Local film critic embarks on the odyssey again

Professor screens "2001" with a student who had never seen it before

By Carrie Sitz

     I was lucky enough to view "2001: A Space Odyssey" for the first time with Professor Jim Hurt from the University of Illinois on Saturday, March 8,1997 . I was excited about seeing the film, but I really had no idea what I was in for. Professor Hurt, who has been with the English Department at the U of I since 1966 teaching Irish literature and film, commented on many wonderful observations throughout the film, thus enriching my viewing experience.
     As we watched the film in the English Building's media center on a small projection screen over popcorn and Junior Mints, I realized what I had been missing by never viewing this film before. I was constantly taken aback by the special effects, beautiful music and amazing filming throughout the picture . Professor Hurt pointed out things that I would have never noticed as well as explained some of the background of the film to me, at least what he knew.
     Hurt admitted to watching the movie the previous evening in preparation for our viewing since he had last seen the film in 1968.
     "I got to thinking last night when I watched the movie in preparation for this, last night on WILL, and I started counting up," Hurt said. "I first saw the movie in 1968, when it first came out, and it brought back memories. I kept remembering the circumstances under which I had seen it in 1968 and then compared my reactions as I remembered then to what I saw last night. I think it is a wonderful movie. I think it is really one of the great masterpieces of film.
     But as I watched it, maybe because of the circumstances, I kept wondering if it should be called '1968' instead of '2001'. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and I had been at the University for two years then. The protest demonstrations against the war, the flower children, the summer of love - all these things came rushing over me as I watched it, and I remember how much a film of the 60's it really is and how much the theme of war and human conflict is in the film partly in reaction to Vietnam. But also I thought about other Stanley Kubrick movies I have seen and the incredible violence in these films that have set people back on their heels. That kind of violence seems very much a part of Kubrick's vision of the world - this was very prominent in my mind as I watched it last night."
     Hurt would announce the subtitles to the sections of the film as they appeared on the screen. When the screen read "The Dawn of Man" Hurt said that this title could be changed for the year "2001" to the dawn of man and woman. We both laughed noting how much things have really changed since this movie was made.
     The frame at the airport is another example of Kubrick's 60's mentality that is infused into this film.
     "This friendliness between the Russians and Americans is kind of a Utopian fantasy in 1968, predicting the end of the cold war," Hurt said. "This scene also predicts the beginning of feminism because three of the scientists are women."
     Hurt reminisced about the 60's throughout the film.
     "A lot of 60's pop culture is 'we got to get out of this place', they're shooting Kennedy, they are shooting Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam is shipping boys home in body bags, civil rights is going nowhere - so what I am gonna do is forget the whole thing - escapism, denial, a hippie/yuppie morale," Hurt said. "That kind of despair of social change, of improving things in reality, is kind of giving up or vain hope. So you take drugs or escape in to a fanasty world and, that seems to me very much what happened in '2001.'"
     Hurt compared the overture in "2001" to several Irish films that have overtures and explained how it is an essential piece of the film.
     "I think that is interesting that this film has an overture," Hurt said. "We are just sitting here watching the word overture. It seems like the director conceived the movie as kind of a piece of music and set it up with an overture and music playing."
     Hurt was kind enough not to give away the significance of the monolith in its first appearance. He simply commented on it enough to make me realize that it is going to be a reassuring image throughout the film in addition to the eclipse that appears over the monolith.
     "It is the first straight edge that we see in the movie. It is obviously man-made or human-made," Hurt said. "It contrasts the irregular shapes of the rocks and the apes. At the end of the film we discover the importance of the monolith in a little more detail.
     "It seems to always suggest grand awe. It's very symmetrically arranged. I don't know what kind of symbolism it has but just the fact as an image it is infinite, inhuman space."
     Hurt noted that each event in the beginning scenes have a particular purpose: the birth of war, property, shelter, meat eating, territoriality, etc. He pointed these out throughout the entire section of the film. However, the beginning of the film could have been cut in its entirety and the audience would still be able to understand the film. Professor Hurt pointed out that the beginning of the film is not necessary for the plot, however it certainly emphasizes certain points that Kubrick is making.
     "It gives a time perspective to match the space perspective," Hurt said. "We are seeing the entire reach of human history just as we are seeing the entire reach of the universe we live in so its a big epic kind of thing."
     Hurt chuckled as the bone turns into the spaceship in one of the most famous shots of the film. At this point in the film, Hurt filled me in on the space program in 1968. He laughed as he told me that in 1968 it was predicted that there would be humans on Mars by 1985, and yet we haven't even gone back to the moon since then. He said that it was a very exciting time in history regarding space travel.
     "One of the interesting things about this part of the movie is the way that Stanley Kubrick imagined space ships," Hurt said. "Always before they had been bullet-shaped, like rockets. Someone wrote that Kubrick's space ships look like they had been put together by giant legos pieces. That big wheel rolling through the heavens and the long angular thing with different planes jetting out - he invented the new mode of representing space ships in science fiction."
     Additionally Kubrick had an eye for the future with all the inventions that he predicted will come about in the future. Hurt pointed out that the scene in the "airport" as one particular scene that makes a lot of references to technology.
     "This section of the movie is full of all sorts of imagining what sorts of inventions will come up, like this picture phone. Last night Roger Ebert interviewed Arthur C. Clarke on a picture phone from Sri Lanka," Hurt said with a chuckle.
     We discussed the use of music as being a way to convey mood throughout the film. The lack of music in the beginning symbolizes the lack of civilization. The use of music once the film jumps to the year "2001" emphasizes the advancement of civilization. The use of classical music really conveys a very advanced society, and the experimental music that is later in the film adds to the urgency of the scene and creates confusion.
     Hurt noted that the image of an abstract eyeball is a reoccurring image and throughout the film we looked for that particular image.
     "This is a great shot as she walks up the wall and goes upside down. Look at the way that looks like an eyeball looking out at you," Hurt said. "The number of images of the eye just dominates this film. Hal is this red eye."
     Hurt saw the eye images as having several meanings.
     "I think that a lot of the eyeball images can also be seen as a camera iris, especially when the port opened to let the spaceship in; it looked like a camera opening," Hurt said. "It is a very self-referential movie that is about movie making. Here's the way the amateurs do it, and here is the way that I do it - BANG. He himself is escaping into a fantasy world by making the movie, just as Dave is by going to Jupiter. All the images of the camera iris opening and closing also reminds us that we our not watching reality - we are watching a film."
     As we watched the space ship travel throughout the vast emptiness, Professor Hurt and I discussed the camera's perspective and the point of view that is being suggested as well as possible reasons why this filming is so unusual.
     "I think that this movie is full of interesting perspectives," Hurt said. "I was thinking when I was watching the end of the movie last night - what kind of point of view is being suggested? Over and over the audience is being jerked around into various impossible positions. Being outside in space watching the ship or here being inside watching the fingers open up to let in the space vehicle."
     We concluded that in part it is to put the audience in places that they will never be able to go. Additionally, it is an excellent technique used by Kubrick to convey the vastness of space and, it really makes the idea of man and space travel seem minimal in comparison to the rest of the universe.
     "We are not getting this by watching the video tape even on the larger screen," Hurt said. "But one thing that a lot of people noticed when the movie came out is the suggestion, unlike previous science fiction movies, of how vast space is. There is one famous shot when the space ship moves across the 70mm screen and it is like a little dot that take forever to move through the vastness of space."
     However, we both concluded that this type of filming allows for awesome special effects that awe the viewer.
     When we got to the scene in the conference room I noted that the American flag in the corner was the dominating image in the scene, insinuating that space travel is not going to prevent patriotism and that it adds a colonization aspect to the film.
     "I think that this whole section kind of makes that point that people still lose their cashmere sweaters, call their little girls on their birthdays and still eat awful airline food," Hurt said. "The more things change the more they stay the same.
     "There's a little twist on that at the end or a big twist when you discover that they are colonized themselves. I think that your idea with analogies with trips of other colonization could be followed up because the subtitle of the film is 'A Space Odyssey'. I think that there is a lot of Homer's Odyssey in this film. The basic motif of the journey is finding sections along the journey that reflect certain attitudes at home. The real journey is in discovery of yourself. You find yourself and your culture no matter where you go."
     We discussed the environment within the ship as being sterile and cold and what Kubrick may be portraying with this type of atmosphere. One idea that we had is that it was a way to suggest the newness of the odyssey, or perhaps it is a technique to create a futuristic perspective like the interior of the ship and the decoration in the airport.
     Hurt really liked the shot on the moon when the astronauts are walking towards the monolith. Once again the audience is given a perspective as being one of the spaceship's crew members as the camera jiggles putting the audience in the position of one of the astronauts. We both laughed as the astronauts took pictures of themselves with the monolith also proving that things will never change.
     Hurt praised the illusional filming in the beginning of this section when one of the crew members is exercising by running in the ship but doing it the weightless way.
     "I am sure that a lot of this stuff was done just by turning the camera on its side," Hurt said, "but it still is pretty spectacular."
     After meeting HAL during the interview, I said that he appears to be a little cocky. Professor Hurt said, "You can tell that he is on the faculty at the University of Illinois - incapable of error," creating a little laughter among both of us, most likely for different reasons.
     Hurt shared with me something that he had read that Roger Ebert had said about the lack of dialogue.
     "There is only about 40 minutes of dialogue in this movie, and it's over two hours," Hurt said. "He talked about it as a movie of not of ideas but of images. The main ideas were conveyed with the picture rather than the dialogue or even the plot with doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
     We discussed the psychedelic scene that occurs after HAL is disconnected, to the extent of how it was created, trying to figure out if it could have been computer imaging in the late 60's. However, we were both so enthralled with the images that we did not say much, instead being drawn into the screen.
     Hurt praised the incredible filming of the movie: "I think that it is a miracle that thirty years later it still looks fresh and innovative. It is meant to blow you away. It really is a visual trip."
     After the movie was over we talked a little more about the ending, although I was still in shock as to how incredible this film really was.
     "The star child that you see in the last frame may be Dave. He may be present as a fetus or present in four stages of his life," Hurt said. "But he may be starting out his life again. A lot of attention has been paid to the gaze of the star child then, when he looks off to the light and then swivels around to the audience. Arthur C. Clarke has said that gaze turns the emphasis back on the audience, and that the star child is effectively saying 'What are you going to do about this? How are you going to continue this story?'"
     Hurt left me with that comment. Carrie, what are you going to do about this? How are you going to continue this story? This made me realize how much this film is really appropriate even today for my generation.