2001: A Space Odyssey

At the BFI screening I went to, we were provided with the interpretation of a New Jersey teenager called Margaret Stackhouse, written shortly after the film was first released (and available online here). Stanley Kubrick fully endorsed her reading, so it's likely the best place to look if one is searching for a guide to the film's ambiguities. Although Stackhouse builds alternative explanations into her analysis, the transcendent nature of the monolith (the mysterious object driving the plot of the film) is inescapable. Like the god Prometheus, it is there at the "Dawn of Mankind" to give us the tools to improve and murder each other: the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And at the end, a rapture. Stackhouse allows for either a capricious or a life-sustaining God, but it's some sort of interventionist God alright. In this regard it is worth comparing 2001 to last year's Gravity, in many ways just as visually impressive and innovative (and far more propulsive in a narrative sense) but also fundamentally concerned with the incredible unlikelihood that we have managed to get even this far. Gravity's commitment to our loneliness in the universe makes it the more coherent and admirable film.

It's telling that Kubrick's preferred analysis comes from a 15-year-old. No slight on Stackhouse intended, but there is something adolescent about 2001 in its complete devotion to cosmic musings at the expense of character. In fact, the only moment of human connection comes at the beginning, where space scientist Floyd has a skype conversation with his daughter, whose birthday he will miss. Interestingly, Kubrick used his own daughter Vivian for the scene, and that one slice of (autobiographical?) family life outshines an awful lot of the ponderous mechanics and dizzying lightshows that follow.


The Virgin Spring

The film begins with a prayer to Odin and ends with a prayer to God. Both are answered in their own ambiguous way. This being Bergman, the wronged father begins by procaming how he cannot understand a Creator that allows such evil to befall a good man. But rather than let that condemnation ring out into silence, he leans once again on the Christian imperatives of sin and redemption. And God listens: a stream appears from out of nowhere to baptise the father anew and wash away the step-sister's guilt. It's a more optimistic ending than Bergman will allow himself down the line.

And what of Odin in the beginning: the lusty, dangerous old man in the forest? He also answers prayers, or fulfills curses at least. The potency of the old gods may suggest that religions come and go, but evil and our attempts to deal with it are perennial concerns, both in the 13th century and in 1960. Then there is the title: the journey from innoccence to experience (sexual and moral) superimposed onto the changing of the seasons. The spring is that liminal time between bountiful summer and cruel winter, and the film's setting seems to move between all three. Evil, like weather, is both immutable and unpredictable.

Thankfully, Bergman's existentialist obsessions do not overshadow his real talent for intimate family drama, particularly in portraying the relationship between the sisters. Karin is already sliding towards corruption (dresses, dances and boys), yet her angelic countenance make her the favourite of the family. They also make her dark-haired (and pregnant) step-sister jealous. No sign of an expectant father appears. Did her lover abandon her, or maybe she was raped as well? We don't know, because any anger she may feel is not directed at the true source of her predicament, but serves as fuel for a murderous resentment against the perfect woman she can no longer be. Her confession before her father is the film's most powerful moment – far more so than the miracle with which it ends.


"It was true that the French, British, Germans and some other European peoples remained willing to make great sacrifices to defend themselves against aggression... But they had for the most part lost their appetite for national greatness and thus the imperative to order society accordingly. The long uncoupling of western European state and society from the project of making war had begun. Just as the interminable wars of past centuries had left their mark on European society, so now would the long peace shape domestic structures. The tradition of the primacy of foreign policy passed to the remaining European great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States." - Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy