This is part 3 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…
2001: A Space Odyssey
Full disclosure: this is my second favorite Kubrick film next to Paths of Glory. The vision and imagination of 2001 are so singular I truly believe that had Kubrick not made it, no other filmmaker would have thought to produce anything remotely similar to it. It is sui generis in the film world.
Kubrick’s genius here is twofold. On a technical level he incorporates big cinematic ideas without seeming like he is incorporating big cinematic ideas. In other words, as impressive ideas and images unfold, the hand of the director remains unseen. This is exactly as it should be. On a deeper level, Kubrick reflects on The Human Condition. Our origins, our future, what’s known, what’s knowable, what’s unknowable. 2001 is a real heavyweight of a film, perhaps even one of the great artistic accomplishments of 20th Century. That said, I feel I should proffer a few reasons for the film’s greatness before delving into its unfortunate shortcomings.
I’m sure Kubrick had reasons for everything he did when it came to the technical aspects of filmmaking: where to put the camera, when to move it, where to move it to, how fast to move it, the lighting, the set design, the blocking of the actors.
According to his biographer Alexander Walker there was very little about any of his films that Kubrick didn’t have a say in. One of my favorite technical decisions made by Kubrick in 2001 is depicting the space station and other space technology for long stretches of time with nothing but “The Beautiful Blue Danube” waltz playing on the soundtrack. It’s not just the music of the spheres in this instance, but also of man’s attempt at occupying them. It’s 21st century technology meets 19th century music in a 20th century film.
A central idea here is the cycle. The seasons, the solar system, the galaxy. We all know about the cyclical nature of, well, everything. And Kubrick shows this with the wheels of the space station spinning inexorably in time to the waltz. This is a long time without dialogue or plot driven action and a clear violation of many narrative filmmaking conventions. Yet it works. Only a filmmaker with an innate understanding of what will inspire wonder could have gotten away with that. He knew what to present, when to present it, and how.
Beyond a technical standpoint, this decision to conflate the stately waltz with cycles and the expanse of space nicely plays into some of the filmâ€™s themes, namely, artificial intelligence and human origins.
We owe to the Enlightenment the idea of the Universe acting like a clock. With an infinite number of parts all moving in never-ending cycles and subject to a handful of immutable laws, the universe is harmonic and beautiful. This is the cornerstone of classical Newtonian physics. Through science, the universe is knowable, predictable. Truly, this is an optimistic viewpoint, and downright naive when considering how quantum mechanics changed the field of physics in the 20th Century. The position of an electron as it speeds around a nucleus is about as predictable as a roll of the dice, as Albert Einstein famously did not infer. Nevertheless, Kubrick intimates that Man can achieve a kind of Newtonian harmony, not just with the spinning wheels of the space station, but with the accompaniment of the music.
Lovers of classical music pride themselves on the timelessness of their music. Itâ€™s 2010, and with classical music of all stripes still being played, listened to, and recorded 100 to 300 years after much of the best work was produced makes good on this claim so far. Further, much of classical music was born from the Church. The aim was to produce sounds of such sublime beauty to invoke God, our very Alpha and Omega. So if there is a kind of music that will underscore the ideas of the previous paragraph, classical music is it.
A shift occurs the first time we see the astronaut Frank Poole, on his way to Jupiter to investigate the destination of a mysterious radio transmission from the even more mysterious Monolith found on the Moon. He is jogging in a vertical circle reminiscent of the wheel of the spinning space station. We follow him from behind, and eventually we realize that this is the perspective of HAL, the ship’s all-knowing computer which (who) eventually kills him.
Right there we have cinematic themes interacting with narrative ones and beyond. Is it Man who can achieve this Newtonian harmony, or only his works? Is this a good thing, given HAL’s ultimate actions? Can a machine approximate or surpass the human mind when forming order out of chaos? And how does all this beauty and harmony relate to the ending? We come to Jupiter searching for answers, and find…what? Infinite loops, bizarre landscapes, wormholes in time, the edge of space where knowledge frays and randomness rules. This is our quantum mechanics, refuting the never ending Newtonian cycles of before. Kubrick was right in this instance to replace Johann Strauss Jr.’s clear, elegant waltz with creepy, droning modern classical on the soundtrack.
So what is Kubrick trying to say here? Instead we should ask what is Kubrick trying to have us feel here? Like any great work of art, 2001 produces as many feelings as people who come to experience it. And these feelings can be as profound as you want them to be…because Stanley Kubrick had felt them as well.
Okay, but the title to this post is “Against Kubrick” not “Praising Kubrick”. Why say all these nice things about the film you said you were going to pan? Well, for two reasons. 1) to prove I don’t have an anti-Kubrick axe to grind, but more importantly, 2) to make clear the tenor of this critique. Where in Dr. Strangelove Kubrick stokes an incipient (at the time) anti-Americanism out of semi-ignorance and an unmotivated spite, in 2001 he mars an otherwise beautiful work with his inability to portray people as people. In other words, Stanley Kubrick is far more comfortable with Man than with men (let alone women, more on that later).
Here is a list of instances in 2001 which I believe support this claim:
1) Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, the two astronauts on their way to Jupiter, show almost no emotion and seem almost sociopathic in their lack of personality and humor.
In fact, they come across as more computer-like than HAL since HAL at least admits to an emotion (fear) and sings a song towards the end. What do Poole and Bowman do that reveals any personality? Poole throws punches while he jogging like a boxer and Bowman draws a sketch. Little else. Notice also that they don’t talk to themselves when alone (something that would seem natural given that they’re in a spaceship millions of miles from home). Further, they talk to each other only when necessary. They simply don’t seem to derive any joy or comfort with each other’s company.
Could you imagine the cast of Apollo 13 acting like such automatons? Certainly, 2001 is the superior film, but the performances in Apollo 13 are to be enjoyed. After watching that film, one gets the impression of just having spent some time in a cramped space on an important mission with three very different but likable guys. On the other hand, you could completely switch Bowman and Poole a dozen times in 2001 and it wouldn’t make any difference.
Notice also how Kubrick films the two men discussing HAL in the space pod out of the computer’s earshot. All right angles on their faces, no endearing close ups, no demonstrable reactions from the men when they realize that HAL may in fact betray them.
This is a big moment for the men. They realize that their lives are in danger, the mission is in jeopardy, and that they may have to disconnect HAL. And how do they respond? Well, even the best trained astronauts would reveal some kind of shock, disbelief, resentment, anguish, anger, or fear. Of course they would. They are human. How could they not? But Bowman and Poole? In Kubrick’s universe, they respond the exact same way HAL does, with deliberate and premeditated action. Only HAL beats them to the punch. So it seems for Kubrick that humans are no better than computers and probably a little worse. Hardly the position of a humanist.
Now, perhaps Kubrick intended to draw this similarity between men and computers and shouldn’t be criticized for it. Fair enough. But my response to that is twofold. A) If this is true then it is an obvious conceit and therefore a bad one, and B) it is also a lie. Human beings aren’t computers and don’t act like them. How can you have a film about Man when the men in it don’t behave like men? It seems that this similarity, if it was intentional on Kubrick’s part, is merely a lame excuse to disguise the fact that Kubrick didn’t have any ideas when it came to writing or directing three-dimensional human characters.
I have always held that science fiction typically puts boring characters in interesting situations, and 2001 is unfortunately no different.
2) Kubrick delivers more pathos for the death of HAL than for any human death. Frank Poole’s murder, and the image of the poor man struggling in his spacesuit to reconnect his air hose, will haunt anyone watching this film. Of this we get less than 10 seconds, and none of it from Frank’s perspective.
Dave has no discernible reaction to it at all other than to stalk HAL like an assassin and disconnect him as soon as he can. Notice how Kubrick films Dave here. Either marching with his head down and drenched in blood red light, or from the very unnatural perspective of the floor.
So what is Kubrick intimating here? Many things, I’m sure. But what I take from it is that Frank Poole in his dying throes wasnâ€™t worth a perspective because he didn’t have one. He was merely a man. He wasn’t even worth the tears of his partner, why should he be worth any of yours? Frank Poole was guilty of wanting to disconnect HAL, so really he’s just as bad as that prehistoric human who figured out how to brain people with clubs. Where’s the humanism in that?
Let’s also not also forget the way HAL flatlines the astronauts in cryogenic sleep.
Sure, we never meet these people, so the audience has little invested in them when they die. Sure, it’s nice how Kubrick zings us with the throbbing bright red “Life Functions Terminated” sign to indicate that this little mass murder is a bad thing.
But does Dave see this as a bad thing too? Presumably he knew these people and cared something for them, yes? The problem here is that we really don’t know. We don’t know because Stanley Kubrick didn’t think it was important for us to know. If Dave showed any reaction at all, it was between scenes. Either way, Kubrick cared not to include it.
Dave Bowman could have delivered a blubbering eulogy for his fallen comrades in full dress uniform complete with a recording of “Taps” played on bagpipes and sent them off one by one into their infinite grave a la Spock, and Kubrick still wouldn’t have cared. Seconds after HAL is shut down, we’re orbiting Jupiter and thinking about the Monolith again.
Where is the humanism in the way Kubrick summarily squelches human life and then asks us to forget about it? In 2001, as we deal with Man in the abstract confronting lofty things like his origins and his future, we see real men getting sacrificed en masse like a phalanx of pawns on a chessboard. Nobody cries for a pawn, so why should we cry for them?
Now compare all this (what little of it there is) to the “death” of HAL. Like most critics, I attest to the genius of this unforgettable scene.
HAL tries to bully Dave, then tries to reason with him, then tries to elicit his sympathy, then begs for his life before literally losing his mind. I’m reminded of a transcript of man being questioned while undergoing a lobotomy at the hands of the procedure’s greatest champion, Walter Freeman. In the middle of the procedure he asks politely but persistently for FreemanÂ to stop and tries to offer reasons for him to stop. Of course FreemanÂ doesn’t stop, and the poor man gradually loses his mind.
Chilling stuff, and no less chilling when done in 2001. During this scene, we feel for HAL and in a sense become him because many of us either know people who’ve lost their minds or have contemplated it happening to ourselves. And the fact that this is a computer with blood on its microchips only adds to the scene’s existential drama.
In and of itself, this scene is impeccable, of course. The problem arises when the drama of the human deaths pale in comparison to it. By rendering such deaths virtually drama-less, Kubrick hints that Man’s Works are worth more than he is.
3) In the opening prehistoric sequence, Kubrick focuses on the negative rather than positive of humanity. The Monolith provides the beings that touch it with some kind of rapid biological development that gives them an evolutionary edge over others in their species. For Kubrick, this means that men have learned how to bash each other’s brains in.
Of course Kubrick would draw such a ghastly connection. Of course Kubrick would paint this as a great leap forward. What better way to demonstrate how inherently violent and cruel Man is than by using violence as a benchmark for his evolutionary progress? And by tossing the killing club in the air and juxtaposing it with a space ship, Kubrick implies that we haven’t gotten less violent, only better at it.
A humanist would not do this. A humanist would focus on the dignity of Man and how his learning and science lifts him beyond the state where life is “nasty, solitary, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes so famously wrote. A humanist director would have his ape men touch the Monolith, and then go and produce something like this:
Can anyone imagine Stanley Kubrick allowing something so uplifting to be in one of his films?
Of course, 2001 is not entirely without human moments. The cameo by Kubrick’s daughter is nice, and I especially like the lunar astronauts posing for a picture by the Monolith. In my mind, William Sylvester projects enough charisma to make Dr. Heywood Floyd believable, even likable, despite the dearth of script to work in his favor. This however is not enough to rescue 2001 from the flaws it shares with its director, namely a tacit contempt for humanity as it lives and breathes.
This, of course, is the harshest interpretation possible of the film. A more generous critic might argue that Stanley Kubrick, sophisticated filmmaker than he was, simply requires his audience bring their human sympathy with them when they come to the theater. Given Kubrick’s reputation, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people watching 2001 in 1968 when it was released were educated, had lived through World War II or had parents who did, and were very well aware of the nuclear arms race and vicious little wars going on in places like Korea and Vietnam. It’s also safe to assume that these people were happy about none of it. People like this you don’t have to work very hard to convince of Man’s brutality. It’s not so much that they hate humanity for its brutishness. Rather, they love it and fervently wish it were less so. And what better way to make this so than by exaggerating this brutality in an effort to scare us straight?
Kubrick, the argument goes, knew this when making 2001 and therefore did not need to dwell on the sanctity and dignity of human life because his audience took that for granted going in, and so did he. He also could expound upon the more violent and negative aspects of Man because that’s what his audience craved. This is why we get 8 seconds of Frank Poole writhing in space and over 5 minutes of HAL trying to convince Dave not to kill him. Kubrick must have figured a human dying was no big deal, but a computer, well, that was something else entirely.
This explanation might be satisfactory for some, but not for me.
For one, it’s an exclusive approach. Audience members who weren’t exposed to higher education in the West or aren’t exactly tuned into the history of the last 65 years will be left out of some of the drama of 2001. So all we’re doing here is transferring Kubrick’s contempt for humanity onscreen to his contempt for those people who don’t qualify as his audience.
Secondly, this approach dates the material. Who’s to say what the attitudes of people will be in 50 or 100 years? It’s very likely the anti-human pretensions of Kubrick’s audience in 1968 or even today will be replaced with something different in the future. If so, people will come out of 2001 scratching their heads over the cause of Kubrick’s peculiar grudge against humanity.
While I’m sure there is some truth to all this, I cannot imagine that the contempt Kubrick shows for people in 2001 is entirely faked. I’m a big believer Occam’s Razor, and the simplest solution is most often the best one. If I had to choose between real contempt and merely faking it to impress a cynical audience, I’ll plop for the former every time, even for a film as beautiful and brilliant as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Next Up: Kicking 2001 when it’s down (don’t worry it can take it).