(Note from Ed: This column is by Keith Telfeyan, my older son.)
My dad raised me to appreciate culture. He brought me to the symphony many times as a kid; classical music was the first sort of music I saw performed live. Of course I thought it was rather boring. He showed me the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey before I turned 10. I couldn’t make it through. Later, he showed me a list of his 100 favorite films, long before it became a trend to make lists, with that film at the top. Something about that stuck with me. I would go on to write music in a band and major in film, and music and cinema remain fierce interests. List-making too.
Now I’m 32 and he just turned 67, and on his birthday, the New York Philharmonic would perform the score and screen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece at Lincoln Center. I’ve been a huge fan of the film since high school, when I really started to appreciate its visionary properties. I’ve seen it many times since then, in various settings and states of consciousness, and never miss an opportunity for such a cinematic event. So of course I went.
The screen could have been bigger for the size of Avery Fisher Hall. And conductor Alan Gilbert could have dimmed his podium light, especially during the segments that allowed him to sit and watch the film for long stretches. But of course, these details were trivial in relation to the magnitude of the moment. Everyone present felt the energy, excited for such an epic film to be accompanied live by this talent, including a chorus in the balconies on either side of the stage, with their glowing flashlights.
2001: A Space Odyssey is not the most popular Kubrick film. (That honor might belong to A Clockwork Orange or The Shining or Dr. Strangelove.) And it’s certainly not the most revered science fiction film, though it certainly should be. (Nothing compares to the cultural heft of Star Wars for some reason, though it’s a far inferior contemplation of humanity in space.) But among its devoted fan base of cinephiles and philosophical types, nothing compares to 2001.
The explanation for this is multitudinous. The main reasons that 2001: A Space Odyssey is such important cinema are 1) the technology with which it was made, 2) the depth of its investigation into technology as an extension of humanity, 3) the mystic symbolism of the monolith and 4) the mind-bending psychedelia of its ending.
Firstly, it was and remains technologically groundbreaking. Aside from being a brilliant storyteller, Kubrick was a master of filmic craft, from the photography to the narrative structure and storyboarding to the special effects, this film continues to impress people who obsess about such things. It was made in 1968, and looks as good -if not better- than all the sci-fi films that follow it. Seeing it on film, on the big screen, it remains flawless in its depiction of space and spaceships and the like, with technology that predates CGI.
Its commentary on humanity and technology is incisive and economical. In just a few cuts, Kubrick presents us with the Dawn of Man: humanoid apes that forage for vegetation near a watering hole, yell at each other to assert territorial dominance, discover tools that they use to become meat-eaters, then use the tools (a femur bone, specifically) as weapons to kill each other and further assert territorial dominance. The bone is thrown up into the air. Jump cut millions of years later to a satellite orbiting in space – shorthand for how humanity has evolved, as we now throw our tools all the way beyond earth’s atmosphere, and possibly for nobler causes. Technology defines our progress as a species.
The middle segments of the film focus on the ways we conduct ourselves in the future/the present, and how our civility perhaps belies more base instincts. The least discussed part of 2001 centers on a high-ranking George Clooney-type who luxuriously travels from Earth to space, conducting business with the greatest of class and etiquette, who then secretly studies a cryptic object buried on the moon millions of years ago.
The object is the same encountered by the early apes. It’s a totally mystical and opaque black monolith (the name of all my iPhones), and it sends a radio frequency towards Jupiter. Hence a mission: 18 Months Later. Enter HAL 9000, the iconic computer that politely tends to every function of the ship, and remains polite even as it begins to malfunction (as the astronauts would contend). Of course to HAL, it is the astronauts who malfunction. In any case, this is perhaps the best-known segment of the film, as man versus machine is explored more intellectually and expertly, and with more tense excitement, than ever before or since.
The final two pieces of the film comprise Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. They are the most beguiling and enrapturing. First, the astronaut goes on a terrifying and unfathomable journey through the stars. This is the most hypnotic and entrancing segment in the film, if not in all of cinema, and why the courtyard at Lincoln Center permeated so much with marijuana smoke. The special effects, full of color and math and eerie sounds, garnered Kubrick his only personal Oscar.
It’s the final segment that I am personally most interested in. After traveling through the stars and his own consciousness, the astronaut is suddenly transposed in a room, ornately designed in classic French decor. He sees himself over and over, as an older and older man, and then as a baby, or something fetal even. He is perpetually existing and becoming and aging and always throughout ages. The monolith is in the room with him and he points to it. Is time real? Is space?
Perception can make your head swim. And here I am, beholding it all in Avery Fisher Hall, home of the Philharmonic. Also Sprach Zaruthstra climaxed for the third time as the film ended and we applauded ecstatically. The orchestra went right into The Blue Danube for the credits, and played that piece in its entirety, well after the film projector was turned off. We gave Alan Gilbert and the musicians a standing ovation, of course: Less for the actual performance, which was pitch-perfect, than for the momentous occasion.