2001: A Space OdysseyDear Senses of Cinema,

I enjoyed reading Pedro Blas Gonzalez’s article on 2001: A Space Odyssey because I have rarely read a humanistic approach to this film. He mentions having seen the film when he was 12 and having watched it 20 times; I first saw it when I was 6 and have watched it over 100 times (though never on video or television as I have several prints of the film on 16mm and Super-8 scope and take every opportunity to see it on 35mm or 70mm). I have also written extensively on the film, though rarely published. My father made a documentary about the film soon after its release, and I have read as many books and articles as I can on this film. But rarely have writers ventured into the characters or psychology of the apes or the astronauts as does Mr. Gonzalez. This viewpoint intrigued me and made me think of the film in yet another way.

But I wonder why the article did not touch more on the chapter of the film that takes place on the moon. The psychology of the main protagonist, Heywood Floyd, forced to maintain a lie as he speaks with his Russian friends in the space station, and explaining to 15 men in Clavius that a cover story must be maintained in order to protect the world’s population from shock. This speaks volumes about human nature vis-à-vis lying, and may inform Hal’s programming at that time – that maintaining a lie protects humans.

Although Gonzalez goes to great pains to understand the monolith as a form of intelligence or as a communication device between aliens and humans, he does not entertain [Arthur] Clarke’s interpretation of the monolith as an alarm device. Indeed one of the most significant scenes in the film is at Tycho where the deliberately buried (“huh”) moon monolith is uncovered. As the 2-week lunar night comes to an end and the sun rises on the monolith for the first time in presumably 4 million years, it sends a powerful radio signal to Jupiter, hurting the astronauts’ (and our) ears, and prompting the Discovery mission. For Clarke, the aliens are giving the apes a leg up in order to determine how long it will take them to get to their moon. He does not suggest that the lunar monolith gives astronauts the transformative power to get to Jupiter 18 months later. The monolith again confronts Bowman in Jupiter space and in the room at the end, but the aliens are only abstract voices in the distance. Are aliens using humans as guinea pigs in their experiment, or are they the catalyst for the transformation of ape-to-man and man-to-superman, the theme in Richard Strauss’s homage to Nietzche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” which is the theme song for the movie?

Another dimension Gonzalez dwells on at length is the role of technology and its relationship to mankind in daily life, the man-machine relationship. In the film, this starts when the apes discover that bones can be used as a tool. For Kubrick, the first use of this tool is to kill. No sooner does Moonwatcher hold a bone in his hand and imagine tapirs rolling over, but we cut directly to a shot of the apes eating raw red meat for the first time, before the fight at the waterhole in which an ape kills his fellow ape. Violence and death are immediately associated with tools, as we are reminded when Hal sends the space pod to sever Frank Poole’s airhose. Indeed the first spaceship seen in the film, the famous cut from bone to spaceship, is described by Clarke as a doomsday machine – a ship meant to monitor nuclear activity on earth and destroy the planet in case one country attacks another. Bone as weapon becomes spaceship as weapon. Gonzalez would do well to ponder this.

The doomsday machine is the culmination of Kubrick’s previous film, Dr. Strangelove, to protect the world from war (as long as everyone knows about it), and in Clarke’s novel of 2001, the first thing the Bowman-star-child does as he comes back to gaze upon mother Earth (the last shot in the film), is to destroy the doomsday machine. He does not specify if he also destroys the Earth in the process. We do not know how Kubrick feels about it, but we can surmise from his next film, A Clockwork Orange, in which technology developed to suppress human violence fails. There are also many parallels to the character of Hal and that of Jack in The Shining – as caretakers who do not take care but sow death and destruction. Jack sabotaging the radio and the snowcat mirror precisely Hal destroying the antenna and commandeering the space pod. Hal’s “Thank you for a very enjoyable game” reminds us of the deadly relation between work and play in The Shining; and Hal and Jack both end their existence by losing their voice, freezing, and revealing a chilling past to the viewer, through a flickering video or an old photograph.

Thank you for maintaining a quality film journal.

Pip Chodorov, Paris

About The Author

Pip Chodorov is an experimental and documentary filmmaker from New York based in Paris. He is currently associate professor of cinema at Dongguk University in Seoul. He is the founder and manager of Re:Voir video editions; he has published and distributed three films by Philippe Garrel including Le Révélateur. He is also founder of The Film Gallery, FrameWorks (mailing list on experimental film), and co-founder of L’Abominable (handmade film lab in Paris).