Martin Luther King and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Plus 50
By Chris M. Barkley:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.
Director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.
Fifty years ago today, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while attempting to support the city’s sanitation workers’ strike for better wages and working conditions.
Two days earlier, the world premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s visionary science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey was held at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, D.C.
One event nearly shattered the United States and the other marked a seismic occurrence in film history. Both still continue to resonate and shape our lives to this day.
April 4, 1968 was a Thursday. I was in the sixth grade, attending a Catholic parochial school, St. Francis de Sales. I don’t remember seeing any ads about 2001 during that period of time. The main news of that day, that week, as a matter of fact, was the assassination of Dr. King. President Lyndon Johnson urged the populace remain calm.
That Saturday, the Cincinnati Reds announced that the Opening Day parade and game were postponed. The mayor declared a sunset to sunup curfew for all citizens. Rioting erupted in urban areas all over the country, including Cincinnati. In Avondale, a neighborhood a few miles away from our home, the entire shopping district was destroyed. Two were killed. Ironically, the only thing left standing was a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln nearby.
In the meantime, 2001 opened across the country a few weeks later to mixed reviews. Variety’s Robert B. Frederik proclaimed that it was not a cinematic landmark, claiming, “2001 lacks dramatic appeal to a large degree and only conveys suspense after the halfway mark. Despite the enormous technical staff involved in making the film, it is almost entirely one man’s conception and Kubrick must receive all the praise – and take all the blame.”
Pauline Kael, one of the premiere film critics of the mid-20th century, said, “It has the dreamy somewhere-over-the-rainbow appeal of a new vision of heaven. 2001 is a celebration of cop-out. It says man is just a tiny nothing on the stairway to paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway. There’s an intelligence out there in space controlling your destiny from ape to angel, so just follow the slab. Drop up.”
Roger Ebert, an up and coming film reviewer at the Chicago Sun-Times (and ardent, die-hard sf fan as it turned out), was tad more perceptive when he stated, in a five-star review, “The fascinating thing about this film is that it fails on the human level but succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale. Kubrick’s universe, and the space ships he constructed to explore it, are simply out of scale with human concerns. The ships are perfect, impersonal machines which venture from one planet to another, and if men are tucked away somewhere inside them, then they get there too.”
In the spring of 1968, I was mostly oblivious to 2001. I was mainly more concerned with surviving the seventh-grade landscape, in which dodging bullies, doing homework, baseball, meeting my parent’s expectations reading and watching as many movies and consume as much television as possible.. I was also being outfitted with a series of glasses as my myopia decreased the acuity of my eyesight.
Doctor King’s message of non-violence was a sound theory to me at the time. The problem was that the other children I went to school with or were living in my neighborhood were more interested in acting like typical adolescent kids than pondering the philosophical mysteries of being a better person.
Eventually, film was a welcome diversion. Although I missed 2001 on its first theatrical release, I was more than ready in 1974, when it came back to theaters for a limited run in its original 70MM form.
Nothing prepared me for the totally immersive experience of the widescreen presentation. I count seeing 2001 for the first time one of the most influential and best film experiences of my life. From the stunning beauty and grand vistas of the African veldt to the eerily accurate rendering of the lunar surface (15 months before the real deal) to beyond the stargate, I was completely captivated.
What is also remarkable is that all of the makeup, ship models, stunts and special effects were all physical or manmade and not computer generated.
Beyond feeling that I had experienced something transcendental (without the aid of any recreational drugs, mind you), I did not know what to make of my first viewing of 2001. To me, it is completely open to a number of interpretations which is its greatest strength and exactly what Stanley Kubrick in mind.
Kubrick, in an interview with Playboy magazine said, “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.”
When quizzed on the subject, Arthur C. Clarke gleefully recommended people read his novelization (which is still in print, BTW) of the film, which in turn contained substantial changes from the film narrative and further clouded the issue of whose version of the story is more “true”.
Yesterday, I took time out to watch a 2007 dvd reissue of 2001 in a way that I have never attempted before with any other movie I own; with the audio commentary on. The lead actors of the film, Keir Dullea (David Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Frank Poole) provided a fascinating play-by-play of their involvement with their part in the film and other peripheral views they witnessed firsthand. Since I have seen the movie eight or nine times, I could readily follow the action as they talked. Of particular interest are their descriptions of various scenes such as Lockwood’s jog around the centrifuge of Discovery’s spaceship cabin and Dullea’s rather perilous reentry into the ship after being locked out by HAL.
Another note; Stanley Kubrick showed his true genius in the casting Lockwood and Dullea; the former was a California born athlete and television supporting actor and the latter a film veteran with the attitude of a New York stage actor. Both are approximately the same age (81 as of this column) and remain friends to this day. Although they come from completely different backgrounds and acting styles, they found that each complemented the other perfectly in their roles of astronauts.
Martin Luther King Jr. never had the opportunity to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frankly, I can’t see it as being the kind of film he would be interested in seeing. But, if he had done so, I think he would have focused in on one of the most famous moments in the film, the ‘match cut’ as main ape character, Moon-Watcher, learns to wield an animal bone as a weapon and subsequently throws it up in the air, only to come down through the frame and transition four million years later as a nuclear armed satellite orbiting the earth.
Most film critics over the decades have seen interpreted particular moment as the advancement of the human species from its primitive roots to a technological extreme.
Canadian sf novelist Robert J. Sawyer had a different view. Speaking in the Canadian documentary 2001 and Beyond, he saw the film cut from a bone to a nuclear weapons platform as, “…what we see is not how far we’ve leaped ahead, what we see is that today, ‘2001’, and four million years ago on the African veldt, it’s exactly the same—the power of mankind is the power of its weapons. It’s a continuation, not a discontinuity in that jump.”
I am quite sure that if Doctor King had seen 2001, he would have seen that connection, that our violent past and present might be transcended some day. He might have not agreed with the method, especially if it was implied that it would happen at the hands (or appendages) of extraterrestrial life. He would have preferred that mankind was more than willing and capable of achieving that on our own.
Today, as I reflect back on the past fifty years, I note that people still suffer from classism, voter suppression and widespread profiling and physical violence from the police. That at this point in time, our political system seems to be in total disarray. And that the city of Memphis, the very city Doctor King was in when he was brutally cut down, is still rated by the US Census Bureau as one of the highest rates of poverty in the country.
I prefer to believe the world of 2001, as depicted in the film, is a better place than ours. That, in spite of the apparent tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, we cooperate to the extent that both parties (and more) can operate in space and the moon in relative harmony. And by extension, we may have solved our energy and climate concerns.
Despite everything that has happened since their deaths, the works and words of Doctor Martin Luther King, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke continue to inspire us to do our best for humanity. And hopefully, they will for quite a while.