Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Watching Blade Runner 2049

Note: This post contains minor spoilers about Blade Runner 2049.

Last Saturday I finally got around to seeing Blade Runner 2049. I missed the opening weekend due to other commitments. The film has performed poorly at the box office, but that did not deter me from wanting to see it on the big screen. I was not disappointed. 2049 melds seamlessly to the original Blade Runner (1982) in terms of its dark, alluring aesthetic. Like the original, 2049 is dystopian, yet beautiful to behold.

The original Blade Runner was released the year after I graduated from college. I was still living in Athens, Georgia at the time, working odd jobs and partying a lot. I remember being blown away by the cinematography, the philosophical undertones about (among other things) the yearning for more life, and the unsatisfying "happy" ending that seem out of place with the rest of the film.

Years later I bought "The Director's Cut" (1991) when it came out on VHS. Blade Runner is rather infamous for its multiple versions, most of which I now own in a blu-ray collection I bought several years ago. With that collection I watched the bonus features about the making of the film and "The Final Cut" (2007) version in which director Ridley Scott finally was able to edit his original vision for the film into a the definitive version. Noticeably changed from the 1982 release was the absence of Harrison Ford's ridiculous narration (which Ford opposed doing in the first place), the accentuation of the famous "unicorn" dream sequences, and the originally intended ambiguous ending.

Ambiguity was part of the art form of Blade Runner, just as important to the film's unique style as the amazing cinematography and wonderful musical score. All three of those elements carry forward nicely to 2049. The basic philosophical content is expanded in the latest film from its focus on the yearning for a longer life to a nostalgic reflection on the past, the consequences of love, the quest for power, and the possibilities and possible meanings for a new form of life in terms of "self" and "person." All of this is woven into a traditional noir genre narrative layered in a postmodern context (just like the first film), filled with the dynamic tension between the effects of mass commodification and eroticism.

Blade Runner was set in 2019. Which means the world did not turn out as badly nor as spectacularly as Scott envisioned back in 1982. 2049 obviously extends things by several decades and, while the specifics will likely remain a bit off, the effects of capitalism upon advertising and human objectification as consumers as well as how we live out our lives in an environmental wasteland remain relevant to social forces shaping our future today.

Ryan Gosling's low-key performance as Agent K is deceptive. His character is on a quest to uncover a freedom movement within replicants (basically robots with a high degree of artificial intelligence) and this ultimately leads him on a journey of possible self-discovery when he uncovers the fact that Deckard and Rachel apparently had two off-spring (one boy, one girl) from the loving relationship we saw form in Blade Runner. This is a revolutionary (and possibly evolutionary) surprise as replicants are not supposed to have a reproductive capability. This has great metaphysical ramifications in and of itself, but it becomes much more intimate for K's character when circumstances lead him to believe he is, in fact, one of the twins.

Blade Runner 2049 is an investigation with a lot of dead ends. The "intimate" truth, though appropriately ambiguous, is revealed in the end. Whereas the larger questions raised by the fact that replicants have gained a greater sense of "personhood" in 2049 remains largely unexplored.

I find myself ruminating upon several scenes in the film days later, which is usually a sign that it has affected me on a subconscious level. The depiction of street life in Los Angeles is almost exactly the same as in the original. This helps to connect the two films but it also reflects, I think, a deeper awareness and expression how our postmodern life feels as opposed to how it has tangibly manifested itself. Contrast LA with the acute, disorienting desolation of Las Vegas, which is captured just as picturesquely, in burnt orange hues, as if it is a elaborately deserted Burning Man festival.

As I mentioned, the film has plenty of erotic undertones. The most obvious is a strange threesome that takes place between K, his artificial, hologram girlfriend and a hooker. It isn't as 3-way as you might expect. In another subtle examination of artificial intelligence, the hologram girl desires to have "physical" intercourse with K. So it overlays itself unto the body of the pleasure girl and the two for them, constantly morphing between each other, make out with K. It is a strange and unique exploration of sexuality within the technology of the future, though the scene limits itself to the two (three) characters only making out. The only actual sex in the film is a brief background occurrence that is highly suggestive though not explicit.

Like the original film, 2049 is more a feeling than a rational experience. The stunning, often bizarre beauty and the grand darkness of mood and tone work on the viewer's emotions, creating, for me at least, a very satisfying experience that transcends the story itself. One could almost watch the film silently and be just as affected by it. There is a sense of contrast between the two films, however. Even though both films are somber, Blade Runner has a more magical, playful, sense of wonder about it, whereas 2049 feels heavier, more ominous and foreboding.

The ambiguity and non-traditional narrative expression (devoid of an irritating narration to help the viewer contextualize what is shown) demands a level of engagement by the audience that has to be arrived at without a lot of action sequences or traditional plot points. The sex and violence are minimal and the dialog doesn't explain nearly as much as the images do. As I mentioned earlier, Blade Runner 2049 has been a disappointment at the box office, just like the original film in 1982. I highly suspect, though, that this will carry on as a "cult" classic in the years to come, just as the original film continues to resonate with audiences today.

This was my first time to enjoy the directorial work of Denis Villeneuve. I heard good things about his previous film, Arrival, but I haven't gotten around to seeing that yet. He is definitely someone I want to explore further. Blade Runner 2049 is a film of the future for the future. It will likely be years before it is truly appreciated for the striking, magnetic work that it is. Just like its predecessor.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Watching "The Vietnam War"

On Sunday I finished watching  The Vietnam War, the 10-episode PBS series by distinguished documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  For the most part it was a riveting, if at times challenging and depressing, viewing experience that featured interesting in-depth interviews from a variety of soldiers on all sides, reporters, draft dodgers, politicians, activists, wives and families, prisoners of war, advisers - basically the entire gambit of participants in that tangled and protracted conflict.

I was rather obsessed with the war in Vietnam back in the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's.  I read everything I could get my hands on about the conflict in order to better understand it as both a military and cultural phenomenon.  So I already knew most of what Burns and Novick detailed in their 18-hour rendering of the seemingly endless and hopelessly convoluted story of what started out as a savage revolt against discriminatory French colonialism and ended as an American failure to stop North Vietnam from reunifying the country under autocratic rule.

The initial episode offers insight into the French rule of Indochina in the nineteenth century, the rise of Ho Chi Minh and his initially democratic movement for Vietnam.  American OSS operatives played a small role in the country immediately following the end of Japanese occupation in World War Two but ultimately our country rejected the movement toward democracy in favor of support for what was traditionally a sphere of French imperialism.  Ultimately, the Viet Minh rose up against the French as Ho Chi Minh, neglected by America, turned to China and Russia for support.  All of this culminated, of course, with the French military disaster at Dien Bien Phu.

Episodes 2 and 3 focused on the pervasive "domino theory" that guided American foreign policy during the Cold War.  President John F. Kennedy wrestled with what to do about South Vietnam and its corrupt leader Ngo Dinh Diem.  He committed more "advisers" and aid to Diem despite his reservations about his ability to govern.  Ultimately, Diem was assassinated, as was Kennedy.  President Lyndon B. Johnson then widened the war and sent in the first U.S. troops with the intent of guarding the American airbase near Da Nang.  Due to the continued incompetence of the South Vietnamese army, the US soon widened its involvement under the direction of Secretary Defense Robert McNamara, who believed victory could be attained through superior American technology and firepower as long as everything was sufficiently quantified and analyzed.

Episodes 4 and 5 discuss the first major operations (mostly "search and destroy" missions) against the Viet Cong by US ground forces.  The value of "body counts" fed McNamara's demand for a quantifiable war.  The ability to win the war already came into question, yet US politicians continued to send more troops guided by a belief that a "tipping point" could be reached where the US was killing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese at a rate faster than these enemies could be replaced on the battlefield.  The Johnson administration (against its private doubts) repeatedly assured the American people that not only was the war winnable but that victory was in sight.  Yet, the anti-war movement gained momentum in America.  McNamara's doubts about US policy led to his resignation.

The best episodes of the series were numbers 6 and 7, dealing with what I consider to be the true "tipping point" of the war - which was completely at odds with American operations and understanding.  The 1968 Tet Offensive is covered in graphic detail.  Ironically, this was an overwhelming defeat for the military masterminds in North Vietnam yet the intensity and nationwide pervasiveness of the offensive ensured that it was interpreted as a defeat for the United States instead.  Assurances by the Johnson administration that victory was at hand seemed bogus and the American public's overwhelming support for the war began to waver.  This lead to Johnson refusing to run for re-election, and chaos in the streets of America following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, massive police brutality in putting down rioting at the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon as president by a narrow margin.

By this point, the series was bringing to light a lot of information of which I was not previously unaware.  Much of it was not public knowledge back in the 80's and 90's when I was reading and studying the war so much.  Probably the most jaw-dropping revelation for me was the fact that Nixon used backdoor channels to collude with the South Vietnamese government against peace negotiations just before the election in 1968.  

Nixon was comfortably leading then vice-president Hubert Humphrey in the polls until there was a breakthrough in peace negotiations.  In Paris, after many weeks of getting nowhere, the North Vietnamese finally agreed to allow the South Vietnamese to sit at the negotiating table.  Johnson rewarded this concession by stopping the intense American bombing campaign (Rolling Thunder) around Hanoi.  Humphrey's poll numbers began to rise, closing the gap on Nixon.  But, using a go-between with South Vietnamese president Nguygen Van Thieu, Nixon made the case that he would be a stronger advocate for South Vietnam than Humphrey would be, if elected.  Thieu sided with Nixon and chose to boycott the negotiations.  President Johnson knew about this through various CIA and FBI operations.  Though he rightly labeled Nixon's initiative as "treason,"  Johnson nevertheless chose not to make the public aware of it, lest the covert nature of how the information was attained be exposed.

The final three episodes covered the American draw-down in Vietnam.  The continued anti-war protests, the issue of low morale among American soldiers, rampant drug use in Vietnam (tens of thousands of US servicemen became addicted to heroin while serving in Vietnam, for example), the struggles of American POWs, the incursions into Cambodia and Laos, and the Kent State shootings are all presented.  North Vietnam switched from guerrilla warfare to conventional warfare, using tanks openly for the first time.  The only thing that stopped their 1972 "Easter Offensive" was massive American air power under the guidance of American military advisers.  

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, however, the American POWs came home and all American military assistance ceased, leaving the South Vietnamese army on its own.  The country fell to North Vietnam by means of conventional warfare in 1975.  The documentary closes with a protracted look at the effects of PTSD, the efforts of veterans to come to terms with the war experience, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the return of many soldiers of Vietnam in an attempt to bring closer to their psychological and emotional wounds.

Burns and Novick justified the effort I put into watching this rather tragic 18-hour documentary.  In addition to fascinating and insightful interviews they showed me a lot photographs and film footage I had never seen before, as well as featuring important audio tapes of conversations by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon that gave a sense of fresh relevance and immediacy to the material presented.  This was a captivating history, filled with ironies and deceit as well as bravery and sacrifice well-told from a multitude of perspectives and a great supporting soundtrack.  Though certainly not for the faint at heart, The Vietnam War is an outstanding documentary.

Even though the series reports on the political and cultural aspects of the conflict from all sides, the meat and potatoes of it were a fair accounting of military operations.  The battles of Ap Bac, Dak To, and Hamburger Hill are covered in detail along with more extensive operations in Ia Drang, near the demilitarized zone at Con Thien, and in the Mekong Delta with "Speedy Express."  Various massacres are also covered such as the incident My Lai by the Americans where hundreds of civilians were murdered, as well as at Hue where the North Vietnamese murdered as many as 6,000 men, women and children. 

The biggest lesson I learned from watching The Vietnam War is that bad things can always get worse.  The situation was bad when President Kennedy first wrestled with how to "contain" communism in southeast Asia.  Sending in military advisers and foreign aid only made things worse.  The South Vietnamese government was completely corrupt and was never legitimate in the eyes of its own people.  Attempts to prop it up made matters even worse by polarizing the South's people and swelling the ranks of the Viet Cong.

The bombing of North Vietnam had no effect on that country's resolve to reunify the their country.  But it killed thousands of civilians which only further enflamed the North's resentment of the United States and propelled the anti-war movement in the US.  The result was violence and greater instability at home, while the escalating military operations only brought greater dissolution among the military leaders and politicians who absurdly found it impossible not to escalate bad things further.  Vietnam just kept getting worse, the situation never improved, one horrible event followed another as the folly spiraled seemingly out of control right up to the pathetic attempt airlift tens of thousands of fleeing South Vietnamese as the North overran the country and captured Saigon in 1975

The unlearned lesson is that perpetual war never improves the situation that brought the war about in the first place.  This rings true today with the continued instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's latest versions of Vietnam.  Did we learn anything from all that fighting in the 1960's?  It doesn't seem like it to me.

Also, the documentary series helped me understand that the war was not a military or political occurrence.  It was a reflection of America's deeply ingrained violent, dark culture.  The vast majority of America supported sending in Marines in 1965.  The majority of Americans supported the police in brutally putting down the demonstrations in Chicago and elsewhere in 1968.  The majority supported the Ohio National Guard's response in the Kent State shootings in 1970.  Though support for the war eroded as the years went by, the majority of Americans supported American military and police violence in all its forms right up to end.  The Vietnam War shows American culture for what it truly is.  Despite the veneer of progressiveness, a majority of us will always choose violence in the face of fear or instability.  Such is the American animal.  

The Vietnam War accomplished what every great documentary should - it reignited a discussion about its subject matter.  The public discourse is important but, for me, this has lead to a revisiting of an inward journey I began some 30 years ago.  In a future post, I want to give a brief overview of what I have read about the war and how that reading has informed my perspective. 

As I said, the excellent interviews and the new photographs and footage were the strong points of the series, making it well-worth watching whether or not your agree with the Burns-Novick approach to the subject.  But, in taking this journey through history, it was four photographs I have seen all my adult life that still captivated my attention and more or less summed up the Vietnam experience for me.  The story behind each photograph is splendidly told in the documentary.

The first is of a Buddhist monk immolating himself in 1963.  According to Burns-Novick, this was the culmination of frustration from years of discrimination by the ruling Catholic minority over the Buddhist majority in South Vietnam.   When President Diem's brother was elevated to a higher position within the Catholic Church, Christian flags flew for days all around Saigon.  But when Buddhists flew their flags a few weeks later in recognition of the Buddha's birth, Diem had the military take down all those flags.  The self-immolation was a representation of the oppressive, autocratic South Vietnamese government.  It was this style of government America sought to prop-up and defend.

Next, there is the famous photo of South Vietnam's chief of National Police shooting a Viet Cong in the head during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  The timing of the photograph is extraordinarily horrible.  You can clearly see that the trigger has been pulled and the bullet is about to exit the victim's elongated skull on the opposite side.  Scenes of military violence like this became common in America's press, making the war the first to be literally fought in America's living rooms.  Though it remained strong, support for the war declined after the American victory in the Tet Offensive because the American public could not see the victory through the pervasive violence needed to attain it.

The tragic shootings at Kent State in 1970 are best symbolized in this classic photograph.  America was already withdrawing from Vietnam but the Cambodian incursion made it seem as if the war was widening rather than ending.  This was a mistaken assumption on the part of the increasingly militant and hyper-sensitive anti-war movement, but perception is truth where current and historic events are concerned.  No photo better captured how America had turned on itself regarding Vietnam.  Nor do we have a better example of how violent American culture truly is.

In 1972, the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly bombed its own civilians with napalm during a North Vietnamese attack.  The Burns-Novick documentary goes into more detail about the circumstances surrounding this photograph than the others presented, including a fascinating interview with the photographer who took the picture and the initial difficulty he had in getting it published due to the fact that it contained a naked girl, regardless of the circumstances.  Almost everyone found it tragic and repulsive when this photo finally reached the covers of major newspapers around the world.  But Burns-Novick also offered us what was perhaps the most hopeful image of the entire documentary when they showed the girl today as a scarred mother, naked with child.

The most hopeful thing I saw in the documentary series.
All four of these black and white photos won the Pulitzer Prize in their respective years.

For me, the most emotional part of the documentary came when Dr. Hal Kushner, a medic for the 1st Cavalry Division who was captured and spent over five years in prison camps, spoke of his release and return home.  He tells of coming off the aircraft that brought him out of Hanoi and being greeted by a brigadier-general in full dress uniform.  "He just looked magnificent," Kushner recalls.  Then Kushner got to perform a courtesy he had been denied while in prison.  He saluted the general, who returned the salute and then warmly and affectionately embraced the soldier.  Kushner tears up and his voice cracks as tells of the general, with tears in his own eyes, saying "Welcome home Major.  We are glad to see you doctor."  

Kushner is barely able to utter "It was such a powerful moment."  I couldn't help but tear-up myself as the weight of his imprisonment, told in unfolding details along with all the other fascinating interviews over the course of several episodes, came fully to bear on me as a viewer of his initial moment of freedom.  Kushner was reunited with his wife and two children including his five year old son who he had never seen.  The documentary simply acknowledges that, like so many other marriages of returning veterans,  it would not last.

I can't say The Vietnam War was an enjoyable viewing experience.  Like the war itself, it is too absurd and tragic to find any reason for pride or to even smile.  Nevertheless it is a first-class documentary on a difficult, convoluted, and still divisive  subject.  Burns and Novick did their best to make sense of it all.  Their greatest challenge was the simple historical fact that none of it makes any sense to begin with.  

Still, I recommend you make the effort.  The insights it imparts, if unsatisfying, are definitive.  And it makes its own small contribution what might be called a "healing process" even though, for me, it becomes obvious that we cannot heal from something we actually are as a people.  Vietnam is still with us because it reflects much of America's very human, cultural limitations.  To that extent we can only hope to cope with it all.  It may be beyond our abilities to heal. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Moon Vine

In early summer Jennifer planted two Moon Vine plants on the west side of our car port.  Throughout the summer we kept them watered and gradually they became more prolific in the hotter months. She strung gardening yarn between the columns of the car port so that the vines could spread out and climb the open spaces between the columns of the car port. Now, in early fall, they completely cover the western side, offering some shade from the evening sun.

Right around sundown large blooms of white begin to emerge.  It is quite a spectacle each night, watching the sun set and the Moon Vine blossom. Near dawn the blooms retract and fall off, each enjoying only one night in full flower. The vines are abundant, however, and blooms anew each evening. They have been visited by all sorts of insects these past few weeks, including praying mantises, which are fun to spot and observe.

This was the first time we have enjoyed this plant on our property. It continues to be full of life in the extended warm days and cool nights we continue to have here.  

I find myself restless for the coming of autumn. But the tropical show put on each night just beyond my doorstep is truly something to behold. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey - Part Two

The 800-foot long spaceship Discovery I with a space pod exiting the pod bay. This shot gives the viewer a nice perspective of the troubling communications antennae.
Note: This is Part Two of my synopsis of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is filled with spoilers.

At about 54:40 into 2001: A Space Odyssey writer-director Stanley Kubrick begins the film's next section: “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later.”  We see a vast dark field of stars. Into this the spaceship Discovery I thrusts, a great long ship in sharp focus and magnificent  detail.  This is accompanied by Aram Khachaturian's wonderful adagio from his Gayne Ballet Suite, one of my favorite pieces of classical music. Essentially, all that has gone before in 2001 is a prologue to the Discovery's mission to Jupiter and ultimately to the transformation of one of its crew members. 

Astronaut Frank Poole is doing a fast-paced workout while literally jogging sideways before our eyes.  We follow him along the centrifuge's 360 degree path.  Rushing around him are various tables, displays, and workstations for the spacecraft as well as the capsules of three hibernating astronauts. Poole silently punches the air and jogs in the utter stillness inside Discovery's command module.  

Discovery in its full length from a distance.

The eye of HAL observing Dave Bowman approaching the ship's centrifuge. 
We see Dave Bowman join Poole initially in the reflection of an all-seeing eye of the ship's HAL 9000 computer.  Bowman enters the centrifuge in a rather mind-bending shot.  Our perspective is still sideways but Poole is clearly sitting and having a meal below us.  Bowman enters through a hatch in the middle of the centrifuge and descends a ladder to the floor, upside down and away from Poole. Bowman then casually walks around to where Poole is seated. This would be a piece of cake in today's CGI films but Kubrick made this shot all in-camera and it has a startling effect on the viewer's perspective the first time you see it. Watch a short video about how this was accomplished here.

As Bowman fetches his prefabricated meal, Poole watches a BBC news broadcast regarding the mission.  This serves as an orientation for the viewer.  Discovery I began its mission to Jupiter three weeks ago.  There are five crew members aboard (three in hibernation, who will be the “survey team” once the mission arrives at Jupiter) and the HAL 9000 computer.  Bowman is the mission commander.  Poole is his lieutenant. There is a brief discussion about the nature of hibernation.  Poole informs everyone that hibernation is “exactly like being asleep, you have no sense of time.  The only difference is that you don't dream.”

HAL is introduced as the “sixth member of the crew” and as “the latest result in machine intelligence.”  HAL is interviewed and we hear its calm, emotionless, precise cadence of speech.  HAL boasts that it is “incapable of error” when the interviewer asks if HAL experiences any “lack of confidence” while being completely in control of the ship and the safety of all the astronauts. Bowman gets the final say about HAL in the interview: “He acts like he has genuine emotions. Of course, he is programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him. But as to whether or not he has real feelings is something I don't think anyone can quite answer.”

Back to Khachaturian's adagio again as Discovery continues to beautifully drift through space.  Poole receives a happy birthday transmission from his parents as we watch Bowman sleep.  Poole's dad tells him about some financial business he has taken care of.  Poole then plays HAL in chess and loses. Bowman sketches aspects of the centrifuge, particularly the astronauts in their hibernation capsules. HAL asks to see them.  The computer compliments Bowman. Again, Kubrick is emphasizing the mundane amidst the extraordinary.

Then HAL abruptly questions whether Bowman might be having any “second thoughts” about the mission.  HAL confides to Bowman that “I have never completely freed myself of the suspicion that there are some extremely odd things about this mission.”  It turns out HAL is the one having difficulty with the mission as it considers the tight security in light of the rumors of “something being dug up on the Moon”; the rather dramatic touch of the hibernating astronauts having four months of separate training on their own.  Bowman dismisses all this by mentioning that HAL is working on his “group psychology report.”  HAL almost defensively admits “Of course, I am. Sorry about this.  I know it is a bit silly.”  Then...

“Just a moment.  Just a moment.”  HAL announces that the AE-35 unit, a component in the ship's communications antennae, has a fault and it will fail in 72 hours.  In an extended sequence, Bowman exits the ship in one of its space pods and ventures to the antennae, eventually space walking to retrieve the unit that is predicted to fail. Throughout the 7-minute span of this sequence there is no sound at all except for Bowman's slow, steady breathing and the hiss of oxygen being fed to him in his space suit.

But Bowman and Poole can find no fault in the communications unit when it is tested back aboard Discovery.  When they consult mission control it is rather ineptly revealed that those back on Earth, consulting with a second HAL 9000, conclude that HAL is “in error” about the fault.  Bowman directly asks HAL about this.  HAL merely says this is attributable to “human error.”  Bowman and Poole are troubled by this though they hide it rather well.  
Bowman asks Poole to help him with a transmitter in one of the ship's space pods.  It is silent once they are inside the pod. Commands given to HAL are unacknowledged by the computer so Bowman figures it is safe to discuss the situation.  Poole admits that he has a bad feeling about HAL's possible error.  “Look Dave, I can't put my finger on it but I sense something strange about him.”  The astronauts decide to put the unit back in place and let it fail.  If it doesn't fail then they agree to disconnect HAL's higher functions rather than allow a malfunctioning computer to continue to operate the ship.  Unbeknownst to them, HAL is reading their lips through the window of the space pod.

At this point the film pauses for an old-fashioned intermission, allowing the audience a bio-break and a chance to buy more popcorn after 1 hour and 27 minutes.  61 minutes remain.  Afterwards, Kubrick mimics the overture of the film by returning to Atmospheres on a black screen for about two minutes.  Then we see Discovery slowly moving across the frame from left to right again. This time all we hear is the hiss of oxygen and the breathing of Poole, who takes his turn to space walk and reinstall the troubling component of the antennae.

Again, the sequence moves unhurriedly.  A pod emerges from Discovery.  Poole navigates to the antennae and then space walks to put the unit back in place and restore communications with Earth. Only this time, as Poole is busy with his task, the space pod turns toward him with its robotic arms outstretched as it silently, menacingly closes in. Kubrick jump cuts to HAL's eye.  The hissing and breathing stop. Utter silence.  Then Bowman, manning controls and observing Poole's progress, sees Poole flailing helplessly through space.

Poole desperately attempts to steady himself and to reattach his oxygen tube which apparently the space pod pulled from his helmet.  This all happens in complete silence, as it authentically should. There is no sound in space, only the shots inside Discovery possess a underlying hum.  Bowman scrambles.  The pod and Poole are flung away from the ship. Bowman orders HAL to ready another pod.  HAL assures Bowman that it has a good track on Poole but claims there is not enough information to know what happened.

Frank Poole and Dave Bowman discuss HAL's error.  You can see HAL's eye through the window.  The computer is reading their lips.

Poole space walks to the antennae after exiting the space pod. HAL is about to turn the pod around an attack Poole with its robotic arms.

Poole tumbles through space desperately attempting to reattach his oxygen hose.

Bowman exits Discovery in an attempt to rescue Poole.  In his haste he has forgotten the helmet to his space suit. Bowman's pod races and eventually catches Poole but by now it is too late.  Poole is dead.  Throughout this sequence we hear no music, virtually no dialog, only the silence of space and the various alerts and sounds inside Bowman's pod. Meanwhile, inside Discovery, HAL murders the three hibernation astronauts by shutting down their life support systems.  It is all so inexplicably psychotic.  HAL's eye (actually multiple eyes throughout the spacecraft) observes the sterile stillness inside Discovery.

Open the pod bay doors please HAL,” Bowman commands from his pod outside at 1:40 into the film (probably the movie's most famous line). Silence.  Bowman repeats the command. Silence. After another minute and with much coaxing by Bowman, HAL responds to Bowman with psychopathic calm.  “I'm sorry Dave.  I'm afraid I can't do that.” When questioned further by Bowman HAL replies: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” The computer explains with no emotion that it knows Bowman and Poole were planning to disconnect it. “I am afraid that is something I cannot allow to happen.”  

Bowman is flabbergasted.  “Where the hell did you get that idea HAL?”  HAL explains to Bowman what the audience already knows.  It was lip reading.  Bowman has no choice but to attempt to enter the ship through the emergency air lock, a risky necessity without his space helmet.  But Bowman successful manages it in a relatively silent but technically realistic sequence lasting several minutes.  Bowman backs his pod up the air lock door and uses the explosive bolts to blow open his pod door.  The resulting thrust of oxygen awkwardly slams his body into the air lock.  He holds his breath until he can close the lock door and release oxygen into it.  This sequence moves methodically along with every detail meticulously captured in real time.

At 1:49 we see a close-up of HAL's eye and dissolve to Bowman, now with a helmet on, walking through the ship. We are back to the sound of breathing and the hiss of oxygen. Now it is HAL's turn to be flabbergasted, though the computer's voice is perfectly at ease.  It wants to know what Bowman is planning to do.  But, of course, it knows perfectly well what is about to happen.  HAL attempts to get Bowman “to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.” But Bowman has already thought things over.  He is unlocking the door to the chamber containing HAL's memory cells. 

Bowman disconnects the higher functions of HAL's memory.

Bowman watches the video explaining the true purpose of the Jupiter mission.
As Bowman, floating in weightlessness, turns a key to individually disconnect each of two dozen or so memory cells HAL experiences what is, ironically, the most emotional character performance of the film (with the possible exception of Moon-Watcher).  With a slow, decreasing cadence HAL utters:  “I'm afraid. I'm afraid Dave.  Dave, my mind is going.  I can feel it.  I can feel it.  My mind is going. There is no question about it.  I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.  I'm a...fraid....Good afternoon gentleman.  I am a HAL 9000 computer,  I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992.  My instructor was Mr. Langley.  And he taught me to sing a song.  If you'd like to hear it, I can sing it for you.”  Bowman tells HAL to sing it for him and HAL sings “Daisy” with increasing difficulty, ever slower, deeper, until it simply stops singing in the middle of the song...breathing...oxygen hissing...

Abruptly, a prerecorded video briefing is triggered when HAL's higher level functioning is terminated. Bowman watches as Dr. Floyd offers an explanation that was intended for Discovery's crew once the ship had entered orbit around Jupiter. The sharp signal emitted from the monolith on the Moon targeted the giant planet and thus became the primary reason for the space mission 18 months later.  Bowman's face is emotionless as he is informed of the mission's true purpose and the audience is now clearly told what that sound was when Dr. Floyd visited the monolith.  It is worth noting that throughout this section of the film Kubrick uses no music whatsoever after the Khachaturian piece at the beginning.

Discovery looks tiny compared with Jupiter and its moons.

Another spectacular shot of Discovery, Jupiter and some of its moons looking back toward the Sun.

Jupiter and its moons in alignment with the mysterious monolith turning through space.
The third section of the film, entitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, begins at 1:57.  Kubrick returns to Ligeti's haunting Requiem as the camera pans down through a field of stars to behold the brilliance of Jupiter and several of its moons. But the planetary system is not alone.  Also in the frame, floating and slowly turning, is another monolith of undetermined size.  Discovery enters from below.  Now, instead of a close-up in exquisite detail of the large spacecraft, we see it dwarfed, almost insignificant, by the size of these other celestial objects.

The monolith seems gigantic as it tumbles through space, with the light of Jupiter reflected at certain angles on its otherwise dark surface.  Jupiter and its moons are breath-taking to behold. Everything except the monolith possesses an ethereal glow to it, presented in soft-focus rather than the sharp clarity featured throughout the film until now. 

We watch a pod bay door open on Discovery.  The monolith hovers nearby as Bowman exits the spacecraft in a pod. Many of the moons are in alignment with the monolith. Then, at almost 2:02, streaks of light begin to appear in empty space, racing past Bowman who looks on wild-eyed, his head shaking with increasing violence as if he is experiencing incredible turbulence.

The "star-gate" sequence begins. 

Supposedly, these pulsating diamond shaped objects are representations of Alien intelligence.
The next nine minutes of the film are difficult to articulate. They have to be seen, though they remain virtually incomprehensible even when viewed.  Kubrick truly becomes an abstract filmmaker at this point.  It is referred to as "the star-gate sequence" and is one of the most famous and unique sequences in cinematic history.  The music transitions from Requiem to Atmospheres again.  Bowman is obviously traumatized by what he is witnessing.  

Many frustrated viewers of the film simply give-up at this point.  Yet this is an incomparable moment in the history of cinema.  That makes the film simultaneously a revolutionary visual experience and a challenge without traditional narrative context.  In reality, this pioneering sequence places the audience in a state of confusion and trepidation that is not unlike what Moon-Watcher's tribe experienced at the monolith 4 million years ago. Brilliant.

Bowman passes through the star-gate and finds his pod in a strange, elegant room. 

An elderly Bowman points to the monolith.

The Star-Child is born.

Then Bowman finds his pod inside a neo-baroque styled bedroom.  Even though he has passed through the star-gate, his body remains paralyzed, still quivering inside his space suit.  Gradually, the sound of his breathing returns and he sees himself from a third-person perspective, in his space suit but standing in the room outside the pod.  His face has noticeably aged inside his helmet.  Suddenly, the pod is gone and Bowman is alone in the room. He staggers around in his space suit as he examines the room, eventually entering the bath room.  He studies himself in the mirror and hears a sound behind him.  He turns.

The sound is coming from a dining table now situated in the bedroom .  Bowman himself is seated at the table.  The sound is of his fork and knife scraping and scooping against a plate of food. The sound of his breathing ceases.  Seated at the table, Bowman pauses during his meal and slowly turns in his chair as if he has heard something behind him.  He gets up to investigate but there is no one there.  This is an older, gray-haired and balding version of Bowman.  He returns to finish his meal and accidentally tips over his wine glass. It shatters on the floor.  He turns as if the pick up the pieces when his attention is captured by the bed. A much more elderly Bowman lies there almost without the energy to move.  But he manages to raise his arm and point...

...at the monolith now standing where the table was.  We see the monolith standing there silently, out of place.  Bowman is gone when we cut back to the bed.  In his place is a brightly glowing womb of a child.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra gradually begins to build.  We zoom in to the blackness of the monolith and out of that, in a moment of triumph, we see our Moon and the Earth.  Hovering over the Earth, looking down upon it, is the unborn child whose open eyes, intended to resemble Bowman, stare at us as we watch the film come to a close.

Not a single word of dialog is spoken throughout this third part of the film.  It is also worth noting that the film's closing credits are presented to the waltzing portion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra with “The End” coming after all the credits are presented (films typically using "The End" place it at the beginning of the closing credits).  The screen remains black for the final four and a half minutes of the film as the classical piece concludes.  To my knowledge this is the only film to end in this manner - with an extended black screen and music.

What are we to make of 2001: A Space Odyssey? As the various quotes indicate in Part One of this synopsis, it is one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a technical marvel and tackles vast philosophical questions of existence and intelligence.  Yet, for all of its technical wonder the film has many little flaws.  These do not diminish its power but its lack of dialog and unorthodox narrative structure make it difficult for many people to connect with the film.  Indeed, the critics fiercely disagreed over 2001 when it premiered in 1968.  They argued not just over what the film could possibly mean but whether it was even a worthy artistic effort to begin with.

As with most Kubrick films, time has quieted the debate over the film's value as art though disagreement still reigns over how to interpret the work. I merely wish to point out that this is obviously an allegorical movie, rich in symbolism that becomes even more complex with additional viewings.  What it means is up to each viewer, as both Kubrick and Clarke intended.  

For some decent discussion about the film's possibly meaning(s), I suggest a couple of youtube videos here and here. For a worthwhile analysis of how the film was made I suggest this seven-part video series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.  There is no shortage of videos on the internet regarding this brilliant cinematic achievement. 

For me personally the film's possible meaning(s) has (have) less value the older I get and the more times I view it.  What is much more important, at this stage in my life, is how it continues to affect me after all these years.  It is a wonderful, truly timeless experience but what makes it this way is not its brilliant special effects or its cerebral narrative.  Rather, it is the same feeling I experienced when I saw it with my friend Mitch on the front row of our small town movie theater so many years ago.  Though I could not comprehend it at that early age, I also could not take my eyes off the screen and I could not get the film out of my mind after I saw it.  It is still that way as I write this blog post.  I have a lot of ideas about the interpretation of the film but what resonates with me is not rational at all.  In watching 2001, I am moved by a deep stirring within myself which can best be described as “awe.”

Perhaps the late Roger Ebert expressed it best regarding the film: “To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made.  But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, audibly complaining, ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’  There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace (Kubrick immediately cut about seventeen minutes, including a pod sequence that essentially repeated another one.)  The film did not provide the clear narrative and easy entertainment cues the audience expected.  The closing sequences, with the astronaut inexplicably finding himself in a bedroom somewhere beyond Jupiter, were baffling. The overnight Hollywood judgment was that Kubrick had become derailed, that in his obsession with effects and set pieces, he had failed to make a movie.

“What he had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him has used words, music, or prayer.  And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it – not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might a good conventional science fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

“Only a few films are transcendent and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape.  Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain if after further difficulties either comic or dramatic.  2001: A Space Odyssey  is not about a goal, but about a quest, a need.  It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character.  It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are.  Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet, but among the stars, and that we are not flesh, but intelligence.” (from pages 2,4,5)
The Star-Child gazes at the audience in the film's final shot.