I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey when I was nine years old. I was the only nine-year-old boy I knew who actually enjoyed this slow-moving sci-fi masterpiece with philosophical themes and crazy head-trips. To this day, it is difficult for me to find friends and family who will willingly sit down and watch it with me. Nevertheless, it remains my favorite film and, I believe, one of the greatest American movies ever made.
Imagine my deep surprise when upon my arrival to the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, MN, my friend and I entered a packed movie theater! If you haven’t been to see a movie at Heights, it is truly a marvelous, old-timey movie going experience. An older gentleman in a white tux and red bow tie plays old movie tunes on the organ at the front of the theater as it elevates into the air. I can’t be positive if folks were attending the film showing to steep in the cinematic experience of an America gone by, or if they were there to see and bask in Kubrick’s master work of film. Maybe they were there for both.
I had never been to the Heights Theater and so I was pleasantly tickled as I walked through the front doors and found a great painting of that foppish Hollywood cad, Clark Gable, grinning down at me dryly. There was a red curtain covering the screen. I could hear the “click, click, click” of the movie reel as it turned on the projector and the 70 mm screen experience felt like taking a step back in time. At the conclusion of the film, I kept recalling the scene from the movie musical Annie in which the redheaded “Little Orphan Annie” and her caretaker go to the movies together. They sing the catchy tune “Let’s Go to the Movies” and, ultimately, Annie and Grace don’t just go see a movie on the big screen. They have an experience.
Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey is a film that changed my life at a young age. It told me that there is actually something worthwhile about movies and that something can actually happen to us when we watch them. I never grow tired of viewing it and every time I watch it I notice something different that I had never noticed before. The Nietzschean themes of discovery, evolution, and creation are strongly present in Kubrick’s film. In fact, in college, I took a Nietzsche seminar and, for my big paper on his piece Thus Spake Zarathustra, I wrote a paper all about how astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) Star Child is actually a representation of Nietzsche’s übermensch. Due to the brand new to me, but rather old, context in which I was seeing the film, this for the thirty-fourth time in my life, I was able to let go of all the over-thinking and processing I do when I watch films like 2001 and just experience it, as if for the first time.
This time, much like when I was nine, I was keenly aware of how I felt during the movie. I was excited and in awe when the actors playing people of the future walked and/or ran upside down in Kubrick’s spaceships. I smiled as I watched the non-CGI ships move in time with Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. My heart raced in my throat as I watched Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) and his team of scientists approach the menacing black monolith in space helmets. My skin crawled as HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), the calculating supercomputer on board the sperm-shaped Discovery, refused Dave entrance to the ship after killing astronaut Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) in the black of space with “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Kubrick’s film is gloriously handmade. Much like David Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, 2001: a space odyssey is, clearly, a labor of handmade love. Kubrick’s spaceships are elaborate, spinning models. His planets are backlit with studio lights. His “Jupiter Space,” which still baffles the mind, is all bending plastic and metal to manipulate lights and gels. Sure, you can get caught up in the philosophy and baffling riddle of Kubrick’s film, based on a short story by the film’s co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, or you can just fall in love with the originality and affection on display in Kubrick’s handiwork. Kubrick, a long-time photographer, is less concerned with character development and far more invested in the images his camera lingers on. He has received equal amounts of praise and criticism for this tendency, but, love him or hate him, his lovingly homemade images find a way to eternally imprint themselves on your mind. This is not unlike the experience of viewing a film at the Heights Theater. The current WCCO Wurlitzer organ was installed in 1929. The projectors are quipped for digital presentations as well as 35 mm-70 mm reels of film. The theater itself was originally constructed in 1926 and remains a vitally important pillar of the arts in the Twin Cities. Not only that, but it is a relevant reminder of the gone by days of the fully immersive, handmade, American movie going experience.
Movies, and the theaters that show them, don’t feel homemade anymore. That intimate touch of love is gone. When I went to see Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, I was struck by the fact that the film itself, while a lively and moving piece of art, felt fabricated. What’s worse is that the surroundings are fabricated, cold, sterile, and dead. People gather into theaters like this and sit as far away from each other as possible in a cold, dark, large room. After several pesky ads, the movie just plays on the screen. When it ends, the lights dimly come up and everyone gets the hell out. Why? They may connect with the film but they are unable to actually physically, emotionally, and spiritually connect with their surroundings. America doesn’t make films like 2001: a space odyssey anymore and it sure as hell doesn’t make theaters like the Heights anymore. It is left to us, and maybe future generations, to keep these precious traditions going. My life has been changed and, ultimately, improved by the films of Kubrick. Let’s not give up on the possibility that more lives could be improved by the movies.