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. II. HAL 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 understand. 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.