A call yesterday from KCBS radio in San Francisco reminded me of what I was too distracted to notice: That today, April 2, is the 50th anniversary of a 1968 premiere screening in Washington, D.C., of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film’s anniversary will be widely remembered with the approach of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Christopher Nolan will present a restored, 70mm print of it in mid-May. But on a more personal level, the birth of Space Odyssey is beyond forgetting.
I first saw it in Detroit at the age of 17, not in the downtown Summit Cinerama Theater, where it first showed in full 70mm glory, but slightly later in the western suburbs, where I lived. It wasn’t a movie you watched only once. From the beginning and through the years, actually, many of us saw it quite a lot. We watched stoned, for the effects. We watched straight, to argue about the strange ending. Sometimes, we watched with eyes closed, just for the music.
Mostly, I watched with a growing sense of wonder that a mere movie—a succession of flickering images—could take you so far beyond yourself. I was never one to get granular about plot, or about the exact meaning of the monoliths. But I was in awe at Kubrick’s ability to make us feel humble and small, yet somehow meaningful, in the face of the infinite. Space Odyssey was not quite a religious experience; but it was a touchstone, something to which you kept returning as the rest of pop culture became garish, or silly, or corrupt.
Nine years later, as it happened, I was among the early viewers of another space film, which at the time was simply called Star Wars. (All the dogma and episode-counting came later.) Someone chased me to a showing at the Coronet Theater on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. “You have to see this,” I was told. Repeat viewers were throwing popcorn at the screen and mouthing the lines of a movie that had only been open for a week or two.
They loved it. But I was profoundly depressed.
George Lucas, it seemed to me, had worked an inversion of Kubrick’s psychology. The Force, ostensibly something larger than ourselves, was easily cheapened into practical magic, a power that could be used, with the wave of a lightsaber, to vanquish an adversary and work our will. While Kubrick made us feel small, Lucas, intentionally or otherwise, made the smallest and most powerless among us feel as large as the universe itself.
Inevitably, the movie business adopted this heady stuff, reshaping itself around heroes and repetitive power myths in a never-ending Saturday matinee. Ticket sales exploded. George Lucas, not Stanley Kubrick, prevailed.
Still, it’s worth spending a minute on this 50th anniversary of Space Odyssey to ponder what might have been. Where might the movies have taken us, had we, the audience, lingered a bit longer with Kubrick in that mysterious, cosmic room?