Belated Re: CULTURE/SPACE: Tom Hanks on "2001"

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Tue Feb 20 2001 - 20:59:35 MST

This is a belated comment on an earlier discussion, but since a
theatrical re-release of this film will be underway in the U.K.,
France, Germany, Japan and Australia starting this spring, and
will **probably** come to the U.S. (along with a new DVD mastering)
before the end of the year, I guess it's still relevant.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros. (current owner of the film: the
chronological sequence of ownership is MGM -> Turner -> Warners, see )
has apparently not yet announced any **specific** re-release plans for
the U.S., see .

On Sunday, 14 January 2001, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky wrote:

> It's really not what you'd call a "fast" movie, y'know... You sit there
> and just marvel... that people could think of the
> movie as being anything but homey, wholesome, and relaxing...
> How can you demand of my generation that they watch it?

None of the Kubrick films I've seen (which only include the ones
which are or verge on sci-fi, apart from _Spartacus_, which I haven't
seen in a while): _The Shining_, _A Clockwork Orange_, _2001_, and
_Dr. Strangelove_) are what I would describe as homey, wholesome,
or relaxing. They're all extremely dark comedies, full of ironic
humor overlaid with a bitter, coldly nasty edge.

I recently came across a review of Kubrick's _2001_ entitled "After Man",
originally published in the April 13, 1968 issue of _The New Yorker_ by the
late British film critic and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt, and reprinted on
pp. 64-65 of the book _2001: Filming the Future_ by Piers Bizony (Aurum Press,
London, 2000; see ).
The full text of Gilliatt's review is also available on-line at, and there are many other
essays and articles about _2001_ and other Kubrick films at "The Kubrick Site": .


Gilliatt gets at the heart of Kubrick's bleak portrayal of modern
technological society: "The film is... hideously funny -- like
Dr. Strangelove -- about human speech and response at a point where they have
begun to seem computerized, and where more and more people sound like
recordings left on while the soul is out... The grim joke is that life in 2001
is only faintly more gruesome in its details of sophisticated affluence than it
is now..." When Dr. Heywood Floyd disembarks from the Pan Am shuttle, he is
greeted on the space station by a pink plastic receptionist (Miss Turner) with
forced cheerfulness: "Did you have a **pleasant** flight?". As Gilliatt
remarks, "He [Floyd] takes the inanities of space personnel on the chin. 'Did
you have a pleasant flight?' Smile, smile. Another smile, possibly pre-filmed,
from a girl on a television monitor handling voice-print identification at
Immigration... The citizens of 2001 have forgotten how to joke and resist,
just as they have forgotten how to chat, speculate, grow intimate, or interest
one another... [Dr. Floyd] telephones his daughter by television for her
birthday, but he has nothing to say, and his wife is out; an astronaut on the
nine month mission to Jupiter gets a prerecorded TV birthday message from his
parents. That's the sum of intimacy." All of this coldness and bleakness is
admirably reinforced by the classical and avant-garde music of the soundtrack,
particularly Khachaturian's Gayaneh ballet suite, heard during the opening
scenes aboard the Discovery.

Gilliatt observes: "The film is hypnotically entertaining, and it is
funny without once being gaggy, but it is also rather harrowing. It is as
eloquent about what is missing from the people of 2001 as about what is there.
The characters seem isolated almost beyond endurance. Even in the most absurd
scenes, there is often a fugitive melancholy -- as astronauts solemnly watch
themselves on homey B.B.C. interviews seen millions of miles from Earth, for
instance, or as they burn their fingers on their space meals, prepared with
the utmost scientific care but a shade too hot to touch, or as they plod
around a centrifuge to get some exercise, shadowboxing alone past white
coffins where the rest of the Crew hibernates in deep freeze. Separation
from other people is total and unmentioned. Kubrick has no characters in
the film who are sexually related, nor any close friends. Communication
is stuffy and guarded, made at the level of men together on committees
or of someone being interviewed."

Kubrick seems to relish foregrounding the banal conversation and behavior of
Floyd and the other space bureaucrats against the cosmic significance of the
lunar Monolith, giving the viewer the comical scene of the spacesuited Floyd
and his companions being lined up by a photographer like tourists in front of
the Monolith at the Tycho excavation site, and the earlier conversation in the
"rocket bus" transporting Floyd from Clavius base to the TMA-1 excavation site:

DR. ROBERT MICHAELS (carrying sandwich container): Well, anybody hungry?



FLOYD: Whadda we got?

MICHAELS: You name it.

FLOYD: What's that, chicken?

MICHAELS: Something like that. Tastes the same, anyway. (laughs)

FLOYD: Huh. (laughs)

HALVORSEN: Got any ham?

MICHAELS: Ham, ham, ham, ham.... There it is.

HALVORSEN: Oh yeah, there. Good.

FLOYD: Ahhh.... They look pretty good!

MICHAELS: Well, we're getting better at it all the time. (laughs)

FLOYD: Laughs.

HALVORSEN: You know, that was an excellent speech you gave us,

MICHAELS: It certainly was.

HALVORSEN: I'm sure it beefed up morale a hell of a lot.

FLOYD (with mouth full): Thanks, Ralph. Oh by the way, I
wanted to say to both of you I think you've done a wonderful
job. I appreciate the way you've handled this thing.

HALVORSEN: Well, the way we look at it, it's... our job to do
this thing the way **you** want it done... we're only too
happy to be able to oblige.

MICHAELS: Have you seen these yet?

FLOYD: What are they?

HALVORSEN: Yeah, have a look at them.

MICHAELS: Here's what started the whole thing.

FLOYD: Oh, yeah.

HALVORSEN: When we first found it we thought it might be an
outcrop of magnetic rock, but all the geological evidence was
against it. And not even a big nickel-iron meteorite could
produce a field as intense as this, so, we decided to have a

MICHAELS: We thought it might be the upper part of some buried
structure, so we excavated out on all sides, but unfortunately
we didn't find anything else. (takes another bite of sandwich)

HALVORSEN: And what's more, the evidence seems pretty conclusive
that... it hasn't been covered up by natural erosion or other
forces, it... seems to have been deliberately buried.

FLOYD (chomping on sandwich): Deliberately buried! (shakes head) Huh, ha!

MICHAELS: Well. How 'bout a little coffee?

FLOYD: Oh, great!

HALVORSEN: Good idea.

FLOYD (wiping mouth with napkin): I don't suppose you have any
idea what the damn thing is, huh?

HALVORSEN (laughing conspiratorially): Hoo, hoo. Wish the hell
we did. Nope... the only thing we're sure of is it was buried
four million years ago.

FLOYD: Well, I must say... you guys have certainly come up with


MICHAELS (pouring coffee) Watch this, now, it's hot.

A photo caption on p. 75 of the Bizony book (_2001: Filming the Future_)
reads: "The banality of realism: A stewardess relaxes in Kubrick's
garish space station -- a place no less horrible than most of today's
airport lounges." This realism was achieved by close consultation with
some of the premier American corporate custodians of high technology
(see "_2001: A Space Odyssey_ in Retrospect" by Frederick I. Ordway III
at ) who were probably
happy enough to see their corporate names in a big-screen high-tech
extravaganza, and likely didn't pick up on Kubrick's ironic intentions.

Here's a bit of trivia I wasn't aware of until I saw the Bizony book.
Another photo caption on p. 85 reads "Company car: Fred Ordway persuaded
major manufacturers to supply props, such as this 1966 concept car from
General Motors. It was used as the background for the trite
television love scene which sends Heywood Floyd to sleep during his
space shuttle trip." The car in the photo's foreground is the Firebird IV,
an experimental car which I saw in the flesh in the summer of 1965
in the "Avenue of Progress" at the end of the "Futurama II" ride in
the General Motors pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. However,
the car in the film is not in fact the Firebird IV, it is the other car barely
visible in the background of the Bizony photo, the "Runabout". Both these cars,
and photos from the rest of the Futurama II exhibit, can be seen at: (scroll the left frame down to
"Transportation Area", click on General Motors; then scroll to the bottom
of the right frame and click "Next", then scroll the right frame down
to Gallery One). The GM Futurama II is one of my favorite icons of the
past of "The Future" (I wasn't around for the original GM Futurama in
'39 -- you can read about that in David Gelernter's book); cf. Paul Simon's
lyric "And I believe these are the days of lasers in the jungle,
lasers in the jungle somewhere" from "The Boy in the Bubble" on the
_Graceland_ album, Warner Bros. 9 25447-2.

In the January Extropians' thread on this film, Tom Hanks is quoted
as saying "And my God, when that bone gets thrown up in the air and
you make that transformation into an orbiting bomb -- the greatest time-cut
in the history of cinema -- and the "Blue Danube" started up, I mean, I was
in heaven. I felt as though the universe were expanding before my very eyes."
Gilliatt also mentions this famous jump cut to a matching shot:
" of the apes, squatting in front of a bed of bones, picks up his first
weapon. In slow motion, the hairy arm swings up into an empty frame and then
down again, and the smashed bones bounce into the air... The last bone thrown
in the air is matched, in the next cut, to a spaceship at the same angle [not
the same angle on my DVD, but it's not surprising Gilliatt remembered it that
way]. It is now 2001." As well as providing a cinematically effective
transition from the prehistoric past to the technological future (I remember,
when the blue sky framing the bone as it has just started to descend abruptly
changed into the blackness of space surrounding a satellite which is also
descending in the frame, grabbing the arms of my theater seat as though I
were going to fall into the screen), Kubrick is making a terribly cynical
observation about the significance of Man's awakening into sentience -- the
bone club, the first product of awakened human intelligence, isn't just the
first tool, it's also the first **weapon**; and in the jump cut it
metamorphoses into, not a spaceship, but the latest state-of-the-art **weapon**
(not explicitly identified as such in the film, but what looks like a
gun-turret on both the first and second of the orbiting white cylinders is
suggestive of weaponry -- perhaps an orbiting laser or particle-beam
weapon). There's certainly more than a hint of _Dr. Strangelove_ here.

HAL, the artifical intelligence on board the spaceship Discovery, comes
across as more lively than the cardboard-cutout human beings sleepwalking
across the screen, despite (or perhaps even all the more because of) the
fact that it goes berserk. Gilliatt comments: "The computer on the Jupiter
spaceship -- a chatty, fussy genius called HAL, which has nice manners and a
rather querulous need for reassurance about being wanted -- talks more like a
human being than any human being does in the picture. HAL runs the craft,
watches over the rotating quota of men in deep freeze, and plays chess. He
gives a lot of thought to how he strikes others, and sometimes carries on
about himself like a mother fussing on the telephone to keep a bored grown
child hanging on." This observation reminded me of a similar one I recently
came across in a review of Iain Banks' _Excession_ (by Charles Shaar Murray,
from the July 26, 1996 _New Statesman_, at ):
"In a long and honourable SF tradition, from Frankenstein's monster to
Trek's Commander Data, The Culture's AIs tend to be rather more 'human' than
the majority of its citizens."

So no, _2001_ isn't an action movie; it doesn't offer music-video-style,
fast-paced entertainment along the lines of _The Matrix_. This isn't
just a matter of the film having been made in the creaky old 1960's,
either -- contemporary critics recognized from the outset that
this was likely to be a difficult movie for mainstream audiences, as shown
by these quotes from a 1968 review in the Harvard _Crimson_ (at ):
"..._2001_ is probable commercial poison... [a] sure-fire audience baffler
guaranteed to empty any theater of ten percent of its audience...
Kubrick's dilemma in terms of satisfying an audience is that his best
work in _2001_ is plotless slow-paced material..." Nevertheless, if
you're at all susceptible to Kubrick's style of understated irony, this is a
film that is likely to grow on you, and get better (and funnier) with repeated
viewing. The technology still looks great, due to Kubrick's fanatical
devotion to realism, but the glossy, expensive panoply of techno-toys
is sent up by Kubrick's subtle mockery, Even technophiles can learn to
appreciate the irony, if they have a bit of patience and a sense of humor.
Also, one can take some comfort that in the real year 2001, things don't
seem quite as stuffy as a pessimist looking forward from the military-
industrial culture of the 1960's might have feared.

Granting that it may be funny, is _2001_ Extropian, or Singularitarian,
or Transhumanist? Well of course it is in a sense, except that the
deux ex machina in the film isn't AI (though AI exists) or anything
coming out of merely human technology, it's a pair of mysterious artifacts
left by meddling aliens apparently kick-starting sentience throughout the
galaxy a la patrons and progenitors in David Brin's "Uplift" stories (I think
it's a sign of _2001_'s failure with mainstream audiences that UFO
abductees do not report having been guests in fancy hotels :->).
It is purely Singularitarian in the Vingean sense of the Singularity
as a point in time beyond which we cannot attempt to forecast, because
when the Star Child reappears in near-Earth space we have no idea
what will happen next, and the movie gives no clue.

By the way, the closeup shots of HAL getting lobotomized suggest
a paradigm shift beyond the integrated circuits we know and love today
(Intel was founded the year _2001_ was released) that, unfortunately,
hasn't happened yet. The three-dimensional, crystalline circuit blocks in (13K) (193K)
suggest to me a plausible representation of optical processing
elements, though the movie says no such thing. Clarke's novel says
only (in Chapter 15, "Hal"): "In the 1980s, Minsky and Good had
shown how neural networks [**Minsky** and neural networks? Rosenblatt
must've appreciated that!] could be generated automatically --
self-replicated -- in accordance with an arbitrary learning program.
Artificial brains could be grown by a process strikingly similar to the
development of a human brain. In any given case, the precise details
could never be known, and even if they were, they would be millions of
times too complex for human understanding." And later in Chapter 28,
"In Vacuum": "He released the locking bar on the section labelled
COGNITIVE FEEDBACK and pulled out the first memory block. The marvellously
complex three-dimensional network, which could lie comfortably in a man's
hand yet contained millions [only millions? :->] of elements, floated
away across the vault." The red light illuminating HAL's sanctum
sanctorum may simply have looked good to Kubrick, or may have been meant
to suggest the blood-red interior of an organic brain, but I've thought
of another explanation -- the darkroom-red illumination may have been
necessary to avoid interfering with HAL's optical processors (:->).

On Sunday, 14 January 2001, Damien Broderick wrote:

> The horribly sad thing is that in 2001 you need to tell people about the
> existence of the damned movie. At the guest lecture I gave the other day...
> I leaped up and seized the wireless mike, which was long and bulbous like a
> thigh bone, and in slo-mo mimed beating Mark Angeli about the head with it,
> before pretending to hurl it into the air. People a year or two out of high
> school looked baffled. Mark muttered from the corner of his mouth that very
> likely none of them would have seen the movie... Fark. What a memory-denuded
> media world.

Well, that may change (temporarily) with the film's theatrical re-release
this year, but one piece of real-world technology that has sprung into
existence since _2001_ was made -- namely, home video playback (videocassette,
and now DVD) -- means that at least people can go and **rent** the damned movie,
if you get them interested in it. They don't have to content themselves
with the novel and a picture book, or wait years for the local art-house
cinema to exhibit a scratchy print. That this has really altered the ephemerality
of movies was brought home to me this past Thanksgiving. I visited two aged
aunts along with my cousin and his wife and children (three girls and a boy).
The oldest girl is high-school age, and I learned to my amazement that
she is fond of movies from the 30's, and particularly Fred Astaire and
Ginger Rogers (whom I certainly had not known about when I was in high
school). I spent an afternoon with the kids and their mother watching
_The Gay Divorcee_ from my aunt's home-video library. Listening to
them sing along with "The Continental" was a slightly surreal experience
for me. It's certainly a brave new media world (with the Web now piled
on top of everything else) -- not memory-denuded: incredibly rich,
but ever more fragmented into pockets of special interests, apart from the
frantic mass-marketing and insistent distraction of the new. Are you ready
for the first installment of the cinematic _Lord of the Rings_ trilogy
this Christmas?


Jim F.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:56:46 MDT