Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Birthday Take: Stanley Kubrick in "2001:: A Space Odyssey"

Scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Stanley Kubrick
Born: July 26, 1928
Died: March 7, 1999 (71 years old)
Nomination: Best Visual Effects (won)

The Take

When one thinks of Stanley Kubrick, the immediate desire is to point out how much of a genius he was. There's no doubt that he did incredible things during his run as a director. He made genuine art that worked as well in motion as it did in still image form. His stories were clinical and captured a certain essence that nobody else was willing to try. He was so precise that he's still improperly compared to various newer directors, ranging from Christopher Nolan to Paul Thomas Anderson. None give off the proper assessment when you think about it, but that only helps to mark Kubrick as one of the most unique voices in cinema from the 20th century, even if his post-Full Metal Jacket films didn't fare well at come Oscar night.

Yet the only film that he won for was 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is quite possibly one of the most iconic sci-fi movies in that everyone with and without a film degree recognize its impact. Its epic scope allows for some beautiful model shots and excellent use of effects to symbolize space travel. If one appreciates it for how confident Kubrick is as a director, then it would be easy to crown it as a defining achievement in a sea of defining achievements. There's definitely no circuit board more memorable than HAL-9000, and there's no film that seems to suggest the futility of man with as much precision as this one.

However, I do think that there's one thing that may be controversial to say about 2001 that I feel is true. As cinema fans, we know its craft is excellent. We know that it does some extraordinary things. However, I do think that 2001 is that film that people secretly don't like. While I have seen it three times, it has failed to become more than an experience movie for me, and not one that's all that viscerally exciting. The visuals are themselves a curious bunch and I do think that dialogue free story telling is itself an achievement here, but if forced to argue how great it is as a source of entertainment, I would have to say that I don't like it that much. It's a film mired in top notch craft, but also doesn't work in the way that conventional cinema does. I know that some people dig that, but let's be honest... how many people who don't care about the hoity toity side of things actually pop this on at a moment's notice and take a journey through time and space?

This isn't an attack on Kubrick. I in fact like his work for most respects otherwise. A Clockwork Orange, LolitaFull Metal Jacket, The Shining, and even Eyes Wide Shut are all films that I would generally give more favorable opinions. They all reflect his craft being executed with precision as well as a sense of purpose in entertainment. 2001 is a film that takes its time and asks the audience to trust it. I don't get that sensation from his other work, which feel fully formed and are as artistic as they are entertaining. If one was to just assess cinema on how quickly one would turn to it for escapism, I would have to rank 2001 pretty low. I feel like it's taboo to say, especially since I accept that it's a masterpiece. However, I do think that there's a worthy conversation to be had on 2001 not always being an enjoyable experience.

I know that this Birthday Take is itself mired in a sense of insecurity, but it's because I do know what is likely to come. I'm likely to hear people say that it is entertaining and that I am depleting one of cinema's greatest achievements. Considering that I am not a sci-fi kid by heart, I already have an uphill battle going into it. Beyond that, I simply think that it comes down to the subjective side of the coin, and one that I feel is often repressed because of how likely fans are to eviscerate those who don't think 2001 is a "great" movie when all they mean is that it's boring, slow, and doesn't appeal to them. I may watch 2001 a few more times in my life. I accept that it's good. I just think that the conversation needs to hear the opposition once in awhile.

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