February 1st, 2020

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2001: A Space Odyssey

Along with my trek through the series of Oscar-winning films, I'm also revisiting the Hugo and Nebula/Bradbury winners of the same year. Although Worldcons had been presenting a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation since 1958, 2001: A Space Odyssey was only the third film to win, in 1968 (after The Incredible Shrinking Man won the inagural 1958 Hugo and Dr Strangelove won in 1965) - five of the first ten ballots were won by TV series (The Twilight Zone three times and Star Trek twice), two were No-Awarded and two years were simply skipped. There was some serious competition in 1968; I have not seen Charly or Rosemary's Baby, but I have seen both Yellow Submarine and "Fall Out", the last episode of The Prisoner.

For all that, I'm with the IMDB users who rank 2001 as the best movie of the year on both IMDB systems (here and here). It has particular nostalgia for my own early engagement with science fiction. I think this was the first film I ever went to see in the cinema without an adult (my younger brother probably came with me). The book must have been one of the first books I bought for myself. So I was slightly concerned re-watching it with young F who was keeping half an eye on the screen. Would the magic have lasted?

And well, yes, it has. Taking the four sequences in turn, each has its particularly glorious moments. The Dawn of Man sequence is particularly good for the performance of Daniel Richter, who as well as playing lead ape-man Moon-Watcher also choreographed the other actors.

Added to this impressive technical performance from Richter and team, the use of lighting and especially the background music make the whole sequence a rather incredible experience, telling a short story without words (indeed, basically telling this Clarke story from 1953).

Then we cut from bone to spaceship, one of the most memorable transitions in cinema.

And now we are in the world of 2001 - or possibly 1999; I'm not sure if it is stated which of the future segments takes place in which year. Today, with 2001 19 years in the past rather than 33 years in the future, we can smirk a bit about some of the things that didn't work out the way the film portrayed them. From 1968, it seemed reasonable to extrapolate that the moon landings, less than a year away, would be the beginning of a new age of human exploration, rather than a technical dead end. Pan Am and Bell are no more, and what's with the choice of languages in the space station?
In the book, the languages are "English, Russian, and [sic] Chinese, French, German and Spanish" which at least is closer to international reality in 1968, 2001 and 2020. (But where's Arabic?)

Another less-than-briliant point about the film is the fact that there is not a single non-white character to be seen (in the book, one of the stewardesses is Indonesian) and that women barely get a look-in, at least among the Americans; among the Soviet scientists, the women appear to be at least of equal status with the men (an imporvement from the book, in which the encounter is not with a group of Soviet scientists but with a single male Russian). Speaking of the Soviets, there's a familiar face there:
Yep, it's Leonard Rossiter, later famous as Reginald Perrin, but here playing Dr. Andrei Smyslov. We'll be coming back to him in a future post. And speaking of familiar faces, here are two actors who had both been in William Hartnell's final Doctor Who story, The Tenth Planet, two years earlier: Robert Beattie, the head of security here who was the crazed General Cutler at the South pole contending with Cybermen (and had had a previous encounter with Hartnell in a Belfast pub in Odd Man Out).


And Glenn Beck - not that Glenn Beck, the other one - an astronaut on the moon here and a TV announcer in Doctor Who, having been a pilot in Dr Strangelove the year before.

So, this whole sequence is the only part of the film that shows us a bigger picture of human society in the future, and while it's a snapshot of life for the scientific and political elite dealing with a crisis, it's still very successful at humanising a more technological world - despite the goofs mentioned above. The story of an unspeakable alien intrusion disrupting this carefully ordered society is well told. And gosh, it looks beautiful.

Then we shift to the Discovery heading for Jupiter (in 2001? Or 2003?), where all efforts have been made for the comfort of the hibernating astronauts.

I'm going to give a couple more shout-outs to minor cast members. Kenneth Kendall was the first ever BBC newsreader to appear in from of a TV camera, in 1955 (previously the BBC had newsreel style bulletins). Here he interviews the Discovery crew; he had been in another Hartnell-era Doctor Who story, The War Machines, also as a newsreader.

And referring back to my Oscars project, Frank Poole's mother is played by Ann Gillis, who thirty-two years earlier appeared in The Great Ziegfeld as a young friend of the protagonist. She was only ten years older than Gary Lockwood who plays Poole (she died almost exactly two years ago). I currently rank The Great Ziegfeld 40th out of the 40 Oscar-winning films I have seen.

This section of the film is actually a very basic SF pulp story - two astronauts and their AI helper, which goes mad and kills one of them, and is then killed by the other. It's actually marginal to the main thrust of the narrative, except that we are supposd to believe (as is made clearer in the book) that HAL's breakdown is caused by the secrecy around the mission. But with superb filmography, even the most cliched story can be made great, and that indeed is what happens here. I remember being shocked, as a teenager, by the casual and brutal death of Frank. As Dave Bowman desperately blew the doors open and risked vacuum to regain entry to his ship, F sat up straight and said, "Dad, this is really good!" He is right.

And the scene where Dave then destroys HAL's brain is gripping and gut-wrenching.

I don't think Keir Dullea has been in anything else that I have seen, apart from the sequel to this film. His on-screen persona is very reminiscent of the public image of Neil Armstrong, and that's probably not accidental. It's a great case of impressive performance with very few words. (It can be fairly commented that of the three main characters in this segment, HAL is the most emotional, more so than the human crew members.)

And then the end. Well. This somewhat baffled and disappointed me as a teenager in Belfast around 1983. I find myself much more tolerant now (also of course it has the benefit of being familiar). I had forgotten about the rather fascinating landscapes that Dave Bowman traverses once through the Star Gate.

I had not forgotten about his successive encounters with his aging selves.

And the ending remains vivid, striking and intriguing.

You can get it here.

On to A Clockwork Orange next, another Kubrick film.

I missed a trick when I wrote up Doctor Strangelove - it was actually the tenth Hugo-winning film for Best Dramatic Presentation (counting the Retro Hugo winners). So here is my ranking of them all so far:

11) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Retro Short, 1944)
10) Heaven Can Wait (Retro Long, 1944)
9) The Incredible Shrinking Man (Outstanding Movie, 1958)
8) Pinocchio (Retro Short Form, 1941)
7) Destination Moon (Retro, 1951)
6) The War of the Worlds (Retro, 1954)
5) Fantasia (Retro Long Form, 1941)
4) Bambi (Retro, 1943)
3) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Retro, 1946)
2) Dr Strangelove (1965)
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Coming back to 2001, there are not one but two books-of-the-film. The first one, an alternative treatment of the plot where more is explained and the Discovery finished up at Saturn instead of Jupiter (more specifically Iapetus) was, as noted above, one of the first books I remember buying for myself. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Down at the river the Others made their usual ineffectual threats. Their leader, a one-eared man-ape of Moon-Watcher's size and age, but in poorer condition, even made a brief foray towards the tribe's territory, screaming loudly and waving his arms in an attempt to scare the opposition and to bolster his own courage. The water of the stream was nowhere more than a foot deep, but the further One-Ear moved out, into it, the more uncertain and unhappy he became. Very soon he slowed to a halt, and then moved back, with exaggerated dignity, to join his companions.
What I noticed re-reading it this time is that in contrast to the film a) there is in fact a (single) non-white character, but b) its treatment of women is even less impressive than the film's - there are no visible women scientists on the Moon; the Balinese stewardess shows off her dance moves in zero-G; the space pods are "christened with female names, perhaps in recognition of the fact that their personalities were sometimes unpredictable". Note also the first noun in the memorable first sentence of the introduction:
Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth.
It's one of Clarke's most passionately written books, and of course 2001, film and book, made his reputation to the point where he was able to sign science fiction's biggest ever book deal. It does explain a little more of what is going on, in particular the memorable descriptions of Bowman's state of mind:
He started with the romantic composers, but shed them one by one as their emotional outpourings became too oppressive. Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, lasted a few weeks, Beethoven rather longer. He finally found peace, as so many others had done, in the abstract architecture of Bach, occasionally ornamented with Mozart.

And so Discovery drove on toward Saturn, as often as not pulsating with the cool music of the harpsichord, the frozen thoughts of a brain that had been dust for twice a hundred years.
It's good stuff, but I think Clarke wrote better (Rendezvous with Rama, Imperial Earth, A Fall of Moondust, The Fountains of Paradise, many of the earlier short stories) and although it's by far his most popular book, I wouldn't actually recommend it to someone who did not know much about science fiction. You can get it here.

The Lost Worlds of 2001, originally published in 1972, is an interesting exploration of alternate storylines for the novel and the film. The thord chapter is a reprinting of the original 1951 story "The Sentinel" which inspired the whole thing, and this is its second paragraph:
Our expedition was a large one. We had two heavy freighters which had flown our supplies and equipment from the main lunar base in the Mare Serenitatis, five hundred miles away. There were also three small rockets which were intended for short-range transport over regions which our surface vehicles couldn’t cross. Luckily, most of the Mare Crisium is very flat. There are none of the great crevasses so common and so dangerous elsewhere, and very few craters or mountains of any size. As far as we could tell, our powerful caterpillar tractors would have no difficulty in taking us wherever we wished to go.
"The Sentinel" is the very short story of an all-male expedition which finds an alien artifact on the Moon, set in 1996 (44 years after publication). You can read it here. It's powerfully written and gives you a damn good bit of sensawunda.

Earlier versions of the film had more personalised aliens coming to educate the apemen, and a much longer segment of politicking in Washington DC (where incidentally there are quite a lot of women, even of most of them are defined by their male partners). Clarke frames the out-takes with some explanation of the painful process of film-making. He was 48, Kubrick was 40, and there's a slight sense of generational clash (the Englishman old enough to have fought in the war, the American who wasn't). It's interesting to see which paths were not taken, and in the end I have to agree with the judgements made by Kubrick and Clarke to move the narrative as they did; making the aliens too visible would have risked looking silly, and monoliths and music are much more impactful.I like it for the same reason I like the Book of Lost Tales, etc; they throw further light on something I already love. It's long out of print, but if you are lucky you can get it here.

Incidentally, as I log my book-reading on Librarything, I tag each book with a note of the year and month that I read them. That means that these two books, which I read last month, are appropriately tagged "2001".