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12/20/2012 10:40 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

Beyond Category: 2001 and The Master

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"Movies as interdimensional as Kubrick's don't happen upon us too much anymore." -- David Thomson, Sight & Sound

"What's immense and perpetually restless, shifting to the eye and absorbing to the mind? The ocean. The human spirit.... The Master." -- Stuart Klawans, The Nation

Forty five years ago next April, six weeks after this year's 85th Academy Awards, a major, expensive studio film opened to nearly unanimous pans from the mainstream media.

Premiere audiences were at best befuddled and frustrated and demonstrably hostile at the latest work from a great filmmaker, who, after walking the red carpet for the last time in his life, was holed up in the cinema's projection booth, pondering why the tony charity audience was leaving the theater in droves, confused and mystified at a 2 hour and 20 minute film with only 22 minutes of dialogue that began at mankind's dawn, ended in a strange dimension, and in between transported the audience with detailed accuracy to a place they had never seen before. They were never grounded -- deliberately -- by any familiar touchstones. They were unprepared and resistant.

The filmmaker frequently said, "Movies are in their baby steps." Now, he was pushing them forward.

Mystified at what it meant, audiences and the press wanted to know the filmmaker's intention. There was obvious technical brilliance but all were at sea trying to encapsulate a non-linear, contemplative journey with interpretations that could be equally justified as being about evolution, reincarnation, arrogance, determination or courage. Everyone craved information, needed guidance.

The critic for the New York Daily News scrambled for a lost program, an elaborate visual booklet, hoping there'd be clues and information for her impending review. The critic for the New York Post was stymied, thinking the moon crater was a planet called "Clavius." The critic for the New York Times would describe the monolith, the key signpost for the plot, as a giant Hershey Bar.

In that first week, in the basement of the MGM Building, Stanley Kubrick was cutting 19 minutes from his epic film, under severe pressure from the studio, which was under siege by a serious proxy fight and weak advance sales for their most costly film. At the same time, two important pieces emerged that laid the groundwork for the 2001 turnaround that would take two years to solidify.

The first was a full page analysis in The Christian Science Monitor, not by their film critic, but by critic-at-large John Allen, who succinctly presented the case that Kubrick had created a revolutionary work. The second was the reversal by an important critic -- Joseph Gelmis of Newsday who, after writing his pan, returned to the film a second time three days later. It was then unheard of for a critic to take a second look; he completely reassessed his appraisal and saw a masterpiece. Both reviews appeared within five days of the opening, before the 19 minutes had been excised for all subsequent showings.

Gelmis' reversal was crucial for it was only the second time in film history that an important film voice had reversed an opinion in print (the first being Joe Morgenstern on Bonnie and Clyde the previous year.) In a sense, Gelmis' return to 2001 set the stage for the repeat viewings that propelled 2001: A Space Odyssey into a cultural phenomenon.

The film's technical presentation also proved to be a vital factor. 2001: A Space Odyssey opened as a roadshow presentation in 70 mm. and Cinerama, a presentation that signified stature for the most important films. Key cities had designated "roadshow theaters," and following the rules of the stage, tickets were booked in advanced, at higher prices, with specific seating on a more limited performance schedule, usually 10-12 showings a week.

After studying 2001's box office performance, it was evident that the film's grosses in its general 35mm release were much weaker than traditional, linear roadshow films, i.e. The Sound of Music, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. The 2001 audience craved 2001 with its full technical bells and whistles, projected in 70mm, with stereophonic surround sound. It was essential for the transporting experience.

In March, 1970, at New York's Ziegfeld Theatre, 2001 was relaunched in its original glory as "The Ultimate Trip." With the opening chords of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," an ovation erupted. The exhilaration was palpable.

One wished Stanley was in the projection booth, feeling the goosebumps.

Kubrick this year has been accorded more honors and attention than any other filmmaker with the huge, all encompassing 646-piece Stanley Kubrick archive exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the satellite "Kubrick: The Ultimate Trip" exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Both are on view for seven months, with accompanying retrospectives.

The Academy's opening evening was hosted by Malcolm McDowell, who ironically pointed out that Kubrick's only Oscar was for 2001's special effects, not for directing or producing any of his numerous masterpieces. It was also reinforced by the stunning 70mm. clip of 2001 that closed the evening that seeing the film in 70 mm. is the only way to fully experience his odyssey in a new frontier.

Now we are in the midst of another awards season and confronted by another movie by another visionary director, filmed in 70mm., that wrestles with audiences in a similar way to 2001, with indelible sequences that exhilarate, spectacular imagery that stirs the imagination and spaces that either confound or illuminate, depending on one's openness to accept a film that isn't wrapped up in a tidy package, one that stretches conventional narrative boundaries.

Both are related this year by attention from Sight & Sound, the oldest and most prestigious English-language film magazine. Since 1952 and every decade since, the journal has conducted what is arguably the most significant poll among a wide range of international critics to determine the greatest films of all time. They subsequently expanded their polling to include separate lists from directors for their choices of films which have stood the test of time and a determination of the best film of the year.

It took 24 years for 2001: A Space Odyssey to enter the poll's top ten, when it placed 10th in 1992. In 2002, it climbed to #6, where it remained this year as the number of voting critics, academics, writers and programmers expanded to 846. In the directors' poll, where 358 filmmakers ranging from Woody Allen to Aki Kaurismaki, Martin Scorsese to the Dardenne Brothers, were asked for their assessment of the 10 greatest films, 2001 was number 2.

All the resistance and confusion that greeted the film has been replaced by enough analysis, dissection and dissertations over the 45 years since its release that it is now at the pinnacle of the Kubrick canon.

As for Sight & Sounds' polling of the best films of 2012, first place went to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a film that explores the interior frontier with a daring structure and a probing sensibility that compares to the challenges 2001 offered audiences.

While The Master, like 2001, also has meditative and metaphysical leanings, areas that tend to unnerve audiences, it was greeted, unlike 2001, by many rapturous reviews describing its wondrous surprises and the consummate craftsmanship that sweeps one into post World War II America, enhanced by Anderson's inspired decision to shoot in 70mm. That decision brings an immediacy to the plot, characters and visuals that makes one a participant in the period.

Watching the beautifully detailed department store sequence, with troubled Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix ) trying to conform to the middle class he photographs while a seductive model floats throughout, I could practically smell the store's perfume. Memories of my mother trying on various outfits were waiting around each corner as the model glided by.

And when Freddie runs along and then jumps aboard the double-decker yacht slowly moving towards San Francisco Bay, there is a visceral reaction as the combined movement of camera, ship and Phoenix's physicality turn the audience into stowaways about to meet the magnetic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the distinctive vessel that was formerly FDR's. Per Richard Brody in The New Yorker, "Anderson has made the closest thing to a 3-D movie without glasses."

We're on another kind of trip with Freddie as he navigates the twists and turns of his relationship with Dodd. We get clues about his past: taken by his ingenuity at tapping a torpedo for alcohol; distressed at his shyness when smitten by young Doris; uncomfortable when his sand-lady humping continues too long; scared when he rages against those questioning Dodd.

And Dodd plays him like a brilliant conductor: giving him a sense of family; pushing him to the limits of the tests he devises; basking in the wildness of a scoundrel while maintaining his own respectability.

Time shifts but not necessarily in flashback. We go back and forth between a psychological contest, a period adventure and a love story.

The emotional churnings are conscious and subconscious, paralleling the film's opening shot of the swirling ocean that sets the stage for what's to come, and repeated at two other transitions on Freddie's journey: shipping to Shaghai and thereby allowing Doris to visit her family in Norway; arriving in England after Dodd's mysterious phone call, while on the unseen movie screen, Casper the ghost is playing pirate, stating "the master never leaves the ship."
But who is The Master? Who's calling the shots?

Three is a magic number. The monolith also appears three times in 2001, each signaling another stage of development: when the ape touches it, leading to the iconic millennium cut of "ape-bone-ship;" when the monolith is discovered on the moon ("I think you've got something here, Ralph"); when it emerges before the aged Bowman (Keir Dullea) becomes the StarChild... or does he?

With both films, the rhythms and the logic are unexpected and unsettling to those expecting conformity to traditional storytelling. But if you're transported by the power of the filmmaking, repeated viewings bring new discoveries and enjoyment. Per Manohla Dargis in the New York Times re The Master last month: "Deciding is part of the film's pleasure and one reason I look forward to seeing it a third time."

'Getting it' matters to some degree.

Says A.O. Scott in the New York Times, "The divide seems to be not between people who 'get it' and those who don't but rather between those who are frustrated by not 'getting it' and those (like me) who enjoyed it even though we didn't 'get it.'"

When Stanley was about to cut 2001 that first week, my argument was "those who 'get' 2001" will like it more with the 19 minutes remaining. For those who don't 'get it,' the cuts won't matter."

I can't remember who raised the question, "What about 2001?", when we were brainstorming the possibility of restoring the pie-throwing sequence in Dr. Strangelove. A Clockwork Orange was in the throes of pre-opening stress. Thinking about a 2001 restoration was too daunting, so either he or I answered, "Now now."

One word reappearing in The Master's reviews and articles that discuss its "perplexity" is enigmatic.

Why are we repeatedly told "enigmatic" places a qualification on recommendation? We live in a world of mostly grays; definitive blacks and whites are the exceptions.

"I am sure that there's something in the human personality which resents things that are too clear, and oppositely something which is attractive in puzzles, enigmas and allegories," said Kubrick to his biographer, Alexander Wallker.

Appreciation takes time to build. What is certain is that original, groundbreaking works like The Master will generate significant ancillary revenues for generations to come. And with the amazing technological advancements we have since 2001 was released in 1968, I expect it will take less than 24 years for The Master to enter Sight & Sound's top ten.

We are dealing with unequal creative levels in awards competitions. Movies that take you to new places in new ways, that expand the medium, that turn baby steps into sprints, can't compete with the traditional in today's commercial time-frame. Unlike 2001, which was nurtured for two years before its successful relaunch, transforming movies must have an immediate strategy and substantial backing to guide audiences to new territory.

We are at another level, beyond category, as Duke Ellington aptly characterized Ella Fitzgerald.

This is the sixth in a series of reminiscences and commentary about Stanley Kubrick written by Mike Kaplan, a veteran film executive who was Kubrick's marketing man for his film 'A Clockwork Orange,' having also worked extensively on the release of 'Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.' Previous installments can be found here, here, here, here and here. Kaplan began his career as an associate editor and critic for The Independent Film Journal. He's also worked closely with Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Lindsay Anderson, Mike Hodges, Barbet Schroeder, Alan Rudolph and Abraham Polonsky. His producing credits include "The Whales of August" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."