Kubrick & the Individual

by Barry Krusch & Harry Mehlman

HM: Perhaps, Barry, you can confirm/clarify a striking impression I had. . . . From memory, I think it is in the scene in 2001 where Frank is being killed that the following occurs. When we see the astronaut's helmet from above, its shape and markings make it look just like the head of an insect. I don't know whether this relates to the above comment about Dave's helmet, or whether the impression intended is simply to make Frank look helpless and insignificant. I think the key scene in which this occurs is when Frank is desperately trying to reconnect his severed air hose (I could be wrong, but it would be easy to check). Following from the above comment about Dave's helmet, it could be that the insect-head helmets represent what is unfeeling and automatic about the people in the film. While performing the first truly human (humane) act in the whole film, Dave forgets his helmet, that is, he leaves behind the "insect" part of him, and as the above comment says, this entitles him to be elevated.

BK: Well, that's a fascinating viewpoint. . . . It seems to me that Kubrick is telling us to chuck all this artificial crap, and start living regular lives, without all the human-made complications which make it such an ordeal. But to get back, we're going to have to take some risks, maybe help a few others at risk to ourselves.

HM: Yes. In the insect world the individual means nothing. The social insects help each other, but it's purely for the sake of the nest, or the species. The people in 2001 have no personality to speak of. They are insects in that sense, until Dave's impulsive act of unselfishness, which is immediately followed by the events leading to the finale.

BK: This supposedly coldest of films is telling us the value of warmth.

HM: Yes again. Kubrick is an artist. By that I mean that he never shoves anything down our throats, but insists that we contribute to the artistic process by bringing part of ourselves into the work, even if it means he has to sacrifice "clarity". That is why:

1) There are so many different interpretations. That's inevitable and desirable, since we're all different. From what I've read of Kubrick's interviews, he would fully approve of that.

2) The film holds so much unquenchable power for those who are willing to put themselves into its hands, so to speak. It's part of ourselves that we are projecting up into those dazzling images on the screen.

But another thought struck me after I read your reply. The impression I always got from the top of the helmet ("seen from above") was that it looked specifically like the face of a locust or grasshopper. I now confirm that impression from stills in a book I have about great films. Now, since you've quoted biblical passages, try this one:

"The land through which we have gone to spy out is a land that eats up its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anaq who come of the Nefilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." (Numbers 13: 32-33)

The passage concerns the incident of the spies sent by Moses to reconnoitre the promised land before attempting to conquer it. The significance of the "people of great stature" there and how the spies regard themselves in relation to them seems to me quite clear in our context (The Nefilim are usually deemed to be angels who came to earth [Genesis]).

In relation to the above, I would perhaps like to modify the comments you made about warmth. Yes, he is saying we need to be more human and responsive to each other. But to me, Kubrick's attitude to the dehumanising technology seems clearly ambivalent. That is why he revels in it so much, to the point where he is often accused of self- indulgence. He does not seem to be saying that we must reject it, but posing a more realistic dilemma: we love it, we're addicted to it, it's wonderful, but it's leading us down the path of self-destruction. What can we do?

His answer, and this is where I would personally diverge from him, is that we're probably incapable of helping ourselves and need salvation from outside (2001 is the Millenium !!). The film seems ambivalent about this too! On the one hand it says we need outside intervention, and on the other it suggests we have to help ourselves. The first "solution" is fully developed in 2010, although that film is so inferior to its daddy that it just doesn't matter. This first response is not new in SF films. Almost at the start of the nuclear age, the film "The Day the Earth Stood Still" proposed the same solution -- our murderous instincts, now so dangerous, must be curtailed by a superior intelligence, by force if necessary. If you watch the film, I'm sure the significance of the nice-but-tough alien leader's name won't escape you. Other SF films have a similar messianic theme, or brief echoes of it. The scientist in E.T. tells the boy, "I've been waiting for him my whole life". Having decided that the human race is incapable of its own salvation, and having banished God from the universe, modern man awaits a space-creature messiah to fulfil his metaphysical longings and herald the dawn of the millennium.

The solution is no solution at all. The nice spaceman won't come. As you said, we have to do it for ourselves.