Sunday, August 27, 2017

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey - Part One

The triumphant opening title shot.
Note:  This post is filled with spoilers about the film 2001: A Space Odyssey

Not long after finishing the novel, I watched Stanley Kubrick's brilliant film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was a hasty viewing and life got in the way of fully savoring it.  My recent experience with the solar eclipse inspired me to settle myself enough to watch it again and appreciate this great film. I have not watched it since 2009. While the novel by Arthur C. Clarke is bold and an accurate portrayal of the metaphysical ideas and primary details of the film, it is not one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.  There are many other novels in that genre that would compete for that title. If Clarke has a great genre novel it is most likely his classic Childhood's End.   

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the other hand, is one of the greatest films of all time and would rank as such on any serious film connoisseur's list of “must-see” films.  It is a visual sensation, it tells an epic story, it exams profound philosophical issues about intelligence and existence, and it was a revolutionary film in many of its technical accomplishments.  (Kubrick won his only Oscar for the special effects of the film.) It inspired and provided context for an entire generation of filmmakers from George Lucas to Christopher Nolan.  Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that many people, including myself, have benefited from applying some of the insight of the novel to the film, for context.  (You can find a discussion of the differences between the novel and the film here.)

Kubrick doesn't offer details as clearly as they are presented in Clarke's book (an early script for the film contained narration which Kubrick wisely omitted).  Much of the film is purely visual, without the aid of narration or dialog, particularly in the first 18 minutes.  All the viewer has to work with are the images.  We do not speak man-ape.  Yet those grunts are our only oral clues to begin with. They are the extent of “dialog” so critical to commercially successful films today.  It is for this reason, perhaps, that many get completely lost and never connect with the film.  I wonder what impact Kubrick might think his film would have today. The world didn't turn out as optimistically as he envisioned when shooting commenced back in 1964.  He was decades off in terms of humans living on the Moon, for example. Nevertheless...

I want to give a rather straightforward synopsis of what happens in the film with some asides on how or why certain things are the way they are in this film and how Stanley Kubrick broke all barriers in creating a new kind of theatrical experience that is almost incomparable today.  You would have to combine the visual appeal of James Cameron's Avatar with the cerebral qualities of, say, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life to find a way to compare 2001 with today's films (or to place those recent films in the context of a great past film). Before I first watched the film back in July I did some skimming through the small Kubrick collection in my library. Here are some choice quotes for the forthcoming synopsis.

“Kubrick was repeatedly asked about the meaning of his film, which he had created primarily as a visual experience.  'On the deepest psychological level, the film's plot symbolized the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God,' he told Rolling Stone. 'This film revolves around this metaphysical conception, the realistic hardware and the documentary feels about everything that were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept.'” (LoBurrto, page 313)

“What particularly distinguishes 2001 from these earlier films is its frontal assault on the traditional conventions of Hollywood narrative filmmaking. The temporal range of 2001 spans infinity rather than days or years, yet the film omits explanatory background and transitional connectives. And spatially, it embodies a kind of ultimate cinematic universe, where all the assurances of 'normal' perspective are literally turned upside down, and 'settings' project either an eerie remoteness despite their authenticity or a disturbing lack of contextual and historical definition.” (Nelson, page 110)

“What makes 2001 such a fascinating and enduring film is the sheer emotional and conceptual appeal of its spatial aesthetics, one that vibrates with plurality of universes within universes. Throughout, Kubrick combines the linear demands of narrative with an associative and repetitious system of images, activities, and sounds to unfold a cinematic world moving on parallel but opposing courses.” (Nelson, page 116)

“For finding the meaning is a matter of not verbalizing but of feeling it in the images drawn from past and future time, in the involvement with the experience of space, and in approaching what is happening rather than being fed cut-and-dried information.  It is a whole new concept of cinema. If one can isolate any dominant thematic core in 2001, it is the film's concern with the concept of intelligence.” (Taylor, Ruchti, page 172)

“But it is characteristic of Kubrick's approach that he invests the theme with imaginative allusions rather than strips it down to bare essentials.  He roots intelligence in the mythological past, before man has begun to use it; and he ends intelligence in the metaphysical future, where man cannot yet grasp its latest transformation.  Intelligence for Kubrick is a form of magic that enables him to extend the film backward and forward, to the extreme limits of the time scale, beyond the boundaries of the imprisoning present.” (Taylor, Ruchti, page 173)

“Kubrick has intentionally created characters with almost no individualized traits.  The men are well-conditioned Ph.D.'s, who show little human warmth and no human weakness. Poole is bored by birthday greetings relayed to him by videophone from his parents on earth.  He seems hardly their son – indeed, he seems  hardly of the same race. Bowman's most significant human response comes when he burns his fingers on the food tray dispensed by the automatic oven. When he tries to rescue Poole from a death in space later, he goes about it with textbook efficiency and next to no emotion. Feelings, Kubrick is saying, are minimal in this new age, a matter of physical nerve ends, not emotional nerve centers. Where they have gone is, paradoxically, into the programming of the inhuman computer.” (Taylor, Ruchti, page 186)

I might point out an irony here.  These authors are saying that 2001 has to be “intelligently felt” in order to be appreciated – that there is an emotional quality to the film. And yet, the film itself intentionally has no characters with any degree of emotional range.  Each of them are completely rational agents, except, of course, for the man-apes in the beginning.  They are screaming, arguing, desperate fools, especially foolish for the visiting monolith.  The film's human characters display no emotions and we as viewers know hardly anything about who they are as people.  Moon-Watcher offers emotional range.  The Star-Child offers character depth because we know everything about the child's, albeit brief, past.

“What is most extraordinary about 2001 is that, at the precise moment when he poses the fundamental human question, he deprives the universe of characters.  The metaphysical quest is accomplished by David Bowman alone after the death of his friend Frank Poole and the three scientists in hibernation. Though we saw Dr. Floyd's parents, we know nothing of Bowman, his tastes or his past.  He is abstract man, man as Nietzsche conceived him, a means rather than an end, like a rope stretched between the beast and the Superman, a rope over an abyss.” (Ciment, page 130)

“Can 2001 still be regarded as a remarkable film? Yes, almost certainly. If some scenes in the movie appear dated. They are remarkably few.  The spaceships still look superb, and the central themes remain as powerful today as they when audiences first confronted them...Hardware and visual thrills apart, Kubrick's astral epic is a movie of ideas. Such intelligence never dates.  It will take the passing of many more generations explorers before the questions raised by 2001 are answered...” (Bizony, page 22)

Kubrick quoted in a 1968 interview: “It's not a message that I ever intended to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes of film, only a little less than forty minutes is dialog.  I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses the verbal pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.  To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium.  I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness. Just as music does; to 'explain' a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting and artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deeper level....even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001 would, if presented as abstractions, fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intelligence categories;  experienced in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibers of one's being.” (Nordern, pp. 47 – 48)

I first saw this film when I was 10 years old.  I watched with my friend Mitch.  We sat on the front row of the small town's only movie theater. The theater was mostly empty.  I had no clue what was happening but it all seemed marvelous to me. I know 2001 affected me at that young age.  And each time I watch it I re-experience the way I was awed in my youth.

The widescreen (the film is shot in 70mm) is black. Kubrick starts us off with no visual, just music, an old-fashioned movie overture in the form of a wonderful modern, minimalist classical composition called Atmospheres by Gyorgy Ligeti. (As he is in most of this later films, Kubrick's musical selections are brilliant.)  We listen to that for almost 3 minutes before the title credit (only) is presented to the famous triumphant pounding of Richard Strauss' Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  Then “The Dawn of Man” section of the film begins.  We see windswept arid and desert landscapes. Extended shots of the sun rising or setting, looking down on barren terrain from mountain tops we see shrubs, hear the sound of crickets (oddly), watch boar gnawing at the slight vegetation.  

About 6 minutes into the film we see Moon-Watcher sitting with others and biting off little snippets of leaves and twigs. (If you have not read the book you have no idea what this clever ape's name might be.) Man-apes and boar coexist, competing for the same meager food with only occasional grunts offered by the pre-humans in protest to the scrounging boar.  A leopard attacks one of the apes who is helpless in defending itself. Afterward, Moon-watcher and his tribe approach the local watering hole as another tribe of man-apes squat and drink there. This causes much screaming and jumping and wailing and arm shaking, the only possible demonstration of strength is through sheer intimidation.  The other tribe reluctantly withdraws and Moon-Watcher's tribe can drink.  Then night falls.  Moon-Watcher and the others huddle up inside their shallow caves and motionlessly listen to the night sounds which include the distant screams of some other man-ape being attacked by some creature, possibly the same leopard we saw before. All of this establishes the basic helplessness and lack of control the man-apes have over their shallow, starving lives.
Moon-Watcher touches the monolith as the rest of his tribe react is fear and aggression.
Soon the tribe surrounds the monolith in almost worshipful adoration.
The next morning Moon-Watcher awakens and initially reacts with hostility toward a black monolith which mysteriously appeared amidst the caves overnight.  Moon-Watcher's actions rouse the others in his tribe and soon they are all attempting to intimidate the silent, dull black surfaced object. To no avail.  Kubrick's musical selection in this sequence is brilliant.  Again, he chooses Ligeti. This time the composition is a fantastic vocal one, Requiem, which lends powerful effect to the scene that culminates with Moon-Watcher being the first to touch the monolith, followed by all the others in his tribe.  The group rub their primitive hands across its smooth surface until their fear and curiosity give way to an almost worshipful manner. Overhead the Sun peeks past the top of the monolith to shine down upon the tribe with a sliver of the Moon in alignment.
The Sun shines down from Moon-Watcher's perspective, accompanied by the crescent Moon.  Moon-Watcher later recalls this perspective when he considers the bones of a dead creature.
This is immediately followed by a scene of Moon-Watcher scratching and foraging near a pile of bones.  He stops and, for the first time, considers the bones.  Reflecting back upon how the Moon aligned with the Sun and the monolith, he toys with one bone and lets it fall, knocking other bones around. He gradually tightens his grip and drives the bone down with greater force.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra returns to the film as Moon-Watcher discovers he can smash things with this bone. Much like Clarke's novel, it is a moment of breakthrough in the evolution of human intelligence.
Moon-Watcher discovers the bones can used to smash things.
Moon-Watcher uses the bone kill the other tribe's leader.

Moon-Watcher clutches the bone and a piece of boar meat in the next shot.  He eats greedily as does his entire tribe even though other boar, unaware that their fate has changed, still passively share the same space with the man-apes.  Next time at the watering hole, as all the man-apes are yelling and screaming and jumping about, Moon-Watcher and a couple of other members of his tribe use bones to attack the leader of the other tribe and kill him, driving the other tribe away with incomprehensible fear.  Moon-Watcher growls triumphantly and flings the bone into the air. It spins upward then, as it begins to fall, we match-cut to a nuclear weapon orbiting the earth. (We only know it is a nuclear weapon and not simply a satellite from an early draft of the script. Kubrick chose not to emphasize this due to its close association with his previous film, Dr. Strangelove. This is another difference between the novel and the film.) 

Kubrick's famous match-cut through several million years of history.
The Orion III spaceplane approaches the unfinished space station to the Blue Danube waltz.

We are now 20 minutes into the film.  Strauss's wondrous Blue Danube waltzes as we look down upon the Earth and observe various satellites.  A marvelous, unfinished wheeled space station rotates as a comparatively small spaceplane (the Orion III shuttle) approaches it.  Inside the spaceplane Dr. Haywood Floyd is asleep.  His pen has floated away and is plucked out of the zero gravity cabin by a stewardess who returns it to his pocket.  The waltz continues on for several minutes as we witness the complex docking maneuver of the spaceplane and the giant wheel-like rotating station.  This is where Kubrick firmly establishes the visual basis for the film by giving us a picturesque, highly detailed montage of the docking. 

Then, with docking complete, at 25:41 in the film, the first dialog is spoken.  A simple mundane line by an attendant to Floyd.  “Here you are sir...”  The film is filled with small talk of almost no consequence to its huge philosophic and metaphysical implications.  We watch Floyd routinely pass a “voice identification” security checkpoint.  He briefly makes a phone call back to Earth to speak with his daughter (Kubrick's daughter in reality).  They discuss her upcoming birthday.  Next he happens upon a small group of Russian scientists, who, after more small talk, are inquisitive about Floyd's trip to the Moon base at Clavius.  Some “odd things” have happened there over the past few weeks.  Floyd claims he doesn't know anything about it.  When pressed that the Russians have heard rumor of a “serious epidemic” at the base, Floyd simply says “I'm really not at liberty to discuss this.”  In this way Kubrick manages to develop a mystery to accompany the intended technical majesty of Dr. Floyd's trip.
Scientists of the American Moon base near Clavius as the Aries approaches.
A stewardess walks in zero-gravity to a different section of the Aries in this famous Kubrick shot copied by other directors. Most recently, perhaps, with Inception.
We return to the Blue Danube  while Floyd completes his trip the Moon on an Aries space craft.  Kubrick mixes the mundane (Floyd and the flight crew eating their meals) with the marvelous (a stewardess walking upside down in the space craft, various spectacular shots of the Aries moving through space toward the ever-larger Moon). There is a humorous shot of Floyd reading the detailed instructions for using the zero-gravity toilet.  This is followed by a superb sequence of the Aries over Moon's surface as the space craft slowly lands and docks.  Kubrick is meticulous with the details of all this, successfully making it as realistic as possible, something that truly wowed audiences in 1968. While the effects are not exactly today's CGI caliber they are, nevertheless, awesome to behold.

The purpose of Dr. Floyd's trip to the Moon is revealed in a meeting that starts about 41 minutes into the film.  Again there is mundane and routine aspect of the meeting, most of the dialog is small talk.   Kubrick's intent is to make routine stuff out of this fantastic future he just put on display for us. But, Dr. Floyd directly spells out more of the mystery for the viewer when he speaks before the group of a dozen people, who applaud his introduction.

Floyd begins by offering condolences to those in attendance for the “many sacrifices” they have had to make recently. And he congratulates them on their “...discovery.  Which may well prove to be among the most significant in the history of science.”  Floyd acknowledges the inner conflict among the group as to how the cover-up surrounding this matter was handled. But, in Floyd's view, the cover story of an epidemic was absolutely essential.  He continues in one of a few shots where dialog does matter in this film: “Now I'm sure you are all aware of the extremely great potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation. If the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning.”  This line is rather shocking in and of itself at this point in the film.  Nothing of consequence has really been said by anybody up to this point. That makes the effect of the line even greater.  It is like a slap in the face by this mystery, which is still unknown to the viewer.
The space bus takes Dr. Floyd and others to the excavation site known as TMA-1. Note the angle of the shadows created by the Sun's light versus the position of the Earth.
In one of my favorite visual parts of the film, Kubrick chooses Ligeti's stunning Lux Aeterna for the magical sequence of Floyd and others being space-bused out to Clavius.  They eat sandwiches on the way out and discuss how the technology for making these synthetic meals is “getting better all the time.”  This small talk is punctuated again with something about the discovery of a strong magnetic field. An excavation around the source of the magnetic field revealed an object that “was deliberately buried” and “the only thing we're sure of is that it was buried 4 million years ago.”  The slow-moving plot literally thickens but the mystery is intact.  Though by now some astute viewers might guess what it is all about, Kubrick keeps his cards close to his chest.

At the excavation site, the mystery is revealed as a monolith identical to the one Moon-Watcher touched.  Dr. Floyd and a few others slowly walk down into the Moon's surface to examine the monolith.  Kubrick switches to Ligeti's Requiem again to more intimately connect this moment of discovery with that of Moon-watcher's earlier.  Floyd approaches the monolith not with fear and uncertainty but with calm measured curiosity.  He walks around it, has his photo taken with it, then reaches out and touches it.  The group gathers in front of the monolith for a photo opportunity, a great contrast to the mindless awe and trepidation of the man-apes. 
Dr. Floyd and his party approaches the excavated monolith.
But before the photo can be taken, the monolith emits a sharp, continuous signal that sends everyone grabbing their helmets in a misguided attempt to shut it out.  Kubrick flashes the exact orientation of the Sun peeking down over the top of the monolith; this time apparently with the Earth in alignment.  This is a flaw in the film, however. Given that we see Earth near the Moon's horizon as the group descends into the excavation, and given how the shadows lie on the surface, the alignment as presented would be impossible.  But is it artistic and cerebral to make the visual connection with the man-apes. 
An impossible shot.  One of only a handful of technical mistakes in the film.  Still, it is artistically very effective, connecting this moment with Moon-Watcher's "awakening" millions of years ago.
While the novel is in six sections, Kubrick's film is in three. “The Dawn of Man” section ends literally with the monolith sending out its signal. It is worth noting that Kubrick sees this entire expanse of time, from Moon-Watcher to Dr. Floyd as “the dawn of man.”  From the film's grandiose perspective this is all part of a primitive form of humanity.  Despite the technological progress, the human race remains little more than a rational man-ape.  What evolves next is the subject of the film's remaining 93 minutes.  

End of Part One.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Catching Totality at Dream Lake

There are tons of better photos than this online.  But this is one I took at Dream Lake about 2:37 PM yesterday.
For years my 'Dillo friends have gathered at Dream Lake located in the northwest South Carolina foothills for camping, partying, and relaxation. (You can read about some past trips here, here, and here).  So it was only natural that we should all come together when we discovered the 2017 Total Eclipse would occur there, only 5 miles from the center of the totality's path.

Some arrived on Saturday.  Jeffery and I got there on Sunday. There were about 11 of us on hand for swimming that afternoon and for the usual decadent dinner that evening. Another 9 or 10 joined us on Monday.  We were all far more fortunate than most.  We had all that wonderful isolated space to ourselves for the event.

On Sunday afternoon we all enjoyed swimming in Dream Lake.  It was over 90 degrees and the water felt very refreshing. 

Gathering in the shade of the shed at the dock.  Lots of conversation, booze, and water.
Jeffery and I arrived at Dream Lake about 12:30 on Sunday, having stopped for lunch along the way. We took the longer (distance-wise), but a bit faster (time-wise) route of heading down I-75 to Atlanta, then across to I-85 and up to South Carolina.  We would have arrived sooner but unfortunately I realized my four pair of solar glasses were not in my ditty bag.  We turned back to Twin Oaks even though we were already 35 minutes down the road.  

Jeffery took it all in stride but I was furious with myself for being so forgetful.  Only I didn't realize how forgetful I really was until we arrived back home to discover the glasses were not where I thought I had left them.   Not seeing them there instantly brought to mind where I had stashed them.  They were in my camera bag instead - which was with us all along, of course.  Ugh.

I stewed about my iffy 58 year-old memory all the way up to Dream Lake.  But soon the combination of the pastoral space, the water, the companionship and plenty of Stellas mellowed my mind. Swimming in the lake was relaxing as always.  The day was sunny and incredibly hot, so hot that the top 8-10 inches of the water felt lukewarm.  But it quickly and refreshingly cooled as you got deeper. I used my hands to push the warmer water down over my body into the cooler depths, which felt fantastic.  Soon most everyone was swimming and the temperature distinction was less pronounced as the lake got churned up.   

There was a light breeze to help keep things cool once we got out and relaxed under the dock shed. The cooler of beer we brought down from the cabin in the golf cart brought superb refreshment.  Clint had some wonderful laid-back Pat Metheny playing on the bluetooth boombox that usually accompanies his iPad on such trips.  The afternoon included the first time I had ever paddle boarded. Mark and I went out and traversed the lake together.  It was all very tranquil.
At some point in the early evening I took nap only to awaken to a marvelous dinner feast of various fruits, salads, grilled meats, and sweet corn on the cob.  It was another stupendous Cumberland Island Armadillo feast.  We ate as darkness fell. I slept nine hours afterward - a true rarity for me.

Breakfast Monday morning was prepared in the cabin.  None too soon for this bunch.

Jeffery and Bob converse over coffee.
On Monday. I had my game face on for the eclipse. No booze, just plenty of water all day as it was hotter than Sunday.  We enjoyed a wonderful eclectic breakfast featuring one of Jennifer's excellent frittatas, homemade biscuits, bacon, fruit, etc.  Everyone kind of scattered to do their own thing.  Some went swimming, some tended to work-related matters over the cabin's Wi-Fi since it was a Monday, after all.  I began checking my camera and solar glasses after I cleared out some work emails and briefly piddled with my Flipboard maintenance.

Others arrived.  Everyone relaxed under the shade of the giant trees out on the lawn on the edge of the field while awaiting totality at 2:36.  The action started way before that, of course.  And we all watched the Moon slowly traverse over the surface of the Sun starting about 1PM.  We were careful not to look too long even with the glasses.  The rule most of us agreed upon was that three total minutes of viewing was safe.  So, it was more glancing than staring at that point for me.  I tried out the view in Mark's homemade cardboard device, Bob's welding masks, and my solar glasses (whose location was now fixed in my mind's eye - it was my water bottle I kept misplacing at this point.)  Appropriately enough, Clint had a series of Pink Floyd albums playing out on the lawn.  We listened to Meddle and Wish You Were Here before Dark Side of the Moon came up.  I fully enjoyed the music and it went with my tee shirt (see photo below).

Christine and Clint relax in the yard awaiting the eclipse.

What better time for me to wear my Dark Side of the Moon tee shirt?

Mark made a handy viewer for catching the eclipse.

Bob brought a couple of welding masks which worked very well.

Traditional solar glasses were also in abundance.  We were careful to make sure they all sported the proper certification.

Jennifer was all set with her glasses.  There were dozens tiny crescent reflections of the tree-filtered sun on the sheet she placed on the the ground behind her.  
Then it arrived. About 2:30 the light slowly dimmed.  My experience of it was that my depth of view was flatted and everything slowly took on a bluish hue, the colors muted. Then came the 2 and a half minutes of totality.  The cicadas and other night bugs started making themselves known.  A rooster crowed from some distant farm.  I don't recall any of us saying much to one another, we were all transfixed by the actual site of totality.  It was safe to take off the glasses and just admire the sky.  It did not get as dark as I was expecting. Only the brighter stars and Venus, Mars, and Mercury were in view, which still pretty cool in the middle of the day.  The horizon looked like any other sunset - only it was 360 degrees all around us.  

I had to remind myself to take pictures.  The Moon covering the Sun was simply stunning and transfixed me for a moment.  Those couple of minutes seemed to pass in like 20 seconds.  It was probably the most remarkable natural event I have every witnessed.  What an inspiring experience, made even more special by the gathering at the lake.

This give you some idea of the luxurious open field space we enjoyed catching the eclipse.  Certainly plenty of room for 20 people or so along with the inevitable assortment of dogs, of course. I took this photo only a few seconds before totality began.  Although you can't really tell it, the light had started to dim and the natural color slowly became muted.

My photos don't really do it justice.  Catching it live was exhilarating.  It was the first total eclipse any of us had witnessed.
We didn't linger very long afterwards.  There was some concern about traffic and getting back home. Jennifer and I took a route through the north Georgia mountains on the way back.  Turns out that was the right move, even though it still took us almost five hours to make the 3 and a half hour trip. Traffic was horrible in places with people descending from northeast Georgia and North Carolina onto the limited road network of the mountains.  Still, it was a scenic trip with nice views of Lake Burton and other areas. 

Meanwhile, Jeffery attempted to go back the way we came only to discover I-85 was basically a parking lot with all the folks headed back to Atlanta from South Carolina.  He bailed about halfway to take the back roads, but those were pretty crowded as well.  He arrived home about an hour and half after we did.  Mark, Eileen, Bob, Clint, Christine and the other Atlanta dwellers had to tough it out all the way into the city.  It was not the best way to experience the afterglow of the celestial event.

But it was worth it.  How fortunate we were to have totality visit a private getaway spot that we have visited for over 25 years.  Dream Lake has a lot of memories for me but this past weekend takes the cake.