Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Anytime Movies (Transplanted): 2001: A Space Odyssey

While I have a few reviews "in the works," It's as good a time as any to re-boot (actually transplant from the old movie blog) a feature I started years ago, when it was suggested I do a "Top Ten" List. 

I don't like those: they're rather arbitrary; they pit films against each other, and there's always one or two that should be on the list that aren't because something better shoved it down the trash-bin. 

So, I came up with this: "Anytime" Movies. 

Anytime Movies are the movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the direction, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again (and again!) and never tire of them. There are ten (kinda). They're not in any particular order, but the #1 movie IS the #1 movie.

Here it is.

Why is 2001 my favorite film?

1. It completely does away with the three-act play structure that hems in most films. It’s four acts—like a symphony.

2. It contains very little dialog, and insists on telling its story (about discovering extra-terrestrial life) and providing key dramatic information visually and aurally—something that too few films actually try to do--fully utilizing the strengths of the medium.

3. It dispenses with the traditional sense of screen-acting which depends on emoting high-points (which is not standard drama, but is, in fact, melodrama), that has long been the crutch of what is considered great screen acting.

4. It comes up with a rather nifty solution for the Evolution versus Creation argument, which is: “Why can’t it be a little bit of both?” Trust
Kubrick to answer a question with another question.

5. It is that very rare item in movie history—a true Science Fiction film. It is not a standard genre film (ie. a western or detective story) set in the future with gadgets, like
Star Wars or Close Encounters or Blade Runner or Outland or Forbidden Planet. There are no comfortable, reliable concepts in 2001. It asks audiences to consider the inconsiderable and make leaps of knowledge and faith. And it doesn’t wait for that audience to catch up, despite protestations of a “glacial” pace.
6. It obeys the rules of space and uses them dramatically. There is no sound in space. Trips in space take a long time. Isolation is a problem. Don’t get caught without your helmet. Ask your computer how it's doing every so often. When you're dining over at a stranger's house, don't break the crystal. If a black monolith crosses your path, don't reach for it unless you're prepared for your life to change. Rules like that...

7. It takes advantage of the one unique element that separates film-making from any other art form, and presents the single greatest edit in movie history. To wit:

My Dad took me and my friend Jerry Fortune to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on my thirteenth birthday. I was a space kid. I lived and breathed the Apollo program. I knew every Astronaut’s name and every mission. What went right and what went wrong. The names of landing sites and prominent craters nearby.

But I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this movie. Like my father, I “liked the middle parts,” but I couldn’t figure out what was up with the monkeys, what all that weird screaming was about, what was with those streamers when they get to Jupiter, who was the old guy and what was that baby at the end?
I mean, huh?
I was determined to figure it out. It was a space-movie for cryin’ out loud. And, at that time, they only came around once in a blue moon (the last being Planet of the Apes, hardly a space-movie) and I wasn’t going to waste this one.

So it made me dig. I researched. I found out it had to do with the search for extra-terrestrial life (it did?), then I read Clarke’s book, and although Clarke and Kubrick deviated quite a bit, it let me in to what Kubrick was trying to communicate.

Then I got it. It made me realize why he did what he did, why he chose particular scenes to portray, why he framed shots the way he did, and what he could get away with without making his movie look stupid. For Kubrick, a suggestion was better than hitting you over the head by showing bug-eyed children in baggy suits and rubber masks ala Spielberg. There was no narrator to tell you what it all meant (Kubrick had cut out a prologue of talking heads discussing E.T. concepts). The film-maker trusted that his audience would figure it out. Some did.* Some just liked all the colors.
And it left a lot of people (including one thirteen year old and a good number of complacent critics) in the moon-dust.

It still boggles this mind that Kubrick was able to take Arthur Clarke’s slim concept in “The Sentinel” (alien beings leave a "burglar" alarm of sorts on the Moon), and take it to a logical beginning, wrap it in mythic proportions and take it to an inevitable, and, for me, heroic, end. It still is one of the few movies that purport to be science fiction with a deep sense of mystery and wonder, even a kind of visual poetry--something its sequel, the literal-minded 2010, dispensed with to its drab, short-shelf-lived detriment.

Where did that inspiration come from? How did those concepts appear? For me, the movie fits the description of the Black Monolith in the film (and are its last spoken words) “It’s origin and purpose, still a total mystery.”

I may have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey over a hundred times, and it never, ever bores me or fails to thrill me.

Such is the power of this movie over me.

MAD Magazine gets the last (rather clever) word

The Anytime Movie Series

2001: A Space Odyssey
Citizen Kane

Once Upon a Time in the West -Only Angels Have Wings
The Searchers
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
American Graffiti
To Kill a Mockingbird

Bonus: Edge of Darkness

Not quite the last word:

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

SPOILER ALERT: I give away the entire plot of 2001 in this review, and with no apologies. There are some who might find this a good thing. Like Rock Hudson, who famously walked out of the premiere yelling "Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?" He was one of the 217 people who walked out of the premiere of 2001. That is an exact number. Kubrick was in the audience. He counted the walk-out's. Then he cut the film by some 20 minutes.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) 2001-now there's something to get excited about! I've seen it a dozen times and I have always been spell-bound and elated by it. It is, so far, Kubrick's masterpiece.* Certainly, it is the finest example of science fiction in film to date, undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the 60's and possibly of all time.** It is Stanley Kubrick's version of mankind's first contact with a life off of our planet, with the added twist that that extra-terrestrial life is out "God," which "created" us in such a way as to satisfy both Biblical and Darwinian theories of that momentous occasion (which in Kubrick's visualization, it certainly is) For anyone who hasn't figured it out yet, this is the very simple story-line:

An extra-terrestrial life visits earth in its pre-historic past and finds a stagnating man-ape community and teaches it to use a tool, a bone, for killing, for food, and that lesson boosts man-ape several rungs up the evolutionary ladder. To continue their experiment the ET's bury a signalling device on the Moon, so that they may know when their creation has reached out into space. Of course, it is discovered and that signal*** is traced to Jupiter. A team of astronauts is sent to investigate. In Kubrick's version, the man of 2001 has stagnated much like the man-apes. He has reached the point where he has recreated himself mechanically, right down to his own neuroses. He has nowhere to go as such, and so, when Man, in the form of Astronaut David Bowman, arrives at Jupiter, he finds a transport to the ET's planet, where he is kept and studied the rest of his life. When he dies, he is "reborn" by his captors into a higher form of Man, much like the man-apes were, and the film ends with this "Star-Child," this "super-man" hovering over the Earth, watching, and considering his next move.

None of this is explained out-right, you have to figure it out through the film's images. Only a third of the film has dialog, most of it unimportant as far as plot development--and the plot development comes slowly, I wouldn't be surprised if some cretins actually got bored by it.**** You never see the ET's; it would be impossible to do it believably.***** But...even if you don't understand 2001, it still succeeds as being a visual and aural experience, something to be marvelled at. I think it can safely be said that no science fiction film can help but be compared with 2001 and compared unfavorably. I don't think I can do 2001 any justice in the time allotted, but I can personally say it is one of my ten favorite films, and it is the one that sparked my own interest in film several years ago.

Another thing--this might be your last chance to see 2001 before it is shown on TV and butchered by commercials and (the restrictions of) a square screen, so...go see it should be.

Nothing to add that hasn't been said here. There are worse films to have as a Film-going Rosetta Stone. I've written about 2001 so much that I fear it to be obsessive, so I try to avoid it, actually. Such a thing can be limiting. But I do think it's one of the few "pure" science fiction films, willing to make an audience try to grasp an alien (in both meanings of the term) concept, and challenge them in intellectual, if not dramatic ways. Most science fiction is some other genre with jet-propulsion added.

Finally, this is one film that necessitates being PROJECTED. It really does need to be seen BIG and WIDE, not crimped by the confines of a small TV. Okay, that's it. I've written enough. On to the asterisks.

* And now, almost a decade after Kubrick's death, it's safe to say it still is, although Dr. Strangelove is still in the running, as well as Barry Lyndon, his much-maligned brilliant film of the "me" decade of the 80's...1780's.

** Obviously, I like this film. Still do.

*** It's a solar-powered alarm. When it's dug up and the sun hits it for the first time, it sends its signal out into the Universe.

**** This is terribly unfair. I know a lot of intelligent people who are bored by it, and don't mind saying so. It is paced slowly. I'm in love with the film, so I just don't notice it--for me, it moves like a bat out of hell. But then, my eyes are constantly scanning the frame of 2001 picking out the details -- and that is tough to do on video (Not long ago, an acquaintance finally saw it in a theater and expressed shock: "My God, all those little windows are filled with people!" Yeah. They are. So, if you're wondering why it takes a minute for the moon-lander to descend through the landing bay, rather than worry about it, or the next thing, take a look around Kubrick's world. It's pretty damned full.

***** Something I still believe despite the parade of Spielberg's emaciated Pillsbury dough-boys, and the pantheon of alien life exhibited in the Star Wars and "Trek" universes. I still never really "buy into" a representation of alien life. I keep wondering who their agent was, and what their make-up clause was like.


The Holy Grail of film-music appeared in my mail-box this week. The "lost" chord. The "score" that got away. It was just another mystery in a film that is full of them.

But now, all is revealed.

Alex North's unused score for 2001: A Space
OdysseyStanley Kubrick commissioned it, probably to keep some worried MGM execs off his back. By North's telling, the director was already well on his way to using classical pieces for his cobbled-together "score." But North really enjoyed the results of his collaboration with Kubrick on Spartacus (it's one of his best scores in a career full of great ones), and felt he could write something that would top Stanley's record collection.

He scored half of the movie. But few have heard it. North attended a screening before the world premiere and was shocked to hear that none of his work made it in. It was a bitter experience for him. He worked hard on those pieces for the strange science fiction film, and nothing came of it. North kept one cassette of the music, and lost it. And there has been endless speculation about the work and what sort of difference it would have made in the film. Jerry Goldsmith recorded a CD of it, immediately after North's death, in tribute. But now, the original session tracks (in mono) have been released on CD thanks to the Kubrick and North Estates, and it is a revelation (and you can listen to selections of it here or here).

So, last night I pulled my DVD of 2001 out of storage and synced the music up to the film (using timings supplied in the booklet) and watched the film for the first time with North's score.

And it sucked.

Not the music. The music is superb; brutal and isolating in "The Dawn of Man" sequences: fluttering and keening in the "Heywood Floyd" sections. Beautiful. Jarring. Triumphant in places...especially in the piece accompanying man's first use of a thigh bone as a weapon--North's ballsy attempt to supplant "Thus Sprach Zarathustra." The music is exotic and daring apart from the film.

But it's an education to see the music with the film it was composed for. Never has so much fine music been so wrong-headed.

The Dawn of Man: filled with despair and quick-silver drums

First off, the "Dawn of Man" sequence is scored "wall-to-wall" (with the exception of a space for the music accompanying the apes dawn-discovery of the monolith) which makes the experience relentless and oppressive. The music "matches" well here (it was an early sequence shot and edited with no special effects) and communicates a sense of despair and foreboding.

And that's the problem with it. North's music is constantly telling you what you "should" feel whereas in the film as it stands the only accompaniment is a sparse sound effects track. You get the same sense of space and isolation from this, but without the theatrics of the score. And again, the music is non-stop. There is no "breathing room" for the sequence and no respite from the dramatics.

One becomes aware watching both "versions" that the non-scored film requires input (and attention) from the audience to tell its story. There is no dialog (sorry, the ape grunts don't count) and no narration (though in the screenplay there was), and so the audience has to meet the film more than half-way in order to get anything out of it. With North's score emotional information is provided, allowing less attention from the audience and I'd speculate less involvement. Plus, the music brings a very real sense of artificiality to the scene. For that reason, the ape costumes seem less real, the action more rehearsed, and for this sequence, at the very start of the film, that's like taking any semblance of verisimilitude and clubbing it with a tibia.

The Waltz of Technology: whispy flutters and keening strings

The section of the transit to the Moon is where it gets really messy.

The music is less of a perfect match (in "The Dawn of Man" North actually accentuates every little nuance) owing to the late arrival of special effects and Kubrick tinkering with the film after a disasterous preview. But you can get the direction North was going in.

For the space-docking sequence, his music is fluttery and high-flying--a valid evocation of grace and flight. But when the scene shifts to the ship's interior--and Floyd's floating pen--North's music turns atonal and strange--dissonant and other-worldly.

And that is so wrong.

Much criticism was leveled at Kubrick for the use of waltz-king Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube" for these sequences ("banal" and "kitsch" were the terms most used by the pigeon-holing critics). But faced with North's alternative the choice seems obvious. Kubrick is using this traditional all-too-familiar waltz to show the orbital mechanics of space flight as a form of dance, a pretty sophisticated concept, especially in comparison to North's high-flying "music of the spheres." The use of the waltz implies a contained circular movement while also covering a distance of ground and that is a perfect analogy to the careful approaches that objects encircling the Earth must take to "rendezvous." But it is the carrying over of the music into the passenger-area and cabin-scenes that is the master-stroke. Where North makes these scenes of passenger-space-travel exotic and unnatural, Kubrick's use of the waltz conveys a sense of common-place--an every-day occurrence as familiar to the people of 2001 as a trans-continental flight would be to its contemporary audiences (and doesn't the use of Pan-Am as the shuttle-carrier make that stunningly obvious?) The comforting waltz of "The Blue Danube" conveys complacency with humor making the complications of zero-gravity not bizarre/strange, but an amusing inconvenience while travelling in space.

And one further observation. 2001 is a film built without the under-pinnings of melodrama. It is as un-theatrical as it could be. North's music, unfortunately, is very much a part of those traditions, and adding its histrionics to Kubrick's work is a bit like taking a subtle dessert and covering it in Hershey's syrup. His music, though sophisticated and lovely, tamps down the uniqueness and experimental nature of 2001 and turns it into "just another" Hollywood sci-fi epic, making it less an experience and more of a roadshow.

Film-music fans do a lot of breast-beating about the "slight" to North, and where Kubrick might have made a phone-call informing him of it, he also didn't let Martin Balsam know that he wasn't using him as the voice of "HAL" or all the participants in the planned "talking-heads" prologue that it had been axed. Why?Probably because Kubrick was feeling his way on 2001, eliminating things in the eleventh hour--like the initially-planned narration--that he might have wanted the option of using, after all ("never say never"), or maybe he just didn't want to justify a decision he wasn't too sure of in the first place. Whatever. The fact of the matter is, North took his 2001 music (with its pay-check) and re-used some of it for his score of
The Shoes of the Fisherman, and then again in the score for Dragonslayer. Three on a match. And a separate salary was generated for each. Nice work if you can get it. Plus, North's reputation never suffered. He was always working as one can see by looking at the eclectic list of films on his imdb listing. He is, after all, the man who wrote "Unchained Melody" and introduced jazz to film-scores with his music for A Streetcar Named Desire.

He'll always be remembered for that.

Alex North won a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1986

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