When “2001: A Space Odyssey” debuted in 1968, 15 months before the first lunar landing, audiences didn’t know what to make of it.
Its early reception was far from fawning. Director Stanley Kubrick‘s daughter Katharina recalls storage boxes full of mail from viewers requesting ticket refunds. But the film’s fortunes soon changed. Theaters in major cities kept it in rotation for over a year, and Kubrick began receiving dissertations explaining what his film — which he refused to explain — meant to countless philosophy majors.
He kept that mail, too.
Over 50 years after its release, “2001” still preoccupies, resonates and frustrates. In mid-January, the film drew a full crowd to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens for a 70 mm showing accompanying the opening of the exhibition “Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey.” The exhibit, developed by Deutsches Filminstitut and Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany for the film’s 50th anniversary, strives to outline the making and conception of the space-age opus without betraying its mysteries. The result is a lopsided affair, heavy on hard data and short on the big ideas that drew so many into the film’s metaphysical universe.
The exhibit makes clear that no matter how woozy the end result, blithe speculation didn’t fuel Kubrick’s monumental work of speculative fiction — research did. Kubrick’s aim, with co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, was to use sci-fi, which had not previously had many serious film treatments, to broadly consider humanity’s place in the cosmos.
The early stirrings of Kubrick’s strange fantasia were informed by the space race and a national culture in NASA’s thrall. But Kubrick and Clarke also read books on myth, evolution and philosophy to prepare. Kurbick spoke with manufacturers of everything from furniture to underwear to envision what the products of the future might be like. (The studio’s back and forth with brands is a highlight of the exhibit, including a memo in which Kubrick asked of one significant film consultant: “Does I.B.M. know that one of the main themes of the film is a psychotic computer?”) The director also consulted with experts like NASA scientist Frederick R. Ordway III, who served as Kubrick’s science adviser, selling the director on his vision of space station and spacesuit design and recommending such scintillating texts as “Basic Aeronautics” and “Applied Aeronautics.” In a letter to Kubrick, included in the exhibition, Ordway suggests he “read over the material on cyborgs beginning on “P. 523 of BASIC.”
Despite the presence of archival videos and interesting galactic prints by concept artists Roy Carnon and Richard McKenna, much of the early exhibit’s content comes across as clerical. For those who aren’t obsessives on the order of Kubrick, it’s more like a tour of a filing cabinet than “the ultimate trip” advertised by the film’s posters. But Kubrick fanatics and STEM nerds will find their close reading rewarded. For instance: A wall-mounted screen showcases a copy of a document with the soporific title “Quotes From Report on Long Range Forecastings Study” that lists a projected timeline for progress in space travel including “Extra-terrestrial Farming (2016)” and “Manned Landing on Mars and Return (1980).” Kubrick dutifully dashed a pen across any predictions that predated the year 2001.
Beyond this forecasting trivia, the exhibit’s most compelling feature is its clear breakdown of Kubrick’s intense efforts to ensure that the film would realize his hallucinogenic, erudite vision. Eye-straining shooting and editing charts and continuity cards are presented alongside an eye-catching suit used in the opening “Dawn of Man” sequence, in which ape men encounter a domino-shaped monolith that teaches them to use tools. That sequence, screened on a wall, proved a unique practical challenge where Kubrick’s meticulousness was apparently matched by that of ape choreographer and main ape Dan Richther, whose extensive notes on performance and actors speak to Kubrick’s willingness to trust his collaborators.
While the ape makeup used in the “Dawn of Man” sequence was cutting edge, many of the effects Kubrick used in the space scenes were surprisingly rudimentary. Kubrick’s photo effects team — led by special effects legend Douglas Trumbull, then in his 20s — made extensive use of glass slides of planets and spaceships that appeared before the camera to give the illusion of a 3D movement and depth. Balancing out these modest innovations are splurges, like the 30-ton, 40-foot-diameter hamster wheel of a centrifuge that powered the Discovery, the film’s central spaceship, a reproduction of which is on the museum floor.
As granular as the exhibit can be, it’s reticent on the film’s most enduring question: What the hell is going on in that mind-bending final half hour? Sure, there are details — spoilers — on how Kubrick filmed the kaleidoscopic blur of lights into which Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) stares after escaping the mass murder-by-AI that claims the life of the rest of his crewmates. (A technique called slit-scan, where a movable slide with a slit is placed between the camera and the object, allowed for a distorted and fractured image split at the middle.) But Kubrick and Clarke’s reasons for sending Bowman off into an interstellar acid trip — before transforming him into a planet-sized fetus — remain cryptic. That’s true to the spirit of the film, though some are bound to leave unsatisfied.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the extent to which the film resists any one interpretation, “2001” remains relevant. The timeline of humanity’s progress into space hasn’t panned out as planned, yet the profound philosophical questions the film raises remain open to anyone and everyone’s thoughts. If the ambiguity of extraterrestrial intelligence and cosmic meaning rankles, it’s because we want an answer where there is, as yet, none.
At the end of the exhibition, fans can write letters to Kubrick. It’s an opportunity to vent 50-year-old agita over a maddening ending; you’re only a little less likely to get a response from the now-deceased director than you might have when he was alive. Then, as now, that’s part of the point. Katharina Kubrick, who spoke before the January 17 screening, recalled one letter that thanked her father for his trust in the viewer.
“Dear Stanley,” the letter read, “Thank you for creating a film that doesn’t tell me what to think or how to feel. You control the production of this film, but I am in charge of what it means.”
That sentiment still holds true. Kubrick isn’t telling.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at email@example.com
A ‘2001’ exhibit leaves us wondering