2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey ★★★★★

2001: A Space Odyssey is absolutely pure cinema in that it works both as a commercial film, and as an art film - it rides the line between silent picture, and that of a talkie, the modern and the post-modern, and yet it is not constricted by any side it chooses to lean against.
One of the innumerable amazing things about 2001 is the way in which it approaches meaning, progress, and absolute. Somehow, the film is about all of these, without ever stepping outside of a phenomenological observation of the universal form of each of these. Please note, I am not stating that these phenomenological observations, nor the universal forms are particularized, nor concretely commented upon.
The film maintains an immense, mystical understanding of the movement of the Absolute, while at the same time being very straightforward and anchored in direct images. It's much like Martin Heidegger's 'Being and Time' - it speaks on the dry, honest and absolutely essential and concrete moments of man, and yet, the more you find yourself reading, the more you find yourself convinced that his work speaks from the eyes of God, speaking of the divine and ever pressensing aspect of man.
Perhaps, to elaborate this incredibly difficult point, it is significant to enter into conversation with Roger Ebert's brilliant question and answer explication of the film with the layman:

"Q. What's that big black monolith? A. It's a big black monolith."

Perhaps. But if we remember, the basalt monolith was not the original, which was in fact a transparent acrylic work with a radiant crown sat in the middle. It's obvious looking at the two why the black monolith was chosen, however it is interesting to note that, it need not even be that - Ockham's razor can keep on trimmin'.

"Q. Where did it come from? A. From somewhere else."

True, and as the 'start' of the movie shows us, coming, or be-coming, are infinite regressions of sort, and one simply must choose a moment to observe them as such, less the film be non-existent, and we merely keep living our lives.

"Q. Who put it there? A. Intelligent beings since it has right angles and nature doesn't make right angles on its own."

Now this smartass response seems only to denote how tiring the line of questioning is, but I do think that it's comical that, in the film that Tarkovsky denotes as cold and sterile and given Kubrick's Enlightenment ideological perspective on God and the film ("I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001 but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don't believe in any of Earth's monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe.") is also the same film that a slew of critics responded to, be it in praise, disgust or neutrality, as a profoundly religious film. Thus, the mystic overtones resonate outwards from a deeply scientific and careful examination of man and of life in general, as in the case of Being and Time.

"Q. How many monoliths are there? A. One for every time Kubrick needs one in his film. Now it would seem that these are obvious observations. But audiences don't like simple answers, I guess; they want the monolith to "stand" for something. Well, it does. It stands for a monolith without an explanation. It's the fact that man can't explain it that makes it interesting. If Kubrick had explained it, perhaps by having some little green men from Mars lower it into place, would that have been more satisfactory? Does everything need an explanation? Some people think so. I wonder how they endure looking at the stars. What disturbed the audience even more, however, was that bedroom at the end of the film. Kubrick's space explorer runs into another monolith beyond Jupiter and it takes him into a space warp."

The critique of the absurd projection of signification peaks here. The monolith, in its multiplicity or its singularity, is not necessarily standing in for something. Is it a parable? An analogy? Is it symbolic? Is it metonymic? These questions can be made to describe elaborate theory surrounding the film, some of which can be quite rich and thoughtful, and provide us with a great amount of thought, but they do not exhaust the film. One of the nightmarish conditions of man approaching art is the necessity with which he imposes the question 'what does it mean?' onto all he sees. Meaning is good, and meaning is often extracted from a work, in fact if it isn't (at least in the most broad sense) I'm not sure what the point of the piece is, but to 'explain' it, to put it into 'words' is to translate the work, and often at great expense of the work. This doesn't mean that discussing the work can be fruitful, or that thoughtful things about the work can't be extracted and explicated, but if the totality of the works 'meaning' can simply be 'explained away,' then it seems to me that the film itself is barely a film at all, and should rather be replaced by the theory that exhausts it.


"Q. Then when the pilot emerges into the objective world, where is he? A. In a bedroom."

The same critique from above also applies here.

"Q. A BEDROOM? Yes, a magnificently decorated Louis XVI bedroom."

And what a bedroom!

"Q. What's the bedroom doing out there beyond Jupiter? Nothing. It isn't out there beyond Jupiter. It's a bedroom. The spacecraft lands in the bedroom, and Keir Dullea, the pilot, looks through the window and sees himself in a space suit standing outside. He gets out, becomes himself in the space suit standing outside, and sees himself seated at a table, eating. He becomes himself sitting at the table, eating, and notices himself, very elderly, dying in bed. He becomes himself dying in bed, and dies in bed. Well, it's not every space adventurer who dies in bed."

While this is perhaps a bit of explaining away, and perhaps a slight amount of reasonable guesswork - it is a nice 'translation' nevertheless; and one that makes quick work of the infinite regression of nightmarish haunting questions that simply cannot be answered.

"Q. Now where did the bedroom come from? My intuition is that it came out of Kubrick's imagination; that he understood the familiar bedroom would be the most alien, inexplicable, disturbing scene he could possibly end the film with. He was right. The bedroom is more otherworldly and eerie than any number of exploding stars, etc. Exploding stars we can understand. But a bedroom? The bedroom also provides a suitable backdrop while Kubrick's man grows older and dies. Why can't it be just that - a backdrop? Poets put lovers under trees, and nobody asks where that tree came from. Why can't Kubrick put his aging man in a bedroom? This is what literary critics might call a non-descriptive symbol - that is, the bedroom stands for a bedroom. Nothing else. The film, in its most basic terms, is a parable about Man. It is what Kubrick wanted to say about Man as a race, an idea and an inhabitant of the universe. More specifically, it is a film about man's journey from the natural state of a tool-using state and then again into a higher order of natural state. It makes its statement almost completely in visual terms; and the little dialog in the center section of the film is hardly necessary, like verbal Muzak."

I would love to end the review with this beautiful sequence, but I must supply a lite commentary. The bedroom, is indeed the most alien, and in fact, it needn't be a bedroom in Jupiter that is most alien, but that through which we spend the majority of our lives in: a bedroom. If you've ever been sick, not even fever-dream sick, but just sick enough to be confined to a bed, it is the most alien experience that there could be. Imagine doing it for an inordinate amount of time: it's almost as if it is an ego death unto itself - it's almost as if you become detached from your own body, which at that moment feels already as if it is rebelling against you, and in this moment, as presumably in our moment of passing, Kubrick has painted such a radical depiction, that it shall persist in holding the title of one of the greatest cinematic moments of all time.
Lastly, I might comment that, as a 'film about man's journey from the natural state of a tool-using state and then again into a higher order of natural state' that Kubrick's film takes both Hegel's Phenomenology, and Heidegger's Being and Time, and marries the two. Both transcendental and concrete. Both mystical and scientific. Both on man, and on being.
Of 2001's genius, truly, none can argue.
Simply The Masterpiece.

S.D.G.
C.V.R.