2001: A Space Odyssey, the magic of pure cinema.

Section 3 of Kubrick's iconic sic fi classic.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

People often remember 2001: A Space Odyssey as being divided into three parts. It’s actually in four sections. The first part sees us in the depths of our prehistory. And it’s a pretty accurate summary of what was then known about our origins in the mid 1960s.

We began as part ape part man, gradually moving from the former to the latter, living as one amongst many animals, some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed upon us.

But our ability to fashion tools, and our understanding that this is what sets us apart from all of the other animals, begins the process which will see us come to dominate the planet. And is so doing, it introduces rivalry between us and our neighbouring clans.

Section 1: no sex please, we're (adopted) British.

Section 1: the shape of things to come.

Predictably, the one element that Kubrick leaves out of our prehistoric evolution is reproduction, because that requires sex. Despite the fact that sex is the very engine of all the best drama, Kubrick avoids it, because sex leads to emotion and Kubrick doesn’t do emotion – see my earlier review here.

The second part jump cuts, famously, to the future, where an astronaut has been sent into space to investigate an extraordinary discovery on a nearby moon. And when that goes wrong, we move further into the future for the third part, as another pair of astronauts have been sent into space two years later to investigate what happened.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

Miss Jones! Rigby in section 2.

This then becomes a battle of wits between one of them, and the on-board computer, HAL. And when then the bedraggled astronaut speeds off into space for the fourth part we are flung further forward into the future and into what seems to be a new dimension.

What happens when we get there is instructive. In appearance impressively enigmatic, it’s actually fairly easy to break down. The fourth section is basically an exercise in subject displacement.

From the pod, we see him, the object. He then becomes the subject, looking over at the object, the elderly man eating at the table – that man being his older self. The dining man, now the subject, hears a noise, and turns to see the new object, an even older man lying in the bed. And that man now becomes the subject, looking over at the new object, the granite slab which stands in front of him, and which links all four sections of the film, suggesting so much yet saying so little.

Section 3: man V machine.

Section 3: man V machine.

The response to all of which might very well be, so what? It’s all wonderfully evocative, but it’s not actually about anything. Neither philosophically, intellectually nor narratively. And that goes for the whole film. The only section of the film with any actual drama in it is the third, where fairly standard fears about machines taking over the world are explored, albeit in a wonderfully tense way.

But that would be to completely miss what the film is. It’s not, and was never intended to be, a conventional, narrative film. What it is instead is a sequence of beautifully composed, imagistic tableaux, painstakingly constructed and all meticulously framed by brilliantly chosen pieces of complimentary classical music.

The enigmatic section 4.

The enigmatic section 4.

When, for instance, the spaceship docks in part 2 to the tune of the Blue Danube, for a full six minutes(!), that’s not what space looks or sounds like. That’s what we’d like it to look and sound like in our imaginations. Unfettered by the constraints of conventional narrative, Kubrick let his imagination roam. And it’s ravishing.

If all films were like this of course, none of us would ever bother watching any of them. But as a lone beacon that stands proudly in contrast to every other great film, with its dismissal of narrative and therefore of emotional engagement, and its celebration instead of pure images set to sublime music, verily its vision to behold.

It’s on general release this summer in a spanking new 70mm print. And here’s the 2001 trailer.

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Stanley Kubrick at the Light House, great technician but a minor film maker.

The peerless Paths of Glory.

The peerless Paths of Glory.

There’s a season of each and every one of Stanley Kubrick’s films on at the Lighthouse cinema in Dublin at the moment. The best place to start is with his second film proper (his actual fourth) Paths Of Glory (’57).

One of the great anti-war films, it sees Kirk Douglas come fruitlessly to the defence of unjustly accused soldiers in the 1st WW. What’s so striking about the film in retrospect is how gloriously moving it is. There’s a tremendous emotional investment in the figure of Douglas and the result is a searing indictment of war. It was though the one and only time that Kubrick ever allowed emotion sully any of his films.

After that, we have a series of films each of which seems to have its own particular excuse as to why it fails to engage on an emotional level.

The Planet of The Apes.

The Planet of The Apes.

First, there’s the bloated if curiously bloodless spectacle of Spartacus (’60), followed by his understandably cold take on Lolita (’62). You could hardly have become emotionally invested in that kind of a protagonist. Hence the casting of James Mason instead of the younger, darker and more obviously cynical Dirk Bogarde – who would later reprise the role for Fassbinder in the glorious Despair (’78).

Next up, he was appropriately detached for the brilliant political satire Dr Strangelove (’64). Neither it nor 2001:A Space Odyssey (’68), the sci-fi classic that followed had a discernible protagonist, so there was no one there to invest your emotion in. But that’s the nature of sci-fi, seems to be the suggestion. Even though it hadn’t been for the other sci-fi classic that came out in exactly the same year, Planet Of the Apes.

2001 A Space Odessey.

2001: A Space Odyssey.

And you can hardly blame Kubrick for failing to get us to invest emotionally in the protagonist of his next film, Alex in A Clockwork Orange (’72). Or for that matter in Ryan O’Neill’s Barry Lyndon (’75) or Jack Nicholson in The Shining (’80). And while you do care about Matthew Modine’s Joker in Full Metal Jacket, he’s not what the film is about. His are just the eyes through which we view the war. While in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, he ditches the protagonist, Nicole Kidman, after 90 minutes and we spend a fruitless final hour watching an actor at a series of orgies being directed by the only man in the world even more wary about sex than he is.

Ton Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut.

Paths to Glory ends with a female German prisoner being humiliatingly forced to sing in front of her French captors. But as they watch her, they become increasingly moved by the pathetic sight of her, and the plaintive sound of the song that she sings. And they crumble before her, reduced to common tears. The German actress was called Christiane, and Kubrick promptly married her.

And it’s almost as if, having found emotional satisfaction in his personal life, he was never inclined again to invest any emotion in any of his protagonists, and therefore into any of his films, ever again. Or perhaps at that early stage of his career, he just hadn’t found his voice yet. Perhaps engaging emotionally just wasn’t something he was interested in. And having made the mistake once, he made sure never to do so ever again.

There’s no denying the technical bravura of say the lighting in Barry Lyndon, the use of the steadycam in The Shining (remarkably foreshadowed in Paths of Glory by the way), or the performances he gets out of Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, or the sheer dazzling spectacle that is 2001. But in the absence of emotional investment, that’s all they are; dazzlingly brilliant, spectacular, technical exercises.

They all glisten, but none of them are gold.

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