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The Film that Changed My Life

"My God, it's full of stars!......."

-Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

2018 brings the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With this comes the usual selection of articles, commemorations and (so rare in these days and time) an actual re-release of the film to theaters, or at least “selected” ones. Director Christopher Nolan, who has worked behind the scenes to produce brand new prints of this masterwork, is determined to take us back to 1968. No fancy digital enhancements adorn this re-release. Your mission is simply to watch the film according to Stanley’s original plan.

And what an experience this will still be......Kubrick ascribed to the idea that the very essence of film requires only two elements: visual images, accompanied by music. Everything else, while not unimportant, is secondary. 2001 is one of the best examples of this concept that I know. I was already a budding cinephile when this film was first playing in theaters and can remember the first time that I saw this film. This experience was more than memorable; it is one that changed my life......

As a child, I grew up on Saturday afternoon matinees at the local third-run movie theater. Twenty-five cents bought you a double-feature, a cartoon, coming attractions and (if you were unlucky,) a documentary short on such fascinating topics as......”Fly-fishing in Quebec....” It was on a Saturday afternoon, some years later, that I went to see 2001 for the first time. I was only 14 years old, and had no idea what was in store for me.

Fortunately, I did not see this film in a third-run theater with a second film attached. No cartoons or special features, either; just two hours and twenty minutes of pure artistry from Kubrick and his talented colleagues. Fortunately I was in a theater with a very large screen and a top-flight sound system. Kubrick was a director that would “approve” the theaters that displayed his work; a fine choice was made here.

In 1968, only solid classical music buffs recognized the majestic music that began the film. I had never heard this music before in my life. But the first minute and a half of Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Thus Spake Zarathutra was unbelievably effective when matched with Kubrick’s striking screen images. I still had no idea what the film was going to be about, but it didn’t matter. The experience had begun......

Without explanation or preparation, the Dawn of Man sequence began. No dialogue (at least in English,) and no music for a very long time. Only images prevailed.....the film was certainly taking its time, but this didn’t bother me in the least. Stanley Kubrick the still photographer, the documentarian, the provocative film artist was expressing his own unique vision. Somehow, I wasn’t anxious; I didn't long for fast-paced action, plot development, striking lead characters, etc. When you are part of such an experience, normal expectations can be happily laid aside....

And then came the next memorable scene.....the first appearance of the black monolith, that “damn two-by-four,” as Mad Magazine described it. The prehistoric creatures were left to their own devices to encounter this entity. This scene was stunning enough, but what was that music that played underneath? It was driving me nuts; I had never heard music like this before. Who wrote this, and how did they ever create those wondrously frightening sounds? Once again, the combination of the visual with music was beyond description. It was right, it was perfect; it was ......from another world.....

This was my first introduction to the music of György Ligeti (1923-2006). Kubrick listened to a varied repertoire of music, including works of the twentieth century avant- garde, before selecting this piece (and others by Ligeti) to use in his film. The Kyrie movement from Ligeti’s Requiem captured the intense mystery of the moment perfectly; the use of a liturgical text, as presented by the choir subtly reinforced the possible idea that 2001 was a religious epic of some sort.....

The choir was not singing any harmonies that I knew. It wasn’t until years later that I had a better opportunity to study the “sound-mass” compositional style employed by Ligeti and other members of his generation. Clusters of pitches (just like all of those stars out there,) heard in such close proximity. Some of these pitches were smaller than the half- step; this was news to me in 1968.

This is not the time to pontificate on the “meaning” of the monolith; for that, you can read hundreds of interpretations in books and online. In watching this scene for the first time, I surmised that those early pre-historic creatures were now endowed with a moment or two of greater intelligence and intuition. The majestic music of Richard Strauss returns at this moment of discovery, and I was enjoying the moment. Then came the famous shot where Moonwatcher triumphantly throws his bone weapon into the air and it becomes......did anyone discuss this famous transition in 1968? Now, everyone does.

One outstanding experience after the other was presented to me in the first part of 2001and we still had not heard one word of traditional dialogue! But Kubrick was only warming up. It was now time to visit the futuristic portion of the film, complete with commuter spaceships and a revolving space station. And what is the most appropriate music to accompany this ballet onscreen? Only a genius would have thought to use music by a different Strauss, in this case Johann Strauss, the Viennese “waltz king.” Using On the Beautiful Blue Danube was another amazing move; it perfectly caught the elegance of station-to-station space travel. The plot was not being advanced, but the wonder of future technology was; sit back and enjoy the ride. This is Kubrick at his most optimistic which, if you know his films, does not happen very often......

Years later, I understood the greater significance of the music that I was listening to in this film. Kubrick had originally contracted composer Alex North to write a score for2001; North completed the project but never heard his music employed with the film. Kubrick made his famous observation that pre-composed music was superior to the music of modern film composers. This idea was (and still is) an arrogant one; as a composer, I can certainly sympathize with North and the extreme anger that he must have felt when his score was discarded. You can listen to North’s 2001 music online; it is professional and quite competent. But Kubrick was more than right in this case. The music that he licensed to use in the film instead of North’s score is perfect for the film’s needs. North’s film score, however well-intentioned, would have robbed the film of most of its mystery. Among North’s possible miscues: music to accompany the Dawn of Man sequence....if you heard North's score for Spartacus (another Kubrick) effort, imagine a similar style used for this film. Now move on.......

The film continued; more memorable music to savor in complementing Kubricks’s astounding visual images. A moonbus travels to an excavation site on the moon, accompanied by Ligeti’s beautiful choral piece, Lux Aeterna. The Requiem music returns as the black monolith is discovered, this time on the surface of the moon. Later, the Discovery One spaceship travels in space to the solemn strains of the Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet suite. I cannot think of another piece of music that so brilliantly suggests distance and loneliness in the way that this music does, as it relates to Kubrick's images onscreen. The cuts in the music are borderline choppy, but this is one of the sequences that Kubrick shortened after the film's premiere in Washington D.C.

The music for the film’s final trip into eternity returns to the mystery of Ligeti’s music. Once again we hear the Kyrie movement from the Requiem, as that “damn two-by-four” shows up yet again. These sounds morph into Ligeti’s orchestral work, Atmospheres, which also explores chord clusters and micro-tonality; timbres and textures unite to confound the ear, which wonderfully underscores Kubrick’s fascinating if unexplained visual images. (And, look, everyone, not a computer in sight to create the visuals.......)

I went to see the film again the following Saturday, and the one after that. Whenever the film was rereleased, I was there to see it yet again. My mother had to drive me to a lot of these showings; she simply could not understand why I wanted to see this one film over and over and over again. But thanks, Mom; you fed my insatiable need to see this outstanding film that greatly expanded my ideas on art and what it could become.

I had never experienced visual images like this before. I had never heard avant-garde music like this before, let along heard it used in a film like this. 2001 secured my life-long love of cinema and helped inspire me to pursue a career in music. There were other influences along the way, of course, but this one was a major player. I also marveled at a film that defied an easy interpretation. There is no one universal explanation for what is happening in 2001. Only one’s own faith and/or philosophy can determine what this film is ultimately trying to say. Such a reality annoys some of my friends; I find this challenge to be refreshing and a true indication of this film’s significance.

In my current position as a college professor, I teach courses in composition and theory. But I also teach film studies, one of the advantages of working at a small liberal arts institution. For the Honors Department at Heidelberg, I teach a course on Stanley Kubrick. We watch each of his films, as the director only released thirteen of them in his lifetime. This situation offers the time to view each one of them in a single semester course. I also teach a course on film music; 2001 is a natural choice here as well. Each time the film is discussed, I have a new generation of students to influence. The film amazes some of my students; others are bored and feel that the film is slowly-paced, lacking in plot, and vastly overrated. The opportunity to see the film in theaters again is a unique bucket-list opportunity, however, and I am busy trying to encourage my young budding cinephiles to take advantage of this opportunity. Hopefully some of them will.....

After all of these years, I am amazed that 2001 still captures my attention. I can watch it again and again, and never be bored. I have travelled considerable distances to see it on the large screen in recent years; this is not wasted time. Savor each scene; appreciate the amazing relationship between the music that Kubrick selected and the visual images that it serves. No other film has engaged me in the same way that this film has. For better or worse, it is the film that changed my life.

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