Lost in Time and Lost in Space… and Meaning

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I was impressed by a shot in Adam Curtis’s free-form documentary found-footage mash-up IT FELT LIKE A KISS in which Doris Day closes a hotel room door in our face and the room number on it is 2001. Curtis uses this to evoke thoughts about the events of 9:11 and the more innocent-seeming world we dream existed before that act of unscheduled demolition opened the  war on abstract concepts. I became convinced that it might also be possible to draw connections between Kubrick’s film 2001 and the actual events on September 11th of that year. If, as ROOM 237 shows, THE SHINING can be bent this way and that to support an apparently unlimited range of unrelated theories, surely the even more open text of 2001 can act as a lens through which to view events which were still in the almost-unimaginable future when Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke conceived their space odyssey?

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Kubrick begins with a desert landscape populated by aggressive cave-dwellers. Al-Qaeda? Racist to conflate arabs and ape-men, but in a way we’re only following the racist logic of much media reporting to see where it leads. 2001 begins with a land that doesn’t need to be bombed back to the stone age because it’s already there. The simians are visited by a shiny rectangular artifact, which we’ll spuriously claim represents the Twin Towers. Gazing at it in awe, they are inspired to discover weapons and kill.

Of course, the connection between apes and the World Trade Center is really made by the DeLaurentiis KING KONG, in which Kong scales one of the towers before leaping to the other, driven by some primal urge (he apparently relates the towers to a geographical feature of Skull Island). Attacked by helicopters, Kong (like the 2001 man-beasts, an uncredited actor in a costume) is shot down. KING KONG is directed by John Guillermin, who had considerable skyscraper experience, having just made THE TOWERING INFERNO. Thus Kubrick’s film, without containing any shots of large-scale destruction, calls to mind the events of 9:11 in a variety of ways in its very first sequence.

In Steve Bell’s newspaper strip in The Guardian, entitled If…, George W Bush was always portrayed as a simian. And IF… is also the title of the film starring Malcolm McDowell which got Little Malcolm the lead role in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. (CLOCKWORK ORANGE can be seen as a black parody of 2001: a barbaric savage is reprogrammed by a higher power. In both cases, the primitive being is shown a film accompanied by German classical music — Moonwatcher the apeman perceives this with his mind’s eye, whereas Malcolm watches it on a traditional screen. The protagonists of both films end up in bed, transformed.)

In a justly famous transition, Kubrick match-cuts from a hurled bone to a spacecraft, cementing the notion of flying vehicles as weapons. Later we will meet spacecraft identified as belonging to Pan-Am Airlines, confirming that spacecraft are just evolved aircraft (and both are just evolved ape-weapons).

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Now we meet Space Station V, an orbiting base composed of two wheels, each constructed like a skyscraper swallowing its own tail. Parts of the station are apparently as yet incomplete, exposing red girders. To a Strauss waltz, we watch as a spacecraft flies directly into the station, but rather than causing destruction it is simply swallowed up. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Center, this space base has a restaurant and an unbeatable view. The WTC boasted of its top floor “observatories” and its “Windows on the World” restaurant and “Cellar in the Sky” bar. The SSV actually does feature windows on the world, through which the Earth can be seen, apparently spinning below.

On board, things are seething with international tension — in Kubrick’s vision of the future, Perestroika never happened so the Russians are still the threat. There’s also news of a strange discovery on the moon –

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The floodlit excavation sight is almost a dead ringer for New York’s Ground Zero, only with a skyscraper (the monolith) still rising out of it, impossibly. It’s existence causes another flight, this time to Jupiter (and beyond the infinite), which incidentally is one of the dozen places President Bush was flown to after the towers collapsed.

Now we find ourselves on a spacecraft on a secret mission, hijacked by a terrorist which started out disguised as a legitimate passenger on the craft (the shipboard computer). HAL kills the crew members in order to take over the ship, but he does it because “this mission is too important to allow you to jeopardise it.”

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Repeated image of a body tumbling through space.

Like the passengers on the hijacked planes, Kubrick’s astronauts can phone home. One receives the message “See you next Wednesday,” a line quoted in every John Landis film. Landis’s career has been marked by fatal aerial catastrophe. His movie SPIES LIKE US deals with a team of idiots deployed by corrupt commanders to distract attention while a war is started. His first movie, SCHLOCK, features numerous parodies of the apemen from 2001.

Like the passengers of United 93, Dave Bowman destroys the hijacker, resulting finally in his own death — but this is played in stylised form, first as a flight through distorted, psychedelic landscapes, then as an accelerated aging process, then with the traditional death-bed. In a white room whose floor is illuminated panels like the sides of a skyscraper.

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But at the foot of that death-bed, the monolith appears yet again, and once more we move inexorably towards its smooth surface, repeating yet again the collision with the WTC, an event which killed, among thousands of others, the sister of Marisa Berenson, who starred in Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON. She was also the wife of Anthony Perkins, best known for playing a knife-wielding killer who struck in disguise, and who appeared in Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE, which shares with 2001 a climax in which a passage through a space portal leads to a mysterious spiritual experience.

From the impact with the monolith, something new is born, but the movie is vague about what, exactly, can be expected from it…

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In a way this is a thought experiment, to see how many meaningful-seeming coincidences can be drawn between an event and a film which actually preceded it by decades and could not have been influenced by it in any traditional cause-and-effect way. In a way it’s a parody of such academic exercises. It’s also inspired a bit by the fancy footwork in this remarkable piece.

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8 Responses to “Lost in Time and Lost in Space… and Meaning”

  1. Kubrick is Kubrick. The REAL 9/11 movie is

  2. Bleakly hilarious how in the wake of 9:11 it was prophecised that Hollywood films would no longer get away with turning large-scale destruction into entertainment. Now, every blockbuster comes with built in September 11th “resonance”, and there’s no requirement for it to mean anything except gesturing in the right direction.

  3. David, I *love* work that is filled with cultural rhizomes like this piece. Your writing is absolutely Eisensteinian in its montage!

  4. Why thankyou!

    2001 is a pretty good open text for projecting your own interpretations on. Kubrick in general seems well suited to this, especially as his career progresses.

  5. jiminholland Says:

    ‘Rhizome’ nails it.

    If not precisely in the Deleuzean sense, than the botanical one Deleuze metaphorizes out of: as Wiki tells us, ‘If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant.’

    For nearly two years — which is to say, since I first became a regular reader of Shadowplay — I’ve been telling academic colleagues, cinephile friends, and (certain rare, particularly sharp) students, that David Cairns writes, on this blog and other venues he links to on this blog, with a zig-zag perceptual/conceptual logic that produces the most illuminating English-language film criticism of our time.

    This is, in effect if not intent, Nawyecka criticism: “man says he’s going one way, means to go t’other,'”

    This is criticism that merits comparison to Manny Farber and Serge Daney.

    And if ever I need a single piece to substantiate my claims, today’s post would be it.

    Hat’s off to you, David.

    Now, having produced in effect what turns out to be the only fan letter I’ve ever written, I want to say that I wish you did not call Shadowplay ‘the willfully eccentric film blog.’

    I don’t recall the reasons that I first checked Shadowplay out, but when I did it was at a time when you’d posted something on Jesus Franco; although I’m a Francophile in many respects, I’m not one when it comes to that Spanish filmmaker, so my reaction to my first visit here was: ‘willfully eccentric’ + Jess Franco post = focus on cult films I’m not especially fond of.

    But my more substantive objection is that ‘willfully eccentric’ suggests that you’re forcing yourself to be so, as though you were up to the same thing here that Beethoven was with his op 135 string quartet: “Es muß sein!”

    But I dunno, maybe you are.

    In any case, “effortlessly eccentric,” “organically eccentric” — these square more closely with my experience of what you do here.

    How about “skewed views”? Or “cinemanamorphosis”?

    OK, I’ll shut up now.

  6. With 2001 Kubrick weds the commercial cinema to the art house as never before. The “meaning” of his previous films were obvious. Here he’s deep in the Antonioni underbrush — in outer space. From here on in “what Kubrick means” is an open question. Hence the delirium of interpretation surrounding The Shining

  7. Jim, many thanks, and wow. As for “willfully eccentric”, I don’t actively use that blurb any more (preferred selections from Gorky’s Kingdom of Shadows letter) but I guess it’s still pasted to the blog somewhere. I think the W word, specifically verboten in a movie criticism style guide I read (wisely, along with “a meditation on…”) was a bit of modesty. Always flattered to be called eccentric, didn’t want to claim it for myself.

    I did manage to debate meaning in Dr Strangelove once, my opponent viewing it as a warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons, myself seeing it as an argument in favour of their immediate use to exterminate mankind.

  8. So glad you enjoyed Mark Adnum’s ‘nensha’ piece.

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