Nationalism, the ideology which fuelled two centuries of increasingly bloody and technologically savage wars, is absent from “2001”. The overwhelmingly nationalist – as opposed to humanist, pacifist, or even spiritual – reaction to September 11th is also reflected in a comparison of the Apes movies: In the new one, Marky Mark is a proud American soldier, whereas in the original, Charlton Heston laughs heartily at an American flag!
A manned space mission to Jupiter, like the one in “2001,” wouldn’t be unimaginable today, but for some reason these kinds of voyages slowly dropped out of both the international agenda and our collective interest. Cold War one-upmanship, the more sportsmanlike aspect of that conflict wherein Russia and the US sent monkeys, dogs and so on into space-races, flittered away, it seems, with the moon landing. By 1980, the western Olympic boycott in reaction to Russia’s original invasion of Afghanistan ended the ‘civilized’ side of the duel.
Instead of the ultra-funky haute-couture space chairs and Russian-US joint space stations of “2001”, real humanity has almost gone backwards, more closely resembling the savage anthropoids of the film’s “Dawn of Man” opening act. Space seems farther away, and more pointless, than ever. True, the cold war is over, but it’s been replaced with something more sinister and ethereal. The most frightening thing in the film is the HAL 9000 supercomputer that goes haywire and tries to kill the entire space crew; it’s unnecessary to articulate what 30 years has taught us about that, except to hint that most humans in the real year 2001 would rather like to kill their computer.
Kubrick and Clarke’s odd fixation with the monolith – the big black block – is particularly relevant this year. In the book version, there’s a detailed explanation of how the giant stone tablet electronically takes over the minds of the ape-humans, slowly teaching them manual dexterity and pushing their intellectual limits. Then the next morning it’s gone, and human evolution has taken a giant leap.
So, in “2001”, human civilization isn’t natural, but controlled by some higher force. In the sequel, “2010”, we begin to understand the sentience of this force, and it becomes more clear and rational than the trippy acid-induced wackiness at the end of “2001”.
There is, unfortunately, a hopelessness to this scenario, both in its low esteem for human initiative, and in the violent use to which this new social advance is put. The ape-men, newly trained in tool-usage, immediately pick up old bones and bash the skulls of their local rivals at the watering-hole. Then, the ape-man throws the bone upwards, and in one of cinema’s most famous and incredible edits, it becomes a commercial, passenger spacecraft. Weapon / tool / transportation have become one, and all the million years of human history are reduced to that simple brutal inflection.
Imagine, instead, that the bone turns into a 767, laden with fuel and human beings. And imagine that the ape-man is at the controls. And instead of one monolith, there’s two…
A depressing vision, but no less depressing than the glorious year 2001. The super-civilization, monolithic America (or the West, if you think I’m pickin’ on Uncle Sam), has given tools, weapons and training to the so-called uncivilized cave-men of Afghanistan (and elsewhere). Of course, the unilinear cultural evolution model, wherein all societies advance steadily from ape-man to shopping-mall, has gaping holes, as does the magnanimity of the West’s technological “gifts.” But the monolith in reality, the military-industrial complex so visible in its World Trade Centre (a duolith, I suppose), is also more fragile than Kubrick ever imagined.
The only way to really see the year out is to revel in that brighter time, when war and presidents were unpopular and psychedelic visuals were considered an acceptable third act. I’m planning to gobble some mushrooms, synchronize Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” with the “JUPITER and beyond the infinite” screen that introduces “2001”‘s crazy flipout, and press play on both when we enter bat country.
Happy New Year!
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