Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are the monkeys real?"

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater as a child. It was a re-release, obviously -- turning 40 this weekend is hard enough. Don't put me at 50 just yet.

My parents were no doubt trying to capitalize on my love of Star Wars. They obviously hadn't seen it, and probably hadn't read anything about it, if they thought it would scratch that itch. Saying Star Wars and 2001 are like each other is kind of like saying that The Godfather and The Black Stallion are alike because they both feature horses.

Needless to say, I didn't get it. In fact, I was bored silly.

Only yesterday, when listening to the Filmspotting podcast featuring a "sacred cow" discussion of 2001, did I finally understand why:

I think I thought it was a documentary.

When I saw it for what must have been the 1980 re-release, I wouldn't have known what a documentary was. However, I would have had some idea about the kind of movie you see in science class, or during the educational portions of a show like The Electric Company. I probably thought 2001 was something like that. 

What's striking about this is two things:

1) A significant portion of this film features monkeys interacting with each other;

2) The rest of this film takes place in outer space.

See, I thought both things were real.

A lot more recently than you might think, actually.

When I last saw 2001, it was the year 2001. I was driving across the country to live in Los Angeles, and spending about five days in Champaign, IL, to visit my friend Don Handsome and attend Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (since retitled, simply, "Ebertfest"). Ebert keenly recognized that 2001 would make a great opening night film, especially as this is a film that demands to be seen on a large screen. Plus it was a restoration of the 70 mm version, making the experience all the more impressive.

Even as a 27-year-old, I probably still didn't really get it, but at least I had a much greater appreciation for its place in film history and its objective greatness as a cinematic achievement.

As a special treat, the screening was followed by a satellite phone conversation with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, co-screenwriter (with Stanley Kubrick) and author of the concurrently written novel. I think Clarke was supposed to be there, but weather or some such inconvenience left him stranded in Sri Lanka, where he spent the later years of his life (ultimately dying there in 2008).

After asking the man a number of questions himself, Ebert opened it up so that members of the audience could directly address the science fiction legend. A young girl was one of those people. I don't remember what she actually asked, but I do remember how she addressed the man: She called him Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was a very funny mistake for a child her age to make, because she had to know who Arthur Conan Doyle was in order to make it in the first place.

As these things tend to go, in the re-telling of this experience, Don and I quote her as follows: "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were the monkeys real?" Except the bit about the monkeys was our question, not hers.

That's right, Don and I both admitted to each other that we weren't quite sure whether the monkeys in the famous opening of 2001 were real monkeys, or human beings dressed in monkey costumes.

This is, of course, absurd. Of course they were human beings in monkey costumes. Or really, to be more accurate, in early hominid costumes. The scene goes on for minutes and minutes and involves complex interactions between the creatures and each other, as well as between them and a monolith that appears in their environment, causing them to learn how to murder each other. (Over-simplification.) There's no way even the cleverest monkey trainer in the world could get them to do a quarter of that stuff.

Yet the verisimilitude was such that even at nearly 30 years old, we couldn't be sure sure. Not 100%. Even though we knew better.

We laughed and laughed at ourselves, but a profound indication of the power of this movie also washed over us.

The epiphany I had about 2001 this week was when, during this podcast, Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune talks about the awe of first seeing the zero gravity jogging scene on the space station.

It occurred to me yesterday that the reason I'd never specifically been interested in this scene was that I thought this, too, was real. Definitely as a child, but I hadn't shrugged off the impression enough by 2001 to specifically find it awe-inspiring when I watched it then -- or at least to realize that I once considered it to be real.

If you unpack that, that means I thought that Stanley Kubrick, his actors and his crew went to outer space to film their movie.

I know Kubrick was bad at sticking to his budget, but that's ridiculous.

So yeah, when I was six or seven years old, this kind of thing was boring to me. I guess I thought people made movies in outer space all the time. For all I knew, Star Wars was a "documentary" as well -- it just had the advantage of also having laser guns and light sabers.

All this tells me that it may be time for another screening of 2001. Now is probably the time to do it -- I've got whole days of the week home alone without much else to do except to try not to spend money. (I'm still about a month away from being eligible to work here, and in the meantime, am just trying not to increase my own financial burden on the world.) It would be especially useful, now that I've just seen Gravity, to marvel at the first movie that amazed its audiences -- those who weren't bored, that is -- by the possibilities of making space seem realistic on film. (Not to mention just seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, which addresses the abstractions that Gravity doesn't address.)

Oh, and it also made huge strides forward in the field of monkey acting.


Don Handsome said...

wait. are you saying those aren't real monkeys?

Vancetastic said...

Having watched the film again today, I can confirm that I definitely really positively do not know.