June 16th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reflections on the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx

EDITORIAL Significance of report into shooting down of MH17

CANBERRA OBSERVED Lee Rhiannon: too Bolshie or not Bolshie enough?

POLITICS Wading further through the Greens party bilge

ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

POLITICS Greens promise to keep Australia legally stoned and welfare dependent

ENVIRONMENT Scientist sacked for challenging claims of demise of Great Barrier Reef

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Humpty Dumpty has his way with words

CHRISTIANITY AND SOCIETY Tradition, Christianity and the law in contemporary Australia

EDUCATION Ladybird, ladybird: adventures in literacy

OFFICE LAUNCH NCC Sydney: a new chapter in a continuing story

ASIAN AFFAIRS Indonesia takes religious syncretism to the nth degree

WA RALLY FOR LIFE 3300 crosses in Perth poignant reminders of abortions

HUMOUR News snippets

PHILOSOPHY Bendigo initiative

MUSIC Gain is loss: Where is there left to discover?

CINEMA 2001: A Space Odyssey: Unsurpassed 50 years on

BOOK REVIEW The house that could not stand

BOOK REVIEW Australia's first official war historian


EDITORIAL China's pivotal role in Trump-Kim summit

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CINEMA 2001:
A Space Odyssey: Unsurpassed 50 years on

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, June 16, 2018

This year is the 50th anniversary of one of the most astonishing, acclaimed (and hated) and influential films ever made, a film that is less of a narrative movie and more of an immersive, affecting, and cryptic cinematic experience – Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is the movie that took Kubrick from being a superb cinematic craftsman to the creator of some of the most visionary, difficult but nonetheless successful films in history.

2001 was co-written by the equally legendary science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. He and Kubrick took some of the elements from one of Clarke’s short stories, The Sentinel, and fused them with others they’d been exploring. While a novel did result from the film, and from that a series of novels, Kubrick preferred to let audiences derive their own meaning from the experience rather than propose a solution to all its mysteries.

The film is structured in four parts: the Dawn of Man; millions of years later on an international space station and an American moon base; 18 months after that on a U.S. mission to Jupiter; and then “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”.

Connecting these events are the mysterious monoliths – sheer black rectangular solids that are simply present, but around which strange phenomena occur. During the Dawn of Man, they seem to trigger the use of tools by the hominids and their eventual violence; on the moon base they seem to emit a noise that links them with the events of the Jupiter mission – but throughout, their purpose and origin is unknown.

Central to the experience of the film is its gentle and deliberate pace. This is a movie that encourages stillness in its audience. Every action and shot and word is deliberate. Much like life, it moves slowly. What little dialogue there is, is delivered with the hemming and hawing and qualification and digression that makes up normal speech. Many of the shots are long and not much appears to happen, but coupled with the orchestral soundtrack they direct the audience to enter meditatively into the story.

The soundtrack, with its stunning use of such music as Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, alluding to something beyond humanity; and Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube, which emphasises the balletic nature of space flight; and György Ligeti’s foreboding Lux Aeterna, impresses on the mind the sense that something profound and inexplicable and “other” is being experienced.

Kubrick had had a conventional score composed, by Hollywood composer Alex North, but he ended up rejecting it in favour of the compositions he picked to guide the score, preferring the non-“Hollywood” effect it had. Moreover, Kubrick minimises the use of music when there is dialogue, thus juxtaposing the realism of life – which has no soundtrack – with the super-realism of seeing life from the outside.

This “realism” pervades the film, grounding the fantastical and otherworldly elements in something that is almost mundane. Kubrick’s depiction of space and space travel was remarkably realistic and scientifically accurate, garnering respect from NASA engineers, though errors and artistic licence remain. Nonetheless, Kubrick did apply his obsessive attention to detail to every aspect of the film, all the way to picking the fabric for the costumes.

The point of this attention to detail and attention to ordinariness is to give the audience a way into the film. Without it, it would have remained a series of impressive visuals with an affecting soundtrack, something that while still being an experience would have potentially been an alienating rather than an immersive one.

And Kubrick wanted the audience to be immersed in the picture. Speculative fiction, roughly speaking, is about “what if?” scenarios. It seeks to examine the impact that particular technologies or events would have on human beings, in particular on their sense of self.

Kubrick wanted to give the audience an experience of how enormous space is and the relative smallness of humanity. He called it A Space Odyssey to link it with Homer’s Odyssey and the notion that to the Ancients, the ocean was as enormous and unforgiving and inexplicable as space is for moderns. He drew on this anxiety, and human anxiety about technology – most notably in the “character” of HAL-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) – and the replaceability of man, to craft an unnerving picture that brings this anxiety to the fore.

Kubrick wanted the audience to have a visceral, non-intellectual experience. This experience is the point of the film, not its rationalisation or explication. Much like gazing at the night sky, where talking about it is no substitute for seeing it, 2001 must be seen to be believed.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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