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KUBRICK @Feature #8: 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

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It’s probably a certainty that a better science fiction film will never be made. Certainly nothing smarter, more iconic, or more enigmatic. Yes, special effects will continue to improve over time. But, even for 1968, the stuff from “2001: A Space Odyssey” holds up remarkably well. The first moonwalk to the monolith is slightly unrealistic (their movement doesn’t properly represent zero gravity), but it’s not that horrible. And the ten-minute “ride” through the ‘Star Gate’ is still mesmerizing. No wonder some kooks continue to believe that Kubrick helped “fake” the moon landings. And no wonder that viewers in the late 1960’s would lie on the theater floor, while under the influence of drugs, to take “the ultimate trip” during the film’s finale.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve been obsessed with Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for over 30 years now. But, honestly that obsession didn’t begin until shortly after experiencing the Peter Hyams’ 1984 sequel, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. You see, I was nineteen at the time, and dating a girl who had studied the Kubrick original (Stanley had nothing to do with the sequel, of course) in a college film class. I informed her that I had only seen “2001” in bits and pieces on cable television throughout my teens, and that I found it pretty boring. Boy–did that quickly change! “2010” is a solid, admirable, unremarkable movie, that nevertheless will always hold a special place in my heart in that it provoked me to undertake a decades-long quest in unlocking the secrets of Kubrick’s eighth feature. Preparing for this piece, I watched it again just a few days ago. It continues to absolutely fascinate me. If not for the existence of Orson Welles, I would unhesitatingly call it my favorite film of all-time. Still–it just may be anyway.

Have I seen “2001” 15 times? Probably. More? Could be. Soon after seeing “2010”, I got the VHS version of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as a gift. You know, I’m almost positive I’ve got that decades-old thing in a box in my basement somewhere. It had a flap that opened like the cover of a book, and that cardboard box had stills from the film, and the cast list displayed. In the 1990’s, I graduated to a widescreen VHS version. I used to pop those tapes in constantly. There was always something fascinating to ponder. The apes scene opening, with actor Daniel Richter as the centerpiece, as the ape-man dubbed “Moonwatcher” in the Arthur C. Clarke “2001” novel. The slow, deliberate, space scenes, first with William Sylvester (incredible work from him, as Dr. Heywood Floyd), and later with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood (as astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, respectively). It wasn’t boring to me for long. Kubrick was trying to represent space travel as it really was, and I appreciated his efforts now. I soon realized this guy was some kind of genius. And here we are today.

Have I ever written about how I nearly met Keir Dullea? I’ve certainly talked about it a number of times. It was 1986, probably late April. I was 20 years old, a young actor, and playing the role of Tom Stark in the play version of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”. This was the premiere production of New Jersey’s “American Stage Company” in Teaneck. We played 20 performances, and it was a pretty big deal, with a good deal of media attention, and coverage in the New York Times. Paul Sorvino was our artistic director and star, in the role of Willie Stark–my “father”. We had a pretty renowned cast, and I remember meeting luminaries backstage, like Len Cariou and Sandy Duncan, after they attended and watched friends of theirs in the show. What a thrill this was. I had a brief conversation with Ms. Duncan that I’ll never forget. Anyway, an actor friend of mine informed me after a performance one night, “that actor from that space movie you like, is in the audience”. It took a few seconds to confirm that he was talking about “2001”. Then, I said, “Keir Dullea! Keir Dullea is here!”. Indeed, he was, as my friend pointed to his back, as Mr. Dullea was heading to the auditorium exit after the show. Here’s the problem: once he’s through that door, there’s three ways Keir can exit the theater. One to the left, one to the right, and one straight ahead. I jumped from the stage, and sprinted up the aisle to meet him. I chose the wrong egress, however, because when I got to the lobby, I couldn’t find him. DAMN! He was 49 at the time, and not that far removed from the release of “2010”, in which he portrayed Dave Bowman once more. So, I was thisclose. And yes, the temptation to yell, “Dave…stop.” was overwhelming.

In December of 2001, I finally got to see “2001” on a big screen in Manhattan. It was part of a city-to-city tour of a restored print, being presented in all its glory, in honor of the arrival of that actual calendar year. It was glorious. My most recent watch was a widescreen DVD copy that I purchased years ago. It’s a “deluxe” two-disc collection, similar to the one I own for “Eyes Wide Shut”. I imagine the upgrade to Blu-ray is imminent, but the DVD looked spectacular. I get a little excited each time I start to watch it. I’ll be forever enthralled. Douglas Rain’s voice as Hal is part of my cinematic comfort food (Mr. Rain, still with us, turns 89 next month!). What is the monolith? What does it represent? What power does it hold? Why does the film end in a hotel room? The “2001” sequel books and movie are far too literal with their explanations. I prefer the mystery and contemplation. If only, I was old enough to see it in 1968!

Grade: an A+ masterpiece

KUBRICK coming in March: the roll of seven has been cast, and the winner is 1956’s “The Killing”

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4 comments on “KUBRICK @Feature #8: 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. I saw it at a matinee with my grandfather when I was about seven. It must have been some kind of re-release since this would have been about 1972. I doubt that my grandfather had any idea what the movie was going to be like. I’m sure he just thought of movies as an easy way to take a nap when he took care of me on weekends. While he was snoring away next to me, my little mind was being blown.

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