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 ani­mal amongst many , some of whom we preyed upon, and some of which preyed on us.

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

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: great technician, not quite a major 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, with the excep­tion of 2001 (reviewed here), none of them are quite gold.

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