Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Message in a Bottle

An open letter to the kid on YouTube:

Hello, Alexei:

I found your "I Hate Stanley Kubrick" video (or as it's titled "Kubrick Sucks") on YouTube (last time I looked 187 "likes"; 3,786 "dislikes"),* while I was scanning videos the other day, watched it, and had two reactions: 1) you were reacting in your confusion over the movie, rather than actively thinking about it; and 2) you had nearly the very same reaction that I did when I saw the film for the first time on my 13th birthday, sometime during the Pleistocene Era (1968).  I have great sympathy for you here.  2001 was a very frustrating experience for me, as well.

Now, understand, I was a "space" kid.  I watched television coverage of every mission—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo—I knew orbiting and rendezvousing strategies, I loved looking at schematics of space capsules, I ate this stuff up.  

But 2001: a Space Odyssey nearly broke me. Okay, I got the "Hal" stuff, that was good.  But what was up with the apes at the beginning?  What was that shrieking slab that kept showing up...all the time? And more importantly, what was all that stuff with the colors and the old guys at the end?  I was frustrated.  And a little irked.  Here was a "space" movie and I didn't "get" it! Part of the frustration was my ego speaking—I didn't get a "space" movie—but part of it was my own ignorance.  It wasn't a "space" movie (even though it got the details right—long travel time, no sound in space, all the stuff that is routinely ignored these days in movies, post Star Wars), it was a movie that partially took place in space, but what it was about...was (and is) something else.

I took it upon myself to find out.  I had no Internet, so I started to read whatever I could get.  I started with Clarke's novel that was published almost simultaneously.  That was a good start, but Clarke deviated from the movie quite a bit—HAL's murder plot was far more elaborate and action-packed, and the ending focused on one of Jupiter's moons, not on an orbiting slab.  But the majority of it was there.  From that starting point, I saw the movie a couple more times, and came to realize that Kubrick made very specific choices about what he was going to show, and what he could show, given the movie-making and special effects technologies at the time.  I also came to realize that Kubrick was grappling with showing in pictures what Clarke could describe with words, thoughts and descriptions—a far easier task. I also came to realize that Kubrick didn't want to nail down things that might not even be imagined—what would extra-terrestrial life far beyond us look like? Any depiction of alien life would be, by necessity, limited—like how Spielberg, and everybody else since, has shown what it might—could—look like, and by doing, raise more questions than they'd answer (could Spielberg's squat little aliens drive the humongous mother-ship in Close Encounters..., for instance?), while at the same time, squeezing some of the wonder and mystery out of the events.

One thing you should know—2001 looks like garbage on video.  The place to see it is in a theater, with a wide-screen—it's much more immersive that way and you can see all the details—like all the people in the rooms—that can't be picked up on the screen.  In a theater, 2001 makes your eyes wander.  On video, it makes your mind wander...usually to the kitchen.

Now let me address a couple of the things you said in your video.  "I don't understand the point of making stuff that doesn't make any sense." Right there with you, brother.  The thing is: It does make sense...but you haven't made sense of it yet.  Let me reassure you, it's all up there on the screen. You just have to stop and consider what is there and why it is being shown. Movies are all about what is there on the screen and what is NOT there on the screen (says Martin Scorsese).  A lot of it is to distract you while creating a realistic view of what "space commuting" would be like. (The answer: just as dull and inconvenient as terrestrial commuting is now, but with better music).

I don't want to go into specifics about what the movie is "about"—I'd be robbing you of the fun of the discovery process (and I fear I've already said too much) and I think it wouldn't be giving you any credit to do so.  But, I would urge you to do a little exploring of your own.  A good starting point is Kubrick and Clarke's starting point—Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" about a lunar team digging up something inexplicable—an artifact buried there far earlier than Man had any designs for achieving a lunar trip—and work backwards and forwards, like they did.

The second point of yours I want to address is your assertion that "A movie is supposed to entertain you."  Uh-huh.  Yes, but not exclusively.  A lot of the entertainment factor is your responsibility as the audience.  Are you accepting of what is there, or are you just a couch potato wanting the movie to do all the work?  We can get into all sorts of McLuhan mumbo-jumbo about "hot" mediums (where audiences have to participate for it to be effective—radio, for instance) or cold mediums (TV and movies, especially the ones that stop every so often, have a character say "You just don't get it, do you?" and summarize everything for the folks who've been getting popcorn or texting—this, by the way, IS lazy film-making...the film-makers are assuming that audiences are basically monkeys and need to be spoon-fed).  

Leave it at this, if all movies did was entertain, they'd be very limited in what they could do other than provoke a reaction. In which case, they're as valuable as a poke in the eye (which can also provoke a reaction).  Sometimes, when they're doing the job right, they can teach, expand your mind and world-view, and take you places in the eye, the mind and the heart that we've never been before.  

For me, 2001 was the rosetta stone for understanding how movies work, how they communicate, and what they can achieve.  It led me on a long, rewarding journey that has brought me a lot of fun and a lot of joy.  I hope that for you.

Now, go out there and figure it out.  For yourself.

* I didn't bother with the "Calm Down, Kubrick Fans" follow-up video as it's a waste of time.  Mine and yours.  Haters gonna hate and you can't change that.  And the only reason to do a reply is to generate more controversy and more "hits."  That might be your motivation, but I tend to doubt it.   In any case, you can't change minds for some people. They're entrenched in their dogma and their view-point (and they're shallow enough to get all "high-minded" about it).  That's part of the reason I'm doing this; I don't want you to be one of those people.

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