Origin, Purpose & Mystery: 2001 at Museum of the Moving Image
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Some filmgoers might believe they're incapable of experiencing true movie magic anymore, let alone with a work of cinema 46 years old, one they may have seen before, perhaps countless times and even on the big screen. Some, beaten and battered by what mostly passes for modern spectacle, indiscriminate pixels bashing against each other in an increasingly rapid, Gen ADD editing pace, are resigned to the fact that truly moving cinematic epics seem long bygone, antiquated and ineffective, to any audience, contemporary or otherwise. Some, simply, don't want to get off their couches on the weekends, let alone hop a subway to another borough. I won't name names. You know who are. Murray.
It is to this deflated group of Tri-State cinephiles that I sound the following clarion call; BEHOLD! I bring you tidings of GREAT joy! There is such an epiphany to be had and it is within twenty minutes reach. Give or take. Check the MTA website.
NYC's wondrous Museum of the Moving Image, a veritable shrine to film fanaticism, plays host to one of the miracles of the cinema, in its intended and RARELY presented format, two final times this weekend. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY continues to divide movie lovers to this day, both inspiring and defying explanation in near equal proportion. When it premiered, during an increasingly tumultuous decade, Kubrick's transposition of Homer's epic to the far reaches of our solar system both baffled audiences and connected firmly with a changing zeitgeist. Even his own fans, who were accustomed to his controversial, yet admittedly more conventional, works like 1962's LOLITA and 1964's DR. STRANGELOVE, found themselves in utter puzzlement at this bold attempt at new cinema, a brave narrative gamble that not only provides no answers, but seemingly no exposition. To this day there exists no middle ground on this movie, which makes it that most cherished of all works of art; the unending debate.
One aspect of the film that seems to be almost universally agreed upon, however, and this is true of very few films, concerns its optimal viewing mode. Everyone acknowledges, whether you love or hate the film, your best and perhaps only chance to truly appreciate it is on the biggest screen possible. Kubrick desired no less than a completely immersive experience, to take viewers on a virtual trip into what he and the finest scientific minds of the time considered the best-guess scenarios of what space travel would be like in the eponymous year. To that end he employed photographic effects geniuses Con Pederson and the legendary Doug Trumbull to design and oversee the intricate, painstakingly crafted model work that would convincingly transport the audience to spaceships, satellites and the moon a full year before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap. Then he shot the whole shebang in SuperPanavision, ultimately releasing it in the now defunct curved-screen Cinerama format. If nothing else, if unapologetic or even exultant over the film's perhaps impenetrable plot, Stan the Man still wanted you to feel like you'd travelled to Jupiter and back, if perhaps not as transformed as the lead character.
I've seen 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY on the big screen a few times already, on canvases of varying size. The best being perhaps the long gone Astor theater in Times Square during a one-week screening in the titular year. It was a brand new 70mm print, the most massive unspooling I'd taken in of Kubrick's masterpiece to that time. It was only at this screening that the one aspect of the film that'd been lost on me, the trippy stargate sequence, finally clicked, and it was due to something so seemingly rudimentary as the size of the screen. I'd only previously appraised it a series of experimental FX bells & whistles that were not only dated, but didn't match the otherwise ace work of Pederson and Trumbull. Now, via this 70mm print, it became an experience. I went through the gate and subsequently witnessed the dawn of the universe with Dave Bowman, and I got a little shiver up my spine during the journey. It finally came together perfectly. It was now complete to me. What I'd loved before and championed as one of the greatest achievements of the cinema, surely its maker's finest 2 plus hours, I'd somehow impossibly come to love even more.
I say all this to make a simple point; the experience of going to the movies should be, used to be, as important as the movies themselves. Under the proper conditions it can change your mind about a film, perhaps even film itself. While we decry the change advancing technology inevitably brings to our beloved art (smaller and smaller screens until we're watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on our iPhones, day-of-release VOD purchases resulting in increasingly empty art houses), we who live in the Tri-State area are blessed with better options; repertory houses, museums, even the occasional re-release of a classic, and sometimes we need reminding of this.
Last week I was lucky enough to attend a 70mm screening of 2001 at Moving Image. I sometimes get disheartened by the low turnout at these events. As pertains to Moving Image in particular I hear constant whining about its inconvenient location. For the record it's a twenty minute subway ride. Grow a pair. Of feet I mean.
I'm glad to report the screening was packed, attendees jockeying for best eye-line seats til the last second before the overture commenced. Yes I have a habit of griping whence surrounded by a crowd of fellow film fanatics, which only increases tenfold when it's an auditorium of 500 Kubrick experts (for more, follow me on twitter @NitrateStock). Truth is there's no other group I'd rather spend time with, whether it results in boiling blood or euphoric soul mating. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, neophytes asking dozens of questions of their well-Kubricked companions (my fave: "Do we find out what the black thing is at the end?")
There was a sense of awe, equally spread out across the audience, at what was about to unspool, and even because it was unspooling, that we were watching celluloid, widescreen 70mm SuperPanavision, a near-extinct format. When the curtains slowly parted and the opening notes of Thus Spake Zarathustra bellowed, the gathered were properly in the film, within it, awed by the expanse of space that seemed to engulf us. I am in constant envy of those lucky enough to make of these events their first viewings of a classic, as I was raised on their faded pan-and-scan iterations (I first watched 2001 as part of the Channel 5 Movie Club back in 1983, and found myself no less mesmerized). At an event like this, though, I am so re-imbued with the spirit of a truly transcendent work of art, it makes a youthful newbie of me once more.
I must make note of the facilities at this crown jewel of Astoria. Moving Image reopened in the winter of 2011 after an extensive renovation and expansion. Their new screening spaces are the very definition of state-of-the-art, capable of all manner of film presentation, from modern DCP and Real3D, to widescreen celluloid formats, like CinemaScope and VistaVision, to, well, nitrate stock. I'm no tech writer when it comes to film, but I can attest to the excellence that is the museum's new 267-seat Sumner M. Redstone theater; the comfort of the new seating, the powerful sound system and the enormous screen itself, upon which this pristine print, from the Warner Brothers vaults, was displayed. I think last week's screening may have bested the one 13 years ago at the Astor theater, if for no other reason than this time I was looking forward to the stargate. And damn did it not disappoint.
So now I say to the jaded, the skeptic and the lazy; it would be absolutely criminal to let this magic opportunity slip past you, especially if there's nothing life-or-death on your agenda. There are two final screenings to be had, two last chances to avail yourself of the closest thing to actual space travel you're ever likely to get, as the film's predictions were a tad optimistic. As I've repeated already a 70mm screening doesn't happen too often, to put it lightly, and even less often in a space this devoted to the best quality prints and presentation. Even haters of the film who otherwise count themselves as devout film geeks should give it one last go in the proper venue and format. It is truly one of the most unique experiences the medium has ever produced, and Moving Image is one of the few exhibitors who can still do justice to Kubrick's vision.