01 July 2009

The significance of 2001: A Space Odyssey

So you know this movie is important but you're not sure why. It's one of those movies that are more fun to talk about than to watch, like Citizen Kane or anything by David Lynch. But apart from providing the soundtrack for Bob Sapp and endless monster truck rally television commercials, what does it *mean*? Of course, as a work of art it can only allow for interpretation. With that caveat, here are two stabs at it that you can borrow the next time you want to sound pretentious.

1) What 2001 means as a work of Art

Shortly after "The Dawn of Man", where the pack of apes confronts the black monolith, there is the scene where one of them discovers the use of a bone as a hunting tool. 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' plays, we see flash-forwards to its use in the hunt. In this moment we make the connection between this primitive invention and the urge of man to adapt the environment to his own ends. Then, as the bone is thrown aloft, we see it leave the screen and re-emerge; in a flash, it is replaced by the image of the space shuttle, thousands of years in the future.

Art is significant insofar as it expands our consciousness. We can chart the development of human consciousness with reference to the progress of art. For example, the Ancient Greeks invented such concepts as rational justice and democracy; they also perfected the art form of sculpture. Sculpture is a physical manifestation of the human mastery of space: in a work of sculpture, the artist's will is made manifest in a piece of marble or stone.

During the Renaissance, as Europe awoke from centuries of feudalism and barbarism, painting reached its highest form in the works of Caravaggio; the significance of a painting is that it demonstrates the ability of humans to create a three-dimensional image, in all of its depth and perspective, on a two-dimensional surface.

This might sound like a lot of ten-dollar words being thrown around, but consider this; perhaps these artistic boundaries that transcended space were necessary precursors to technical advancements. In the 1400's, the distance between Maine and Milan might as well have been the distance between either of those and the moon. Today, that distance can be bridged with a click of a button.

In a way, film continues this manipulation of space, the movement of the actors transcending the limitations of the flat screen we watch. Yet, film does something else which is unique. The linear nature of a film, with a beginning and end, draws much inspiration from another art form, the novel. When Joseph Conrad wrote 'The Secret Agent' in 1907, he made the revolutionary move of disconnecting the story from the plot - instead of following an orderly sequence, he mixed up the chapters so that one did not necessarily follow the other according to the internal timeline of the story - kind of like Quentin Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction.

Film is unique in that it distorts our sense of time - on the one hand, it creates an artificial timeline, that which the characters themselves are supposed to experience, and yet it operates within the constraints of 'real time', the time in which the viewer actually experiences the film. In this way there is a layering of time, much like the layering of perspective that takes place in a sculpture or painting.

In this sense, the significance of 2001 as a work of art can be summed up in one scene, to be more specific, in a single photo frame, the one that Steven Spielberg talks about when he mentions this movie: the cosmic leap that takes place when the image of the bone is replaced by the image of the space shuttle. When this happens, in a continuous sequence, without any warning or explanation, it is the most obvious, explicit example of how film has allowed for a reshaping of our notion of time and how it operates; in a way it is the fulfillment of the contribution of the medium of film to human consciousness. The thousands of years that must pass between these two events in "real time" are not necessary to understand the story. And if you can understand why that is so huge, then you will understand why 2001is significant as a work of art.

2) What 2001 tells us about Human Beings

Do you remember the scene in which the astronaut gets trapped in the holding bay, and HAL the computer won't let him out? What is that all about?

Human beings are creatures of adaptation. As the British anthropologist Desmond Morris has pointed out, in the wild animals do not mutilate themselves, masturbate, form homosexual pair-bonds, or commit suicide. These, however, are all common behaviors in a zoo. Although we often refer to the city as a concrete jungle, in reality it is more correctly described as a human zoo.

The roots of civilization lay in agriculture, the primary act in which humanity began adapting the environment to fit its needs. Agriculture provided a stable food source which allowed the grouping of humans into cities, which allowed for human specialization to occur, which in turn allowed for more rigorous adaptation of the environment. The result was our modern cities which are hyper-adapted to our needs, where few have had to look for food outside of a supermarket and water is available with the turn of a tap.

Yet the struggle for adaptation has developed according to the process of natural selection; this is not to jump to the hasty conclusion that only the fittest survive (a phrase Darwin himself did not use), but rather that those who are able to adapt to a situation will flourish, while those who do not will die off. How does this function in a society where our basic needs are more or less taken for granted, provided and maintained at a fundamental level?

The revelation of 2001 is that not only have humans adapted their environment to meet their needs;they have also artificially created a means of natural selection in the form of automatic, digitized systems. We are forced to compete for survival, not only against our environment, and each other, but also against our ability to adapt ourselves to an objective set of expectations. In this way we have artificially sped up the process of evolution, with the paradoxical result of a greater possible range of individual possibilities than ever before, and yet an emerging, unparalleled conformity.

HAL is a computer, a robot, a human creation. Still, HAL has the power to control other humans. HAL is both a judge and executioner, automatic and superbly rational and yet... somehow vaguely human. When the astronaut stares into HAL's red eye (!?), he sees more than a computer; he sees himself. This realization leads to a sort of crisis of consciousness; to become aware of one's own consciousness is always a mirror held up against a mirror, descending infinitely.

In this discovery he gains an objective perspective on his situation; thus he sees himself outside of the computer deck, nominally free as a human human being although still dependent on these automated machines for meeting his basic physical needs. In this reflection, in a kind of reverse-causal link, a flight of dream-logic, he sees a man, perhaps another version of himself, eating alone in a room. The man arises to check for the astronaut, sensing his presence, but when he arrives it is gone, like a whisper of paranoia or an odd thought.

The exquisiteness of the set table, the tranquil, sanitized feel of the room, the artificial lights contrast harshly with the ordinary, mundane act of ingesting food to meet one's physical needs. This is shattered by a broken glass; a reminder of the fragility, the almost comic banality of human existence. This realization leads to an image of the man on his deathbed. Here again he confronts the monolith; a black, sleek, rectangular object, and again we hear the refrain of 'Thus Spake Zarathustra'. Its dark contents give way to a shot of space; a metaphor for the abyss of the unknown; that fundamental urge to explore and discover, in which there is a undeniable continuity throughout humankind, whether in our origins as apes in the desert or in an artificial future, compartmentalized and attached to machines to survive. Yet in that persisting consciousness, there is rebirth; immortality even, as symbolized by the image of the human fetus. In confronting the unknown, our ventures always yield some sort of truth; and in that effort, we come closer to the essence of what it means to be human.

Or something like that.

- Nelson Peters


  1. This is inspired. Who is Nelson Peters?

  2. Nelson's a contributor at Street Carnage. He sent this over that way, but it's really isn't in SC style (i.e. it's possible to publish it somewhere else). I thought it was really good and he agreed to let me post it here so ta-da!

  3. I refuse to look at movies in this way. Too tedious. I like to think that the monolith was just a mysterious alien space block that was guiding man's evolution.

    At the end, the sperm ship shoots into that giant space vagina where the guy dies inside a space womb.

    At the end there's a jupiter sized fetus. Hmmm...

    I don't think it has anything to do with art history.

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  5. This is the best written blog post I've read in a while. It reads like a term paper, but a really good one.

  6. nice to hear someone say something for sure and thanks. id care not to critique such a gesture, but civilization did not start with agriculture: it is a direct result of the commitment of man to woman.

  7. How about the first touch to the monolith as the turning-point at which the concept of weaponry came about to primate consciousness. The bone (first-weapon) is thrown into the air and dissolves into the nuclear-weapon loaded space craft (ultimate-weapon). I think the nuclear bit is addressed in ACC's novel, but not really the movie.