Movement and Music

What the hell is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey about? I’m sure I don’t know.

I’m really, really sure I don’t know. At least, I think I am. I’ve seen the film three times now, and I’ve read Arthur C. Clarke’s book — albeit a long time ago — but I still can’t get my head round it.

However, that won’t stop me trying and I had another go on Thursday night, attending what was the most exciting performance of the film that I have ever experienced. I hadn’t exactly set myself a high threshold since previous viewings were on an old TV set with a 4:3 aspect ratio and, more recently, on my iPhone, the viewing divided over several commutes.

I know that’s not giving a cinematic masterpiece a fair chance and am relieved I never had to account for myself to Mr Kubrick. Now I have finally managed to make amends. I had long wanted to see the film on a big screen but the showing on Thursday went even further since it was accompanied by an orchestra and choir. That lent a thrilling live dimension to Kubrick’s on-screen artistry.

A memorable experience

Many who have seen 2001:A Space Odyssey contend that nothing happens. It’s certainly true that, on one level, not much happens. Some prehistoric primates encounter a smooth black monolith and are taught to use bones as weapons. Fast forward 4 million years and humans re-discover the monolith on the moon. It directs a signal to Jupiter and a mission is sent to investigate. On the way the spaceship’s computer the HAL9000 — malfunctions and turns against the crew, killing four of them before being de-activated by the surviving commander, Dr Dave Bowman, just as the spaceship arrives at its destination. Bowman leaves the ship and is taken through a mysterious portal to another planet where he lives out his days in a room furnished in the 18th century French style. On what seems to be his death-bed, he transforms into a foetal star-child who returns to Earth and, in the film’s final frames, is seen gazing at the planet in contemplation. And that’s it.

How on Earth does this simple plot take 141 minutes? That’s probably the wrong question because, apart from the prehistoric opening, none of the action takes place on Earth. Or perhaps I should say the inaction since large passages of the movie are taken up by the slow, balletic movements of various space-craft accompanied by classical music, most famously Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, richly and deliberately layered onto the moving images, on this occasion by the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir. A shuttle manoeuvres towards a slowly rotating space-station in Earth orbit, gradually twisting its motion to match the steady turn of the docking bay; another makes the long transit to the moon, landing sedately in a sunken base; a third transports an investigative team over the surface of the moon to the site where the monolith has been re-discovered; the gigantic Discovery One space-ship taking Bowman and his crew to Jupiter to find the source of the mysterious black slab glides with glacial momentum past the camera; and then there is the slow, slow manoeuvring of the EVA pod to repair the ship’s antenna.

These sequences of pure, banal movement are interspersed by small snatches of dialogue, almost all of it lacking any strong emotion. The greatest feeling is expressed paradoxically with minimal intonation — by HAL in a gripping scene where Bowman, addressed throughout using his first name by the computer (“Stop Dave. Stop, will you? Stop Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going.”), determinedly, slowly and methodically disables the computer that has killed his crew and sabotaged the mission.

The overall lack of emotion expressed seems strange, given the immensity of the themes in the film — nothing less than the origin and evolution of humankind and the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe — but the film is still a powerful experience. Against the backdrop of ultimate meaning human life is rendered as a series of simple actions. The images and scenes are almost hypnotic; human life is kept in the foreground, but abstracted so as not to be too… distracting. It is left to the viewer to reflect on what it is all about.

Survival of the fittest? Is that it? Is that all that matters? Since seeing the film this week I have read that the computer may have been in competition with the crew, seeing itself — machine intelligence — as the more worthy recipient of the attentions of the creators of the monolith. I must admit this possibility had never occurred to me. Kubrick was always reticent on the question of meaning in the film, deliberately whittling away the dialogue, to leave room for the imagination. And for questions. What do the aliens know? What is in the mind of the star-child at the end of the film?

I still don’t know what to make of 2001 but I enjoy trying. Why does it have such fascinating force? It’s partly the space-ships, which were created with such loving detail (Kubrick hired NASA engineers to help with their design): the drama of this science fiction is grounded in reality. But the music and the movement and the stripping of the story to its barest elements gives the piece a meditative, mysterious grandeur that somehow satisfies without providing answers.

I think I’m going to watch it again.

This entry was posted in Cinema, Music and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Movement and Music

  1. Alan Henness says:

    I would have been 12 when it was released and my Dad went to see it – I was upset because he didn’t take me and I had to wait till I was at University before I saw it!

    How did the live music work? Did they just fade down the soundtrack or play over it?

    I’ve not seen it for a few years, but the special effects, particularly considering it was released in 1968 – 43 years ago! – are still stunning.

  2. Stephen says:

    They used a special edition of the film in which the recorded music was omitted – to be replaced by the orchestra and choir. It worked really well, I thought.

    I’m surprised it has taken me so long to catch it on the big screen, but then it’s not shown very often. (Hmm, must check our blu-ray availability…)

  3. cromercrox says:

    It’s a really lovely film. Were I asked to interpret it I’d say (tentatively) that Dave Bowman is transformed by the monolith to the ‘next level’ of evolution in the same way that Moonwatcher (the chap in the gorilla suit) was transformed when the monolith appeared in Africa. Because we are only human, it’s very hard for us to understand what the ‘next level’ would be like, hence the enigmatic French furniture, contemplative fetus and so on and so forth, introduced as metaphors for something or other..

    My favourite line is HAL saying ‘What are you doing, Dave?’ when Bowman comes to the server room to disconnect him.

    This cropped up a while ago when my mechanic was battling with the malevolent machine intelligence of my old Volvo, Caroline, whose computer kept saying she had a fault in her engine management system when she hadn’t, so she kept overcompensating on the fuel injection, which meant she kept failing the emissions tests part of her MOT.

    The mechanic eventually won by disconnecting and wiping Caroline’s electronic brain. Picture the scene of mechanic vs car.

    Oh, by the way, my mechanic is called Dave.

  4. Brian Clegg says:

    I first saw it as it was intended to be seen – in Cinerama – and it was stunning (though still lacking in comprehensibility). I do wonder if Kubrick’s style hasn’t dated a lot. I saw part of Clockwork Orange for this time this week and was very underwhelmed by its dated feel.

  5. Stephen says:

    I don’t know, Brian. The visual effects in 2001 have stood up well. I’ve not seen A Clockwork Orange but I saw Dr Stangelove again recently and, although it’s clearly ‘of its time’, I still thought it brilliant. And my kids, seeing the film for the first time, loved it!

  6. Brian Clegg says:

    Visually 2001 certainly is superb. But it also shows how hard it is to predict the future. It’s set 10 years ago, yet there’s a manned mission to the outer planets, Pan Am (remember them) running commercial space flights and life size screen video phones. Hmm. I had to stop watching A Clickwork Orange, not because of the much vaunted violence but because it felt so clunky. But I agree about Strangelove. Brilliant film.

  7. Dr Strangelove is an all-time movie favourite of mine. If you are really unlucky, and happen to encounter me in the bar after I’ve had several beers, you may get treated to a rendition of any of a number of scenes. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

    Not really a great fan of 2001, for several of the reasons people have already given – see an old comment of mine here. The one time I saw the film in the cinema, with my younger brother when we were both teenagers, we left before the end – mainly because we got bored waiting for it to give us some idea what it was about.

  8. Frank says:

    I’ve seen it just once, when I was 15. My comprehension wasn’t helped by seeing the last 50 mins of it followed by the preceding 90 mins. My father took me to the local cinema to see The French Connection, but he asked if I could get a concessionary rate as I was under 16, and they explained it was an X-rated film (18 plus only). So we drove to the next town and saw 2001, but it was rather late so we watched it back to front.

    I agree that the scenes with the computer, HAL, were amongst the most memorable. Also it wa strange seeing Leonard Rossiter in it.

    I do love the music. Also Sprach Zarathustra is fantastic. Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna is also good, though scary. (Also impossibly difficult to sing). I like the idea of a live performance. Alexander Nevsky has been shown with live music a few times and I think that works well.

  9. Stephen says:

    Austin – I think you’re right that 2001 verges close to or even across the line of self-indulgence. But so much care went into it that I am prepared to be forgiving.

    Frank – can see you might have found it ultra-incomprehensible when watched back to front.

    Thanks for the pointer to Alexander Nevsky – one of the few pieces of choral music that I know and like. Do you know if the film/music combo is shown regularly, by any chance?

  10. Stephen says:

    By the way – am amused to notice that this post only seems to have attracted comments from men of a certain age… 😉 Are we just a bunch of old farts?

  11. Frank says:

    Stephen – re Nevsky, I would hesitate to say ‘regularly’ but it’s certainly been done a handful of times. It’s a speciality of tThe LSO and chorus.

    Re. old farts, definitely!

  12. rpg says:

    I’d have commented before except I was blissfully away from fast internet for most of the weekend.

    It’s a great film. I saw it in colour! at my grandparents’, as we only had black and white TV at the time. I think, somewhere, I’ve got it on DVD but haven’t seen it since that once in the early ’80s. Very memorable though, iconic even. Will have to dig it out and have a re-watch.

  13. ricardipus says:

    Add me to the list of “gentlemen of a certain age commenting on Curry and farts”, or whatever this is about.

    Also, add me to the list of “those baffled”. I never “got” 2001, quite. And it’s really easy now to parody it… cavemen throwing bones in the air with stirring music – how many times has that been used now, in advertising campaigns, comedy sketches and so forth? I guess that speaks to the iconic nature of the movie somehow.

    I do like how Arthur C. Clarke seems to have a prescience for scientific ideas that come to pass, though, the idea of the rotating space station to create gravity as one example (just the other day I watched a documentary still suggesting this as an idea for a Mars mission). Not sure if he came up with that one, but he was probably one of the first to put it into a work of fiction.

  14. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’ve read it once and seen the film once, in that order. The book was slightly less incomprehensible than the film; I don’t think I’d have made any sense at all out of the last third of the film if I hadn’t read the book. But it was all a terribly long time ago…

  15. Brian D says:

    I am a late entry to this discussion but for what its worth, here I go. The strange emptyness of plot and content in 2001 A Space Odyssey probably reflects that it is based on a short story (The Sentinel) by Arthur C Clarke. It is normally difficult to expand a tight plot into a longer work and the original short story in this case was pretty flimsy. I think it was the concept that Kubrik was attracted by and this was used as the excuse for stunning effects. The subsequent novel was a novelisation of Kubrik and Clarke’s screenplay and is I think less comprehensible than the film, which is in itself an achievement.

    As an aside the other science fiction short story that was expanded (more successfully) into a novel was “A Case of Conscience” by James Blish but in that case the original piece was 20 or 30 pages long.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Brian – thanks for your comment, though I don’t entirely agree with your thesis. Although the film is originally based on Clarke’s short story, that was only the beginning of the creative process. I understand from Wikipedia that Kubrick and Clarke collaborated on the script for a couple of years to flesh out the story (the beginning sequence is in fact from another short story). Both are credited with the script. Although Clarke is named as the sole author of the book that emerged, he has conceded that Kubrick should really have been a co-author.

      Also, it’s not so unusual for films to be based on short stories. I know a couple of cases where this has worked very well: Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee; author E. Annie Proux) and The Dead (dir. John Huston; author James Joyce). Many, albeit more sophisticated books, are just too long to be made into decent films without a great deal of sacrifice.

Comments are closed.