Thursday March 28, 1968. I’m working away at my job in the documents acquisitions section of the Columbia University Libraries. My phone rings. Tom. “I’ve just got 2 tickets to an invitational screening of “2001, A Space Odyssey” at 1 o’clock this afternoon. Can you get off?” I hollered out to my boss, and when he heard the news he immediately said yes. I hopped on the subway and headed to Times Square, grabbing a hot dog somewhere along the way.
I met Tom and some of his movie publicity buddies in front of the Warner Cinerama Theatre. The movie was presented in Cinerama, although I believe it was really filmed in Super Panavision 70. Somebody in the crowd said, “I hear it’s best to sit up close.” We did. Fifth row center.
The theater filled. The lights dimmed. The mysterious musical prologue began to play, like nothing we’d ever heard before at the beginning of a film. The abstract MGM logo appeared. The curtains parted. And then the magnificent opening credit sequence with “Also sprach Zarathustra” swelling on the soundtrack.
And then, absolute magic.
It was a wonderful audience, movie people mostly, and maybe some critics and lucky devils like me. Quiet, rapt. The occasional gasp.
Intermission. Wonderfully placed. We all ran outside and lit cigarettes (we all smoked then). Amazed comments. “It’s not a science fiction movie, it’s an art movie!” (Folks didn’t understand back then that something could be both.) “It’s like Antonioni!” (He was big back at the time, and I understand that he admired the movie enormously.) What did this mean? What did that mean? What is that big black thing? What’s HAL gonna do?
Everybody was seated again when the overture for the second part began to play. Can absolute magic become ever more absolute? More magical? If we were knocked out by part one, we were doubly so by part two.
Can you begin to imagine what it was like seeing this movie for the first time with an audience eager for it and excited to be there and not knowing a thing about it other than Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and science fiction? It was by far the most thrilling moviegoing experience of my life, and I was not the only one who thought so. Up until then, “L’Avventurra” had filled that slot for Tom, but “2001” displaced it.
What we saw was Kubrick’s original cut, some 2 hours and 41 minutes long. This version played 2 or 3 weeks before MGM substituted a recut version some 15 or more minutes shorter, the cuts made by Kubrick himself. That footage has apparently been destroyed (I believe at Kubrick’s instruction) and maybe resides only up there in Movie Heaven with the destroyed footage from “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Although the shorter version we have today still ranks at the top of my best movie list, I do believe that the longer version was even greater.
One of the biggest losses in running time was the opening of part 2. Earlier we had seen Bowman (Keir Dullea) donning space suite, entering the pod, leaving the Discovery One spaceship, and slowly making his way to the presumably failing communications part that needed to be examined. In part 2 Poole (Gary Lockwood) is followed through the same steps, again accompanied only by the sound of berating. A great parallel structure.
In the recut version, after a long shot of the Discovery, we pick up Poole as his pod comes over the top of the front of the larger ship. He leaves the pod, and in hardly any time HAL has summarily dispatched him. The plot is still there, but something is lost. The longer buildup had added greatly to the power of Poole’s murder. But it had also, I think, served a larger purpose in the movie.
“2001” is not a plot-driven movie although it has arguably one of the grandest plots in the history of movies. Nor is it a character-driven movie, although I find the characters wonderfully presented by the actors and the director. It is a movie of ideas and concepts, and it is in in patterns involving balance and contrasts that the movie coheres. The longer presentation of that second spacewalk adds to both, similar to the earlier but with great difference in the result. Shortening Poole’s EVA wakens the balance and its underscoring of other such balances in the pattern.
Kubrick, I believe, wanted you to look for parallels, sometimes in unexpected places.
Take the two fights for the waterhole early in the movie. In the first one, the apelike men already at the water manage to drive away Moon-Watcher and his thirsty tribe. In the second one, Moon-Watcher, now with his weaponized bone, kills the other leader and wins the waterhole for his tribe. Parallel events with different outcomes.
Am I wrong in sensing a parallel between that first waterhole encounter and Haywood Floyd’s encounter with the Russians on the space station? The Russians are eager to know what’s really going on at Clavius, and Floyd is able to fend off their curiosity. He is able to save what’s in the hole on the moon for the American side. And somehow Floyd’s “pep talk” to the men and women on the moon echoes that first encounter: apparently there is some unrest re the secrecy, and in the quietest way possible Floyd stops that in its tracks.
And does astronaut Bowman’s dismantling of the brain of HAL 9000 parallel that second waterhole encounter? HAL has ownership of the territory, having locked Bowman Discovery One. Bowman, managing to effect an entry, approaches HAL with his tools (small, but effective), disables HAL, and takes over the ship, which HAL has been in charge of until this moment. (And HAL’s killing of Poole could also be considered parallel to the second waterhole encounter.)
Parallel events at the waterhole each of which is echoed by events later in the movie?
There are two video birthday calls, one from Floyd on the space station to his family on Earth and one from Poole’s mother and father to him on Discovery One. On the surface these scenes don’t seem to add a lot to the movie, and it is instructive that Kubrick left them alone when he was shortening the work.
Do these calls set us up to appreciate the birth of the Star Child at the end? I think so. In the first call Floyd’s daughter requests the gift of a bush baby. Did the young actor (one of Kubrick’s daughters) come up with that, or was she following an instruction from Kubrick? Even if an accident, I think Kubrick liked it. And at the end of the movie we do get a Baby arriving in Earth space.
After the birthday wishes in the call to Poole, his parents start rattling on about friends of his getting married and saying that they will purchase a gift in his behalf. Again something that Kubrick let stand. In my mind that marriage talk is echoed later by “the bicycle built for two” in HAL’s last song, and in the merger of dying man and Monolith at the end.
Both of these calls involve communication with Earth. It is the communications device on the Discovery that HAL later reports as being close to failing, its removal and later destruction (along with Poole) cutting off communications with Earth.
There are a number of meals in the movie. Moon-Watcher’s tribe foraging for and eating scant vegetation and later, after their encounter with the Monolith, the killing of other animals and the eating of meat. Floyd and his mush-meal aboard the spaceship to the moon and the sandwiches on the moon vehicle on the way to Clavius. On Discovery One Bowman and Poole prepare and eat meals that seem slightly better than Floyd’s on his trip to the moon. No big deal. All natural and appropriate to the circumstance. But we are set up for Bowman’s Last Meal, the best meal so far in the movie and the only one with which wine is served. (We’ll come back to that broken wine glass.)
(Pattern has always been important to me when I read books or watch plays or ballets or movies. One of these days I’ll have to share my analysis of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” and its many-times-repeated motif of circles being broken into by straight lines.)
Something else bothersome in the shorter cut was material added, which I think diminishes the movie just a bit, possibly even more than the shortened running time. It is the three on-screen titles: The Dawn of Man, Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later, and Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. The movie profited from not telling you this information, allowing you to watch and study and put it all together in your head. You watched those apelike men and the appearance of the Monolith and the discovery of tools and weapons and then you get to that famous jump-cut from the tossed weaponized bone to a weapon floating in space. I am grateful that Kubrick resisted inserting the tag Weapon Floating in Orbital Space, 1999. Or Trip to Space Station as “The Blue Danube “plays.
All of the information from those 3 title cards is in the movie, and the viewer should watch and listen for it. Now I do admit there were lots of viewers, including critics, who thought the end sequence of the movie took place on the planet Jupiter. Dumb dumb dumb! Hadn’t they watched what was sometimes described as the light show and figured out that it was some sort of portal through space? Having grown up on science fiction and hyperspace travel, I had no problem with it.
(But then I tend to be offended when a movie offers too much explanatory information. Cut to Eiffel Tower and put not just Paris but also France on the screen? Specifying that this shot of the Kremlin is in Moscow, Russia instead of Moscow, Idaho?)
“2001” is like “Hamlet” or “Absalom, Absalom!” or other great works. When one first experiences them, one does, I think, get the basic point. But with every viewing or reading one sees more, and this extra seeing is enriching.
Because “2001” did not overexplain itself and because it had not yet been overexplained by writers (like me), there was great interest among those first viewers in explaining and sharing. Tom’s publicist buddies, who tended to be writers because written copy was important among what they produced, tackled that task with enthusiasm. Somebody started an analysis, photocopied it, and passed it around to other publicists. Almost everybody who read it added their 2 cents worth, sometimes with new thoughts and sometimes arguing with or further underscoring comments made by others. A fascinating document, and I wish I had made a copy.
I focused on the wine glass that is knocked over and broken in the Grand Hotel Room in the Sky. Being a recent English major, I was reminded of lines from a poem. Shelley’s “Adonais.”
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.–Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!–Rome's azure sky
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words are weak.
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
Lines 3 through 5 were what I had recalled. I thought, and still think, that I was not foolish to recall those lines and that image. I got a lot of favorable comments about it from others of those also writing in that document.
Nowadays we know that Kubrick simply needed an excuse for Bowman at the table to look away to the older iteration of himself lying on his deathbed. It may be that actor Keir Dullea came up with the idea (actors are much into motivation). But of course, with Kubrick nothing like this is ever “simple.” It harms no one, and certainly not the movie, for me to be reminded of those words. And a technical solution to an artistic problem can have philosophic implications.
Tom himself wrote the first positive response to “2001” to be published in the New York press. Initial reviews in New York were more damning than not. Renata Adler in the New York Times compared it unfavorably to AIP’s “Wild in the Streets.” Tom took umbrage (not unusual for him, and even though he had worked on “Wild in the Streets”) and dashed off the following to the Times.
TO THE EDITOR:
In what was meant as a put-down, Renata Adler dismisses the “murkier” and more metaphysical aspects of Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey” as being “simply there, like a Rorschach.”
True, but what a Rorschach; and what a revelation. A searing inkblot of modern thinking man’s apprehension as to the ultimate place of technology in the celestial scheme of things. Death and resurrection sanctioned by what? A machine? God, the perfect machine, overseeing decay, death and a new Immaculate Conception.
Who is triumphant in the here or in the hereafter, man or machine? Study the Rorschach. The answer comes from the individual viewer. Interpretations abound, and will proliferate. Is HAL, the computer, in a foreboding and unsettling manifestation of an Age of Anxiety neurosis, becoming humanized, memorizing, learning the emotions of jealousy, fear, hate? Or has he become subverted by a Higher Computer, an agent and representative of a culture in which the machine has emerged as the dominant and evolving form of life? God (perfect machine or standard variety) knows.
The film is a ghost story of the spheres, a veritable haunting of heaven’s doorstep, eerie, spellbinding, beautiful; and in form an orchestral composition of sight, sound and the senses.
Like a Rorschach, it is an insight, an experience. As an experience and as art, it is a masterpiece.
--TOM MILLER New York City.
Actually, that’s not bad for an early-on appreciation! An old friend of Tom’s in the movie publicity business was working on the U.S. release of “2001.” He read the letter over the phone to Kubrick, who reportedly was pleased.
Adler’s (and Tom’s) use of Rorschach is not bad, I think, although the film is a lot more than that. Different viewers did (and do) find different things in it. The main thrust of the movie is fairly straight-forward, and any attentive viewer coming to in fresh can “get it.”
Yes, it is possible to overexplain Kubrick. If you haven’t seen the remarkable documentary “Room 237” re the secret meanings found in “The Shining,” you must do so. And if you watch it on DVD, be sure to watch the roundtable discussion among theorists in the extras.
I find Kubrick’s movies all incredibly rich, and rarely do I re-watch one and not find something new. How many times have I watched “2001”? I saw the original cut at least twice and the shorter version at least 3 times in the original “Cinerama” version in New York. I went to an invitational showing of the re-release a few years later at the Ziegfeld, a full house from which the smoke that arose was not from tobacco. (I never felt the need to get high to watch the movie: it gave me plenty of high all by itself. Admittedly one critic, Andrew Sarris, who had initially not liked the movie, began to like it after seeing it while smoking pot.) I’ve watched it on home video I’d say conservatively more than a dozen times. Certainly I have watched it more frequently than any other movie. I never tire of it.
And just last week, watching it for the first time on my new 4K HDTV I noticed a detail for the first time, although perhaps I had been picking up on it subliminally. During the TV interview with a newsman on earth, HAL states that the 9000 series have “never made a mistake or distorted information.” Immediately after HAL says that, the shot from HAL’s point of view shows the interior of the
Discovery dramatically distorted. Earlier there had been a shot from HAL’s POV of an astronaut coming down a corridor, but since it had been shot straight on the distortion was not immediately noticeable. Just a tiny thing in the whole scheme of things, but I’m pleased to have noticed it.
The immediate prompt to watch it again came from one of the extras of the Blu-ray of the extended cut of “The Martian” in which director Ridley Scott refers to and shows the scene of astronauts Poole and Bowman running and walking full circle around the centrifuge built for that purpose. It was, and is, impressive. Later, while writing this piece I went back to it to verify exactly what HLA said in that interview mentioned and found myself hooked again. But I forced myself back to the computer.
I have tried to limit myself here to issues suggested by the longer and shorter cuts of the movie. But there is so much more to think about, to mull over, to write about, and of course many already have.
Excellence of performance by cast. Acting in “2001” was generally dismissed. I find it perfect. (Acting is often dismissed in Kubrick movies. It should not be.)
Meanings of names. Bowman. Poole. The first seems obvious. The second may refer to water (remember that waterhole) or it may be a derivative of Paul (remember Saul/Paul and the revelation that comes to him on a journey). Bowman seems active, Poole seems passive. Sleeping astronauts Hunter (rhymes with Bowman, I think, and possibly with the apelike men post-Monolith). Kimball (warrior chief, or leader of warriors). Kaminski (one who came from a rocky place).Floyd (gray, hollow. Somehow both seem apt). Haywood (hedged forest). Feel free to play around with them.
The hyperspace journey (or light show, as some have called it). Some of it is interior, definitely Bowman’s mind trying to organize what he sees. Some of it is, I believe, from an omniscient (Omniscient?) POV and may suggest an exterior view of what is going one.
Eyes. Vision. Seeing.
The humor. I find all of Floyd’s scenes oddly funny, although not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. He seems always to be “acting” in his encounters with others, and William Sylvester does a wonderful job portraying this most subtly.
The horror. Note the cold-blooded killing of Poole and the three scientists in hibernation. I have seen the movie with audiences that laughed at the latter. My sense is that these viewers think is okay for them to die since we don’t know them and can’t have empathy with them. I do have empathy At times horror and humor are mixed. I think of the wonderful sequence in which Bowman after re-entry is marching through to ship to destroy HAL accompanied by HAL’s pleas. Brilliant writing, performance, and editing.
Is HAL in love with (or does he have the hots for) Poole? Look again of the tracking shots of Poole running and the long take on him lying on tanning bed clad only in shorts before you try to answer. Poole seems to be the astronaut most convinced that HAL must be dismantled. Does HAL see that as a lover’s betrayal?
The ellipses throughout. How wonderful and startling and mysterious, with explanation, such as it is, following later on.
The Star Child at the end? What will it do next after gazing down on the Earth? In the novel written in tandem with the movie Clarke gives explicit information. Kubrick does not.
The incredible beauty of the movie.
But I won’t carry on about any of these. Figure them out for yourself. My goal here was simply to describe my experience of the initial release, to contrast the earlier and later versions, and to give some indication why I believe the longer cut preferable. But you can’t argue with Kubrick. Not anymore. More’s the pity.