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From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson, IFC.com
The Interpretative Odyssey of 2001
Of Humanity and Hyperspace
More fun in the new (old) world
Part One: Evolution
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) has inhabited a large part of my life. I have seen it more times on the big screen than any other film. I had also watched it more than twenty times on public television, cable, and video. I had purchased the vinyl soundtrack three times during the last 36 years. Now I own the latest CD version, which includes all of HAL the computer's dialogue, and have read Arthur C. Clarke's book three times as well as Jerome Agel's The Making of 2001. I continue to read all of the English-language (and even some French and Spanish) criticism in books, magazines, and on the Internet dealing with the movie and/or Stanley Kubrick. I have encouraged my family to screen the film continuously at my wake and funeral.
How I have responded to the film reveals my growth as a thinker and critic, a growth I believe 2001 to be one of the causes. Not a dramatic growth that can be certified but one that effected an intellectual attention to the material/subject on the movie screen. Accomplishing this growth, in a sense, never ceased. Seeing and interpreting the film over the last 30 years has become analogous to the very process of change and growth happening in 2001. Put another way, no single interpretation of the film, no single answer to the film's mysteries and meaning should prevail. 2001 dramatizes that there are no final answers.
* * *
I first watched 2001 on Memorial Day, 1968, but it was the second feature I had seen that day. The Indianapolis 500 was being shown on live circuit in 2001's theater. I didn't know it until I got there. I was distraught and, having made the journey into Philadelphia, decided to see another movie that had also excited my interest, Planet of the Apes. This might have been enough for one afternoon, yet I decided to stay in town into the evening to attend the four p.m. showing.
Both movies had superficial resemblance, especially in their speculation about evolution. One said that men would eventually succumb to apes in the future; the other, a transition from ape to man was manipulated by an "outside" force. Each film presented apelike beings. At the time, Planet of the Apes was lauded and eventually rewarded with an Oscar for its ape outfits. I didn't understand why 2001‘s apes were not also given consideration if only because those apes looked more like apes.
The ape costumes aside, the opening segment testified to the realism of the film and the impact it would have on a generation of moviegoers who have returned to the film many times. The realism supplied an overwhelming impression that 2001 speculated seriously about the fundamental nature of mankind. What had made man what he was? Was our evolution actually affected by aliens? What had made humans so violent? Was there any redemption for our violent nature?
Carl Jung, in his book Flying Saucers, notes that the belief in extraterrestrial life represents a search for a transcendent answer to life's complexities and mysteries. The decades of the 1960s and 1970s had a notable idealistic and even religious flair, such that this time has been called the Third Great Awakening. The response to 2001, in part, was governed by a mystical element. For me, the story of 2001 touched a similar nerve, especially in the way the movie held back much tantalizing information. Unlike Planet of the Apes, there was no definite moment of revelation (no Statue of Liberty broken on a beach). Only if one knows how to look would one find an answer. Much of my initial thought about the film focused specifically on figuring out how 2001 settled these many uncertain issues.
When one finally learned about Kubrick's decisions to suppress any kind of narration or the appearance of images on the monoliths inside the apes' encampment, it was apparent that few answers would be made available. Why did he do this? This story of evolution was not meant to solve the mystery of a missing link or a prime mover (be it an alien, God, or an evolutionary leap). Kubrick had chosen "outside" intervention to stimulate the ape, but HOW it became stimulated and evolved comments on the way that the monolith had affected the ape. The monolith did not whisper into the ape's ear or provide instructions for making tools. Analogously, a film enters our lives, and we may or may not have responded to or been changed by it. No, the monolith appears. The ape commonly known as "Moonwatcher" touched the slab. An eerie sounding track from Gorgi Ligieti filled this moment with near mystical momentousness. Later, amidst the bones of dead animals, a bone in hand, Moonwatcher recalls the strange, unnatural shape of the monolith. Recalling it and using the bone as a tool/weapon coincide. That's the stimulus. But it is enough. The enemy apes at the waterhole would have a big surprise waiting for them!
The infamous matchcut — a bone thrown into the air by the ecstatic Moonwatcher (the joy of killing, of power over another being especially when that being is fellow ape) transforms into an orbiting nuclear weapon — links not only two kinds of weaponry but the two parts of the film designated "The Dawn of Man." Generally, many misapprehend this transition by assuming that the "dawn" was over (many articles often refer to the jump to the year 2000 as an "untitled segment"). Our illusion of progress encourages us accept this shift with little resistance. Yet, two signposts mark the perimeter of this "dawn": the monoliths. One has been placed in the ape's encampment; the other, buried on the moon. Man's "dawn" has occurred not in a single bound to a smarter ape but within the whole space of four million years. This time marks a prelude to the journey to Jupiter, which will change man's relation to the technological universe (more on that in Part 2 of this article).
* * *
Kubrick's films are violent. The violence tends to be of a kind throughout his career. The apes battering an ape to death at the waterhole prefigures a scene in A Clockwork Orange (1971) when Alex and his droogs beat up a bum in an alley with clubs. Later, in Full Metal Jacket, the Marines in a Parris Island barracks assault Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) in his bed with heavily knotted towels holding a bar of soap. In Kubrick's film world, the powerful are represented in Hobbesian terms: in nature, the strong will dominate the weak and take full advantage of that dominance to create a hierarchy of power. More important than exhibiting killers, his films depict the way power hierarchies operate in a closed world. Only those who invited may enter this world. In Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Tom Cruise's character crashes an upper class orgy in a Long Island estate (resembling palaces in Paths of Glory and Barry Lyndon) and is subsequently threatened with death should he try to investigate what had happened at and who participated in this orgy. Indeed, a consistent criticism of Kubrick films, especially Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, has been his pessimistic depiction of these hierarchies, whether conservative or liberal, and the way they rule with an unchallenged authority and persist.
Kubrick has depicted the power structure so consistently that it is hard to imagine he doesn't believe it true. Yet, on a larger scale, his films have shown how the powerful survive and demand that we understand why. If he believes that the weak will remain so, history does little to contradict him. Yet his films, especially 2001, would not amount to much were they simply critiques of this structure. He asks why they rule and draws an analogy through the act of watching movies. That is, his career has consisted in the making of films that challenge the way we watch films. An article I recently read on Eyes Wide Shut called that film an allegory about watching the film itself. I would go further and assert that all of Kubrick's films have ultimately been about watching movies. Or, put another way, he has used his movies to moderate passive movie watching. The real politics of Kubrick's (on 2001 set, below) work lies here, not in Hobbesian rituals of the powerful doing anything to maintain power.
2001 acknowledges that from ape versus ape to the Cold War in outer space the same game has been played. Around a waterhole or deep underground in the Pentagon War Room or on circular wheel in space, the human mind has been locked in a conflict with itself. Tools were made in an act to free mankind from the restrictions of nature-reflected by the indescribable joy when Moonwatcher tossed the bone heavenward after killing his rival (before killing his rival, he had used the bone to hunt for meat that gave him the strength for the kill). The same tools have subordinated mankind to the nature of the tool. Kubrick's creation story makes man's original sin the ability to shape the environment for the gratification of his desires. Lurking in the background, as well, is a fear of death, against which man also uses tools furiously to forestall.
Some critics have commented that Moonwatcher, Heywood Floyd, and astronaut David Bowman, actually represent a single character. Mankind, in a sense, is enveloped in a four million-year old circle. Trapped within our desire to get out of ourselves, we enter other traps and dead ends. The world of 2001 is the final trap. In one of the shrewder images in the film, we first see Floyd on a space shuttle to the Space Station. He sleeps, and his arm hangs limply while his pen floats in the air near his hand like a space ship. This limp arm suggests a previous isolated shot of Moonwatcher's arm and hand when he crashed the bone came into the pile of other bones splintering them apart. Supporting the idea that this first space sequence belongs within "The Dawn of Man," Kubrick suggests a continuum between the strong arm of Moonwatcher and the limp one of the intelligent bureaucrat. We have advanced and receded at the same time, as if these two images tell us the secret of the problem of relying on tools. Further, that all are progresses embody similar regressions. Our confrontation with this problem will occupy much of the journey to Jupiter.
Part Two: The Technological Trip on a Bicycle Built for Two
The second part of 2001: A Space Odyssey, "Jupiter Mission," centers on the crew of the Discovery, three scientists placed aboard in deep hibernation and two astronauts, David Bowman and Frank Poole, to run the ship. Yet, the onboard computer, the HAL 9000, controls all critical functions on the ship. Some early critics of the movie viewed the drama surrounding HAL's attempt to take over the mission as filler between the discovery of the monolith on the moon and encountering it around Jupiter. It can be shown that the second part fulfills several major purposes, first and foremost by providing the "odyssey" of the title, but, more importantly, the "Jupiter Mission" continues the allegory from "The Dawn of Man." A link has been established between technological and creative skill to the prevalence for violence; also, our inventions have shaped us as much we have made them.
I mention above that "The Dawn of Man" includes both prehistoric and futuristic spaces. Kubrick basically condenses the progress of mankind into a single shot: bone to nuclear weapon. Within "Dawn" and continuing into the "Jupiter Mission," man's progresses with machines and other tools have fabricated a psychological dead end or trap. It would not overstate the argument to say that all of Kubrick's films dramatize human self-entrapment, to the point of suggesting that to be human itself is a trap. In "The Jupiter Mission," the achievements of man are condensed to a single machine, HAL. Once we had innovation, now the ultimate product of man's genius becomes a supreme and willful hindrance. The trip to Jupiter embodies our ability to overcome the technological impediment.
* * *
An informative rendering of the technological trap is found in the more lightly spirited film, The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980). One day in the middle of the Kalahari (suggestive of 2001‘s opening shots) a band of !Kung tribesman are observed in Edenic innocence. Life is tough but the !Kung appear content finding the necessities to sustain them day to day because they have no desire for things. Where one does not want, desires cannot torment the soul. In 2001, the Ape band lives in an Eden of diminishment and growing powerlessness if not imminent extinction (the latter is suggested in Clarke's novel). In a sense, Kubrick dispenses with a sinless vision of pre-human man, and from this one could infer that his view of progress and the means to that progress are not completely fatalistic.
Into the !Kung paradise drops a Coke bottle, the ultimate symbol of world civilization's productivity and waste. The Gods' narrator says that it is the hardest object they have ever found and the group finds many uses for it and gets great happiness from those uses. They deem the bottle a gift from the gods. The episode seems an unconscious if wry parody of the monolith's appearance inside the Ape band's encampment. Its unnatural appearance makes it standout from the usual desert rocks, ledges, trees, and hills. Also, the monolith appears from "beyond," a gift from "the gods," who might be aliens and even a little crazy — I mean, what did "they" expect this slab to do for these apes (Clarke and early versions of the film envisioned it as a teaching machine; ultimately Kubrick left a blank slate)?
When do things go wrong with the gift from above? The !Kung band finds the bottle too useful. Everyone wants it for different tasks and fight for possession. This causes the adults and children alike to have emotions like envy and selfishness they had never experienced. They feel a shame analogous to Adam and Eve's after eating the apple. However, in Jamie Uys' story, the !Kung preserve their innocence by casting the bottle out of their paradise. This becomes only way to evade the technological trap. In Kubrick's film, once man took the first step into this trap — made the first steps on the technological trip — there was no turning back. There's no border between the bone as tool and weapon.
The !Kung leader, Xi, initially tries to solve the coke bottle problem by throwing the bottle back into the sky and nearly clunks himself on the head. After a tribal council, he resolves to take it to and throw it over the edge of the earth. The removal of this original sin is possible because the group's small size allows it to detect more quickly and unequivocally the noxious aspect of this godsend. Most of The Gods, in fact, shows Xi's encounters with civilized people who have apparently been progressively dumbed down by their technological improvements. Only after he overcomes civilization's barriers can he accomplish his mission.
The analogue to getting rid of the bottle in the "Jupiter Mission" is the dismantling of HAL, except that the astronauts remain unconscious of the meaning of their task. Bowman and Poole are intellectually overcoming or dispensing with machines. HAL has challenged their competence to complete the mission — the computer's hubris may have been stimulated by knowing that only it, among those on the Discovery, knew the purpose of the mission to Jupiter. HAL's pride also extends to its claim to having never made an error. Unlike Xi attempting to rid his band of an outside evil, Bowman and Poole must overcome an extension of themselves — their machines — that has become problematic.
This inner struggle between man and technology is foreshadowed in one image after the monolith had appeared to the apes. Moonwatcher, the leader, rustles among animal bones and seems to be stopped by a thought. The next shot shows the monolith with the sun rising above it. This thought-image triggers the innovative use of the bone, first to kill tapirs for their meat. The meat strengthens the apes of Moonwatcher's band and this, not the bone itself used as weapon, allows them to prevail and evolve. HAL becomes dangerous when it separates itself from man. But like his indifference to the question about the existence of aliens, Kubrick is not predicting that machines will be able to think for themselves. He makes the point that extreme reliance on machines leads to a psychological separation in man himself, a doubling whose redundancy deadens the human spirit, and frustrates man's attaining fulfilled desires.
How humans evolve, what specific change triggers our evolution to become a world dominant species, remains a mystery. What makes us human is equally unknowable (precluding religious explanations). 2001 suggests, not unlike most religions, that our humanity comes with a burden that we cannot ignore or escape. Or at least we cannot escape it without confronting how we became what we are and to what extent we are limited. The film is directed toward western man in particular, and its "solution" comes with an understanding that we cannot escape this burden. Our technological trap can never be dodged, because we are too many and have been too long dependent on these progresses, but there may be a way to change the terms by which we contend within this trap.
* * *
The emotional constraints on man in 2001‘s technological universe are expressed through the music used in the opening of the "Jupiter Mission." The spacecraft crawls across the screen to the disconsolate sounds of the Aram Khachaturian's Gayane Suite. When the film cuts from the ship to Frank Poole jogging around the central cylinder, the music continues as if to comment on human life reduced to absolute routine. The music culminates after Poole receives a televised birthday greeting from his parents. Their conversation leaves Poole unaffected. The scene epitomizes the passionless results of our mechanical triumphs. Perhaps the key symbol for this universe is the fact that the scientists in hibernation do not dream. Our machines have separated us from the primal fires that make life enjoyable and inspiring. Saddled with more rigorous routines and empty rites, life loses meaning; in a sense, we have returned to the survival mode. A great irony comes with the characterization of HAL as the most emotional being on board. His birthday greeting to Poole feels more genuine, less routine, than did Poole's parents' singing "happy birthday."
The realism of the film never comes across more strongly than in these opening scenes by depicting the ethos that allows space travel. Its statement about the effects of the cybernetic world on human beings is very subtle. You cannot build a massive technological system and have humans behave as if it were the 18th century. One only has to compare 2001 to every other science fiction film made about space travel to realize that the film's meaning depends very little on the "mission" or the mystery. The origin and meaning of the monolith may be the biggest red herring in the history of cinema.
The second part of "The Dawn of Man" reflected man's increasing numbness to the universe's wonders. Heywood Floyd made too many trips to the space station and the moon. Now, the by-the-numbers astronauts must confront their machine/nightmare. Besides seeming infallible and more human, HAL is incapable of boredom. Humans appear weak when their ability is contrasted to HAL's performing an infinite number of duties and maintaining high level of consciousness. At one point, HAL says that he's only trying to put himself to highest possible use because this is what one would expect from a conscious entity, a philosophy not far from Kubrick's aggressive cinematic stance, which demands our being less submissive to the film's images and story.
Maybe, though, HAL's enthusiasm hides something else. Its drive to cover all details and be all things to everyone at every moment might mask the root of the psychosis leading it to kill everyone aboard the ship. I call it psychosis because it has to be a severe delusion for HAL to believe it can accomplish the Jupiter mission! Like the viewers of the film, HAL has deceived itself by believing it could uncover the mystery of the monoliths!
HAL has a corollary in another Kubrick character, Jack Torrence in The Shining (1980), who tries to join the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. The hotel is referred to as a "ghost ship," is self-sufficient, and the members of the family act as the skeleton crew whose mission is to take the hotel across seven desolate winter months to the next business season. Jack assumes some of HAL's characteristics, most notably a desire to be eternally vigilant ("Why don't you go to sleep Dad?" asks Danny, his son. "I can't, Danny, I have too much to do.") He drifts into a psychotic state and believes that wiping out his family-crew will earn him an eternal endowment. Like HAL, he hasn't figured out what it will take to complete his mission. When it reached the destination, HAL would be powerless to act or to do what it would take to confront the mystery of the monoliths. Jack, on the other hand, would have to kill himself — an option HAL does not have.
Why the psychotic state in HAL? It had made an error. Neither can it allow itself to be dismantled. What caused the error? Much speculation given to this question points to the knowledge HAL suppressed from the crew concerning the nature of the mission. HAL's humanity, in effect, became complete when its fault, its original sin, could be traced to the programmed instructions of humans. I suspect, however, that the pursuit of HAL's flaw, like the leap from ape to man and the origin of the monolith, becomes secondary to the relationship between humans and their machines.
The symbolic overcoming of the machine only occurs when Bowman returns to the ship after HAL had thought it had sealed him out. Bowman's innovative plan, which included surviving in a vacuum for a few seconds, takes on heroic proportions in this odyssey story. During the dismantling of the main computer functions, HAL's connection to the monolith is suggested when the key components supplying HAL's main intelligence slide from slots and look like mini-monoliths.
When HAL reveals its fear of death, it completes its pseudo-human makeup. It tries to talk its way out of being deprogrammed. First, it tells Dave to calm down and take a stress pill, then rationalizes its murder spree by saying that it hadn't been feeling right but was now feeling better, and, HAL expresses fear and appeals to Dave's sentimentality. In the last stages of its life, the computer reverts to the song "Daisy." The song reminds us with the lyric "a bicycle built for two" that Dave (man) and HAL (machines) have gone together all along. They have shared the bicycle on a technological trip, but now Bowman must ride the bicycle alone.
Part Three: Universal Aspirations
"This is the best part of the trip. The best part."
— Jim Morrison, The Soft Parade
I remember seeing two movies, both on television, both after midnight, after smoking dope. The first, in college, with five other people, was the comedy/satire John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965); the second, several years after college, with another person equally high, The Magic Christian (1970). The former was less funny than I had remembered, for I had seen it at a movie theater eight years before; the latter, more funny than it was.
One critic suggested that The Magic Christian itself seemed to be under the influence or impelled to be loosely structured and incoherent due to drugs. Indeed, Magic Christian viewed and judged the world as I had John Goldfarb when I was high. I felt superior to it, above the action, which even now I am loathe to describe. Richard Crenna's spy plane crashes in an Arab emirate. He's blackmailed to coach a football team and prepare it to play Notre Dame. Shirley MacLaine is a journalist who pursues the story by infiltrating the sheik Peter Ustinov's harem. I may not have needed any weed to feel contempt for this tripe, but there you have it. If the Arab world had taken notice of the film, they might have declared a jihad then. As it was, Notre Dame University sued (unsuccessfully) to block the film's distribution — in the world in 1965, Notre Dame football had more clout than all the Arab governments combined.
On the other hand, The Magic Christian‘s Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) tries to prove that all people can be corrupted at the right price to do something vulgar, silly, or conniving. The Oxford rowing team could be paid to cheat against Cambridge's in the big match. A famous actor, played by Lawrence Harvey, does a striptease during a performance of Hamlet. The movie's namesake, a boat, is populated with people who are put in the hold as if they were on a slave ship with Raquel Welch whipping them to row. Grand's , the filmmaker's, and Terry Southern's conceits seem banal, if not tasteful, compared to the antics of many on current tabloid talk shows. But this was the backwash of the 1960s. The Oxford rowing team and upper middle class wealth conveyed the same values implied in John Goldfarb, whether it be in its reverse hallowing of Notre Dame football, the stupidly naïve representation of a modern sheikdom, or the conceit to think anyone in the Middle East cares about American football. Also, I may have harbored guilt after watching Goldfarb because I had laughed so hard at it the first time. Whereas Magic Christian accentuated my superior feelings for what I perceived at the time as a flawed if not superfluous world.
While the drugs might momentarily accentuate awareness, one's focus on the screen would become very narrow. 2001 would have been the last film you would want to see high. It moves slowly and watching it under the influence would only make the slowness slow down! By the time you reached "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite," you'd be bugged out, unless you waited until then to drop a few tabs (smoking in the theater might draw too much attention). Kubrick himself dismissed the drug angle in his 1968 Playboy interview: "Drugs are not for artists, since they cause a sense of satisfaction before you have done all the work, then kill the critical spirit and make anything look beautiful and interesting."
Curiously, though, 2001: A Space Odyssey was advertised as "The Ultimate Trip," and in 1968 the word "trip" connoted LSD and psychedelic. The film's most talked about sequence, Dave Bowman's journey through time and space, was a fifteen-minute light show, which was referred to as "the psychedelic part." The fact that 2001 attracted a young audience confirmed a sentiment I have heard ever since by many people that the movie was best seen when high. Marijuana, hash, acid, peyote buttons, choose your poison. Nor would I be surprised to find out that the current public's impression of the film is that it was the quintessential drug movie, even more so than Easy Rider, which came out the next year (or even The Trip, made a year earlier, directed by Roger Corman, written by Jack Nicholson, and starring Peter Fonda).
* * *
Why are the monoliths floating around Jupiter? There's no realistic explanation. And why should there be? HAL has been dismantled. Nothing left to do but drop some acid and sit back as if we're ready to hear "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" or "Crimson and Clover." Reason apparently has been abandoned and the only thing left to try is the irrational! Following this logic against rationality, against the apparent unity of the universe through nature and reason (using the Enlightment's practice of reason as the model), all interpretations become valid. Bowman's ride and the pod's landing into an 18th-century bedroom can mean what we want it to mean. Kubrick nailed it when he spoke about the killing of the critical spirit.
The "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" segment demands inspired, not a limited, viewing that will leave you open for unconscious associations during Bowman's ride.
* * *
All the clues are visual.
A film that has relied on inscrutable realism proceeds to shatter that realism. Bowman and we plummet into the unknown. In a sense the last part of 2001 is a Rorscorch test for the interpretative model one observes for all phenomenon — nor is it ludicrous to believe a solitary work of art should aspire to be universal. If James Joyce believed Finnegan's Wake should be studied for the rest of one's life, it was because he believed there was enough there to occupy oneself. Kubrick has in two hours and twenty minutes spanned the course of human evolution. Each part of the film marks a step toward the making of a new human being. But, should we take Joyce's or Kubrick's aspirations to be a metaphor for our involvement in their work of art or in Art itself, both men aspire to a loftier goal: to affect, or to contribute to the future course of the evolution of mankind. Kubrick in 2001 envisions a new human being emerging.
"The Dawn of Man" had no dialogue except for the grunts of apes; "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" has no dialogue except the seeming laughing coming from the walls and floor of the bedroom. Could these be the voices of the aliens who sent the monolith? The novelized version of 2001 explains the room as being created by the aliens from Bowman's mental images. The film offers no such solution. In fact, after reading the history of the film's production, we learn that much information about extraterrestrials Kubrick ultimately suppressed. Thus, he removes for us any outside explanations for phenomena in 2001. Any "answers" for what happens to Bowman can only be examined through, and only though, the film's own terms.
Two examples of these "terms" come during Bowman's passage through the Star Gate. First, there is the focus on Bowman's eye. Each time it is shown, the eye appears in the color of what he's seeing: bluish-yellow twice and two types pinkish-blue. The appearances of his eye mark four separate sequences of the trip. The emphasis on the eye has been foreshadowed when we saw the eye of the leopard shine in "The Dawn of Man," as well as the recurrences of HAL's red eye throughout the spacecraft.
The "eye" also suggests the homophone "I" and invites us to connect the film's protagonist, Bowman (and those he succeeded: Moonwatcher and Heywood Floyd). In fact, Bowman's trip through time and space appears vital for him to open his eyes, literally and visually. Further, by stressing the Eye's dominion, the film places us into the protagonist role. The trip to Jupiter to uncover a mystery has been transformed into an interpretive trip. The monolith becomes in the words of one writer, the greatest MacGuffin in film history. Not only can't we expect a final answer, there's no final question!
2001 up to the Star Gate sequence has stressed machines and formula inhibiting the power of the eye (anticipating Kubrick's last film by making the eyes wide — as in expanding technical process — shut — suggesting a failure in perceiving reality). I'm thinking, in particular, of the sequences of the ships' landings in the Satellite Wheel and on the moon, whence the emphasis for those commanding the crafts is not too watch where they are going but to watch the screens, which are indicating that the landing is going fine. Man can settle further and further back into a natural passivity and allow the machines to run his existence.
Then there is the Star Child's birth. The baby evolves from the rapidly aging Bowman in the 18th-century-styled boudoir, chosen to represent a time period, the Enlightenment, when western man's rational science began to dominate the culture. Also, the Industrial Revolution started and with the Enlightenment gave us power over nature while apparently minimizing our need for nature. The second part of the film makes possible Bowman overcoming the burden of mechanical progresses. The birth at film's end strongly suggests the rising of a new man. But what will be new or different?
* * *
Previously, birth imagery and birthdays have been prolific. The very birth of the human being among the many sets of ape groups is dramatized in "The Dawn of Man." Later, we have the image of the phallic rocket ship penetrating the slot of the Satellite Wheel. Two people celebrate birthdays: Heywood Floyd's daughter and the astronaut Poole. When Bowman reenters the Discovery manually, he bursts from the pod as if ejected from a womb. Even HAL's birthday is mentioned when Bowman dismantles the computer.
Coming alive in the form of the Star Child is the logical end of the human trip that started in the desert plains of Africa a million years ago. Fitting a prevalent Kubrick theme, 2001: A Space Odyssey envisions man allowing his tools to dominate him or, in the film's broadest terms, to do his seeing for him. The great progress of humanity has meant, proportionately, the passing of human interest in life. The planet we are shown during Floyd's trip to the Moon has emotionally and spiritually effaced man from life and has reached the brink of his self-removal. HAL's attempt to take over the mission is a coup d'état for possession of man's soul. Bowman's struggle, the human struggle, regains a grip on our humanity. A new humanity will not necessarily dispose of all tools or turn away from the material progresses also gained by mighty struggles, especially our political progress, but neither can we solely depend on these tools to make us more human.
November 2004 | Issue 46

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