Oliver! (Directed by Carol Reed)
The Nominees: Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel Rachel, Romeo and Juliet
2001: A Space Odyssey (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
My Nominees: Oliver (Carol Reed), The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey), The Producers (Mel Brooks), Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski),Yellow Submarine (George Dunning)
Just about the only reason that I sat down to watch Carol Reed's musical adaptation of Oliver! was to see the film that the academy had chosen for its Best Picture over Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I more or less expected to slog through a forgettable piece of musical flotsam that would instantaneously be forgotten the minute the final credits rolled (as had been the case with The Great Ziegfeld).
I was pleasantly surprised. Oliver! is bright and lively and quite a bit of fun, taking the difficult subject of a poor orphan in the standard Dickensian doldrums and turning it into a bouncy musical production. Although it doesn't rival something like Singin' in the Rain, it wasn't the dreck I had expected. I can see why the Academy voters were taken by it, and judging by the reactions to 2001 then and now, I sort of understand (but don't agree) why they wanted to overlook it.
2001: A Space Odyssey divides filmgoers - it is not a movie that exudes crowd-pleasing entertainment. This is a spare, cold examination of man's journey from his infancy through his ascension to space travel and points beyond. It is told without character development and uses sharp images and stiff dialogue. In most cases this would be fatal, but the cold, hard nature of this story permits a sparseness that asks us to offer our own interpretation.
The movie begins at the dawn of man, when ape-like creatures mill about in a dull, lifeless existence in a barren desert. We're invited to scene after scene a naturalism, of rocks and dirt and sky and sun with early man as an uncivilized monkey with large teeth whose means of communication doesn't rise above a primal grunt. This isn't the zoo animal, but a creature somewhere in the middle stages of his evolution. The apes still have hair, they live in tribes and sleep in caves but there is something in their eyes that suggests that their minds are beginning to ponder.
One day an object drops into their midst, a door-shaped monolith with a perfectly smooth surface. They reach out to touch it but pull their hands away. It seems to have a strange effect on the population, as they discover that if you hit someone with the bone, you can defeat them. The ravages of violence rage as they discover the joy of killing, destroying a pig-like creature and then one another.
The central ape (Moon-Watcher he was called in Arthur C. Clarke's book) sits upon a pile of bones, quietly flipping them back and forth and then with a ferocious glee discovers that they break when hit. What follows is an incredible ballet of violence that ends when he tosses a bone into the sky and when it falls back we see that this prehistoric weapon has become a nuclear satellite. It is the year 1999 and man's evolution has pointed him into space. A cave has been discovered on the moon containing a second monolith which emits an ear-splitting noise. Another jump and this time it's two years later aboard an expedition to Jupiter.
The present story involves that phase that will take us beyond our own imagination. In one incredible visual ballet, we see familiar shapes, wheels and, stick-like ships which dance around in a zero-gravity environment. We have evolved to the point at which we can take our instruments into the heavens though man has as little interest in his surroundings as Moon-Watcher did. Man isn't any more interesting or excited about his surrounds than a mouse in a cage. Aboard the spacecraft Discovery, the crew is in the hands of the ship's computer, the HAL 9000 which monitors it's vital signs and navigates the ship while most of its crew remains in hyper-sleep. The humans at the consoles are Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, who hardly seem to do any actual work.
Things start to go wrong, however, when HAL begins to question whether or not human faults will endanger the mission and sets out to kill the crew. In their attempts to shut him down, HAL kills Poole but Bowman shuts down HAL. It is only at this point that Bowman discovers a message that was to be viewed only by HAL. In it, the mission commander informs about the black monolith found on the moon and that this mission was to simply follow it to Jupiter and see where it led. Bowman does just that and sets out to farthest reaches of deep space and to the next stage of man's evolution.
The final sequence is one of the most famous and one of the most unusual sequences in film history. Bowman takes off through the cosmos to points beyond, through a strange metaphysical journey of light and sound. Other than the basic ascent, the images have no rhyme or reason, they exist as an evolutionary passage from Bowman's present through to his evolution to a place where time and space are merely concepts. Landing eventually in a strangely lit hotel room, Bowman ages rapidly, living a banal existence similar to the one he experiences aboard the Discovery. Finally arriving at an age far beyond antiquity he finds himself confronted by the monolith once more. Reaching for it, he is evolved to a rebirth into a "star baby" floating through the cosmos to begin the next phase of his evolution.
The key to 2001: A Space Odyssey is that Kubrick never tries to please us, he never puts images on the screen for our amazement. Kubrick, with this film as are all his other films, never regards the audience. He puts an image on screen because he wants it there. He knew how smart his audience was. His genius was in making his films spare enough that his material meets us halfway. He never tells us what to think but lays out a framework of images and ideas that are open enough that we add our own interpretation. 2001, can be interpreted in a hundred different ways and almost all of them would be plausible.
For me, the point of the view seems to be from the top down, as if man is being watched by some greater power, by a god-like being or an alien intelligence unseen by us. We are mere lab rats, caught in an experiment in evolution, and occasionally given a doorway (note the shape of the monolith) to our next step upward. From our infancy as mortal beings to our rebirth to a higher being, the experiment carries us along through a maze of light and sound to a point in which all of our creature comforts, and our sense of being, of comfort and even of Terra Firma become meaningless.
The vision of 2001 is far more generous than any science fiction film that I have ever experienced. The film is made up of spaces, silences and mechanical noises. Those are the things I remember. The plot is thin enough that we are invited to meet the narrative halfway, so that our minds can fill in the blanks. It would have been easier, in the end, to place Bowman on a new planet made of rocks and dirt and alien lifeforms but to place him in a strange hotel room somewhere beyond understanding then take him beyond our own concept of human evolution was a stroke of genius. Our final destination on this journey is the star baby, a celestial infant, comfortably tucked into a transparent womb. The baby turns to regard us in the audience and asks us to consider our own small existance. Who are we? How did we get here? Where did we come from? Where are we going?