Three Reviews of 2001

by Joseph Gelmis

Film critic Joseph Gelmis became one of 2001's most ardent and insightful supporters -- but he didn't start out that way. What follows are the three reviews he published in the daily paper Newsday following 2001's opening in New York, which detail his personal odyssey....

Space Odyssey Fails Most Gloriously

(From Newsday, April 4, 1968)

Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's brilliance and egotism have goaded him into trying to surpass the originality, audacity and prophecies of his Dr. Strangelove. His immense talent and vaulting conceit have produced in 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the most bizarre movies ever made.

The preparations for this ambitious evolutionary allegory about the origins and destinations of mankind began shortly after the opening four years ago of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick's black comedy about the end of the world. By conventional standards of drama, this new film is, I suppose, a spectacular, glorious failure.

But I'm not completely sure that ordinary standards may be applied to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although it is dramatically disjointed and pretentious, its special effects create their own other-worldly reality and put it in a class of its own where there are no standards against which it can properly be judged. It exists on its own terms as a unique experience.

The Stanley Kubrick-Arthur Clarke screenplay is an expansion of a Clarke short story, "The Sentinel," about the discovery upon the Moon of a signal-beacon left by a superior alien race as an alarm to alert them when humans evolved enough to leave Earth and grope toward space.

In the film, the alien (which looks, through man's limited senses, like a black tabletop on end) acts like a midwife in the evolution of man. Running three hours, with an internmssion, the film is a saga of evolution, from Leakey's man-apes to modern man in the 21st century and, finally, to a new (unspecified) stage of development. The alien is there to inspire each change.

This mysterious slab appears on Earth among the apes at the dawn of man, on the Moon when modern man is on the threshold of discovering how he fits into the universe, in orbit around Jupiter, and at the foot of the symbolic deathbed, where the contemporary race of men is to pass on into the next evolutionary stage. The slab seems to represent for Kubrick the Life Force, or an Evolutionary Principle, or God, or an Alien Superthing weaning humanity in various rebirths.

In its space-travel special effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an unparalleled movie spectacle. Every minute detail of the operation routine of the Earth-shuttle, the Hilton Space Station, the moon ferry, the moon base and the interplanetary spaceship is shown matter-of-factly. The sets, constructed with the technical assistance of major corporations, are the most realistic and functional ever seen in science-fiction films In scenes like the one in which the camera follows Gary Lockwood around and around in a continuous circle as he does his daily exercises by jogging along the floor and up the ceiling with his magnetic shoes, Kubrick stunningly establishes a way and rhythm of life that seem commonplace in the context of his remarkable film but that in fact will not exist anywhere outside the film for decades.

There are convincingly real sequences with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood floating outside the spaceship doing repair work. If the rest of the film were as good as the special effects 2001: A Space Odyssey would be a masterpiece. a classic. Instead, it is, as a whole, disappointingly confusing, disjointed, and unsatisfying.

Because its characters are standardized, bland, depersonalized near-automatons who have surrendered their humanity the computers, the film is antidramatic and thus self-defeating. It moves at a slow, smug pace. It is patronizingly pedantic in some of its earnest history lessons. And while it dazzles the eye, it offends the ear with one of the worst soundtracks made.

Kubrick uses The Blue Danube to emphasize how men have turned the awesomeness of space travel to a banal commutter chore where the passengers nap or eat or read. The waltz, used to indicate mankind's going around in circles, is an ironic counterpoint to the sexual imagery of the shuttlerocket coupling with the space-station (as Kubrick used a romantic song as the background for the air-to-air refueling in Dr. Strangelove). But the whole thing is overdone and tiresome, as are all the other sound effects.

The film jarringly mixes clinical realism with metaphysical allegory. It abandons plot for symbol.

The ultrarealistic trip from the moon to Jupiter in search of aliens turns be an allegorical evolutionary trip. Dullea, as Everyman, wars with his computer to regain control of his destiny. In his ship, Discovery, Dullea seems ready to land on Jupiter but on his way he encounters the black slab and passes through a mind-expanding psychedelic experience, with kaleidoscopic arrangements of lights and colors. Then his ship, which is shaped like a spermatozoon, is symbolically united with the planet (i.e., his destination, mankind's goal).

And suddenly he has landed not on the planet but in the future, in an eerie room, where, as the symbol of al1 mankind, he grows old and, on his deathbed, reaches out to the Evolutionary Principle, which assists him to evolve into the next higher stage of development, an infant. The evolution appears to be a biblical allusion about how one must be reborn as a child before being allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The film jumps erratically. The episodes aren't structured logically until the very last moments of the film. It is a mistake. Instead of suspense, there is surprise and confusion, and, for many, resentment.

Another Look at Space Odyssey

(From Newsday, April 20, 1968)

About 100 years ago Moby Dick was eloquently damned and devastatingly dismissed by one of Britain's most influential and erudite literary critics. He argued persuasively that the book was a preposterous grab-bag. He ridiculed its self-indulgent lyricism and poetic mysticism. He said it was an unconditional failure because it didn't follow the accepted canons of how a 19th century novel should be written. He was impeccably correct. Yet today there are perhaps a half-dozen scholars who can recall the critic's name, while every college freshman knows the name of the maligned novelist.

A professional critic is sometimes trapped by his own need for convenient categories, canons and conventions. He can't operate from day to day in a vacuum. So he builds an aesthetic frame of reference, a value system, to give him standards by which he can judge each new film. He approaches a film with preconceptions about what form it should have. He is the upholder of the familiar, the promoter of the status quo.

When a film of such extraordinary originality as Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey comes along it upsets the members of the critical establishment because it exists outside their framework of apprehending and describing movies. They are threatened. Their most polished puns and witticisms are useless, because the conventional standards don't apply. They need an innocent eye, an unconditioned reflex and a flexible vocabulary. With one exception (The New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt), the daily and weekly reviewers offhandedly dismissed the film as a disappointment or found it an ambitious failure.

In my own review, I wrote: "By conventional standards of drama, this new film is, I suppose, a spectacular, glorious fail- ure. But I'm not completely sure that ordinary standards may fairly be applied to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although it is dramatically disjointed and pretentious, its special effects cre- ate its own otherworldly reality and put it in a class of its own where there are no standards against which it can properly be judged. It exists on its own terms as a unique experience."

I had struggled, on deadline, with the initial review, writing and rewriting it three times. It never said quite what I had hoped to say. Basically, I wanted to call it a fascinating film that didn't work. Then I read the other reviews and they were almost all guilty, as the villains in Kubrick's own Dr. Strangelove were, of a hysterical overkill.

One of the axioms of the movie-reviewing dodge is that if you don't flip over a film the first time, forget it, because neither will the audience. An audience gets just one chance to see a film, so it has to make its points as clearly and as quickly as possible. For purely economic reasons, this is especially true when the film is a $12,000,000 Cinerama adventure epic which must appeal to a mass audience to recoup its investment.

I went back to see the film again, anyway. I suspected that the critical overkill was a symptom of a nervous reaction not unlike the 19th-century literary critic's hostility to a new form that threatened the assumptions of his expertise.

After seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey a second time, I'm convinced it is a masterwork. Take it from one who mistrusts superlatives and who suspects that most critics who second-guess themselves are grandstanding: this awesome film is light-years ahead of any science fiction you have ever seen and owes more the mystical visions of Jung and William Blake than to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.

The problem in recommending 2001: A Space Odyssey is implying that it may not fall into place for you until the second viewing. And that's asking, perhaps, too much stamina and cash outlay in the case of a three-hour (with intermission) reserved-seat film with admission costing more than $3 a person. The alternative may be to find out in detail what is going to happen, so you will be less concerned with the apparent adventure and more aware of the nitty-gritty details.

Kubrick's depersonalized human beings are antidramatic and that is cinematically self-defeating. The pace is so leisurely and the characters so uninteresting that you may become impatient to get on with the plot. You may, as I did, want to sacrifice the minute details of the operation of the spaceship. But it is precisely this cumulative weight of having experienced a kind of living hell with Keir Dullea that makes the symbolic rebirth of his automaton Everyman of the 21st Century so profoundly stirring and such a joyous reaffirmation of life.

The film failed as drama the first viewing because it did not keep me spellbound. The tedium was the message. But the vision of space-age humanity being just a bone's throw away from prehistoric man didn't seem structurally related to the rest of he film until the final scenes. It was unemotionally realistic, and hen suddenly Kubrick sprung his allegorical surprises on us.

Because Kubrick uses surprise, rather than suspense, the film is full of sequences that seem too long or confusing, until they are seen in context a second time. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the milieu, says that for suspense the public "has to be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved." In a mystery or whodunit, he says, "there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense."

The prologue with the man-apes and the epilogue with the evolution of the star-baby are two of the most riveting and exhilarating emotional moments in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The special effects, particularly Dullea floating in mid-air while performing a lobotomy on the computer HAL after its nervous breakdown, are remarkable. Since the film opened at New York's Capitol Theatre, Kubrick has trimmed about 19 minutes to speed the action and he has reduced the piercing soundtrack level and added two titles to set the place of the action more clearly. They are the only concessions he has made in a film which uncompromisingly demands acceptance on its own unique terms.

Understanding the Message of 2001

(From Newsday, April 5, 1969)

Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey is such an extraordinary film, that often now when I read a piece of cultural criticism, there are passages which seem to have almost been written in direct response to the film.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan says, "The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He the builds models or Noah's Arks for facing the change that is hand." The odd spermatozoon-shaped spaceship, The Discovery, in 2001 is a kind of ark.

"The artist," says McLuhan, "is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness."

McLuhan speaks of art as "precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of annexed technology" and of the need to "begin a translation new art forms into social navigation charts." McLuhan adds "I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties."

The relevance of 2001 in light of McLuhan's theories is staggering. But no more so than the insight into the film one gets from reading The Savage and Beautiful Country by the British Jungian psychiatrist Alan McGlashan. The Savage and Beautiful Country (Houghton Miflin) has had a profound influence on my own life and is one of the most significant prophetic works of the decade. Both McLuhan's and McGlashan's books appeared before 2001 was released in 1968.

In his foreword, McGlashan says that the purpose of his book is to indicate a new direction of perception: "An almost perceptive inner change -- a willed suspension of conventional judgments, a poised still awareness, a stillness in which long-smothered voices that speak the language of the soul can heard again.

"To suggest that mankind is on the verge of a crucial psychic mutation, a breakthrough to an enhanced personality that can grasp without flinching the formidable values of an inner world while retaining its intellectual grip on externalities -- is to sail extremely close to the wind."

He suggests that Nietzsche glimpsed the truth, which hadn't been forcefully promoted since Pythagoras, that what was needed was not another new philosophy, but that "man should surpass himself." And in 2001 the evolutionary stepups move on up from Leakey's man-ape to the current species of homo sapiens to the newborn star-baby in a cocoon -- an infant angel, or superman.

Says McGlashan, "The brain, Bergson believes, limits man's conscious awareness of the exterior world to what is practically useful....Yet one may not reproach the human brain for its ruthless censorship of (other) perceptions. Consciousness has quite enough of a job mediating, like a harassed traffic policeman, between the hostile environment and the precarious spark of individual life which it guards -- without being simultaneously distracted by data arriving from beyond space and time.

"This may, in fact, be the secret of the incalculable strength of the 'common-sense' attitude.... Busy life simply cannot afford the time to listen too raptly to the faint voices hailing him from far beyond the boundaries of his own demanding world."