In movies as elsewhere, 2001 was a scarred, haunted year in ways that few people could have begun to imagine. For the first time in 23 years as a film reviewer, I was, in the two months following Sept. 11, driven away from my main subject to write about the world beyond the movie theater, where films seemed not only trivial but also, from some angles, possibly complicitous in a real-world tragedy that seemed to mimic the extravagant apocalypses of too many Hollywood fantasies.
I won’t say that enough has been written or said about that cataclysm, its rippling ramifications or its troubling celluloid parallels. No doubt we will be pondering such matters for years to come. But I will turn to another subject which, though seemingly minor by comparison, became something of a personal obsession as this year of unexpected losses and significant absences drew to a close. I am speaking of the nonappearance of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. How could 2001 not return to America’s screens in the year that bears its number? If anything seemed to have a swallows-to-Capistrano inevitability in the first movie year of the third millennium, it was that Kubrick’s vision of this epochal year, made in the now distant reaches of the mid-’60s, would once again claim our attention, bidding us to measure its vaulting future against our more querulous and earthbound present.
I will admit more than a passing interest in the film’s revival. I was a 17-year-old cinephile when I saw its original roadshow run, in 70mm, at the old Ambassador Theater in downtown Raleigh in the summer of 1968. It was a staggering experience, far beyond anything I had ever encountered in a movie theater, and it would hardly be an overstatement to say that it changed my life. If any film propelled me toward a career as a film critic (though I could barely have suspected this at the time), it was 2001. Kubrick’s psychedelic sci-fi epic was the subject of my first movie review, written for my high school paper in the fall of ’68.
Thirty-three years later, I was naturally curious to re-encounter the film in the eponymous year. Yet its orbit proved unexpectedly erratic. In May, Durham’s DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, which had planned a tribute to 2001, was denied the chance to show it because Warner Bros., its current distributor (MGM produced and distributed the original), said it was planning a major re-release. That was a shame for DoubleTake, I thought, but at least Warner seemed to be promising the splashy revival the movie so obviously deserved. As it turned out, though, the promise was a hollow one–the grand return never materialized.
Instead, a very different sort of visitation from Out There than Kubrick’s dematerialized the twin monoliths of the World Trade Centers, and spun many lives–mine included–in unexpected directions. In mid-December, as a result of an Independent column I wrote about the calamity of three months before, I went to Vienna to speak on “American Film and Television in the Aftermath of September 11” at the Austrian Filmmuseum. My premise was that, in their conception, execution and widest impact, the attacks of Sept. 11 were far more about images–the inspiration of movie images, the horror of the televised images–than they were about airliners, skyscrapers, government buildings or, alas, even human lives.
Perhaps it was the proximity of Strauss’ “Blue Danube,” but Kubrick’s film remained on my mind throughout the time in Vienna. And when I returned to New York on Dec. 17, I discovered something as dismaying as it was startling: 2001: A Space Odyssey was playing at one of the largest cinemas in Manhattan, in a brand-new 70mm print, yet hardly anyone knew it because Warner Bros. had done virtually no publicity and had placed only a couple of small newspaper ads. The night I went to see it, there were perhaps a hundred people in a theater that holds 1,500. From the standpoint of anyone who loves this movie–or anyone who treasures the medium’s past–this throwaway opening was worse than no re-release at all. It was an insult, a desecration. By most logical measures it was also an absurdity: Why bother to make the print and book the theater, then tell no one about it?
My first surmise was that Warner had a contractual obligation to Kubrick–who was known to be planning the film’s 2001 re-release when he died in 1999–and fulfilled that in the most minimal way possible, because it didn’t think a full-fledged re-release would be profitable. (If so, that was a very dubious assumption, considering that 2001 was a huge hit on its first release, and grows in legend with each passing year.) But I don’t know the studio’s reasoning for certain. My guess now is that, like so many things that occur in the entertainment business, it didn’t reflect any sort of logic, but rather a complete, fumbling lack thereof. (Or maybe the logic was simply that 2001 wasn’t Harry Potter, so the hell with it.)
Whatever the impetus, Warner’s dumping of this legendary film was disgraceful. No less amazing was that it happened in New York and, from what I could tell, the press made nothing of it. I called an editor at Variety in Los Angeles and e-mailed four writers at The New York Times suggesting coverage, but these hasty entreaties produced nothing. The only positive response came from Roger Ebert in Chicago, who indicated he was planning to write something about the issue. I also proposed to the National Society of Film Critics that it issue a public condemnation of Warner; the group will vote on this unusual motion when it meets this coming weekend.
The scotched re-release aside, what did I think of 2001 decades after last seeing it? In fact, it’s nearly impossible for me to separate my reaction to the film from the conditions in which I encountered it, because the two seem so emblematically entwined. Of course, various things about the movie, from its jet-age modernism to its lyrical expectations of space flight (it was released the year before Americans arrived on the moon), now seem very much of their time. Yet, just as surely, 2001 retains its status as one of the cinema’s most dazzling and visionary masterpieces. In some ways, it is more astonishing in the winter of 2001 than it was in the summer of 1968.
It’s sad, of course, that most of the film’s predictions have not come true. And I don’t mean those concerning humanity’s future in space. I mean its implicit predictions about cinema and its audiences. Seen today, 2001 looks like the harbinger of a cinematic golden age that never arrived–or appeared only briefly and then vanished, like Brigadoon. The movie’s philosophical reach, its poetic ellipses and trust in the audience’s intelligence marked a catalytic time in American filmmaking when auteurism, the idea of the director as a film’s primary creator, was just beginning to take hold. That any film could make so many intellectual leaps and radical demands on the viewer and still turn into one of the biggest hits of its era now seems almost incomprehensible. And let it not be forgotten that 2001 succeeded despite the negative reactions of such leading American critics as Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffmann. The film largely belonged to–and helped define–a younger generation of cinephiles, future film critics included.
In the most optimistic 1968 view, Kubrick’s technological fable signaled a surge in the sophistication and adventurousness of adult filmgoers that conceivably might continue for decades. What happened, of course, was that this brave new wave, which involved audiences as well as filmmakers, crested in the early 1970s, then rapidly receded under the impact of a new generation of TV-influenced and -advertised popcorn blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. A decade after its debut, 2001 already looked like the product of an advanced civilization that visited this planet briefly, left a few mind-expanding movies to beckon us upward like those enigmatic monoliths, then returned whence it came.
That cinematic civilization’s influence nevertheless continues to be felt. It will be detectable, I hope, in the films that comprise my 10-best list for 2001. Indeed, the brains, idiosyncrasy and daring that distinguished Kubrick’s masterwork can be found in films made in the early 21st century. The difference is that such qualities now seem to point toward the past, not the future, and belong mostly to small films and maverick filmmakers; with a few exceptions, they are rarely found among big-budget movies aimed at the largest audiences, as 2001 was back in the tumultuous 1960s.
With their obvious action-movie influences, the events of Sept. 11 gave us a terrible reminder of the negative capacities of technology, faith and celluloid fantasy. 2001, with its essentially religious vision of humanity’s place in the cosmic design, still provides a positive, even transcendent view of the same factors. At the end of 2001, it would be nice to celebrate the movie over the terrorist action. But my point in invoking Kubrick’s film is to note that its non-appearance is the more immediate and dispiriting sign of these cinematic times. Increasingly, movies are the prisoners of ever larger and more irresponsible megacorporations like AOL Time Warner, the owner of the studio that in 2001 only gave us false promises of a major re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
To my mind, that nonevent symbolizes the current, pervasive decline in film culture. The following films (listed in order of preference) were exceptions to the general rule:
The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen, U.S.A.). Anchored by Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliant performance, the Coen brothers’ atomic-age noir reminded me of 2001 in its lapidarian surface, its emotional chill and its philosophic acuity.
Waking Life (Richard Linklater, U.S.A.). Linklater returned to the garrulous and cerebral meanderings of his Slacker, but digitally painted over the images he shot, to come up with the year’s smartest and most thought-provoking animated film.
The Day I Became a Woman (Marziye Meshkini, Iran). The formal ingenuity and thematic piquancy of the Iran cinema combine to witty effect in this three-part allegory of women’s lives, a striking debut by the wife of director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran). Kiarostami’s poetic, personal, digitally shot meditation on Uganda’s AIDS children, a surprisingly joyous film given the tragic subject, premiered at May’s DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival; it will go into national release in early 2002.
The Road Home (Zhang Yimou, China). The best film out of mainland China in several years, and a welcome return to form for its director, Zhang’s tale of a man recollecting his parents’ hard lives is an elegiac poem of absence worthy of John Ford–and of 2001.
Ali (Michael Mann, U.S.A.). Leaving interpretation to the viewer has fallen so far out of fashion since 2001 that this discreet, subtle, multi-faceted view of the former heavyweight champ will probably miss most of the accolades it deserves. Yet it’s easily the year’s richest major-studio outing, with a great performance by Will Smith.
Memento (Christopher Nolan, U.S.A.). With its backward-wending story of a man constantly on the verge of losing his memory, this edgy, downbeat neo-noir proved that at least some audiences have retained a taste for true formal adventurousness.
A Tale of Summer (Eric Rohmer, U.S.A). The final of Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” to reach the United States is as diaphanous, wise and inquisitive as its predecessors.
L.I.E. (Michael Cuesta, U.S.A.). The most impressive debut film by an American independent tells of a teenage boy’s encounter with a suburban pedophile. The script’s sensitivity was matched by Cuesta’s extraordinary direction of leads Paul Franklin Dano and Brian Cox.
Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, U.S.A.). A stand-out in a good year for documentaries, this portrait of a dying transsexual in the rural South looks beyond obvious labels and fashionable notions of identity, finding the lucid humanity behind the contested body.
A brief list of honorable mentions: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball, Majid Majidi’s Baran, Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, Richard Linklater’s Tape, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, Tim Blake Nelson’s O, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, Barbet Schroeder’s Our Lady of the Assassins, Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, Henry Bean’s The Believer, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, and Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s Amores Perros.