Tuesday, May 08, 2018

2001: A Space Odyssey 50th Anniversary

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, and perhaps the greatest science fiction film in cinematic history.  Accordingly, film critics and scholars have approached the film in a number of ways.

2001: A Space Odyssey is open to many interpretations because of the narrative's ambiguous nature, and due to the absence of an overt explanation regarding key events and motives especially vis-à-vis the HAL 9000’s murderous behavior on the Jupiter mission. 

While acknowledging that 2001: A Space Odyssey may be viewed under a number of different and competing microscopes -- and quite rewardingly so -- I want to write today about what I believe is the Kubrick film’s primary focus: man and his tools.  

For our purposes today, a tool might be defined as “a device used to facilitate or perform work formerly or otherwise completed by manual means.”  Thus, the term "tool" can encompass spaceships, computers or other weapons, as well as more pedestrian instruments.

In terms of structure, 2001: A Space Odyssey is organized into four distinct segments, each diagramming a stage or phase of mankind’s historical development. 

In order, these are: “The Dawn of Man,” Clavius, “18 Months Later,” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”  Three of these segments are separated from one another by black title cards.  The Clavius section is not so delineated, but via a memorable visual transition instead.

In brief, every one of these four segments focuses specifically on the interaction between man and his tools, and the evolution of that relationship across the years and centuries.  This relationship grows, essentially, from a view of how man utilizes his tools for survival, to one of how he comes to depend on -- but simultaneously ignore -- the tools proliferating around him. 

Then, the progression continues in the final two sections of the film. 2001: A Space Odyssey's third part gazes at the way man (seemingly without intent...) allows tools to dominate him…and eventually threaten his very existence. 

Finally, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey meditates on the way that man might move beyond his long-held dependence on tools. 

Or alternately -- depending on your belief about the film’s unseen aliens -- the film meditates on how man finally unites or joins with them.

The Dawn of Man

2001: A Space Odyssey commences on Earth in pre-history as a group of hominids -- ape-like human ancestors -- struggle to survive in a harsh and forbidding natural landscape. 

These hominids form loose associations with one another at first, but are rivals for resources such as water and food. The hominids live in relative harmony with other creatures, such as cow-like animals, but this harmony is a limiter to their survival. If the hominids can’t kill for food when they need it, for instance, survival is imperiled.  Similarly, lack of access to water equates with death.  

In this landscape, those who are physically strong can take the land -- or resources -- from the weak or timid.

Then, one day, the imposing black Monolith appears on the savanna, and a curious hominid individual approaches it.  He is imbued with enhanced intelligence by this mysterious, alien object.  This increased intelligence manifests itself in an unusual way.  The affected hominid is able to see and contextualize a discarded animal bone as something new and different: as a tool.  

This tool assists him in procuring food. Specifically, it is a bludgeon with which to more effectively kill animals.  

Yet the tool is also vital for use in defense of the hominid's territory because it can be used to vanquish invaders.  Soon after the first use of the tool, the loose association of hominids seems to become more tribal.  The “tool” -- which overtly makes their lives better -- tightens and cements the loose bonds of “society.” It galvanizes them. But if the tool is a protector, make no mistake, it is also history's very first weapon.

Soon, Kubrick's camera records the tool's dynamic impact on man and his burgeoning civilization. The hominid tool user bashes an animal carcass in glorious slow-motion.   Bones fragments and other chunks of organic shrapnel are hurled into the air like exploding fire crackers.  The image represents a joyous celebration of destruction, and of man's new-found power.

Man now boasts the capacity to destroy on a level heretofore unseen.  The bone represents not merely weaponry, however, but mankind’s first step in the process of dominating the environment around him.  He is no longer victim to predators and competitors.  He can fight back with lethal force and re-shape the natural world to his specifications.

Mankind's long climb toward the stars has begun...


“The Dawn of Man” interlude in 2001: A Space Odyssey concludes with the triumphant hominid participating in an orgy of destruction, tossing that first tool -- an animal bone -- into the air.  Kubrick’s camera focuses on the bone’s ascent into the air and then cuts suddenly, while the tool is still airborne, to orbital space.  

In the relative space of the frame that the bone previously occupied, we now see a (roughly) bone-shaped satellite in its place. This moment, this match-cut, has been termed "one of the most breathtaking and inspired cuts in film history." (Jeff Rovin, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films, Citadel Press, 1975, page 123).

2001: A Space Odyssey then cuts once more, to several other brief shots of orbital satellites. These are nuclear weapon platforms, the very latest development of that long-ago weapon: the hominid's “bone.” These are the modern tools that allow man to protect himself, but also permit him to threaten his neighbor and preserve his territorial imperatives on Earth.  

Although mankind has developed greatly in the span since the Dawn of Man, Kubrick suggests through his remarkable visual transition from bone to space weapons platform that this development mostly arises in terms of his destructive potential.  Now, whole countries can be wiped out in mere seconds. Man not need even see his enemies or competitors, or come into physical proximity with them if he wishes to vanquish them.

In other words, man has finally mastered his environment, and he has done so by constructing ever-more powerful tools, ever more powerful weapons.

Yet there is another significant element of this equation as well.  The unmanned orbiting weapon platforms reveal that man has also ceded, to a large degree, the day-to-day control of his environment to his increasingly complex and powerful instruments.  

2001: A Space Odyssey’s sophomore segment is dominated, for the first several minutes at least, by a soundtrack composition that determinedly reflects this notion: The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss  II (1825 – 1899).  

A waltz is commonly defined as a dance performed by a “couple who as a pair turn rhythmically around and around as they progress around the dance floor.”  

However, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the couple that dances the waltz is not human.  Instead, the duo consists of a space station and the Orion Pan-Am space clipper.  The passenger vehicle approaching the station actually "tunes" itself to match the revolution of the space station. The two metal bodies in space perform a synchronized docking maneuver. The simple, repetitive nature of the waltz suggests that this movement is part of an almost unthinking routine.

The implication here is clearly that man has fashioned a world in which his tools have assumed a role of paramount importance, and work together in untroubled, unthinking coordination. Thus, the tools are a critical part of man’s environment, but not, at this juncture, in a manner that is deemed overtly threatening to man's supremacy.

Rather, the tools -- space stations, space passenger-liners, and so forth -- have permitted for man to expand his environment (into Earth orbit), and still maintain the façade of a regular or routine "human" life. Top put it another way, man has brought the leisure and affluence of Earth society (as well as the threat of nuclear destruction...) into the closest realm of the final frontier: high orbit.

After the docking of the spaceship, 2001: A Space Odyssey follows Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) to the airport-like interior of the space station, where many familiar 20th century “brands” have expanded their reach.  There’s a Howard Johnson's, a Hilton Hotel, and Floyd even utilizes a “Bell” picture-phone device to contact his daughter and wish her a happy birthday.  

In short order, Floyd also engages in conversation with several Soviet scientists -- who are suspicious of his presence and whatever secret is being closely monitored on the moon base at Clavius -- thus suggesting another brand has survived to the 21st century too: The Cold War.

Floyd then travels to Clavius Moon Base. He attends a board meeting, delivers an extremely dull and pedantic speech about security, and then heads out to Tycho crater, where a Monolith has been recently unearthed. Along the way -- aboard the moon-bus -- Floyd eats a ham sandwich and makes small-talk with the pilots. They compliment him on his speech, and in turn he dutifully compliments their work.

This entire section of 2001: A Space Odyssey is devoted to the manner in which man has rendered the frontier palatable by extending those things (and those tools….) which make his life more seem normal or more routine.  

The board-room scene in which Floyd discusses, before an audience of scientists, how to maintain security about the Monolith, is one of the most deadly dull imaginable, and the visual set-up reinforces that notion. Indeed, that's the point.  Virtually the entire scene is a static long-shot.

Virtually everything in the this Clavius interlude, from the boring “work” talk (x 2) to the act of eating a ham sandwich while flying over the lunar surface suggests that man has let his tools overwhelm him while he remains in a kind of developmental stasis.  Even the film's white-on-white visual palette suggests this fact.  In the board room scene, the white of the walls is blinding, and nearly washes out everything, including the event's speaker, Floyd.

Our space-age tools render everything...ordinary, it seems. There's even a zero-gravity toilet for bathroom emergencies! The natural setting or surrounding -- orbital space -- however, is ignored. This lack of oversight regarding technology, regarding our tools is clearly an approach with problems, as the next section of the film reveals in detail.

Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later

When men working on the moon excavate the Monolith, it emits a signal beamed at Jupiter, and so Floyd and others quickly prep a voyage to that distant world.  Discovery One is the ship to make the journey.  It travels with a crew of six, at least according to the BBC News Special featured in the film  The six include three scientists in cryogenic hibernation, two astronaut pilots to manage the flight (Frank Poole [Gary Lockwood] and David Bowman [Keir Dullea]), and the most advanced computer ever constructed, the HAL 9000.

HAL, the audience is quickly informed, can “reproduce most of the activities of the human brain” and is “foolproof and incapable of error.”   

In short then, HAL represents the ultimate tool, one who can mimic -- to the last detail -- every facet of human consciousness.  He even refers to himself as a “conscious entity.”  And according to Dave, HAL acts like “he has genuine emotions.” 

Kubrick suggests  HAL's "sentience" and importance as a co-equal of man by favoring the computer's view-point several times.  Several shots consist of us -- the audience (or the camera) -- looking out through Hal's ubiquitous red eye. This perspective all but declares HAL's status as a life-form.  It is also a significant change from the camera-work in the earlier sections of the film.  

In his essay, "The Face in the Machine," (Stanley Kubrick: Seven Films, Chapter 2, McFarland, 1998, page 54.) author Randy Rasmussen notes that the Dawn of Man scene is notable for its camera-work, which suggests "a neutral observer."  Such is not the case here.  The viewpoint of a neutral observer is replaced, at least at times, by HAL's distinctive eyesight.

So what does HAL's nature -- and choices -- say about man and his tools?

By recreating himself  in “tool” form, man has actually only succeeded in recreating all his own weaknesses and insecurities.  

Tools originated, in the Dawn of Man section of the film, as weapons that man uses for purposes of destruction.  By recreating his psychology in machine form -- A.I., essentially -- man has now transmitted that very pathology to his tools.  Not only is HAL inquisitive like his organic creators, he is capable of imagination.  And because of that imagination, he can -- in his own words -- “project concern” about the mission to Jupiter.  That concern graduates to paranoia, and HAL eventually commits murder.  Does he do so out of fear of where is headed?  Of what he will find upon reaching his destination?  

Or does HAL become a killer so to preserve his standing as “the most reliable computer ever made?

We can conclude from HAL's narcissistic behavior that by the year 2001 and the dawn of A.I., our tools have finally grown as psychotic and confused as mankind, himself.  As much as he is a child of man, HAL is also a child (or grandchild) of bombs, tanks, those orbital nuclear satellites and every other murderous tool our race has ever built.  Both of HAL's parents -- machine and man -- are steeped in a long history of bloodshed and death.    

One of the famous scenes in science fiction film history occurs in this third section of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It involves man’s triumph over the tool (or child...) that has attempted to dispatch its master. Dave Bowman breaks into HAL’s memory bank and begins to very methodically shut down the computer’s higher brain functions. 

While this happens, HAL rather pitiably sings a song called “A Bicycle Built for Two (Daisy).” 

The lyrics of that song are instructive, and reflect, in a strange way, man’s relationship with his tools.  “I’m half crazy, all for the love of you,” sings HAL, and indeed, he is indeed half-crazy, torn between fulfilling his programming and satisfying his own, human-spawned sense of imagination, inquisitiveness, and paranoia 

Later, HAL sings the lyric “It won’t be a stylish marriage,” and again…it is not a stylish marriage between man and machines, is it? It has become quite an uneasy relationship.  And the bicycle built for two? Well, that's the Discovery One, in a sense. It is the conveyance headed into the future, carrying man and machine together in "marriage" toward a joined destiny.

Nuclear weapons hang in Earth orbit, ready to destroy their makers at the push of a button, and on Discovery, a microcosm version of that “war” rages. The tool has attempted to usurp its master, and the master -- now desperate -- strikes back against it.  

Yet mankind, as we saw in The Dawn of Man, cannot survive without his tools. And as we witnessed in the Clavius section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he no longer even recognizes how dependent upon them he is. 

What HAL and his murderous ways acutely point out is the fact that man's tools have grown to such intelligence and ubiquity that the user/tool relationship itself is in question.  Not a stylish marriage, indeed.

The agenda from Kubrick, I believe here, is one of warning. It might very well be that the director viewed this period (the turn of the century) as the epoch in which the human race was in the most danger of destroying itself. 

Lest we forget historical context, 2001: A Space Odyssey was produced in the late sixties during a conflict that seemed like it was going on forever (Vietnam) The threat of nuclear annihilation  -- when the push of a single button could rain death upon millions across the planet -- was ever present.

But if man can survive his flirtation with deadly machines, with the technology he himself has forged to tend to his needs and make life comfortable, 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to suggest, than there will be no limits for what he can achieve. If  masters the urge that gave rise to such weapons in the first place, the sky's the limit.

Which brings us to…

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

The final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey has often been considered the most opaque in terms of its meaning.  What actually happens here?  

To summarize, Bowman learns of the Monolith’s existence and, in a space pod, actually travels inside it.  He mysteriously finds himself in a Victorian sitting room where he ages and confronts the Monolith again.  Then,  he reaches for it, just as the hominid reached for it in “The Dawn of Man” and as an astronaut reached for it in the Clavius section.   In reaching out for the Monolith, Bowman is re-born  As hominid became man, man now becomes Star Child.

Some of the last images of 2001: A Space Odyssey showcase the Star Child regarding Earth with curious, attentive eyes.

So how does this coda fit in with the leitmotif regarding the evolution of man’s relationship with his tools?

There are two interpretations to consider.  

The first is that Bowman, by defeating the HAL 9000 and traveling inside the Monolith, has been proven victorious during the most dangerous time in mankind’s history.  He has heard the wake-up call (provided unwittingly by HAL) and re-asserted -- for the first time since that hominid tossed the weaponized animal bone into the air -- humanity’s control over his own tools.  

With no regard for his future survival, Bowman chooses exploration of the frontier over his own continuation.  He seeks to move forward (and thus “evolve”) when he could have simply stayed on Discovery and engineered a Robinson Crusoe-type existence, sans HAL.  ''

He not only defeats an upstart creation or tool, Bowman abandons routine and security for the unknown, to expand his own personal knowledge. He chooses the extraordinary over the ordinary, and remember the Clavius section of the film is all about how space travel has indeed become very ordinary.

It is Bowman’s courage (like the Homind’s courage, or the astronaut’s courage...) that reveals to the Monolith that man is ready to grow again. In this case, that courage involves leaving what is known (the Discovery One, personal safety) for what is unknown.

The second interpretation is actually one that I prefer. The aliens in the film are never depicted in a corporeal form that we would recognize as life.  But an argument could be made that Monolith is that alien life form. And it is simultaneously a mechanism tool (spurring evolution and transmitting a signal), and a life-form in and of itself. 

The Monolith is the alien life form behind man’s development from savage to open-eyed star child;” one that has, we must assume, integrated the idea and use of tools into itself.  

The greatest stage of “existence,” therefore, occurs when tools and their users come together in one form, fully integrated. Today, some people call this futuristic notion “The Singularity,” and there is much talk of it occurring in forty years or so.   

But the bottom line is that the Monolith -- while physically-appearing to be an “instrument” -- shows a human interest or curiosity in mankind. It cares for Dave Bowman through the end of his days. It accelerates man's development when that development is earned and warranted. 

So if HAL was the mad machine born from humanity’s weaknesses and pathology, the Monolith appears to be an instrument and life-form imbued with qualities we would consider man’s finest.

The idea that man will meld with his machines or tools and emerge as something greater than either parent is characterized visually, I believe, by the frequent views of Dave Bowman's eye during the Stargate sequence.  As you can see from the image above, this eye is not quite human anymore. 

Instead, it's like a "technologized" version of a human eye, a melding of HAL and Dave.  

And the only close-up of an eye that Kubrick has favored us with so far is one of HAL's.  But now -- in the Stargate sequence -- Dave's eye is featured in similar detail.  A visual connection is forged.

Beyond Our Tools: Order in the Universe

Stanley Kubrick’s selection of shots and compositions in 2001: A Space Odyssey suggest that beyond man and his tools there is an order to the universe that humans can’t necessarily understand, or even detect. 

Perhaps becoming the Star Child means reckoning with that currently “unknowable” order, one which I believe to be something akin to Singularity.

Kubrick begins the task of suggesting order in the cosmos from the inaugural shot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

The first image is of a beautiful outer space landscape which depicts Earth's pocked moon in slow descent. 

Beyond the moon, slowly growing visible is Earth itself: blue, beautiful, and alive. And over the Earth, even more distant stands Sol, our brightly shining sun. The three bodies are aligned perfectly, suggesting a connection, an invisible line, a perfect one-two-three. This is 2001: A Space Odyssey's first indication of a cosmic order, but not the last.

Even the soundtrack suggests this order.  2001’s “theme song” as it might even be considered is “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” a formal composition by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) which again, primarily denotes order.  

As Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock wrote in in Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films (Crown; 1982, page 190), the composition: “…opens with an ascending phrase of three notes…which represent Nietzcshe’s view of the evolutionary rise of man…These three notes serve note that the number three is essential to the film: from the perfect alignment of the three spheres of Earth, Moon, and sun at the beginning to the appearance of things in threes...

We see this kind of "ordered" staging of heavenly bodies in "The Dawn of Man" sequence as well. 

There, Kubrick gives us a shot from ground level, gazing up at the imposing monolith. The sun -- high in the sky -- is intersected by the Monolith's apex, and beyond the sun is a crescent moon.  Here we have another viewpoint that intimates a frame of intentional arrangement: a direct line from the Monolith to the heavens above; to the "star" people or aliens.

Late in the film (near the climax), Kubrick's camera depicts a shot of Jupiter and its myriad satellites. Once more, the heavenly bodies are lined up in symmetric, precise sequence, but then -- interestingly -- a black Monolith intersects the line of planets and moons almost perfectly on the horizontal axis, splitting the line in two.

It is almost as though here we are gazing at an algebraic equation -- a new meaning -- created by the planets' positions.  It is an order beyond mankind's understanding or comprehension since we -- unlike Kubrick's omnipotent camera -- can never see such a view, can never act as "the eyes of the universe," as it were.

We travel between worlds; in orbital space, but can we see the stars how God might see them?

Or how the Monoliths do?

In all these views, the stars are immaculate and perfect, arranged and organized for eyes not our own.

But it is, perhaps, in our constantly evolving relationship with our tools that we have the best chance to some day detect that very perspective.

We'll  see.

Next Friday: 2010: Odyssey Two (1984)

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