2001: Or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying About Understanding It All

2001 A Space Odyssey

Almost five years ago, probably less, when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was baffled. I couldn’t comprehend not only what was going on in the film but how it managed to become this monolith in film history that people hold up as anything more than a mad man’s version of a joke on society. Like many a friend of mine have hypothesized about the likes of the Criterion Collection, and many corners of the internet as it relates to film discussion, these people must be fucking with us. Among the online film community possibly there is this undying need for one to understand art, and understanding is where a lot of the crazy happens. In order to understand something you must be able to interact with it in some logical sense, and 2001 is a film that I’ve yet to be able to interact with in such a manner.

That being said, this rewatch inspired something else — other than just this post. Now enabled with knowledge of what was coming, structure and plot-wise, I found myself more receptive to the film but still remaining lost within its world. I always used the term “washed over me” as a pejorative but this time I’m not quite sure whether that holds true. It’s actually what Kubrick’s “masterpiece” did to me and at the same time it manages to remain at the forefront of my mind begging for answers to all the questions that I’m certain many of you having seen the film have asked. It makes me wonder about this constant search for meaning in cinema. I believe I’ve almost become like Abed in Community, believing that there’s a meaning buried in this art and it must be discoverable.  More to that I question whether there’s actually value in this art if my previous hypothesis is incorrect. What if there is no meaning?

Let’s start with the opposing thought. What if the value isn’t in the meaning but in the actual process of becoming lost in a film’s world. The movie that most stands out as a positive example to this thought is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I’ve loved Magnolia from the first time I popped in a rented DVD. It mesmerized me in ways that films before hadn’t. However, I couldn’t define it in any easy terms. I would unabashedly call it the film I don’t get, but love none the less. A little over a month ago I had a conversation with fellow blogger, Courtney Small (of Cinema Axis), about the film and found the conversation diving neck deep not only into this said process but more so into Courtney’s own definition that he derived from the film. This interpretation amazed me. Not just because he had succeeded in where I had failed, but also because I still consider Magnolia as an undefinable experience of cinema. It’s the film that loses me from place to place but I love being dragged along for the ride. The fact that I love the experience gives it instantaneous value that I refuse to ignore. So does the lack of “understanding” matter at that point?

Magnolia

This sense of feeling lost isn’t something that’s undesired when it comes to cinematic experiences. When we talk about films like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we talk about this same idea of becoming lost. However, these are all films that sell us on a worlds that are unreal. So unreal that we desire to lose ourselves within them. Not to call these as films that require understanding as much as they’re core value comes from true cinematic escapism.

I feel the escapism I experience in a Lord of the Rings film is not the same as I do with Magnolia; and it’s definitely not the same feeling that 2001: A Space Odyssey gave me. With 2001 my detached feeling came from not quite getting the right narrative anchor that many other films find so easily. This anchor that I’m not feeling while watching the movie is what usually leaves me uncertain of what world or character I’m really following throughout the story. The film at times will feel as though it’s uncertain of even the point that we’re leading towards. As if I’m the judge warning a lawyer that his line of questioning needs to become relevant and it never does. These are all bad things for a movie to have. However, somehow with films such as Magnolia and 2001: A Space Odyssey they are problems that become the lesser evil somewhat. Eventually there is a feel that overpowers all other logical explanations as to the value of a particular piece of art.

While we can argue for certain films not falling as easily into this ‘art’ bracket, let us ignore that section of the discussion for this moment (as every hypothesis requires restrictions). Do we need meaning? Is it just that we’re admitting that we don’t get it or can we actually begin to question the filmmaker’s product? Can we blame Kubrick for not being clear?

Moments like this is what I feel the 2013 film Museum Hours was made for. We stand watching a woman’s lecture about the works on show in the museum. She gives her unique interpretations of some very well documented paintings and we simultaneously attempt to engage her thoughts while contradicting it with theories previously accepted by society along with our own. We start to look at the art and have to decide whether the visceral reactions that the images placed on screen are more important than any hope for intellectual ideas that the film are expected to bring up.

With cinema, especially with canon like 2001, I keep feeling this curated sense where I’m supposed to get something from it all. I stare at the screen with an intensity that one would have if we were to looking at an autostereogram in the 90s. I sit there staring and watching everyone else seeing the boat only to fuel my own frustrations. Though now I’m feeling more okay with not seeing the boat. Today I’m reevaluating that my experiences and deciding on a whole new scale of film watching. Meaning is no longer the only scale by which to decide the worth of a piece of art. Films like 2001 are films that I am destined to revisit every decade with anticipation of feeling I as well as it will be different everytime and that is value in itself.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    This is a great post. There are so many ways to "understand" film (as a whole, and individual films), and it's great to be open to however a film wants to work on you.

    I used to have a theory that some films are meant to be understood in a "right-brain" way and others in a "left-brain" way, using a very simplified definition of left-brain and right-brain. Left-brain movies are meant to be understood analytically – every little bit fits here or there like a puzzle, and you can come out of them going "yes, I understood that." Others are meant to be understood intuitively, or more experientially. They're the sort that wash over you and affect you deeply even if you can't really express what they mean. You're more likely to come out of these films going "I didn't get that, but it certainly was an incredible experience."

    I think it's possible for films to be both (Mulholland Drive is a great example of a film that works experientially as an intuitive film, but can actually be understood intellectually), and it's possible for some films to affect some people one way and others another.