Comments on 2001

by by Margaret Stackhouse

Of all the critical commentary that has been offered on 2001, perhaps the most insightful was that of Margaret Stackhouse. The amazing thing is that Miss Stackhouse was a junior at North Plainfield (N.J.) High School and 15 years old when she wrote her reflections on 2001. In a statement made to Jerome Agel, she said that she was "primarily interested in science and mathematics. However, I don't wish to limit myself when there are so many other fascinating fields to explore: psychology, art, music, philosophy, history, anthropology, political science, literature, education, languages, etc. I may decide to go into nuclear physics or abstract (pure) math, or I may make a study of the mind. I would like to try to find the relationships, if any, in the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels of the mind. (For example, are there any biochemical bases for the 'soul'?) My major concern at this stage is to find a challenge -- only then can I discover my intellectual, social, and spiritual identity. The most outstanding people I have ever known have a basic self- assurance that has enabled them to live life fully and zestfully. This type of living is my goal." Ms. Stackhouse went to Princeton University in the early seventies. A correspondent to alt.movies.kubrick reports that, after having graduated Princeton, she apparently went to Africa to study anthropology...

Miss Stackhouse's reflections on 2001 were forwarded to Kubrick by David Alpert, of the science department, North Plainfield High School. After reading her remarks, Kubrick stated the following:

"Margaret Stackhouse's speculations on the film are perhaps the most intelligent that I've read anywhere, and I am, of course, including all the reviews and the articles that have appeared on the film and the many hundreds of letters that I have received. What a first-rate intelligence!"

What follows is the text of Ms. Stackhouse's commentary....

I. The monolith - source of infinite knowledge and intelligence

   A. Perfection represented in its shape; its color -- black -- 
      could symbolize:

      1. Evil and death, which result from man's misuse of knowledge;

      2. The incomprehensible -- man, with his limited senses, cannot
         comprehend the absence (perfect black) of color or light.

   B. Its first appearance.

      1. Movie implies that life has reached the stage when it is 
         ready for inspiration, a divine gift, perhaps. [It is interesting
         that the apes are expectant, waiting for something.]

      2. Maybe apes become men when this inspiration is given. 
         [Question: Is man really a separate entity, with something (soul?)  
         that no other form of life possesses, or is the difference merely in 
         quantity (rather than quality) of intelligence? Is the evolution 
         gradual and continuous or in defined levels? Does the difference in 
         quantity become in fact this difference in quality?]

      3. Inspiration is given:  
         a. When men (apes) need it; or,      
         b. When they seek it; or,      
         c. At the whim of the force giving the gift; or,      
         d. In various combinations of these three.

      4. The purpose of the gift may be to allow man to create 
         life- sustaining forces. [In this "cycle," he creates only death; 
         interesting -- death from death (bones).]

      5. Its disappearance (after weapon is made) -- Reasons:

         a. It is taken away in punishment for misuse of knowledge; or,
         b. It is no longer sought -- apes (men) consider themselves masters 
            now and try to continue on their own energies after the initial 
            impulse. Maybe the monolith is always present, but is invisible to
            those who don't wish to see it or to whom it does not wish to be 
            visible; or,
         c. It is taken away by the force that gave it, to prevent mortal 
            understanding of everything.

   C. Its second appearance (on Moon).

      1. Reasons for appearance:

         a. Man is subconsciously seeking it again; or,
         b. It is needed to remind him of his insignificance; or, 
         c. It is given as a new opportunity to create a meaningful 
            existence for humanity.

      2. Men on Moon touch monolith in the same way that the apes did -- 
         this indicates no basic change in man's nature. Then, after 
         touching it, they have the audacity to try to take photo -- 
         still conceited, still lacking in understanding of the gift.

      3. From Moon, there is a strong magnetic field directed toward Jupiter 
         (this is where man will go next). This indicates that man will still 
         fail and will need monolith again when he reaches the next stage of 
         exploration. Monolith is always beyond human scope -- man is still 
         reaching at death.

      4. It is ironic that men on Moon believe that the monolith was made 
         by a more advanced civilization. This to them is the ultimate -- 
         they can't comprehend that anything could be above the mortal level.

   D. The monolith and infinity.

      1. After HAL is made, man shows that once again he has refused, 
         through ignorance and conceit, to take advantage of the chance 
         to obtain superhuman intelligence. Maybe the system is slowing 
         down and it is impossible for man to progress any further on 
         his own energies.

      2. Now he is given another chance -- the monolith shows him infinity, 
         perfect knowledge, and the beginning of the universe, but he can't 
         comprehend it. Reasons for his being shown all this:
         a. It may be truly another chance for man; or,
         b. It may already be determined that he must die 
            [maybe all people are shown perfect knowledge at death]; or,
         c. Maybe perfect knowledge (represented by monolith) is always 
            present, but our understanding of it will always be imperfect.


     A. He is evil, but only because he reflects human nature.

     B. His uneasiness about the mission implies that even the highest 
        development of human intelligence is imperfect in ability to 

     C. Man, trying to progress independently of divine aid, attempts, either 
        consciously or unconsciously, to create life, in the form of HAL. This 
        is not allowed. Man is reaching, or is being forced to reach, a limit 
        in his ability to progress further.

     D. Reasons for HAL's failure:

        1. Eternal human error once again in evidence; or,
        2. This may be a divine punishment; or,
        3. God will not allow man to become subordinate to his own 
          foolish creations.

     E. The fact that man can overcome HAL's evil is optimistic; however, 
        to do this he must destroy HAL, who is nearly a living being -- 
        again, the theme of death, futility. 
        [This and triviality are shown in HAL's "song."]

III. The room (at end) death.

     A. It is elegant, maybe to show man's cultural achievements, 
        but it is sterile and silent -- nothing has meaning without 
        the spirit of the monolith. This is man's universe, that with 
        which he is supposedly familiar, but even this is hostile to him.

     B. Room could represent:

        1. All that man can comprehend (finite) of infinity. Even 
           in this limited scope, he is confused; or,
        2. Man's cultural history, as men remember their past before 
           they die; or,
        3. The trivia for which he relinquished the monolith (then at death 
           he realizes his need for it); or,
        4. A reminder of man's failure to draw on past -- it could contain 
           more wisdom than the present. [Monkeys responded to the monolith 
           better than modern man -- race is slowly degenerating.]

     C. In this room, man must die, because:

        1. He has reached his limit; or,
        2. He has failed too much; or,
        3. He has been shown infinity.

     D. Question: Is his death (following degeneration) inevitable after being
        shown all knowledge, or is this experience still another chance to 
        improve? Then, when man returns to trivia, perhaps this is the 
        breaking point, the end of his opportunities.

     E. Maybe he knows what is happening to him but is powerless to change it.
        The changes in the man may be a vision shown to him as punishment, or 
        they may merely represent the various stages in the life of one man or  
        of all men.

IV.  The themes

     A. Animalism and human failure

     1. Throughout picture, there is constant eating, made to appear  
        revolting; also, exercising, wrestling.
     2. At end, goblet is broken. This may imply that man's failures will 
        continue forever.
     3. Animal nature and conceit remain the same throughout. Will there never 
        be any true progress? The monolith is always shown with sunrise and 
        crescent. When first seen, this is a sign of hope, of a beginning; but 
        the sun is never any higher except when man is shown infinity. This 
        last fact may symbolize hope that, despite all his past failures, man 
        will ultimately rise above animalism; or it may merely represent the 
        perfect knowledge he cannot comprehend.
     4. There is a delicate balance between the animal and divine nature in 
        man. We will never be permitted to go beyond a certain point (as 
        individuals and as a race).

     B. Futility

        1. It is shown:

           a. In the rescue and subsequent release of Frank (after the 
              struggle to catch him);
           b. In the meaningless talk -- "People talking without speaking."

        2. Is all that we do in vain? Each person certainly dies without 
           attaining all understanding. Will our race (history) also terminate 
           and begin again, continually, with no progress ever made?

     C. Whether the movie is terribly pessimistic or optimistic depends on the 
        answer to the question, "Does the man at the end represent just our 
        'cycle' or all 'cycles' for eternity?"

        1. Pessimistic: Man may never become more "divine" -- all chances for 
           rebirth may be merely a mockery. Irony -- no matter how much man 
           ruins his life, chances for improvement are always given. Since he 
           will probably continue ruining his life for eternity, this may be 
           the cruel tantalizing by some capricious god.

        2. Optimistic: The preceding is impossible to believe if one assumes 
           that there is some life-giving, life-sustaining force in the 
           universe that is the source of absolute good. With this belief, 
           one can hope that someday man will be able to use the divine 
           inspiration offered him to propagate life-sustaining forces. 
           Probably he will never be able to understand more, but he will use 
           his understanding better. The sunrise, fetus, etc., seem to 
           indicate this hope. Also, it seems that, despite human stupidity, 
           new opportunities to become sublime are always given. Someday, 
           perhaps, man will learn that he cannot truly "live" unless he 
           accepts the gift, in the form of the monolith, that demands human 
           subjugation to a divine force. Then he will not be required to 
           create, and to experience, only death.