BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The centerpiece of the BFI’s monumental Days Of Fear & Wonder SF season is the country-wide release of the newly evolved digital print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this is one of the central monoliths of SF cinema, a masterpiece widely considered as one of the top dozen films ever made, regardless of genre. Now of course we’ve been here before as I’ve seen the film three times on the big screen since the Menagerie was launched, I’m not going to catch it on this release as I’ve already seen the film this year (I will shortly be taking another Blu-Ray peek once I’ve published this mission statement however), and I like to leave some period of big-screen reflection before going back beyond the infinite. That hasn’t warned me off the wealth of Q&A’s, discussions and other associated activity which the BFI are hosting as part of their re-release, starting with a screen-talk with the two surviving members of the mission, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, who jetted over to the UK to promote the film as part of its 46th year in operation. Once again here’s that epic trailer to put us in the mood;
Hosted by Matthew Sweet for BBC Radio 3 (not BBC Twelve which was inevitably referenced) this fantastic event had Dullea and Lockwood in fine form, ably supported by Sir Christopher Frayling and Mancunian star seer Professor Brian Cox debating and discussing the film, and anything I can say about this is rather redundant as you can delve into the full session here. Well, OK then, I’m a bit of a victim of my own obsession as there is very rarely anything arising from these sessions that I haven’t already digested, I guess when you’ve written your 12,000 word Ba Hons dissertation on the film, and have consequently read every book on the subject and every film related article in the English language since 1968 that you could get your paws on by 1996, well then believe me there are few mysteries left to explore. But it’s always fun to retread hallowed ground, and some of the questions and points raised by the audience were of a very high quality, including one members reading of the film as a metaphor for consciousness with HAL as our tool of technological evolution grappling with Dave Bowman’s human ingenuity – the first making it to the Stargate heralding the next phase of evolution, hence the reborn Starchild.
Brian Cox blew everyone’s gourds with the staggering factoid that presently our understanding is that there are something like 35 billion planets in the Milky Way alone that have Earth like habitats, and if that doesn’t pulverize your primitive mind then here’s the killer – there are 350 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Are we alone? Of course not, not when you factor in those incredible statistics, but I don’t think we’ve been visited yet or you’d think someone would have got an interview or something by now. The usual appreciation of all the effects being executed in camera with revolutionary SFX was raised with Lockwood and Dullea spilling the beans on how certain sequences were achieved, and how certain improvisations of theirs found their way into the finished epic – there is a long anecdote from Lockwood in reference to the lip-reading sequence which I won’t repeat here, suffice to say it proves just how brilliant a director Stanley was in the context of collaboration and inspiring everyone’s ideas and imaginations. For me the most insightful point came from Frayling with his emphasis on the film’s title which seems to get lost in the narrative discussions, as the film is an Odyssey in the Homeric sense, with HAL’s single eye of the Cyclops (and the original concept for the computer was a female voiced entity named Athena by the way) and the quest / journey plot driving our species back where we came from – back home to the stars.
After this astounding session on my favorite film (and another is planned this week on Christopher Frayling’s new book on the films production) how can one possibly top that you may ask? Well, there was one thing that could occur should the universe demand it, like say the opportunity to interview Frank Poole and Dave Bowman within an intimate group of four or five other critics over at the Southbank on Thanksgiving no less? Yes gentle reader, we have reached the apex of my achievements thus far, and I’m still kind of in awe at the experience. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interview ‘talent’ over the past few years at the LFF and in Toronto of course, but it’s something I’ve always resisted as it seems to be taking this hobby in a much more serious direction, and quite frankly I’ve got enough stress and grief in the day job without setting myself deadlines and workloads for what ostentatiously should be a fun exercise. I will make an exception though to meet and speak with the two leads of my favorite all time movie, so when the invitation came through a few weeks ago to attend this press event you can imagine my rather awed reaction.
So for an hour we chatted with Keir and Gary (first name terms now y’see) and they went through some of the well established anecdotes of the film and the shoot all those eons ago, no Stanley wasn’t a tyrant or an oddball but was in fact a calm and deeply curious and collaborative artist, and we even learned that Warren Beatty was desperately orbiting the Bowman part which is something I’ve never heard before. They were both quite affable and charming and threw certain questions back to us on the likes of Interstellar and Gravity which inevitably came up as comparisons (they both liked the films, although Kier hasn’t seen Nolan’s latest yet), before I stutteringly squeaked my question about how cold and robotic their performances are in opposition to HAL being the warmest and most emotional character in the film, and was this a conscious decision that Kubrick suggested during the production? They were both warm and engaging chaps, I’m choosing my words carefully but Lockwood is a bit of a firecracker, although he did cite Blade Runner as the only other SF masterpiece so I think we can forgive him his shameless name dropping and his rather abrasive yet amusing demeanor. We had a chat about the scene above in response to my question (and no they played it that subdued way as part of their professional in-universe backstories, not at Kubrick’s direct instruction if you’re interested) and on the way out of the BFI, clutching my newly acquired autographs I spotted one of the actresses from that great British TV institution Two Pints Of Lager & A Packet Of Chips. My god it’s full of stars indeed, and if you ask me nicely one day I might tell you the story about the disappearing blue scarf;