OCTOBER 5, 2020
LARB PRESENTS AN EXCERPT from Ken Kwapis’s But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons from a Life Behind the Camera, published this week by St. Martin’s Griffin.
Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), hurtling across the solar system on a mission to Jupiter, have a problem. Their ship’s computer, known as HAL, has misdiagnosed a minor malfunction in the ship’s engine, which is unnerving because HAL is, for all intents and purposes, incapable of making an error. Actually, Bowman and Poole have another problem. There is no place on the massive spaceship for them to discuss problem number one without being overheard by HAL. With monitors strategically placed throughout the ship, HAL “sees” and “hears” everything. So, on the pretext of discussing some routine maintenance, Bowman and Poole clamber into a small space pod, whereupon they shut the door and disconnect the pod’s communication system. They can see HAL through the pod’s glass portal, and feeling assured they can speak privately, the men candidly discuss the grave implications of a central computer error, even a minor one. In short order, Bowman and Poole conclude there’s really only one course of action …
Outside the pod, HAL cannot hear a word of their scheme, but he doesn’t have to; he can read their lips. The insert of HAL’s “eye,” a dot of red light housed in a lens, lasts about three seconds, but it’s one of the most haunting images in the film. Wait a minute. According to traditional film parlance, an insert refers to a close view of an object. A close-up refers to a close view of a character. Does HAL qualify as a character or an object? It’s more than a semantic issue. How you answer might reveal your bias regarding artificial intelligence or raise bigger questions about the nature of consciousness itself. For instance, no sane person assumes that a virtual assistant like Siri has a consciousness. But is it conceivable that one day Siri might spontaneously express her feelings without any request on your part?
What makes this shot breathtaking is that we are by now so invested in the human drama between these three — HAL, Poole, and Bowman — that an insert of what’s essentially a flashlight with a red bulb feels like a close-up of a character in the throes of a crisis — namely, he realizes his crewmates are about to betray him. I am awed by anyone who can craft a film that elicits such a complex response to an inanimate object. Oh, by the way, the film is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Many films that captivated me as a youngster have completely lost their luster. Radical experiments so relevant in the moment now seem like quaint relics, while their unassuming peers carry the day, slow and steady. As with all relationships, there are films I count as reliable pals, dependable in a pinch. Others are fickle friends I can’t rely on for cinematic consolation. In a few cases, my emotional attachment to a film has gone full circle, from head-over-heels infatuation to outright rejection, only to return with a more seasoned appreciation. And then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s no film with which I’ve had a rockier relationship than Stanley Kubrick’s eighth feature.
I was 10 years old when the film opened in April 1968. It took several months for 2001 to wend its way to my hometown, where it played at the Lincoln Theater, a former vaudeville house that once played host to the Marx Brothers when they were billed as the Three Nightingales. (An irresistible side note: It was during the Three Nightingales’ stint at the Lincoln that Harpo introduced a bulb horn into the act.) On a Saturday night in late ’68, my father and I sat among a sold-out crowd of local hippies, all of them primed with recreational narcotics for what MGM would thereafter bill as “the ultimate trip.” One hundred and forty-two minutes later, when the lights came up, I was truly gobsmacked. I was baffled and thrilled. My dad, on the other hand, was furious. He wanted his money back — all $1.50. He’d been game for a good yarn about space exploration, and he took the film’s head-scratching finale as a personal affront. Needless to say, as we left the Lincoln, I secretly planned to see the film again as soon as humanly possible. Which I did. The next day.
During its initial run, I saw the film over and over and over again. I committed large stretches of it to memory, and HAL’s dialogue in particular was eminently quotable. At the dinner table, for no particular reason, I would announce, “This conversation can serve no purpose anymore,” and leave the room. I drove everyone batty blasting Also sprach Zarathustra from the Magnavox record player in our living room. I meticulously assembled a plastic model of the Moon Bus, courtesy of Moebius Models kits. I reveled in the fact that people my father’s age found 2001 incomprehensible. The film’s obtuse ending was a convenient cudgel I used against my parents. “Of course you don’t understand the film. You’re old!” Never mind the fact that the director himself was pretty much the same age as my parents. And never mind that if you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t explain 2001 to save my life. But it was 1968. Things didn’t need to make sense for me to love them. I mean, Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, right?
Once in college, I switched cinematic gears, and, enchanted by the controlled chaos of directors like Robert Altman and the uncontrolled chaos of filmmakers like John Cassavetes, I began to turn on 2001. Kubrick’s anal-retentive attention to detail, the cold formality, his mania for one-point perspective composition, the stultifying pace, the too-cool-for-school Nietzscheanisms — the whole spectacle now struck me as bloated and self-important. It had been the perfect film for a pretentious teenager like me, enamored with sleek symmetries and cosmic bombast. But now its high-flown themes and obsessively manicured surface seemed like the work of, well, an arrested adolescent.
I broke up with 2001, but the film wouldn’t go away. It just lurked in the background, standing quietly, neither challenging nor welcoming me. Just standing. Like a sentinel — okay, you win, like a monolith. Time passed. In the post–Star Wars era, movies got faster while attention spans grew shorter. As a hired gun in Hollywood, at the helm of studio fare, I learned firsthand how impatient viewers had become and how utterly fixated the powers that be were on pumping up the volume and tightening the pace of every story. To even suggest that a scene needed to “breathe” was to risk being pegged as difficult. Moments that lagged could always be propped up by a pop song. Coherence took a back seat to energy. A random barrage of shots became the norm for action scenes, so much so that a pithy pundit christened a new genre: “chaos cinema.” By the year 2001 itself, I was a successful worker bee in the dream factory, fully conditioned to believe that Hollywood films should all play at an amphetaminic pace. When I heard that 2001 was screening at a local revival house, my initial reaction was, How quaint. With perhaps a tinge of guilt (it was I, after all, who jilted 2001), I decided to catch the show. As the lights went down, I was all but certain the film would feel doubly lugubrious given the current state of the art.
Instead, 142 minutes later, I was gobsmacked all over again. Richard Strauss’s grandiloquent fanfare aside, I was struck by the film’s radical quiet. Critical scenes have no music and barely any sound effects.
Silence as a storytelling tool is almost unthinkable in modern cinema. Today’s films are crammed with layer upon layer of sound effects; it’s the aural equivalent of baroque architecture, with a cornucopia of details, one sculpted curlicue atop another. By contrast, the sound design of 2001 is stripped down, minimalist even.
I was also struck by the film’s radical stasis. One decade after the original release of 2001, with the birth of the Steadicam, elaborate moving shots became de rigueur. Armed with this new toy, directors seemed hell-bent on outdoing one another with byzantine camera moves. In the 1980s, after suffering through the umpteenth music video featuring an out-of-control Steadicam shot, I worried that camera movement itself might lose all currency. Reconnecting with 2001 reminded me that a truly great director knows when not to move the camera.
Another thing I found arresting was the film’s radical pace. Its stubborn refusal to quicken the pulse was like a refreshing slap in the face to purveyors of movie sugar rush. It was a pleasure to luxuriate in images that simply lingered on the screen, hushed and immobile.
Seeing the film again was like reconciling with a spurned lover. How could I ever have doubted you, 2001? Will you forgive me for straying?
Let me set aside 2001’s formal qualities — pace, sound design, camera movement (or lack thereof) — for a moment. What really affected me anew was the film’s emotional content. It’s commonplace to label Kubrick a cold-blooded ironist, but I found the story of 2001, specifically HAL’s moral dilemma and his ultimate “termination,” to be surprisingly moving. Of course, I was watching the film with 40 additional years of life experience under my belt, and I was definitely viewing it through a sadder-but-wiser lens. There are more than a few people in my life suffering cognitive decline, some more precipitously than others. When Bowman dismantles HAL’s brain, one memory module at a time, HAL beseeches him to stop, and the spectacle of HAL’s memories disappearing actually brought me to tears. This is not how you’re supposed to respond to Stanley Kubrick — the analytical, methodical, calculated Kubrick. You’re supposed to be wowed by his technique or cackle at the dark comedy, not get emotional over a computer being “put down.” Yet, with each of HAL’s pathetic pleas (“I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.”) I became more and more choked up. I thought of loved ones losing their sense of self, their consciousness slipping away like sand through a sieve. It was painfully relatable, and I was heartbroken … for a machine.
All of which brings us back to HAL’s big close-up. There are plenty of spectacular images in 2001. The sudden, surreal appearance of the monolith in the ape-men’s den and Dr. Poole jogging in the zero-gravity centrifuge are two of many that come to mind. The close-up of HAL as he reads Bowman’s and Poole’s lips, by contrast, is an ordinary shot. But it delivers a dramatic punch in inverse proportion to its plainness. On the soundtrack, there’s no dialogue or music, just the white noise of the pod bay itself. And yet, the entire plot turns on this simple, unadorned image. We don’t know HAL’s thoughts or, I daresay, feelings at this moment, but no doubt he’s experiencing the sting of betrayal.
Have you ever inadvertently overheard someone speak ill of you? I still wince at a decades-old incident: someone I was on the phone with assumed the call was over when, in fact, the line was still connected. I listened while that person made a cutting comment about me, one I was not supposed to hear. I could easily put myself in HAL’s place the moment he realizes his team has turned against him.
A rationalist (like my father) would argue that HAL is only capable of whatever feelings were programmed into him at the computer plant in Urbana, Illinois, where HAL “became operational.” Yet, as Bowman disconnects the computer’s brain, HAL repeats, “I’m afraid.” Why program a computer to experience such existential dread, to fear for its life?
I would argue that HAL experiences a range of feelings, among them guilt. He’s the only member of the team who fully knows the nature of the mission. One can only imagine what a burden it was for HAL to possess such privileged information. By way of analogy, it would be as if I were hired to direct a television series that I knew was already canceled, and it was my job to keep the cast and crew in the dark. By withholding critical information from Bowman and Poole, HAL is effectively living a lie. At one point, HAL coyly muses about the mission to Bowman, speculating about things he actually knows good and well. Did they program HAL to be disingenuous? Also, did they program him to feel doubt?
Clearly, HAL suffers anxiety about the mission itself. He ultimately concludes that the humans on board are incapable of carrying it to fruition, prompting HAL to make a choice that’s irrational and immoral — namely, to murder the crew. But perhaps eliminating the crew is not so immoral. After all, wouldn’t you do anything to protect yourself from annihilation? And even for a computer, is self-defense an emotional reaction or a logical choice?
For me, this intricate web of emotions is fully contained in a three-second shot of a light bulb. It’s not the first image of HAL in the film, but it’s the closest view we’ve seen to this point. The conventional wisdom about close-ups is that you keep them in reserve until it’s time to highlight a moment of intensity. That a shot of something as banal as a light bulb could convey such intensity is, for me, a bit of a miracle. No pyrotechnics. No flamboyant movement. But with the right shot at the right moment, you’re suddenly 365 million miles from Earth, where a computer floats in space, worried.