The Stanley Kubrick Project: Dr. Strangelove & 2001

Work pressures were a bit high last week, so I’m behind with this write-up. Monday was long and complicated, so tiring that I needed a kung fu movie that evening. Wing Chun is on Netflix Instant, and its rather light and breezy tone was a soothing balm (as is Michelle Yeoh). Much editing in a shorter than usual time was required over the next couple of days, and finally, story finished, I had time to write up The Grapes of Death, which was the sort of movie I used to write up on a regular basis. Friday I had camera duty, and in the evening I finally watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I gave up on the MI franchise after number two, since even the presence of John Woo did not wash away the bad taste from the first movie. But I really liked Ghost Protocol, so I guess I should check out the J.J. Abrams entry.

I also found myself doing something out of my regular evening routine, perhaps in answer to the work pressures: Ripping and putting music on an MP3 player I bought almost a year ago. Tiny little thing. Put an even tinier 15GB card in it. After several nights, I am close to actually approving it – I’m already tired of the CDs I burned for the car, Houston radio still sucks, and the Slacker app on my phone has a tendency to play three songs and then crash. This will be much better for commutes.

Now, while ripping a lifetime of Yello and Juno Reactor, I was aware that some of the music would not be wife-approved. Well, you just shrug and press “Next Song” or something. So what has she complained about as being “too weird” thus far? Kate Bush and Uriah Heep. Really? “Sweet Lorraine” is weird?

Anyway, Back to movies. Two weekends ago, I entered the patch of Stanley Kubrick’s movies which are most familiar to me: the ten-year stretch that starts with Dr. Strangelove and ends with A Clockwork Orange, what might, in a narrow sense, be called his science fiction years. I didn’t get as far as Orange, but what I did watch filled two evenings very well. I had come to his previous six films with very little, if any, previous experience, so watching Strangelove and 2001 yielded quite different experiences.

I think the last time I had seen Strangelove was back in 2001, when the Special Edition DVD came out. My first exposure to it was back in the late 60s, when it showed up on TV. I’m still trying to recollect how it affected me at that time. I wasn’t culturally aware enough in ’64 to measure its impact then – hell, I was six years old when Kennedy was assassinated, and only remember being pissed off that his funeral pre-empted all the Saturday morning cartoons. The impact of it must have significant, even though its release was pushed back to 1964 from its original November of ’63 date, and some lines hastily re-recorded to remove allusions to Dallas and the like. All you have to do is take a look at the (admittedly bizarre) contemporary nudie -cutie Kiss Me Quick and its main character, Dr. Breedlove, to get an inkling of its cultural significance.

Dr. Strangelove was released to a nation still reeling from the death of its President, and which could still recall, in memory yet green, the Cuban Missile Crisis. That year also saw the release of Fail Safe, which is practically the same story done straight, which has always bemused me. Something in the zeitgeist, or in the water, as Col. Jack D. Ripper would say. Apparently the original intention was for Kubrick to do the movie as a serious thriller, but somewhere a left turn was taken, a light bulb went on, and Kubrick brought in Terry Southern to make the script more overtly satirical. As the world didn’t need two Fail Safes, this was a remarkably cagey move. I want to add here that I really like Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, too – it’s a great thriller that hasn’t aged too badly – but Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a bit.

Kubrick’s typically canny casting gets a workout on this flick; casting a cranky naturalistic actor like George C. Scott and then urging him to overact (and speaking as a Scott fan, I love seeing this side of him), convincing Sterling Hayden to come out of retirement, resurrecting Slim Pickens’ career when Peter Sellers couldn’t manage a convincing Texas accent (or was injured, depending on which version you believe). Peter Sellers does what he does best, magnificently underplaying two of his three roles (I found him annoying in Lolita, but I have to admit his German psychiatrist schtick in that is quite good), and providing a truly iconic turn as the title character. Strangelove remains eminently quotable nearly fifty damn years after its premiere; for something that was meant as a satire of a particular slice of time, that is a fine achievement.

2001, on the other hand, I hadn’t seen in much longer. I think my last viewing was when I bought it on laserdisc in the early 90s… and there was damage to the film elements during the “trip” sequence! Oh, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times for the discerning cinephile (I can’t imagine a DVD from a major studio being released in that shape). So, here I am, watching it for the first time on Blu-Ray. And I have to say, it did not disappoint.

A lot of criticism is directed toward 2001 that feels it is slow and boring. I also feel this is where Kubrick gets the lion’s share of his reputation for being “cold” and “cerebral”. I don’t think any of these are true. And while people prepare to tell me how wrong I am, I’ll continue on with my feelings.

It was Kubrick’s desire to create a wholly visual movie. Much is made of the fact that the first spoken dialog doesn’t occur until nearly a half-hour in. The space sequences take their time, to be sure; part of that is due to Kubrick’s choice of score, the grand, majestic “Blue Danube” waltz, but it also serves to impress the vast distances involved in the story once we leave prehistoric times. I expect space travel to be slow and cautious.

The very limited dialog serves another purpose, too. Kubrick always managed to get actors who could make the most odd sentences seem natural. Heywood Floyd’s homey domestic banter as he arrives on the space station seems out of place in the antiseptic pop art corridor; that will continue on, in the moonbus, as the workaday normalcy of packed sandwiches (with what looks to be white bread, of course) struggling to make things typical in a pressurized tube full of air moving through a vacuum. Conversation on the Jupiter mission is sparse; 18 months along in their trip, astronauts Poole and Bowman likely ran out of things to say to each other long, long ago.

The effort to remain human in these high-tech surroundings and vehicles is a continuing theme, and if the audience is starting to feel bored, that should cause some sympathy for Poole and Bowman, killing time by sketching what little they can see of their fellow crew members in the cryosleep pods, perpetually losing chess games to the super-intelligent HAL computer (easily the most talkative member of the team). Like the primitive ape creatures in the prologue, there is a need to advance here, a sense of not truly belonging in the world as it had developed, of being on a dangerously low rung of the food chain. A need to evolve, which will be enabled by the mysterious monolith.

Viewers in the “slow and boring” category will feel a certain amount of fellowship with studio executives who left the premiere feeling it was the biggest pile of trash ever. It was going to be quietly pulled from release after the initial two weeks, but the theaters asked to keep the prints longer; word of mouth had gotten ’round, and that magic demographic “young people” were lining up to see the movie, some many times over. 2001 got the subtitle “The Ultimate Trip”, eventually used on its posters.

I think we know who I side with in that little dichotomy. 2001 punches my sense of wonder in all the right places. Even if you don’t like it, even if you find it slow and boring, it commands respect as the first: a rare instance of adult science-fiction, and a game changer in terms of visual effects. Stunning stuff that would not be attempted again until Silent Running (directed by Douglas Trumbull, 2001‘s effects supervisor), and then not until Star Wars opened the gates. The complex, industrial structures of the spacecraft instead of the smooth rocketships of the 50s, the constant video readouts, the instrumentation lights that are so bright they project their own images onto actors’ faces, the sheer attention to detail to which movies like Alien and Outland owe a terrific debt. All due to Kubrick.

And now I want to see 2010 again, although it is a completely different film experience. And if you know how I feel about Peter Hyams, you’d know that is a tremendous achievement, too.

4 Comments

  1. I have my issues with how parts of the ending were handled, but I adore 2001. Everything you said is true. To me HAL isn’t a symbol of the dangers of technology but a sign that we have reached a state where we need to evolve again. It’s human achievement that gets us to Jupiter, and human failings that made the trip necessary.

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