See It Big: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Frame of Mind
Michael Koresky on 2001: A Space Odyssey

I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at age six—appropriate for a film that makes infants of us all. In the face of Kubrick’s enormous, larger-than-cinema cinema, it’s hard not to feel dwarfed. It’s difficult for me to think of a more proper introduction to the confounding, slack-jawed pleasures of this ostensible space saga than crouched on the floor, behind my parents’ hassock, on the carpeted floor of my childhood family room. This was before I had any understanding of who created this bizarre work, whose rhythms seemed at once alien and oddly relatable, as natural as the sway of its Strauss waltzes. This was before I knew that the aesthetic derring-do of the film was wholly anomalous and not simply some relic of an earlier age of filmmaking. This was before I could have any intellectual grasp of the material, and therefore, before I could readily pontificate foolishly, and, like so many have done in its wake, ruin the purity of the experience. This was before I knew that the height and width of my viewing options weren’t “optimal” and that it needed the full encompassing dynamism of the movie theater to function as it was intended. This was before I knew that 2001 would become my Rosetta stone of movie-watching, that which would subconsciously inform all other film experiences and would provide a template for what narrative cinema should reach for, crib from, aspire to.

But then, there was no allegory, whatever that meant. No fully formed mythos, storytelling audacity, genre explosion, religious ascension, or philosophical inquiry. There were just tears. Sprung from fear and exhilaration; from the elemental power of sound and image, combined with the wizardry of a force seemingly greater than man—and to this point, I’m sure I even had some vague notion of cinema, and all attendant art forms, as springing from the minds and talents of human beings. This was something else, something I couldn’t quantify, even in that intricate childlike way that files away experiences like one would toys in a shoebox. As towering as the film was to me, it was on a 29-inch screen that it first simultaneously cracked and crystallized my understanding of an art form that was beginning to take its hold on me. It hardly mattered that my mother regaled me with tales of seeing it upon its initial release in 1968, how the film was “meant to be seen”; she was painting it as a religious experience, a two-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage to some other world. One which she didn’t understand I had just taken.

If 2001, which needs no synopsis recap or analysis here to impinge upon its brattish, holier-than-words grandiosity, remains, to my mind, American cinema’s greatest evocation of the possibility of the divine (and the greatest example of the divine power of the cinema), then my response to it has probably mirrored my own in terms of my incessant flip-flopping of embracing and rejecting religion, an ongoing internal battle, forged in Sunday school, traces of which emanate in walls of every synagogue I happen to enter. The repetition of watching 2001 similarly held me; by constantly revisiting its unknown reaches, I was unintentionally returning to that one thing which would give me faith in a higher power. While I was watching it, I believed it; whether I still believed it once the tape was rewinding mattered little. Like the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence tentatively trying to touch the intruding monolith, 2001 gives us something to reach out to.

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Often we speak wistfully of our formative experiences with art at an early age, disregarding the fact that we usually bypass those first encounters with nonchalance. The first time I saw a Matisse painting was probably from a sidelong glance out of the corner of my eye as I was tugging at my mother’s arm to hurry up through the Museum of Fine Art’s galleries. Years later, staring at his “The Piano Lesson” brought me to tears, redirecting me to a pure spot that seemed wholly independent of intellectual discourse. It was the same inexplicable surge of emotion, brought on both by aesthetic pleasure and the fullness of solitude that I had felt as a child when confronted with Kubrick’s immense vision. Is it pleasure of the aesthetic uniformity of the pieces that now connects them in my mind? Did the vertical majesty of Matisse’s green column on the left hand side of the canvas, which might be a curtain or a shaft of light as it satisfactorily matches up with the oddly quadrisected face of the frustrated piano player, subconsciously return me to Kubrick’s repeated vision of the monolith, with its jarringly elegant smooth surfaces perched among the jagged cliffs and rocks with alarming confidence? Simplicity and daring—no two artists could seemingly be more different in their approaches to modernism, yet both were so immense that they couldn’t possibly remain contained by the frames that surrounded them.

And it’s the frames we become obsessed with—the search for the right method of presentation, the correct aspect ratio, the appropriate setting. Later in life, when I saw “The Piano Lesson” again, reproduced and shrunk to one-fifth its size in a sturdy coffee table book excavated from the shelves at my parents’ house, it retained a similar power, if one wholly different from that first encounter. Likewise, my second, seminal confrontation with Kubrick’s daunting object, this time projected onto New York’s most impressive screen (the now defunct Times Square Astor Plaza, an underground journey to widescreen nirvana), with nearly a quarter century of life/art experience separating it from my first viewing, remains as vivid in my mind. Even after multiple viewings, on TV and theater and classroom screens of differing widths and heights, this viewing felt like a rediscovery—every nook and cranny of the film, each way in which Kubrick wedded his philosophy (alternately bleak and staggeringly optimistic) not just to oblique narrative construction but to every camera angle, shot duration, and drenching gel, was suddenly visible on a broader canvas. The revelation was that this enormous work, this celluloid thing, was made up of minutiae, and I could suddenly see it all, as though finally rubbing my fingers across the rough stone tiles of a mosaic I had only previously seen from afar.

Yet despite all this, despite my sense of finally seeing 2001 with the right optical prescription, it still remained filtered through my initial non-letterboxed, decidedly unrestored videotape viewing, plagued as it undoubtedly was by errant tracking blips and unrefined “stereo” sound. The truth is that, even as I was told while first watching it, that I was “watching it incorrectly,” I was already trained to absorb and process information in a particular way. And it’s not simply that the small box would crease, crinkle, and cram large-screen works for an increasingly complacent viewer, for films had been shown on television regularly for decades. At the whim of local channel programmers, the generation directly before mine would wait to see what the week would bring—and though it would take a long while before a good deal of the folkloric films I had read and heard about would be readily available on video, I was already used to the luxury of selection. Watching 2001 on home video was then a simultaneous spiritual enthrallment and instant de-mystification. As had been the case with Star Wars, seen on TV first at a similarly early age, outer space fit within the TV’s borders—it was containable. Like all films great and small, 2001 was already just another box on the shelf when I first let it overwhelm me. And because of its inherent accessibility, I watched it again. And again.

I was barely ten years old and I had already seen 2001 multiple times, none of which were yet informed by “trying to figure it out.” Even in its relatively muted sensorial impact, I acknowledged the film as a purely physical escape, one which I understood didn’t play by the narrative rules adhered to by almost every other movie I had ever seen, save perhaps Fantasia. That film, with its ceaseless swirl of confounding shapes and slavishness to the classical music that provided its backbone, was, however, imbedded in my mind as only a theatrical experience, since Disney films were the only ones regularly brought back to big screens in those days, especially to suburban outposts such as mine. Unavailable on home video until 1990, Fantasia remained a phantom in the dark, a collection of images I could only see in my mind or companion coffee-table book. Fantasia had yet to be brought down off of its pedestal; the equally abstract 2001 had yet to be elevated.

So, countless viewings between the initial video rental in the early Eighties and the epochal showing at New York’s Loews’ Astor Plaza on New Years 2001, each one carrying with it different emotions, quandaries, and confusions than the one prior. There was the classroom screening off of a laserdisc, with my pencil properly in hand floating over my open notebook; there was the late-night, post-drinking dorm-room DVD screening; there was the sold-out Walter Reade Theater screening as part of a Cinemascope retrospective. The exact progression of feelings and realizations would probably be somehow equivalent to the development of a mind—from the unvarnished experience of childhood to the curious befuddlement of adolescence to the haphazard interpretation and haughty condescension of teenage-hood to the academic inquiry of postadolescence to the spiritual epiphany (the letting go!) of my mid-twenties.

What will a thirtysomething viewing add to my stages of evolution? My methods of watching 2001 have been an education in reverse, a trip back through the stars to a sublime state of acceptance. It’s a long journey between the video rental and the event at the 1500-plus seat, 70mm-wide theater. Now, my video tape sits alone, collecting dust, a fatality of warped tracking and a frayed cardboard slipcase; meanwhile the Loews Astor Plaza closed down in 2004, which summarily ended the singular pleasure of seeing a movie on a single-screen theater in Times Square. Two eras coming to a close, the childhood couch and the movie-house shrine, both imbued with the same promise for the future that the film audaciously mixes in with its often damning vision of human foible. Even if tomorrow holds the numbing image of 2001 broadcast on an iPod screen, the sounds of subway tracks clanging in my ears, surely then the film will morph again, continue to float on its own terms, refuse to play by the rules of earth’s gravity, and emit from its tiny box through my ear buds a scream as rapturous as the heavens.