It has been almost two weeks since I watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” and I still can’t seem to come up with much to say about beyond my initial reaction I shared on Twitter:
Worst. Movie. Ever.
— Jessica Welman (@jesswelman) December 9, 2013
I want to offer more. I want to understand what the big deal about this movie is. I have to be honest though– I don’t get it. I’ve thought on it, I’ve read outside reviews and production backstories and, no matter the efforts, I still come to the same conclusion. This film is one of the most god-awfully boring and useless pieces of work in American cinema history. Incomprehensible, dull, pretentious, and overindulgent, there is, sincerely, almost nothing redeemable about it.
I knew going in that I wasn’t going to like this installment of my movie project. That is not to say I had my mind made up about the film, but to indicate that I kind of know when I am not going to dig a movie. There is a particular breed of film I am simply not fond of and Kubrick’s works land squarely in my anti-wheelhouse.
Trust me, I’ve done my best to come around to the man. My freshman year boyfriend was obsessed with Kubrick. Like other freshman girls eager to prove they are cool to their paramours, I tried to feign enthusiasm about movies like Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. But even while trying to impress a boy, a situation most every 18 year old girl will admit can get you to do some truly stupid things, the best I could manage was, “Well…those were…interesting. Wanna make out?”
Kubrick is part of what is termed the modernist era of filmmaking. Most of my peers, said boyfriend included, think of it as the era of the most exciting and innovative movies in history. I can kind of understand where this is coming from. My fellow film school nerds appreciate the visual and technical innovations. They are won over by the overt formalism, whereas I am generally displeased with films that draw attention to their filminess. I realize this is largely a taste issue, but let me make my case briefly for why I am just not a fan of movies made from 1967 until around 1975 or so…
You see, I firmly believe movies are a fundamentally narrative medium. They have more in common with books than paintings. So, I idolize the likes of Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kramer, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Wyler, while I find the overtly visual works of Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese to be lacking too much in character and narrative to be considered canonical. This is just me. I know others don’t feel that way and, in some instances like Scorsese, I see why they like his stuff so much.
In the case of Kubrick though, I remain perplexed. I’ve watched a fair amount of his flicks—seven of 16 to be exact. I’ve enjoyed exactly one and a half of them. Paths of Glory, his 1957 WWI starring Kirk Douglas, is surprisingly fast-paced, gripping, and narratively driven. Full Metal Jacket starts out with an extraordinarily compelling first half at boot camp, but goes completely off the rails once the soldiers head to war.
My biggest problem with Stanley Kubrick is pacing. His movies are edited with seemingly no regard for whether or not the audience is getting bored. Even the comedy Dr. Strangelove, which comes in at a scant 94 minutes, feels like a 20 minute short film concept stretched into a feature film. Scenes meander. In fact, in Strangelove and 2001, I almost think Kubrick purposefully includes inanely boring scenes of corporate and political bureaucracy. Perhaps he is trying to make a larger point about business and government, but I was too busy dozing off to notice. In fact, as I noted in my Tweeting, I am also pretty certain Kubrick was allergic to plot. He seems to avoid it on purpose, leaving the viewer instead to interpret visual cues, musical choices, and editing decisions to find meaning.
The other day my friend asked what 2001 was about. I took a deep breath, thought a good thirty seconds, and came up with this synopsis:
So there are three parts. The first part is prehistoric. There are monkeys, and when I say monkeys, I mean people dressed in monkey suits the Planet of the Apes never would have touched. They do monkey things until a big limestone looking slab shows up. Apropos of nothing, we flash forward into space for some sort of futuristic story of corporate politics that, I think, results in them going to the moon? They go, find another limestone space rock, and somehow deduce that rock is telling them go to Jupiter. Then we reach the part of the movie people tend to know where there are two astronauts on a spaceship run by a supercomputer named HAL. HAL makes some sort of mistake in his calculations, which isn’t supposed to happen, so the astronauts decide to shut him down. HAL figures out the plan, goes on a murdering spree, and kills all but one guy before biting the technological dust. This last guy gets to Jupiter and finds…a big ole Victorian dollhouse? Cue montage of homey growing old in said dollhouse, then dying. But he isn’t dead. Instead, he turns into a giant space fetus who floats out in to space, gazing into the distance.
I would’ve prefaced this rant with “SPOILER ALERT”, but as you can see, there isn’t exactly any action to spoil. When my friend BJ Nemeth, who I enlisted to watch with me to ensure I wouldn’t turn it off, tried to explain what was going on, he frequently referred to the book version of the story. I’m sorry, but if I have to read a book in order to understand what is happening in a movie, this is simply not a well-made movie. It isn’t like the book helps you to glean an interesting new interpretation of the film you may not have seen upon first viewing, oh no, the book is required for you to understand what the hell is even going on.
So I guess the point of this not that I hate Kubrick and I will never come around to him, though that is very likely true. The point is, as a film scholar, I find it perplexing that this particular director who is so revered seems to me to be truly bad at his job. Unlike Alfonso Cuaron, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan, directors I also generally dislike, I can’t see in Kubrick what it is that other people see. I’ve spent countless hours over the past 12 years trying to figure it out to no avail. I can’t fake it. Maybe it makes me less of a film aficionado than I make myself out to be. Maybe it is just a freak cultural blind spot. Or maybe a movie about dollhouse, Jupiter, and space fetuses might just be that overrated.