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Monday, November 15, 2004

One of the things in this life that I've never understood

Have a few things to do this afternoon but to kill time while working on other projects I flicked through some TV channels to see if anything good was on (hardly ever watch TV, truth be known, apart from "The Simpsons", "Smallville", "Powerpuff Girls" and "Johnny Bravo" on Cartoon Network, and the Hitler... I mean, History Channel).

Lo and behold, right now HBO is running 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I've seen this dozens of times over the years since I was ten years old. It's been out since 1968.

Can anybody please tell me what the hell is the plot of this movie?!?

I mean, what STORY is being told here??? Big black brick makes apes throw bones in the air, followed by big black brick hurting some dudes' ears on the moon, followed by big black brick making a computer go murderously nuts before said big black brick makes some astronaut guy do an LSD trip then turns him into a really really big baby.

To reiterate: "Huh?"

There's a fine line between genius and insanity, and here Stanley Kubrick dipped his toes into more than enough of both. But it's still his greatest movie ever... and one of the greatest movies ever made. True, it's somewhat dated now: 2001 didn't happen like the film prophesied be (which in 1997 Arthur C. Clarke - who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick - blamed on the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Challenger disaster) but on every level this movie still holds its own against the test of time. For one thing, I know of no other document from the early space age that best represents the hopefulness and optimism that people back then had in the future. That's going to make 2001 especially haunting in years to come: we're going to look back on this movie and the time it's from and ask ourselves "What happened? Where did we go wrong?"

Why did we go wrong? At 30 I'm way young, but plenty old enough to remember reading about the things that were going to happen in my lifetime: colonies on the moon. Pleasure excursions to Mars. Mining the asteroid belt. Something called the Daedalus Project that British engineers hoped to launch toward Barnard's Star and arrive there 50 years later to see if planets were there). A "space bridge" that would connect a station on earth with a geosynchronous satellite so that stuff could be hoisted into orbit without costly rockets... and a zillion other things that a six-year old kid back then daydreamed about seeing before he hit retirement age (at which point Winnebago would be selling an interplanetary mobile home to tool around in).

What do kids dream about nowadays? Do they still look forward to when they can wave back at their friends home on Earth while they're off at summer camp on the Moon? And if they can't... why? Where did we cross the line that turned a far-off glimpse toward a bright tomorrow into escapist nonsense and delusions of grandeur? I mean, given the choice to determine which way this world went, I'd rather it head in the direction that Kubrick and Clarke showed us in 2001 instead of the over-computerized drug-riddled corporate-driven wasteland of William Gibson's Neuromancer (a very good book by the way: it's where the term "cyberspace" was first coined, not to mention paving the way for modern sci-fi like The Matrix). Is it too much to think that we can still aspire for something better than the soulless decadence that we're barreling headlong into? Do any of us dare to dream anymore?

That's one of the things in this life that I've never understood (thought I was just talking about the title of the movie there, huh? :-)

All that said, and for everything it stands for that never came to pass (yet anyway), 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of my all-time favorite movies: even though every time I watch it I can grasp the storyline... but when I wake up the next morning I can remember nothing about what it was really all about.

But next time you do, here's some neat things to keep in mind when you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey:
- Not a single note of music was explicitly written for the movie. Every piece heard derived from previously-composed works, including the film's signature theme from "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss.
- The graphics shown on the computer monitors were all hand-drawn slides. Computer technology could not yet render the complex images expected from those that would be operating spacecraft systems thirty years in the future.
- After production, director Kubrick ordered all the models, sets, and costumes used in the movie to be destroyed. And just to be safe he had the respective blueprints burned and trashed as well. His reason? That 2001 shouldn't be cheapened by future low-budget sci-fi flicks making use of its props (though it also created a major headache when its sorta-sequel 2010 started production in 1983).
- "Daisy", the song that HAL sings while dying was in reality the very first song performed by a real computer, at IBM in 1961. Incidentally, one part of the song goes "I'm half crazy".
- The ACTUAL beginning of the movie is rarely shown on television... and for a long time wasn't even available on home video. It's several minutes of Gyorgy Ligeti's "Atmospheres" (later used during the "stargate" sequence as the monolith hurls David Bowman across countless light-years to the source of its power) played against a pitch-black screen. This overture has been restored in recent VHS and DVD releases.
- Speaking of which, Ligeti sued Kubrick for using his music without permission in the movie. He won.
- The movie is 139 minutes long but contains no dialogue for 88 minutes of its run... including within the half-hours at both the beginning and end of the film.
- HAL's name came from going one-letter away from each letter in "IBM".
- The "floating pen" in the shuttle is actually attached to a sheet of glass that the camera is aiming through. The stewardess merely pulls it off the sheet when she sticks it back into Heywood Floyd's pocket.
- There was real text written for the instructions on the zero-gravity toilet that Floyd uses en route to the Moon. You can read them for yourself at IMDB's page about 2001 trivia.
- Supposedly when the screen says "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" you can listen to "Echoes" from Pink Floyd's "Meddle" album and it perfectly syncs-up with the stargate sequence (much the same way that the band's "Dark Side of the Moon" album can be played alongside The Wizard of Oz).
- During one screening during its initial run, the image of Bowman reborn as the Starchild at the end of the movie caused one theater-goer to run wildly toward the screen screaming "IT'S GOD!! IT'S GOD!!"
And finally, Arthur C. Clarke no doubt put it best when describing 2001: A Space Odyssey: "If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered."