My title is shamelessly stolen from a March 1969 issue of MAD magazine (the source of much of my youthful education) that parodied Stanley Kubrick’s now-iconic 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s two major premiers–first, in Washington, where the film was first shown to an audience on April 2, and then in New York, where the final director’s cut was screened for the first time on April 6.
As we pause occasionally this year to pay tribute to 1968, we should acknowledge the prominent place that “2001” occupies in that turbulent and very eventful year. Like so many other things in the vast pantheon of pop culture, I didn’t see this movie until a few years later, when Appalachian State University, my alma mater, treated its students to a Stanley Kubrick film festival. I had never seen any of his films up to that point, because the tiny movie theatre in my hometown of Sparta, North Carolina, would have never dreamed of showing a movie like this. And, besides, only about two people would have come out to see it if the decision had been made to show it. So, I am grateful that ASU had the foresight to screen “2001,” along with “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
I have a section on my bookshelf devoted to books that hold special meanings for me. Among this select group is the original paperback edition of THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, edited by Jerome Agel. At the time I added this first-edition book to my collection, on March 5, 1973, it set me back a whopping $1.50. Of course, Agel’s book is now priceless, because it gave me my first insights into the many, and still-disputed, meanings of this path-breaking film. This was also my first “making of” book, and I still marvel at its 96-page photo insert, its behind-the-scenes accounts of how the movie was made, and the many perspectives written by scientists, journalists, and film critics. And the endpages contain my handwritten pencil notes summarizing my interpretations of the film. These nearly faded notes contain a neat little outline of the film’s structure: “Part One: Nature controls man, Part Two: Man controls nature, Part Three: Man is controlled by the tools he makes, and Part Three: Man is transcendent over nature and his technology and gazes upon the world like a little child.” In 1973, this was pretty heavy stuff for me to contemplate, but looking back, and after having read way too much about this movie since then, I still believe my outline describes pretty well the themes of the film. Not bad for my first foray into the arcane world of film criticism and my new way of seeing movies. As was the case with technology “back in the day,” I aged nearly 30 years before I saw the movie again in a movie theatre (the only way we could watch movies then); of course I now own a Blu-Ray version, including commentary and other goodies, and I can watch it anytime I want. We truly do live in a age of miracles, don’t we?
Since the publication of Agel’s book in 1970 there have been countless analyses of this enigmatic film. I am surrounded by three that I have added to my Kubrick bookshelf. First, is a just-published volume that arrived in my mailbox last week–Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY: STANLEY KUBRICK, ARTHUR C. CLARKE, AND THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE. As his title suggests, Benson’s account focuses on the collaboration of Kubrick and Clarke and how their friendship resulted in the movie we now celebrate. His prologue makes it very clear where he stands in the dialogue about the film’s importance: “The twentieth century produced two great latter-day iterations of Homer’s Odyssey. The first was James Joyce’s Ulysses [and the] other was Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the islands of the southeastern Mediterranean became the solar system’s planets and moons, and the wine-dark sea the airless void of interplanetary, interstellar, and even intergalactic space.” Benson’s account thus places the movie squarely inside the pantheon of great literature, and his blow-by-blow treatment of the picture’s origins, how it was made, and how it has influenced subsequent literary and cinematic works is of an epic nature. Needless to say, I can’t wait to read it in its entirety, although I doubt it will eclipse Agel’s pioneering volume.
If you are looking for a very concise and thought-provoking introduction to “2001”, look no further than Peter Kramer’s contribution to the excellent British Film Institute’s library of little books about film and TV–2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (revised edition, 2015). After reading these 103 pages, you might wonder why you need read anything else. It is Kramer’s contention that Kubrick’s film is perhaps more popular than ever, and should be at the center of any intelligent discussion about film history. One other book I haven’t yet added to my bookshelf is KUBRICK’S MONOLITH: THE ART AND MYSTERY OF 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, by Joe R. Frinzi (2017). And if you are looking for a one-stop-shop comprehensive overview of Kubrick’s lifetime achievements, you must get your hands on THE STANLEY KUBRICK ARCHIVES, a beautiful and lavishly illustrated Taschen series book, edited by Alison Castle (2016).
I shouldn’t leave this discussion without urging you to watch a marvelous mockumentary about the deeper meanings behind Kubrick’s films. Rodney Ascher’s intriguing and highly entertaining film, “Room 237”, presents us with the very convincing conspiracy theory that Kubrick made his 1980 thriller “The Shining” as a guilt-ridden confessional for his collaboration with NASA to fake the 1969 moon landing. According to this outlandish–and totally false–interpretation, the folks at NASA were so impressed by the moon landing special effects in “2001” that they hired Kubrick to use the same technology to fake Neil Armstrong’s first stroll on the lunar surface, which was in actuality constructed on a soundstage at Borehamwood Studios in England. The clues that Kubrick supposedly planted in “The Shining” to reveal his NASA trickery, remind us of the infamous “Paul [McCartney] Is Dead” hoax clues that dazzled us for a few months in the fall of 1969. Watch this film.
Here’s hoping you will find your own ways to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of “2001.” release. Just don’t tell HAL about your plans!
See you next week.