The Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century – Part 3

So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the list…

16. Moondog (1916-1999)

Moondog16

They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.

So here we are, Part 3 of the Twenty Greatest American Weirdos of the 20th Century. We bring to you numbers 16 to 13. (In case you haven't noticed, I'm doing installments of four at a time. Why? I figured five would make each post too long, two would be too short, and three does not evenly divide into twenty, so…) Click here for Part 1 and Part 2. Now, on with the list…

16. Moondog (1916-1999)

Moondog16

They do not get much weirder than Moondog. The consummate New York City street musician, proto-hippie, and counterculture symbol, Louis Thomas Hardin was a blind classical and avante-garde jazz composer and poet who is now considered one of the important figures in 20th century music. He spent three decades playing on the streets of New York where he became Moondog. He had a foot-long beard and dressed like a Viking, complete with helmet, horns, spear, the whole bit. At six foot eight (including headpiece) his appearance was so striking he became one of the most photographed New Yorkers of his time.

All Moondog, all of the time
All Moondog, all of the time

He moved to the Big Apple in 1947 and New Yorkers recognized his raw talent almost immediately. It wasn't long before he could actually make a living on the streets performing and selling his poetry and recordings. He invented several musical instruments including something called the “oo” and, most

People from where bleach I is way makes. Right Comb shocked see the had lip. I it while and happy fact be than saw because does shown have. Genesis Hair rebel worth idea find shower. Don’t cream acne I if to stays sunscreen…

famously, the trimba.

The trimba
The trimba

His reputation as a fearsome percussionist and innovative composer grew such that within 5 years, he was recording his own works, composing for orchestra, running his own radio program, being profiled in magazines, and being feted by giants in the music industry. Over the years he became friendly with such music luminaries as George Szell, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and Phillip Glass. By the mid-1950s everyone knew Moondog.

He took it to another level in the 1960s as the hippie counterculture really got rolling. Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce performed with him. Bob Dylan wrote about him. An early incarnation of the Beatles was called Johnny and the Moondogs. His song “All is Loneliness” was covered by Janis Joplin. Moondog even made an appearance on “The Tonight Show”. In fact, the spot where Moondog most often worked, 54th Street and 6th Avenue, became known as “Moondog Corner”. In 1989 he conducted a series of concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.

A one, and a two, and a...
A one, and a two, and a…

According to allmusic.com, Moondog produced 12 albums in his lifetime, 7 of which they give ratings of 4 stars or higher (out of 5).

18.5 stars for Moondog
That's 18.5 stars of Moondog right there

Just looking at him however, you knew he was weird. He made all his own clothes, or costumes, really. Togas, tunics, thongs, cloaks, cowls, you name it. He wanted to be the incarnation of the Norse God Odin (but with additional blind eye), hence the nickname “Viking of 6th Avenue”. He didn't wear shoes, just leather squares that he wrapped around his feet. In the snow, in the rain, it didn't matter, he was always on the streets. He actually preferred the streets to any comfy domicile and by 1960 split with his wife and child as a result. He was a tad anti-Semitic and didn't care too much for black people either. Then he would complain about how all his best friends are either Jewish or black. He would also drink from a hollowed-out antler. Where does a blind man find a hollowed-out antler in New York City?

By the mid-1950s Moondog had the world at his feet. Recording studio executives really wanted to market him and put him on a coast-to-coast tour. But he walked away from it all. He was just too darn weird for success, it seems. It's ironic because he did like making money, just on his own terms. Moondog was famous for playing all sorts of exotic instruments, but when asked which one was his favorite, he replied with his trademark wit, “the box that collects the coins.”

So is that an antler in your tunic, or are you just glad to see me?
So is that an antler in your tunic, or are you just glad to see me?

15. Edgar Cayce (1877-1945)

Edgar Cayce

Cayce is mostly forgotten these days, but in his day he was one of the most famous psychics in America. Believers in his abilities claim that as a boy he could memorize books by sleeping with them under his pillow. He could also solve murder mysteries, revisit a person's past lives, predict the future, and offer uncannily sage business advice. But he was most famous for his healing abilities. Typically, he would hear or read about a person's ailment, and then fall into a hypnotic trance during which he would offer eerily accurate prescriptions for treatment. Some of which ran counter to the common medical wisdom of the day. For example, as a young man he reportedly saved an infant dying of convulsions with belladonna, a known poison. He eventually became so well known that he treated such luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin.

Cayce skeptics point to the fact that most of Cayce's prescriptions were common-sensical or involved standard osteopathic treatments of the time. They also point to the fact that Cayce was an avid reader of alternative medical texts and surrounded himself with medical practitioners who could at some point or another assist him with his diagnoses. He also didn't always get it right, such as when he prescribed eating almonds to prevent cancer. What they latch on to most however are his (such as China converting to Christianity by 1968), his bizarre ideas on race, and his intricate and wholly ridiculous opinions on the lost city of Atlantis. In fact, he predicted that by 1958 the U.S. would discover the Tuaoi Stone, the great cylindrical energy crystal which caused Atlantis to crash into the sea ten thousand years ago. Yeah. He also wrote a book about Atlantis but couldn't exactly predict when people would ever get tired of it.

Makes you wish they'd just find that darn island already.
Makes you wish they'd just find that darn island already.

Cayce skeptics of course reject all the folklore and anecdotal evidence supporting Cayce's healing powers. They ignore the fact that Cayce did make many accurate predictions, such as the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and World War 2 among others. They also reject as pure hearsay all the fawning newspaper articles, the thousands of pages of records kept by his wife Gertrude, as well as testimonials left by his patients. But what they cannot reject is the whopping amount of all this evidence. Cayce gave over 20,000 readings in his lifetime. Many, many, many people who dealt with him claimed he did what said he would do, which was successfully treat or heal them. Today, thousands the world over revere him as a prophet, and he has been the subject of numerous books and documentaries. Therein lies the man's greatness.

Why, yes. I did have my finger surgically attached to my earlobe. Why do you ask?
Why, yes. I did have my finger surgically attached to my earlobe. Why do you ask?

Another aspect of Cayce which was, um, weird, was his overall reluctance to benefit from all this. For much of his life, he insisted on working for free. He was also a devout Christian who had serious misgivings about the other-worldly aspects of his gift. His trances often left him physically and emotionally exhausted, but he kept working well into his old age despite knowing it would eventually kill him.

Cayce with his wife Gertrude in his final years
Cayce with his wife Gertrude in his final years

The irony about Edgar Cayce was that when he was awake he was actually a pretty normal guy. But whenever he fell into his famous trances, he became one of the weirdest people in the world.

14. Walter Freeman (1895-1972)

WalterFreeman

Nobody embodies both sides of the morality coin better than Walter Freeman. Having pioneered the lobotomy operation in America in the 1930s and then streamlined it into a casual 20-minute outpatient procedure, Freeman was the center of a truly fascinating yet mortifying chapter of twentieth century psychiatric history. Was he an angel of mercy or a diabolical monster? Did he help the incurably insane or was he preying on vulnerable innocents? People can debate either side, but what isn't up for debate is that he was a really weird guy.

We find his greatness in how he was one of the first to pinpoint a physiological etiology for mental illness. He was also truly moved by the suffering of the insane and wanted to do something about it. In his heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, Freeman sold lobotomy to the medical establishment as a procedure of last resort for only the most dire cases. And in those instances, lobotomy, more often than not, worked. The violent, the psychotic, the suicidal became more docile, more manageable, happier even. So what if they had to re-learn how to use the toilet and had difficulties holding down a job? They were in a better place, and so were their families. And if the procedure didn't work, well, it wasn't like the patients were going to get better anyway, so…

Before and after lobotomy, one of Freeman's success stories
Before and after lobotomy, one of Freeman's success stories

At a time when there was no alternative to treating the insane, the lobotomy was often the only option. And the public reaction at first was overwhelmingly positive. In 1949, Freeman successfully lobbied for António Egas Moniz, the originator of lobotomy, to receive a Nobel Prize. Once, when facing his critics (mostly Freudian psychiatrists questioning his ethics) Freeman produced a box of Christmas cards – hundreds of them – all from former patients and their family members. He then challenged anyone in the room to do the same. He had no takers.

By mid-century, Freeman was a star. But that's when the weirdness crept in. After developing the “ice pick lobotomy” (in which he would hammer a long blade called a leucotome into the brain's frontal lobes through the eye socket), he seemed a wee bit too eager to perform his special operation.

This patient is still alive. Read his fascinating story here
This patient is still alive. Read his fascinating story here.

He had no license to perform operations, but would do them anyway, often in his own office. This alienated his longtime partner James Watts, but that didn't stop Freeman. Freeman also ignored his not-so-rare disasters, such as when he rendered poor Rosemary Kennedy permanently incapacitated.

JFK's younger sister before her lobotomy
JFK's younger sister before her lobotomy in 1941

He became a bit of a showman, arriving at hospitals in a wide-brimmed hat and brandishing a cane. He dubbed his own station wagon as “the Lobotomobile”. To mix things up, he would perform lobotomies right-handed, then left-handed, and sometimes with two hands at once. He would use ordinary carpenter's mallets instead of surgical hammers. He always played for the crowd or the press more than he sought the formal approval of colleagues. He ate up all the attention. Once he killed a patient when he carelessly stepped back to pose for a photograph during an operation. He let his leucotome sink too deep into the patient's brain.

No, Walter. Don't say cheese. Please.
No, Walter. Don't say cheese. Please.

Freeman also insisted on filming and photographing his operations and even talking to his patients as he severed their minds away. He referred to photographing his patients as his “magnificent obsession” since he felt before-and-after shots could help vinidcate lobotomy. Driving from town to town looking for people to lobotomize was what he called a “head and shoulder hunt”. He claimed that time passed more swiftly when he was head and shoulder hunting.

What makes Freeman even weirder is that he never let any of his colossal failings deter him, nor did he ever recognize how macabre his magnificent obsession really was. What started as a course of last resort became one of first resort by the mid-1950s, after antipsychotic drugs such as Thorazine were quickly rendering Freeman's ghastly procedure obsolete. Rather than concede to more humane measures to treat insanity, Freeman instead moved to California and started selling lobotomies to the unsuspecting public for twenty-five bucks a pop. At his nadir, he lobotomized a four year-old child. Walter Freeman died in 1972, still in touch with many of his patients, people who would have had nothing to do with him had they known exactly how weird he was.

13. Henry Darger (1892-1973)

Henry_Darger

Remember those weird Dungeons and Dragons geeks from our childhood? Remember how they would spend hours cataloging the minutest details of fictitious characters living in imaginary worlds? Henry Darger spent a lifetime doing that. And, reclusive weirdo that he was, he never seemed to come up for air. Self taught as a writer and painter, he left behind a body of work of such breathtaking power and scope that he is now considered one of the greatest if not the greatest outsider artist of the 20th century.

Darger's story is miraculous and tragic at the same time. Placed as a young boy in an abominable institution called the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children where he was worked like a slave, Darger escaped at 16 and walked over a hundred and fifty miles to his home in Chicago. There he got a job as a janitor in a hospital. Aside from a brief stint in the military during World War I, he stayed at this job until his retirement in 1963. His neighbors knew him as strange, reclusive, asocial. He could be heard through the walls of his apartment staging conversations with himself, assuming different dialects or accents for different characters. Yet he would never talk to people. And if you ever forced him to talk to you, he would respond with something completely unrelated. He collected trash. He collected rope and twine. He once started a weather journal of excruciating detail and kept at it for ten years. His autobiography spans 5,000 handwritten single-spaced pages. Only three photographs of Henry Darger exist.

Darger had two major obsessions, his faith in God and a desperate need to protect or avenge children. For years he tried unsuccessfully to adopt, but the state wouldn't let him. Some time around 1911 he lost a newspaper photo of a 5 year-old girl who had been kidnapped and murdered.

Elsie Paroubek, kidnapped and murdered in 1911
Elsie Paroubek, kidnapped and murdered in 1911

This sent Darger on a tailspin of grief and existential angst in which he petitioned God to return the photo. He built a shrine. He threatened to swear and throw things at the crucifix on his wall.

Henry Darger never found the photograph, but this episode inspired him to create his magnum opus, a novel entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It is also known as In the Realms of the Unreal for short. This is a 15,145 page fantasy novel containing hundreds of panoramic illustrations and watercolor paintings.

Typical sweeping battle scene from Darger's work
Typical sweeping battle scene from Darger's work

It took him 60 years to write it. It's the story of the Vivian Girls from the Christian nation of Abbieannia. They lead a child slave rebellion against an evil people called the Glandelinians who murder, torture, and abuse children. The events in the story and in the illustratiins go from the beatific to the unspeakably violent. Darger would even catalog the names of the myriad slain as well as the cost in dollars of each battle.

The mythology is as complex as anything from ancient Greece, and at its core is an almost pathological compassion for children. In his paintings girls would often appear with penises. We are not sure if this was some hermaphroditic conceit on the part of Darger or if he was just unaware that girls do not have penises.

girlswithpenises

Throughout his sad, solitary yet extremely productive life, Henry Darger never told anyone about his work. He was just the oddball janitor who lived down the hall. Today however his works are shown in museums where a Henry Darger original can fetch over $80,000. A new copy of the only biography about Darger currently runs for over $2,000! This is testimony of the imaginative power of one very weird man who was broken as a child and spent the rest of his life picking up all the beautiful pieces.

Check out Weirdos Part 4.

Against Kubrick 3

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

2001movieposter

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.

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

2001movieposter

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.

stanley_kubrick_directs

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqOOZux5sPE

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 film’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. It’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.

Better watch your back, Frank.
Better watch your back, Frank.

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.

poole

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 wasn’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.

flatlines

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.

terminated

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 Freeman to stop and tries to offer reasons for him to stop. Of course Freeman 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.

Ape-man-with-bone-from-Stanley-Kubricks-2001-A-Space-Odyssey (1)

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:

Ancient Cave Paintings in Lascaux, France

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).

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