There was a time in my life when I followed John Lennon's advice and watched 2001 at least once a week. To this day, it's probably the film I've seen more often than any other. Still, I hadn't managed to catch it on a big screen since the very first time some twenty-odd years ago, at Wiesbaden's Arkaden theater. Back then, the ratty German print cut out early during Dr. Floyd's transmission at the end of the second-to-last reel, and for a long time, I was sure I would have understood the film if only that scene had been complete. Ha! (Fun fact: in the German version, HAL sings "Hänschen Klein" rather than "Daisy.")
Quasi-Religious EcstasyFast forward to Sunday afternoon, the front row at Lower Manhattan's Pace University. The moment the overture started, I was ready to drop on my knees and prostrate myself in quasi-religious ecstasy, but then of course I wouldn't have been able to watch the screen, which wasn't Cinerama but sufficiently large. Already, this was nothing like my well-worn DVD: the specks and scratches twinkled like stars over a screen that Kubrick had intended to be black. The film's wear and flicker -- barely better than the Wiesbaden print -- made this a decidedly analog experience, full of flaws that challenge the theory that the perfectly shaped alien monolith is a metaphor for cinema itself. Had Kubrick anticipated Blu-ray, too?
Instead of a newfangled theory (even with Dr. Floyd's transmission, which doesn't really explain a thing, I have not yet heard a theory that sufficiently explains the film's infinite pull), here are a few of my notes from the following 141 glorious minutes: the apes literally live under a rock. How does something new enter the world? (cf. Satanic Verses.) Tools lead to war. Eyes are to 2001 what hands are to There Will Be Blood. Is that a German flag on the spaceship the bone cuts to? (It is.) Ligeti! "See you next Wednesday." Landis? Three shots ripped off by Lucas: Polis Massa, the Death Star hangar, the Star Destroyer reveal. "I have a bad feeling about it." HAL has evolved to contradict himself. The original terminator, the original cylon -- but he only murders in self-defense. Dave's the original Blade Runner. Audacious sound: impact of the silences very different in a large room full of people. Laughter at HAL's fear: "Stop bullying me, Dave." It's slow motion murder, and now the laughter stopped. Dave discards the spaceship like his ancestors discarded the bone. My god it's full of stars.
Time for BuzzThen it was time for Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon and one of the few who had already been on a space walk when 2001 was released. He looked spry in his leather jacket, but NPR host Ira Flatow had a hard time coaxing an actual discussion out of his disparate guests. Contact writer and producer Ann Druyan praised the film, MIT's Marvin Minsky shared a Kubrick anecdote or two, and Matthew Modine referenced Terence McKenna.
Minsky complained about funding for his field and dismissed the idea that HAL might have been saved if he'd been wifi-enabled: "If things are too connected, you get a traffic jam." Aldrin, who also writes science-fiction, doubted that you could make it in through the emergency hatch without a helmet and insisted on realism in both art and science -- contradicting Modine outright, who had made the case that visionary artists like Kubrick and Jules Verne actually invent before the inventors do.
But either side of that argument represents fairly literal readings of the film. 2001 has always interested me more as audiovisual spectacle, as aesthetic and philosophical achievement rather than as hard scifi, so questions of how well it "held up" appear besides the point. To me, it's less about space travel and artificial intelligence than about perception, evolution, and consciousness. In 2001, neither science nor artistic creativity spur human development but a mysterious alien object. The question isn't whether Kubrick got the design of the zero gravity toilet right -- the question is, would we recognize HAL if we met him in 2008? And: where might we find the monolith?
I uploaded video from the panel to YouTube.