09 June 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey, It's Got Rhythm, It's Got A Story To Tell, Who Could Ask for Anything More

It has a languid pace yet flies by. It's a minimalist film. Though it relies so heavily on special effects and has a plot that would make Goethe blush, the telling of the story is stripped down to its bare essentials.

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) earlier today for the first time in at least 25 years. I remembered well the bare bones (no pun intended) of the opening sequence and the film's closing shot (how could one forget it). I also remembered computer trouble that was beyond the capabilities of your company's tech guy. But little besides. It is such a touchstone film of the latter half of the 20th century and so talked about that it simply wouldn't due for me me to leave that gap in my movie memory.

Director Stanley Kubrick loved to have actors in his films emote. He further liked to create characters who were extremes. Check out Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971) or Full Metal Jacket (1987) for examples. But in 2001 the characters were as bland as white bread and the actors played them that way. The dialogue was sparing (none for the first 24 minutes of the film and little in the last half hour). Kubrick was not shy about letting his actors talk -- in other films. Here a lot of chatter would have been superfluous. In fact, why not let a computer do most of the talking at that. While 2001 is about humankind, its too important a story to let people talking muck it up. I would also guess that's why Kubrick used such a relatively anonymous cast.

2001 is a film in which the sets and the scenery and the machines are the focus, first, last and always. As Roger Ebert wrote of the film, it could damn near have been a silent. At least in terms of dialogue. But sound, the non talking kind, was as critical to 2001 as the look. 2001 without its two most celebrated musical accompaniments, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Blue Danube Waltz, is a very different picture indeed. Other sound elements, like the breathing within the space suit, are critical components as well. 

In many films one barely notices the soundtrack. That can be good. Other times it's a significant part of why we love the film. In 2001 it is the dance music that the entire production sways too. The great Italian director Federico Fellini played music while filming (dubbing in dialogue after) and the actors veritably swayed to it as they progressed through the film. In 2001 the whole damn story grooves to the music. It's the tail that wags the dog.

The story itself is both impossible to summarize and as simple as this: what is the meaning of life? Okay, perhaps you disagree. Maybe you think it is really about something else entirely. That's the beauty of 2001. It's one of those wonderful films that doesn't pretend to provide the answers, instead inviting us to contemplate the questions. What more can art do then stimulate thought? When, as a teenager, I first saw the film, my friends and I spent hours discussing what it could possibly mean. What, for example, could the monolith possibly be or what it did it represent? I read the novelization hoping that it would somehow unravel the mystery. Didn't.

It is the ultimate pretense for a movie to say: we can explain this for you. When the topic is life itself, well you'd be mad to try. 2001 in its simplicity wrapped within a seemingly elaborate film, just wants to get our mental juices flowing. Failing at that it is still one helluva an amazing movie to watch and listen to. The slow pace of it, lingering so long over certain scenes and shots, further leaves us time to think and when you're watching 2001, it is what we want to think about. What I can't explain is how its nearly two and half hours flies by.

One other far more important question it has left me pondering is this: why did I wait 25 years to watch it again?

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