The greatest movie mind-blower of them all turns 50 this year—a wildly imaginative, influential, psychedelic riddle.
But I know what you’re thinking: What about its algorithms?
I checked Rotten Tomatoes, and 2001: A Space Odyssey sits with an 89 percent audience score. From critics, it has a comfortable 92 percent “Fresh” rating. That’s a mere eight percentage points behind Paddington 2. Sweet.
But Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic has been an official classic for decades. That tends to skew the vote. How would audiences rank 2001 on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb if the film were unleashed as a new thing today? Even in 1968, critics argued over its slow pace, its violation of storytelling conventions, its baffling ending. Given the recent low audience scores for arty horror movies such as Hereditary and Annihilation, and the online tantrums thrown by Star Wars true believers who can’t abide variations on the formula (the faithful deliberately tanked online ratings for The Last Jedi and Solo), I wonder how the perversity of 2001 would go over now. The Internet-era urge to “solve” enigmatic movies might also work against Kubrick’s masterpiece. What’s the deal with that black slab? Who begins a movie with 20 minutes of monkeys? Why the giant baby?
The new issue of Screening the Past, as always, features some interesting articles about the history of Australian film, including Dirk de Bruyn’s praise of the sparse, often years in the making works of experimental filmmaker Lynsey Martin (“That Light and Dark was initiated in 1973 and completed 25 years later defines and overwhelms this film and tests its content as a forgotten memory. Somehow the film folds in on itself, embracing all that frustration and darkness of the lost open-ended unfinished works. The period of its making bridges all of it.”) and Lesley Speed’s unearthing of the lost origins of Ozploitation (“That Australian exploitation films are part of mainstream local cinema is exemplified by the career of director P. J. Ramster…. By 1925, P. J. Ramster Photoplays was one of the “more established” local film companies and the director used his prominence to support the local industry by calling for a government quota requiring exhibitors to screen a percentage of Australian films. Whereas American “exploiteers kept fairly low profiles” because “little” was “to be gained by notoriety, Ramster’s career reflects a more contradictory combination of prominence and low critical regard.”).
But the issue kicks off with a dossier on the still overwhelming influence on many filmmakers of Stanley Kubrick. Peter Krämer shows the strong influence of 2001 on the making and marketing of Avatar (“There is an implied promise here that eventually all of humankind might learn to evolve to a higher level through its interaction with the life forms of Pandora, in the same way that in 2001 the transformation of astronaut David Bowman into a “Star-Child” was meant to signal that humanity could develop into a more highly evolved state”), Yeqi Zhu traces the long shadow of The Shining over Hong Kong horror films (“[T]he post-‘golden age’ Hong Kong horror films influenced by The Shining increasingly shift their focus from the realm of the supernatural towards ‘realistic’ and psychological reworkings of Kubrick’s film”), while Stella Louis considers his influence on the genre in the west (“The same observation can be applied to the house in Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997), the desert in Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002), the high school in Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003), or the film set in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). They are all presented as maze-like, labyrinthine spaces”). Other aspects of the director’s legacy are explored in James Fenwick’s look at the curation of museum exhibits devoted to Kubrick (“The curation of Stanley Kubrick: Cult Auteur played into a trend for the need in Kubrick fandom to acquire a closer experiential understanding of Kubrick and his films. It is part of the fetishising of Kubrick, with the exhibition being part of a series of exhibitions that offer new perspectives via a tangible physical look at objects that Kubrick possessed and worked with and to use these to re-consume and re-interpret his work”) and Filippo Ulivieri’s account of collaborating with Kubrick’s assistant Emilio D’Alessandro on what would be one of a flood of memoirs from collaborators (“By comparing the varied views of Kubrick, I began to think that he behaved quite differently in and out of his directorial work. When he was developing a story with a writer, or setting up a budget with the financiers, or testing the actors, or directing his crew – then he indulged in whatever strategy he felt was needed for achieving the desired result. I believe this might account for a feeling of aloofness and bewilderment in some of the memoirs.”)
[This essay was originally published as the liner-notes booklet for the Rhino Records / Turner Classic Movies Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD to 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1996 by Turner Entertainment Company. Portions of the essay also later appeared in a souvenir booklet included in the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY COLLECTOR’S EDITION DVD released in 2001 by Warner Brothers Entertainment. Reprinted on Parallax View by author’s permission.]
When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared on screens in spring 1968, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before. And, although the science and technology of motion picture special effects have made huge strides in the intervening years, there hasn’t been a film quite like it since. It isn’t just the spectacular – and the extraordinary believable – look of the model and special effects shots, which are as fresh and clean today as they were in 1968. It’s the courage and the audacity of the film and its maker to try something new, something provocative and challenging to the audience, something intensely intellectual yet expressed in almost completely visual terms. It had long been commonplace to regard moving pictures as a handmaiden (and poor cousin) to literature, to see language as the proper means of communicating ideas, and images as capable of expressing and arousing only feelings and sensations. 2001: A Space Odyssey dared to suggest that images might be capable of embodying and evoking real ideas about the nature and origin of human intelligence. In so doing, it revolutionized the movies and carved itself an unassailable niche in motion picture history.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So goes the quote so often attributed to Freud, but it’s hard to make that case for coincidence and happenstance in the films of Stanley Kubrick. You can’t completely remove chance from cinema, with all its actors and technicians and moving parts, but the detail-oriented, notorious micromanager Kubrick came close. What appears to be a continuity error may in fact be a carefully placed clue for the observant viewer.
That argument is made in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which explores five uniquely different and obsessively catalogued perspectives on Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining. It’s about the genocide of the American Indian, argues Bill Blakemore, pointing to the prominence of Native American art (and Calumet baking powder) in certain frames. Geoffrey Cocks sees it as a metaphor for the Holocaust. According to Jay Weidner, it’s Kubrick’s surreptitious confession about faking the moon landing. (2001 was supposedly his “research and development project for the Apollo footage.”)
That last theory is easily dismissed, but that’s part of Ascher’s design. He doesn’t make fun of his Shinologists, who lay out their theses in voiceover (no talking heads here), or the five detailed, obsessively catalogued exegeses under consideration. Each obsessive interpreter is granted their own area of expertise in the Kubrickian details.
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a film in which the expected always happens—but usually in quite an unexpected way, much as a detail in a painting will surprise and delight, regardless of the ordinariness of its context. The world of Barry Lyndon, first of all, is not the 18th-century Europe of historical reality; it is the 18th-century Europe of Art—of the literature, painting, music, sculpture, architecture, costume, and design of the period. That’s as it should be for a film from a picaresque novel about a rudely reared, would-be gentleman’s striving after the elegance befitting what he feels to be his rightful station. And it’s as it should be for Kubrick, whose preference for the realm of art and ideas over that of natural, historical, quotidian reality is evident, and whose cinematic studies of Manipulated Man, even at their rawest, have always been couched in idealistic terms: tidy sets, tidy costumes, tidy makeup, and tight, impeccably composed shots. I’ve never seen quite so many absolutely symmetrical frame compositions in such a short time as during the running of BarryLyndon; and no form-for-form’s-sake, either—the symmetry of individual shots and of montage directly reflects the symmetry of the story of Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall.
Matthew Modine has been making movies for thirty years. After making his big screen debut in a small role in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, he quickly became one of the most in-demand young actors of his generation, with major roles in Robert Altman’s Streamers, Alan Parker’s Birdie, and Gillian Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel, before landing the leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The film’s 25th Anniversary is marked by a special edition Blu-ray release, with the new documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes and contributions from Modine himself. Photographs that Modine took on the set of the film are included in the disc’s booklet and he wrote an essay for the edition.
I spoke with Modine by phone in June, catching him between a visit with a programmer developing an iPad app based on his book “Full Metal Jacket Diary” (“The reason I’m excited about it is that he just showed it to me this morning”) and a meeting with John Scully (“the man who fired Steve Jobs from Apple”), who he’s portraying in the upcoming Steve Jobs film. Since then he’s been seen by millions of viewers in “The Dark Knight Rises” and premiered a new film short film at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, and he’s currently developing his second feature as a director.
We talked about Kubrick, Altman, making movies, and what he’s been watching.
What are you watching on home video?
The only thing I watch on television is sports and right now I’m enjoying the Oklahoma Thunder is one game to nothing against the El Fuego. That means The Heat, if you don’t speak Spanish. I don’t like saying the name of the team because I really, really can’t stomach them. So it’s just El Fuego to me. [Note: the interview was conducted weeks before the Olympics]
Do you still go to the movies?
Absolutely. I go to see as many movies as I can. That’s my profession. I go to see as much theater as I can – that’s one of the pleasures of living in New York, we have the greatest theater in the United States – and watch as many movies as I can.
You had taken substantial roles in films before Full Metal Jacket, but taking the lead role in a Kubrick film must have had an effect on your career.
It’s flattering when any director asks you to be the star of their film and there’s a tremendous responsibility that comes with that invitation. But yes, absolutely, to be invited to work with someone who had previously worked with Jack Nicholson on The Shining” which I really enjoyed, who worked with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, two actors I think are just brilliant, James Mason, Kirk Douglas twice, Malcolm McDowell…. To work with Stanley and know his history as a filmmaker, it was a tremendous invitation and a wonderful opportunity. Not just as an actor and an artist, but as a man, having the opportunity to work with somebody who is going to teach me about filmmaking, who is going to teach me about writing, who is going to teach me about being a human being. This extraordinary experience, this brief moment that we have that we share on this planet, I think of all the people that I’ve met and worked with in my life, probably Stanley understood the brevity of time better than most.
How did you get the part and what was the audition process like?
There was a funny thing about Full Metal Jacket. You were supposed to send a videotape audition to an address in London. And I didn’t. It’s not that I couldn’t afford one, really, but I didn’t have the ambition to go find someone with a video camera or spend some money to hire a casting director to videotape me, because video in 1984 was something that was not so readily available like it today. To tape yourself, you had to make a real investment of time and effort and money. And I didn’t. I was busy working and I thought that things were coming to me pretty easily so I didn’t videotape myself and it was quite by accident…
On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.
To mark the occasion, I have revived and expanded an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.
Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).
Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.
Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.
In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.
At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.
Sean Axmaker:You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?
Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.
The works of Stanley Kubrick never failed to generate debate and, at times, deep-seeded controversy when they arrived in theaters, so it’s no surprise that they have generated almost as much debate (though for entirely different reasons) in their home video releases.
Kubrick was a perfectionist in all areas of his filmmaking, including presentation, the one arena over which he had very little control. He could and did set the desired specifications for proper projection but couldn’t enforce them or, given the realities of projection standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, even always count on theaters being conducive to following them. His preferred aspect ratio for his post-2001 releases was 1.66:1, a standard format in Europe but not in the U.S., where most theaters routinely set non-anamorphic films at the 1.85:1 standard.
While Kubrick was alive, he insisted that the DVD releases of his films be formatted at his preferred specifications. Even so, Warner Bros. was raked over the coals for their initial DVD release of his films, which simply reused old laserdisc transfers rather than freshly-mastered high-definition editions. Now there is a hue and cry from a small but vocal sector of the critical community over the Blu-ray release of Barry Lyndon. And the debate, not surprisingly, has gotten very passionate and a little personal.
[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1980]
Camera comes in low over an immense Western lake, its destination apparently a small island at center that seems to consist of nothing but treetops. Draw nearer, then sweep over and pass the island, skewing slightly now in search of a central focus at the juncture of lake surface and the surrounding escarpment, glowing in J.M.W. Turner sunlight. Cut to God’s-eye view of a yellow Volkswagen far below, winding up a mountain road through an infinite stand of tall pines and long, early-morning shadows; climbing for the top of the frame and gaining no ground. Subsequent cuts, angling us down nearer the horizontal trajectory of the car as it moves along the face of the mountainside. Thrilling near-lineup of camera vector and roadway, then the shot sheers off on a course all its own and a valley drops away beneath us. More cuts, more views, miles of terrain; bleak magnificence. Aerial approach to a snow-covered mountain crest and, below it, a vast resort hotel, The Overlook. Screen goes black.
Did Stanley Kubrick really say that The Shining, his film of Stephen King’s novel, would be the scariest horror movie of all time? He shouldn’t have. On one very important level, the remark may be true. But that isn’t the first level people are going to consider (even though it’s right there in front of us on the movie screen). What people hear when somebody drops a catchphrase like “the scariest horror movie of all time” is: You joined the summer crowds flocking to The Amityville Horror, you writhed and jumped through Alien, you watched half of Halloween from behind your fingers, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! And a response: OK, zap me, make me flinch, gross me out. And they find that, mostly, Kubrick’s long, underpopulated, deliberately paced telling of an unremarkable story with a Twilight Zone twist at the end doesn’t do it for them—although it may do a lot of other things to them while they’re waiting.
So Kubrick, who is celebrated for controlling the publicity for his films as closely as the various aspects of their creation, is largely to blame for the initial, strongly negative feedback to his movie. Maybe he didn’t know, when The Shining started its way to the screen several years back, that the horror genre would be in full cry, the most marketable field in filmmaking, by the time his movie was ready for delivery. But he could have seen that, say, a year ago. And still he pressed on with the horror sales hook, counting on it—along with his own eminence—to fill theaters, and to pay off the $18 million cost of the most expensive Underground movie ever made.
[Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is currently reissuing a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. Author Robert C. Cumbow is a member of the Parallax View collective and his essays are being published simultaneously on Parallax View. The essay below was first published on 23/01/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]
We aimed to make something robust in which every question leads to another. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t believe in reincarnation; I don’t think I could do a film about it if I did. I was more interested in the idea of eternal love. I wanted to make a mystery, the mystery of the heart.
– Jonathan Glazer
You know you’re seeing something special from the very beginning.
In what you soon understand to be a prologue, but for now you take at face value, you hear the words “OK.” It’s a disembodied voice, a lecturer or an interview subject, apparently, but there’s no image, just a dark screen, so you don’t know who’s talking or why. “OK,” says the voice, “let me say this …” Potent words for the opening of a film. Maybe a little self-important, but let it go. For now anyway.
The voice goes on:
If I lost my wife and, uh, the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back …’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird. But other than that, no. I’m a man of science. I just don’t believe that mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.
Anything may be possible. But not likely. Class dismissed.
And now you hear music, an insistent repeating flute motif like the sound of a chirping bird echoes the bird-on-the-window metaphor of the lecturer. But these echoes of springtime are betrayed by the image that we at last see: Central Park in the snow, and a bundled, hooded man on his daily run. Bright light, cold air.
Setup 1 is a long following shot of the running man. This is a main title shot if ever there was one, since all we see is this man running in front of us. A good time to run the opening credits, but we don’t get them. Instead, all our attention is directed to the shot. Four dogs dart across the runner’s path. The runner enters a short tunnel and only then does the title appear: Birth.