For years I had images from 2001: A Space Odyssey in my head, absorbed through a certain cultural osmosis. Having finally seen the whole thing from start to finish in mind-blowingly clear high definition recently I can't find enough words for how extraordinary it is. The black monolith is the single best representation of "other" ever depicted in a movie. This interview with Stanley Kubrick from 1969 further illuminates his unparalleled talent:
Dr. Strangelove was a particularly word-oriented film, whereas 2001 seemed to be a total breakaway from what you'd done before.
Yes, I feel it was. Strangelove was a film where much of its impact hinged on the dialogue, the mode of expression, the euphemisms employed. As a result, it's a picture that is largely destroyed in translation or dubbing. 2001, on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.
Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension. In two hours and forty minutes of film there are only forty minutes of dialogue.
I think one of the areas where 2001 succeeds is in stimulating thoughts about man's destiny and role in the universe in the minds of people who in the normal course of their lives would never have considered such matters. Here again, you've got the resemblance to music; an Alabama truck driver, whose views in every other respect would be extremely narrow, is able to listen to a Beatles record on the same level of appreciation and perception as a young Cambridge intellectual, because their emotions and subconscious are far more similar than their intellects. The common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction; and I think that a film which can communicate on this level can have a more profound spectrum of impact than any form of traditional verbal communication.
The problem with movies is that since the talkies the film industry has historically been conservative and word-oriented. The three-act play has been the model. It's time to abandon the conventional view of the movie as an extension of the three-act play. Too many people over thirty are still word-oriented rather than picture-oriented.
For example, at one point in 2001 Dr. Floyd is asked where he's going and he replies, "I'm going to Clavius," which is a lunar crater. Following that statement you have more than fifteen shots of Floyd's spacecraft approaching and landing on the moon, but one critic expressed confusion because she thought Floyd's destination was a planet named Clavius. Young people, on the other hand, who are more visually oriented due to their new television environment, had no such problems. Kids all know we went to the moon. When you ask how they know they say, "Because we saw it."
So you have the problem that some people are only listening and not really paying attention with their eyes. Film is not theater -- and until that basic lesson is learned I'm afraid we're going to be shackled to the past and miss some of the greatest potentialities of the medium.
Although 2001 dealt with the first human contact with an alien civilization, we never did actually see an alien, though you communicated through the monoliths an experience of alien beings.
From the very outset of work on the film we all discussed means of photographically depicting an extraterrestrial creature in a manner that would be as mind-boggling as the being itself. And it soon became apparent that you cannot imagine the unimaginable. All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality. That's why we settled on the black monolith -- which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype, and also a pretty fair example of "minimal art."
Isn't a basic problem with science fiction films that alien life always looks like some Creature from the Black Lagoon, a plastic rubber monster?
Yes, and that's one of the reasons we stayed away from the depiction of biological entities, aside from the fact that truly advanced beings would probably have shed the chrysalis of a biological form at one stage of their evolution. You cannot design a biological entity that doesn't look either overly humanoid or like the traditional Bug-Eyed Monster of pulp science fiction.
Some critics have detected in HAL's wheedling voice an undertone of homosexuality. Was that intended?
No. I think it's become something of a parlor game for some people to read that kind of thing into everything they encounter. HAL was a "straight" computer.
Why was the computer more emotional than the human beings?
This was a point that seemed to fascinate some negative critics, who felt that it was a failing of this section of the film that there was more interest in HAL than in the astronauts. In fact, of course, the computer is the central character of this segment of the story. If HAL had been a human being, it would have been obvious to everyone that he had the best part, and was the most interesting character; he took all the initiatives, and all the problems related to and were caused by him.
Some critics seemed to feel that because we were successful in making a voice, a camera lens, and a light come alive as a character this necessarily meant that the human characters failed dramatically. In fact, I believe that Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the astronauts, reacted appropriately and realistically to their circumstances. One of the things we were trying to convey in this part of the film is the reality of a world populated -- as ours soon will be -- by machine entities who have as much, or more, intelligence as human beings, and who have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings. We wanted to stimulate people to think what it would be like to share a planet with such creatures.
In the specific case of HAL, he had an acute emotional crisis because he could not accept evidence of his own fallibility. The idea of neurotic computers is not uncommon -- most advanced computer theorists believe that once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it's inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions -- fear, love, hate, envy, etc. Such a machine could eventually become as incomprehensible as a human being, and could, of course, have a nervous breakdown -- as HAL did in the film.
In the novel the black monolith found by curious man- apes three million years ago does explicit things which it doesn't do in the film. In the movie, it has an apparent catalytic effect which enables the ape to discover how to use a bone as a weapon-tool. In the novel, the slab becomes milky and luminous and we're told it's a testing and teaching device used by higher intelligences to determine if the apes are worth helping. Was that in the original screenplay? When was it cut out of the film?
Yes, it was in the original treatment but I eventually decided that to depict the monolith in such an explicit manner would be to run the risk of making it appear no more than an advanced television teaching machine. You can get away with something so literal in print, but I felt that we could create a far more powerful and magical effect by representing it as we did in the film.
Do you feel that the novel, written so explicitly, in some way diminishes the mysterious aspect of the film?
I think it gives you the opportunity of seeing two attempts in two different mediums, print and film, to express the same basic concept and story. In both cases, of course, the treatment must accommodate to the necessities of the medium. I think that the divergencies between the two works are interesting. Actually, it was an unprecedented situation for someone to do an essentially original literary work based on glimpses and segments of a film he had not yet seen in its entirety. In fact, nobody saw the film in its final form until eight days before we held the first press screening in April 1968, and the first time I saw the film completed with a proper soundtrack was one week before it opened. I completed the portion of the film in which we used actors in June 1966 and from then until the first week of March 1968 I spent most of my time working on the 205 special effects shots. The final shot was actually cut into the negative at M-G-M's Hollywood studios only days before the film was ready to open. There was nothing intentional about the fact that the film wasn't shown until the last minute. It just wasn't finished.
Why did you cut scenes from the film after it opened?
I always try to look at a completed film as if I had never seen it before. I usually have several weeks to run the film, alone and with audiences. Only in this way can you judge length. I've always done precisely that with my previous films; for example, after a screening of Dr. Strangelove I cut out a final scene in which the Russians and Americans in the War Room engage in a free-for-all fight with custard pies. I decided it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film. So there was nothing unusual about the cutting I did on 2001, except for the eleventh-hour way in which I had to do it.