Thursday, March 18, 2010
I suppose I should get my response to 2001: A Space Odyssey down before I peruse the mounds of analysis I am sure has been written since it came out in 1968, lest these virgin thoughts be tainted. There likely isn’t terribly much I can say that hasn’t been said already, so I’ll keep it brief.
Kubrick’s films are often baffling. Technical marvels for sure, but they sure do like to keep the viewer at arm’s length. Clockwork Orange with its wild set design and deliberately distant, objective camera, Full Metal Jacket with its bifurcated structure and front-loaded content, and 2001 with… well geez, where do I start? The first three minutes of music in total black, long passages of minimal action that play like music videos for classical music cues, a full 55 minutes’ passage before our “protagonist” and any sort of conflict is introduced, an episodic story, ten minutes of hallucinogenic visuals followed by a surrealist dénouement, and music that continues several minutes after the credits have finished rolling. That the film has become a cultural touchstone is hardly surprising; it came out as the 60s counterculture was about to peak, the story stays grounded long enough for mainstream audiences to get into it, and even once it does unmoor itself from traditional narrative, there are still some stunning effects to keep the bewildered viewer’s attention. No, the bigger surprise is that Metro Goldwyn-Mayer ever backed a movie that is not only relentlessly off-putting, but must have been enormously expensive and risky given its groundbreaking visuals.
We ought be grateful for the chance they took, for while 2001 as narrative is drawn out and maddeningly opaque, those criticisms are so beside the point that they may even be considered the picture's virtues. Kubrick’s aim was obviously less to tell a story than to explore, in cinematic form, the boundaries of man, from its simian beginnings to its liberation from the Earth, to the creation of new consciousness (in HAL, naturally), to Beyond the Infinite. And exploration naturally entails minute observation, hence the measured pace, the long cuts. It’s cinematic poetry, presenting us with novel sights and sounds (sometimes in isolation: there are the music pieces that play without visual accompaniment of course, and then there is the moment following the HAL-Dave confrontation in the pod, when I thought my DVD player had frozen because of three or four shots in which there was no movement and, being in the vacuum of space, no sound.) Poems can tell a story of course, but to make that the focus of one's criticism is to hack at so few trees amid so much forest. Even if it doesn’t make sense in the end (and after only a single viewing, I am hardly in a place to assert that), 2001 has more than fulfilled its duty in taking us new places and pushing the boundaries of its medium.
And just to be provocative, I’ll end by saying: this is what Avatar could have been.