Sunday, February 22, 2015

"2001" -- The Monolith and the Message | Roger Ebert's Journal | Roger Ebert




by Roger Ebert
April 21, 1968   

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Good parables explain themselves. After you have read the story of Lazarus in the Bible, you don't need anyone to explain it to you. The same is true, I believe, of Stanley Kubrick's parable "2001: A Space Odyssey." It contains the answers to all the questions it advances. Why, then, has this film already infuriated and confused so many audiences? I went to see it again last week and was surrounded by the mumble of many conversations. Some of the whisperers were trying to figure out what was going on. Others were just killing time. Making up grocery lists, I guess. After the film was over, someone suggested that maybe MGM should require an IQ test before allowing people into the theater. I can understand that point of view. If people do not have the courtesy to shut up during a film, they should at least be segregated into special Saturday kiddie matinees, no matter how advanced their years. Silence and attention are especially useful during "2001: A Space Odyssey" because here for once is a film that makes a total statement. You cannot really understand part of it until you have seen all of it. Then, afterwards, you can go back and fill in the missing places. But while it is there on the screen, you should simply let it happen to you. No questions. No whispers. Let the movie have its chance. Because "2001" needs to be seen this way, I think it will have a better chance with younger audiences. Kubrick himself has speculated that his film wouldn't have much luck with audiences raised on "linear movies" - that is, on movies that follow a plotted story line from beginning to end. In a linear movie, you never ask why John Wayne wants to kill the bad guys (although perhaps you should). But in Kubrick's movie, there are questions harder to answer. What about that enormous black monolith, for example, which follows Man through Kubrick's universe? The people who surrounded me the other night had lots of questions for each other about that monolith.
Q. What's that big black monolith? A. It's a big black monolith.
Q. Where did it come from? A. From somewhere else.
Q. Who put it there? A. Intelligent beings since it has right angles and nature doesn't make right angles on its own.
Q. How many monoliths are there? A. One for every time Kubrick needs one in his film. Now it would seem that these are obvious observations. But audiences don't like simple answers, I guess; they want the monolith to "stand" for something. Well, it does. It stands for a monolith without an explanation. It's the fact that man can't explain it that makes it interesting. If Kubrick had explained it, perhaps by having some little green men from Mars lower it into place, would that have been more satisfactory? Does everything need an explanation? Some people think so. I wonder how they endure looking at the stars. What disturbed the audience even more, however, was that bedroom at the end of the film. Kubrick's space explorer runs into another monolith beyond Jupiter and it takes him into a space warp.
Q. What's a space warp? A. A warp in space, and therefore in time, thanks to Einstein.
Q. Then when the pilot emerges into the objective world, where is he? A. In a bedroom.
Q. A BEDROOM? Yes, a magnificently decorated Louis XVI bedroom. What's the bedroom doing out there beyond Jupiter? Nothing. It isn't out there beyond Jupiter. It's a bedroom. The spacecraft lands in the bedroom, and Keir Dullea, the pilot, looks through the window and sees himself in a space suit standing outside. He gets out, becomes himself in the space suit standing outside, and sees himself seated at a table, eating. He becomes himself sitting at the table, eating, and notices himself, very elderly, dying in bed. He becomes himself dying in bed, and dies in bed. Well, it's not every space adventurer who dies in bed. Now where did the bedroom come from? My intuition is that it came out of Kubrick's imagination; that he understood the familiar bedroom would be the most alien, inexplicable, disturbing scene he could possibly end the film with. He was right. The bedroom is more otherworldly and eerie than any number of exploding stars, etc. Exploding stars we can understand. But a bedroom? The bedroom also provides a suitable backdrop while Kubrick's man grows older and dies. Why can't it be just that - a backdrop? Poets put lovers under trees, and nobody asks where that tree came from. Why can't Kubrick put his aging man in a bedroom? This is what literary critics might call a non-descriptive symbol - that is, the bedroom stands for a bedroom. Nothing else. The film, in its most basic terms, is a parable about Man. It is what Kubrick wanted to say about Man as a race, an idea and an inhabitant of the universe. More specifically, it is a film about man's journey from the natural state of a tool-using state and then again into a higher order of natural state. It makes its statement almost completely in visual terms; and the little dialog in the center section of the film is hardly necessary, like verbal Muzak. Kubrick begins when man was still an ape, thoroughly at home in the natural environment of Earth. He shows us becoming a toolmaker in order to control our natural environment, and he shows us finally using our tools to venture out into space. At the end, he shows man drawn beyond his tools so that we exist in the universe itself with the same natural ease we once enjoyed on Earth. The opening sequence is brilliant. If it could be shown as an educational film, it would explain man's development as a tool-using animal more clearly than any number of textbooks. Two tribes of apes scream at each other. They are frightened of the sounds in the night. A monolith appears. One tribe of apes gingerly feels it, running its hands down its perfectly smooth edges. And as the apes caress the monolith, something like a short circuit takes place in their minds. A connection is made between their eyes, their minds, and their hands. Their attention is drawn beyond themselves and toward an object in the environment. They are given a "lesson" by the makers of the monolith - and they then discover that, they are able to pick up a club and use it as a tool (at first for killing, then, for more subtle ends). Kubrick cuts from this most simple tool, a club, to a most complex one, a space ship. The prehistoric bone is thrown up into the air and becomes a shuttle rocket on its way to a space station. Could anything be clearer? Here are both extremes of man's tool-using stage. Yet, when the men in the space station began to talk, 45 minutes into the film, the person behind me sighed: "At last, the story begins." This was a person for whom a story could not exist apart from dialog and plot, and audiences made up of those people are going to find "2001" tough sledding. So what then? Another monolith is found on the moon.
Like the first one, it provides a transcendent experience. By now, man is intelligent enough to realize that the monolith was planted by another intelligent race, and that is an awesome blow to man's ego. So he sets out toward Jupiter because the monolith beams signals in that direction. And man takes along "Hal 9000," a computer (or tool) so complex that it may, even surpass the human intelligence. The ultimate tool.
But Hal 9000, made by man in his own image and likeness, shares man's ego and pride. What is finally necessary is the destruction of Hal - after he nearly destroys the mission - and that leaves one man, alone, at the outer edge of the Solar System to face the third monolith.
And here man undergoes a transformation as important as when he became a tool-user. He becomes a natural being again, having used his tools for hundreds of thousands of years to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Now he no longer needs them. He has transcended his own nature, as that original ape did, and now he is no longer a "man."
Instead, having grown old and died, he is reborn as a child of the universe. As a solemn, wide-eyed infant who slowly looks over the stars and the Earth and then turns his eyes on the audience.
These last 20 seconds, as the child of man looks down on his ancestral parents, are the most important in the film. We in the audience are men, and here is the liberated, natural being, Kubrick believes we will someday become.
But when Kubrick's space infant looked at the audience the other night, half of the audience was already on its feet in a hurry to get out. A good third of the audience must not have seen the space infant at all.
Man is a curious animal. He is uneasy in the face of great experiences, and if he is forced to experience something profound, he starts immediately to cheapen it, to bring it down to his own level. Thus after a great man is assassinated, lesser men immediately manufacture, buy and sell plastic statues and souvenir billfolds and lucky coins with the great man's image on them.
The same process is taking place with "2001." Two out of three people who see it will assure you it is too long, or too difficult, or (worst of all) merely science fiction, In fact, it is a beautiful parable about the nature of man. Perhaps it is the nature of man not to wish to know too much about his own nature.


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  • A beautiful piece. I recently saw 2001 for the first time and it is indeed a masterpiece of cinema on every single level. We miss you, Roger. We miss your words and your careful dissection of great films such as these. Your explanations that still leave so much to the imagination and interpretation of the viewer. That's what Kubrick wanted and that is all we needed from you.
  • Points of interest revealed by the nth time:
    1) During the ape show down, notice that the tribe with the bone tools are more upright (evolving free to use their hands for tools) with fur on the kneecaps--whereas the challenging tribe is still using the arms for locomotion and therefore, still have fur worn from still being "on their knees" of evolution.
    2) Arrival at the moon monolith--while the monolith has already been thoroughly excavated, therefore, potentially triggering the notification of the ascent of man and the radio signal to Jupiter, it is not sounded during that process; only when man assembles themselves for a photo op expressing their domination and success of the great find, does the harsh radio beacon sound.
    3) Although man is thoroughly confident in its accomplishment of the HAL9000, it has built in safeguards and manual overrides that allow re-entry to the space station without HAL's assistance; therefore, acknowledgement of man's shortcomings is built in. Message ? Stay humble, my friend ?
  • Saw this film again recently for the nth time, the first being when I was a young child and my dad couldn't find a babysitter. At that time, he managed to keep me engaged by explaining almost every scene like a storybook.
    Yes, I'm sorry, Roger, we were one of those audiences that talked through the screening. Fortunately, it was at the Cinerama Dome and it was a matinee -- hardly a person in the house to disturb with our conversation.
    Fast forward several decades to this past weekend. 2001 is playing at the American Cinematheque, a stone's throw from the dome. Sadly, my dad has become the stuff of stars and so have you, Roger. I see and understand new things every time I see this movie and this time I wanted to know your interpretation. HAL's descendents have evolved into cloud based servers that reveal to me your explanation and as always, it didn't disappoint. Like HAL's intentions, your writings have been put "to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do."
  • the monolith is the real star of 2001.
    it is not a movie that most people will "get" as the star of the movie is an inanimate object and an enigma.
    the story is about the destiny of the human race in general re-connecting to its origins which is the universe itself.
    poetry is also not appreciated by most people, Kubrick created an act of visual poetry that i think might be watched by people 500 years from now as such abstract works can really stand the tests of time as true art.
    most people probably didn't understand or appreciate Picasso when he was doing his thing either.
  • Ebert is a work of art as a thinker and composer of reflective thought. Critic does not adequately define Roger Ebert.
  • i am a fairly intelligent & highly educated person with BSEE and Masters in Physics & Mathematics, graduating cum laude. and i typically like stories & movies based on science, space, & computers, etc. but i just can not see the supposed technical & scientific brilliance of this movie. IMO - way too long, boring & random. it could have easily had 45 mins or more cut out of it & not missed any topics it covered. i just do not at all, see the often proclaimed greatness of this flick.
    • The brilliance of the film lies in its simplicity and it's scope. A person has to have a highly developed capacity for focus for a film like this
  • What a great, refined and on spot review of one of the greatest movies of all time. I was fortunate enough to see this movie as an 8 year old at the Florida "Cinerama" Theater in Tampa Florida. I remember the Ushers (yes I remember usher at movie theaters) dressed in uniforms from the movie along with women dressed the same. Movie experiences like that no longer exist and it is a shame.
  • I love everything about this discussion (as I love the movie, having just watched it for the nth time), but what I REALLY love (on top of all the other on-the-money Rog insights) is when he refers to HAL 9000, in 1968, as, quote, "The ultimate tool."
    The mark of truly great writing: as time passes, you can even find extra UNINTENTIONAL greatness
  • Of all the movie critics who have ever graced the English speaking world, Roger Ebert was the one monolith.
  • I applaud your review. How simple and clear you have made it. This is not a film: it is a poem.
    While it was the intention of the writers to give a sense of our growing communion with other intelligences, I have a more spiritual / naturalistic interpretation. The monoliths were never a creation to me. Nature can make right angles, it is merely uncommon. Like the presence of some sinister God, they come not to teach lessons but as lighters. It is by their nature that the apes ascend in some neurological short circuit. And it is the same spark which possesses HAL. He is the next step which the monolith prefers. The stones are not a physical thing, but a physical law of nature, is how I felt in my core.
    Everything made sense to me the first time I watched it except the room, which you have mended beautifully.
  • RIP MAN
  • Great reading from Roger. Class act. I feel his cine-rage for talkers.
    I would add one big issue though: THE SINGULARITY.
    I think the second monolith (on the moon) can be seen as the next marker for humanities evolution - Centient AI. At this point we meet HAL 9000 and HAL 9000 proves to be different to the previous HALs.
    It is then at the third monolith at Jupiter where they transform from human to the 'child of the universe' - I'm sure Arthur C Clarke was behind this vision of the singularity.
  • I'll never have had enough 2001. Same goes with Roger Ebert. Poetically, supplies of both are limited.
  • Kubrick was a genuis filmaker. I first saw 2001 at its initial running, I was 9 yrs old.
    I certainly cant remember understanding much of it except that mankinds future was to be based in exploration beyond our world and that the ascension of mankind was perhaps not all that it was displayed in text books. Decades later I see the value in this film as a reminder to humanity that we are not only not alone, we are veering off course, caught up in strife, fueled by inequality of our own making.
  • Roger had a powerful intellect, and that allowed him to understand and describe subtlety and nuance in the movies that would surely have passed me by unnoticed. However the reason I loved him was his humanity, his ability to balance his keen observations with empathy and compassion for the human race. You are missed my friend.
  • I miss you Roger.

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