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... 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.