2001: A Space Odyssey Egyptian Theater Screening

This is my first opportunity to write about this film for this blog. The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood California has obtained a new 70mm print of of the film and they screened it nine times during the holiday season. We made it to the final screening, and to be honest, I’m kicking myself for missing the eight prior screenings. My daughter went with me and she is apparently not a fan of the film. I saw another blogger recently dismiss 2001 as over hyped and boring. Everyone will of course see a film through their own prism, and that is probably why I am willing to go to bat for a movie that does not need any defense from me at all. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the great achievements of cinema. It is one of the reasons that I can look people who think those of us who dislike a film like “The Tree of Life” are intellectually shallow, and say “Bullshit”. This film is more profound, deep and well made than a dozen avant-garde movies that today’s audiences might respond to.

I come to this film with a long history. When I was ten years old, a friend of my father, who happened to be one of the projectionists at the Cinerama Dome and Pacific Theater in Hollywood, arranged for our family to attend one of the “road show” presentations of the film. Somewhere [probably the notorious box in the garage] I still have the souvenir program for that exhibition. I remember that my Mother and Father took me, and that my brothers did not go.  It was a school night because I had to get up the next day, and I talked about the movie with my friends. [I doubt Arthuro Salazar will remember, but if he does, maybe he can confirm my story]. My parents thought that the movie was strange, and I certainly would not disagree, but I also thought it was wonderful. I was a precocious ten year old, so I probably thought I understood the whole thing, but of course I could not really have done so. I next saw the film at some of the numerous screenings that happened over the years at the Cinerama Dome. Some of you old enough to know may recall that some people liked to get high and then lay on the floor at the foot of the screen during the final twenty minutes of the film. I was not one of those folks but I did see them now and then. The visual impact of the film on the curved giant screen in 70mm was enough to convince me that what I was seeing was important.

I have watched it a dozen times on home video and in theaters since those days and every time I find new things about the movie to appreciate. Since we won’t be getting any more Stanley Kubrick films, we have to make due assessing the legacy he left us, and that is a rabbit hole I love going down. At last nights screening, I saw and heard a half dozen things that made me think about the themes of the film or the technique of the film maker. I probably won’t get to all of them today, but I hope there will be future opportunities to write about and share my thoughts on this film.

The print last night was struck from a road show version of the film, so it included an overture, an intermission and exit music. The lights are lowered before the start of the film, but not entirely. As the music plays, you are bombarded with a variety of classical and tonal music that seems ethereal to start with. You can tell from the mood being established that this is not going to be your average popcorn munching experience in the dark. The sound design of the film starts before the movie does and then comes that opening, the one that has been parodied and copied ever since it first startled audiences in 1968.

The juxtaposition of the stunning space imagery with the Dawn of Man sequence that the movie starts with is one of the things that seems to befuddle people. The posters and title promise space adventure but the movie begins with a long section devoted to ape like creatures learning to use tools. “2001” plants the idea that human development may have been achieved by extra-terrestrial intervention. While this is not necessarily at odds with Judaeo-Christian beliefs (maybe the monolith is God planting a seed from the tree of wisdom) , it certainly is a novel approach. The idea that creatures who forage for food, ignore the animals around them as a potential source of nourishment, and then huddle in fear of the night, could be given a slight push to start the evolutionary process is original and deep. Kubrick lets us see the small changes in these creatures and then in a cascade of images we discover tool use and everything changes. The final shot of this sequence, when the man-ape flings the bone he has used as a weapon into the air and as it comes down a quick edit turns the falling object into a modern satellite is one of the great edits in film history. Along with Lawrence blowing the match out in “Lawrence of Arabia”, Kubrick and Lean create an artistic standard for editing which will define all future films.

One place where a viewer who criticizes this film can at least find some ground is found in the next segment. Dr. Heywood Floyd’s trip to the Moon to deal with the discovery of an alien object, becomes a chance to show off some visually. There are three segments where we track a space vehicle as it makes a landing or approach. The space plane has to synchronize with the rotating space station (all to the Classical score that is leisurely and idyllic.] We soon get another great effects moment as the Lunar Lander approaches the surface of the moonbase and a gaping hole with teeth-like doors opening to receive it, provides us another chance to marvel at the four million year jump in time that the transition edit allows. Finally, there is the space bus which transports Floyd and the other scientists to the excavation site, and it is all computer screens and sound effects to show off the technological innovation of mankind but also the director. The pace of each of these episodes is slow and deliberate. The fact that they are nearly back to back might make the film seem repetitive. In addition, the segments between each of these landings is separated with interactions in which the characters engage in banalities with only the slightest amount of exposition. Kubrick’s characters are really drawn in a cold manner. I don’t mean that they are heartless but that their personalities display almost no personality or human warmth. Even the phone call Floyd has with his young daughter feels perfunctory. While conceding that these moments are longer than most people are used to today, it can also be said that all films prior to the 1980s were slower at coming to the point. Sometimes the brushstrokes rather than the images are what distinguish “art” from a mere representation. I would say that these are some indulgences that an artist like Kubrick is entitled to make and that in the scheme of things, they make the picture work better in other parts of the story.

The sound emitted by the monolith both for early man and for Dr. Floyd’s group, is mercilessly loud and penetrating. The audience will experience the same things the actors do. Again, this is a deliberate choice that the director is responsible for, and it works. Maybe it is a little annoying, but it makes the sections with long periods of silence even more effective.

Once we are on Discovery One, the silence takes over again. There will be moments punctuated with sounds and with music, but frequently, the mundane tasks of the three active crew members are surrounded with no sound at all. There is a reason that Ridley Scott’s “Alien” was promoted with the phrase “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The vacuum of space overpowers the technology of man. As awesome as the difference 4 million years in time can make in human technology, it is suddenly dwarfed by the enormity of space and the thundering silence that is returned as we shout out in defiance of those barriers to human exploration. The astronauts labored breathing as the do an EVA to replace a part of the communication system is loud and ever present, until suddenly it isn’t. We can see poor Frank’s body tumbling silently through space, and there is no warning or outcry. Only when HAL decides to erase the other human crew do we get a return to sound levels that are loud and powerful. The warnings that go off as the astronauts in hibernation die with no visible violence, are all mechanical. When Dave chooses to enter through the airlock, the exploding bolts and the violent ejection of astronaut from the pod are shown silently, until an atmosphere can be restored.

What should be the most obvious sound element and yet it could be easily overlooked, is the voice of HAL 9000. Douglas Rain deserves special mention because his is the dominant role in the last half of the movie. Hall is just personable enough to be easy to interact with, but the voice is so measured and unflappable, that no one would confuse him with a human, except by comparison to the two cold Kubrickian astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Hal fits into their band of awake travelers just right. It is not until Dave becomes desperate enough to re-enter the vehicle in the dramatic fashion that was open to him, that either of these characters displays much emotion. The volume and distortion of HAL’s voice is one of those sound elements that make this movie work so well. There was one visual element that I thought added a bit to the drama of Dave’s act of desperation. As he has the pod release the body of Frank, the arms of the pod pull back up into a crooked position and they resemble the arms of a boxer, surging forward to confront their opponent in the center of the ring. Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist, and I have no doubt that the image was purposeful.

Maybe the most controversial part of the film is the trip through time and space as Dave takes his pod and enters the giant monolith orbiting Jupiter. The light show and special effects might seem quaint to audiences used to CGI intense scenes in all kinds of films. It may have been a little indulgent, but it is not nearly as long as some people complain it is, and if you watch the images closely, you will see foreshadowing of events related to the birth of a new human entity. Those hippies who wanted to use this segment to supplement their high, give critics of the film an entree into pointing out the excesses of these moments.  Focusing on the visual instead of the metaphysical elements at this point is exactly the opposite of what one should be doing.

Even though he made one of the greatest comedies of all time, “Dr. Strangelove”, Kubrick is rarely thought of as a humorist. Although this film is serious and there are dry stretches with no warm characters to relate to, Kubrick manages to find the funny in a few spots. One obvious example is Dr, Floyd having to read the ten part directions for using a zero gravity toilet.

If you are not familiar, here it is for you:

In another moment of humor, that exists in tragic circumstances, HAL pleads with Dave to respond to him and to allow him to go on with the mission.

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

I mentioned earlier that last night’s screening was a road show version that includes an intermission. The break here occurs at the most chilling moment in the film for the audience. Frank and Dave have taken precautions to avoid being overheard by HAL as they consider what to do if they discover HAL is malfunctioning. The final shot before the lights come on is a silent shifting of the camera from Frank’s lips moving to Dave’s lips movie as we look through the pod window and we realize that HAL can understand everything that is being said. The lights come up and there is a ten minute interval for us to ponder what might be coming.

The break at the screening was certainly longer than 10 minutes, and it needed to be. Unlike most public events, the line at the men’s room was the one that snaked down the lobby, while the women’s facilities had no visible line at all. This may be a reflection of the slightly male heavy geek culture intruding into the practicality of plumbing. The Egyptian hold more than six hundred people and it was essentially packed last night. We sat in the back right corner of the balcony for this show. The size of the screen and the 70mm projection meant that just about every seat in the house would be acceptable.

Our view of the Ceiling at the Egyptian last night.

Amanda and I discussed the film for the entire ride back to our home, about forty miles from Hollywood. She admires the film but said that she does not need to see it again for another 10 years. She is as passionate about films as I am, and as an example, we see Lawrence of Arabia, just about any time we can find it on the big screen. Her lack of enthusiasm for this movie is understandable but a bit disappointing to me. I still feel in awe of this movie, every time I see it. I don’t feel the passage of the long sequences as a burden to be borne but an experience to be savored. We talked about why our feelings are different and she had a nice way of putting it. “It feels like an experimental film with sections of more narrative form put into it, instead of a narrative feature with segments that are experimental edited in”. So it is a matter of what you need a film to be.

This movie is not really about character and although there is a plot, it is very abstract in nature. The “sequel” “2010: The Year We Make Contact” is a much more traditional story. It is not ground breaking and certainly not as cerebral as this film is, but it is definitely more accessible. This may be a topic we tackle when we finally get around to starting the podcast we have been promising to launch.

These are not all my thoughts on this film, but they will serve as a staring point for now. If you have not seen “2001” on the big screen, do yourself a solid and find an opportunity to do so. If the theater sound is set up correctly, and you get a 70mm print, you will find it to be a very different experience, and one that you can talk about for a long time with your friends. My kid may be happy to wait ten years to see this again, but I’d be willing to go again tonight if I had the opportunity.

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