Stanley Kubrick, Part 6 — 2001: A Space Odyssey
In 1968 the world was going through a radical social shift with the war in Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the rise of drug experimentation, the youth movement, music taking radical shifts from being something to dance to into something you listened to and made you think. Movies seemed at a loss as the old guard made movies that were out of touch and the new filmmakers were making stuff that nobody wanted to see.
Then MGM released Stanley Kubrick’s new film and it was something the likes of which no one had ever seen before. It set a new standard in special effects, which have never been equaled. And no film dealing with science fiction or space could ever be made again without making a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I first became aware of 2001 when I was 12 and in a drug store with my mother and looking through the comic book and magazine rack and saw a cover of Popular Science magazine talking about the bold new science fiction film. My mother bought this for me and I read that article over and over that afternoon and many times after that.
This was the first time I’d ever heard the name Stanley Kubrick. That day would mark the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the man and his work.
About that time Arthur C. Clarke’s novelization came out, which I again grabbed up and inhaled. I loved sci-fi movies, but the photos I was seeing from this new movie were like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was not aware yet that they were like nothing that anybody had ever seen before.
I was dying to see this movie, but it was still in its initial roadshow release and was exclusively playing in Cinerama theatres. There was one Cinerama theatre in St. Louis, Missouri, where I grew up, Martin’s Trans-Lux Cinerama, but it was in the city and my parents never went to movies anymore.
When school resumed that fall we all had to do a book report and I did mine on 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was hardly into presenting my report before the class when kids whose parents had taken them to see the movie started asking me what it was all about? (This was ages before Star Wars would come out, which would have been vastly more satisfying for them.) Then the teacher chimed in and said, “I went to see this with some friends and afterwards they just wanted to talk and talk and talk about this movie. I have to confess that I didn’t understand it. I just thought it was beautiful. But maybe you could explain to me just what the stuff at the end in the hotel room about?”
“That was a zoo.”
“Yes, so that he could be watched and observed and studied.”
“Then why didn’t we see them ever?”
“Well, I don’t know. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from what I’ve read about the movie, Stanley Kubrick didn’t want to show people from another planet (the term “alien” hadn’t some into the public lexicon in 1968) because he didn’t think anybody could fathom what another species could look like.”
“Hmm . . . All right, then what was the big black monolith?”
“It was a warning device.”
“A warning device? For what?”
“To let the other civilizations on other planets to know that our intelligence had reached a level where we could be dangerous to them.”
The English teach looked at me for a moment, nodded, and then said, “Okay. Next report.”
A few years later I was at a company picnic for the car dealership where my father worked and the English teacher was there. It turned out that her husband and my dad had worked together for years and years.
After we said hello she brought up my book report on 2001: A Space Odyssey and told me that that evening my report on the book and my assessments of the book had stayed with her. She told me that she’d never had a middle school English student who had such an analytical mind for a story and interpreting symbolism. I didn’t know how to respond to that, but it did make me realize later that 2001 makes you think about what you are reading and what you are watching. Symbolism is everywhere. I then started seeing it in everything I read and saw, and as I have grown older I have recognized symbolism in life and the importance having an analytical point of view towards people and the every day events in life itself.
I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s film of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the winter of 1968 or 1969 when the movie went into general release. It was rated “G” and I saw it on a Sunday afternoon in a packed audience at the Kirkwood Cinema in St. Louis. I can still remember the entire experience of sitting in that theater and watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. As a thirteen year-old I was completely unprepared for what was playing out on the screen. No movie like it had ever been made before. And, I think I can confidently say, no movie has ever been made like it since. It was a movie that had the power to challenge your concept of what a movie was and how a movie in space should look and sound.
I have seen the movie many times since then. As a teenager and a young man I would see it every time it was re-released in 70mm, and saw it again at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in 2001 when the Kubrick family was allowing one of Stanley Kubrick’s personal 70mm prints to play in 70mm theatres around the world. On returning from the Stanley Kubrick Exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I watched the film at home on a stunning Blu-Ray, and it still is as mesmerizing and brilliant as the first time I saw it on the screen in Kirkwood, Missouri, so many years ago.