mind, but I'll restrain myself (yes! It's possible!)

Beard, I think I would bash my monitor in if I had to listen to this all the time.

12/29/2005 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Kate R said...

"the reader is instructed to imbibe drugs" no longer works as an instructional device in a synopsis.

And it's not a penis, it's a flat screen tv.

12/30/2005 05:01:00 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

I never got '2001', but then I tend to be a plain-spoken sort of person who says what he means. I guess I'm dumb that way. It seems to me that if a movie (or a story) has a point to make, then it should damn well come out and make it. Wrapping it so deeply in metaphor that it can mean pretty much anything doesn't qualify.

12/30/2005 05:02:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Kate: but that's how I saw The Song Remains the Same! Eraserhead, too, for that matter.

Dean: so I take it you disagree with the IMDB poster? ;o)

12/30/2005 10:03:00 AM  

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