Friday, January 29, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 - dir. Stanley Kubrick)

What can the most poetic movie that's ever been made possibly have to do with the evolutionary psychology of human nature? At first glance (and second, and third), Kubrick's magnificent 2001 seems to transcend any attempt to sully its significance with mundane psychological posturing. But, that would be to underestimate the power of the evolutionary psychological approach to human nature.

This is a film that, in many ways, defies description. Whenever one attempts to describe it to someone who hasn't seen it, one is gripped with a gnawing sense of incompetence. Rather like trying to describe green to a blind person, or rational discourse to Pat Robertson, describing this film simply doesn't work. This is because, like the best poetry, it doesn't have a "point." It doesn't have any meaning at all. Yet, as with the best poetry, it fills the viewer/reader with an overwhelming sense that profound meaning is deeply embedded in our lives....that there is apoint, in the grand sense, to our existence. And, research in evolutionary psychology explains why.

If the desire for "meaning" wasn't an important aspect of human nature, films like 2001 would be absolutely senseless. In addition to meaning in our mating relationships, our social relationships, the day-to-day sturm und drang of our own personal melodrama (much of which has been the subject of previous blog posts), people seem to have an insatiable appetite for a more transcendent peg they can hang their hat on. Religion may fit the bill for some but, regardless, this ineffable yearning for "meaning" is a powerful motivator of human behavior. Why? Apparently, this is closely related to our tendency to look for evidence of "purpose" in the natural world, including in the behavior of other humans. By being able to detect "purpose" as it relates to what other people do, we would have been able to better predict such behavior and, consequently, be in a better position to adjust our own behavior accordingly. These "purpose-detection" mechanisms would certainly lead to our attributing of purpose to things that wouldn't deserve it (e.g., supernatural agency lurking behind natural phenomena, ergo Pat Robertson's loopy diatribes about tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes). Evidence for this hypothesis has been elegantly provided by Deborah Kelemen who has demonstrated that teleological thinking begins in early childhood and persists into adulthood. Simon Baron-Cohen has suggested that much of the symptomology of autism is characterized by an impairment of an individual's ability to discern the intentions of detect the "purpose" behind their behavior. He calls this "mindblindness" and it has revolutionized our understanding of autism. Among other things, it suggests that people innately construct "theories of mind" about others that they interact with; theories about what their purposes are, theories about their intentions, theories about the meaning of their behavior.

Consequently, and as a likely by-product of this psychology, humans can be construed as meaning-detection machines. But, there is no reason that this innate cognitive machinery should stop with human interaction. It appears to be applied in a much broader way such that the "search for meaning" has become as elaborated as the plumes of the bird of paradise. And, this is why the poetry of 2001 has its magic. It is pure, crystallized meaning. This is why you are here. This is where you are headed. This is what you will become. This, along with the elegant articulation in poetic form, impacts our evolved human nature like a flash of light, making us experience meaning even when we can't really articulate what the film, itself, is "about." Perhaps only a poetic expression could possibly communicate all this to us. Kubrick's genius in 2001 is a powerful argument that this is the case.

I saw this film in 1968 upon it's initial release. It was at the Rialto theatre in Deer Lodge, Montana with my friends George, Ray, and Alan. The Rialto was constructed in the 1880's and was a source of dance hall and other musical entertainment for the cow-punchers and ranching families at that time and place. It was all velvet curtains and velvet ropes and elegance. We watched drop-jawed, re-fueled on Dots and Sugar Babies during the intermission, then fell back into Kubrick's vision. We were freshman in high school. After the "show" (that's what folks called movies back then), we talked and talked and talked about early man, space travel, personal transcendence, and...the meaning of all of this. As John Lennon suggested, this film should be playing 24 hours a day in temples all over the world. To Stanley Kubrick, I will be eternally grateful. And, for helping me understand much more about this experience, my humble thanks to Charles Darwin.

The Rialto Theatre - Deer Lodge, Montana


  1. Not only are you (apparently) not dead, but you resume with the film that sparked my cinematic interest in the first place. Nice choice! (Was about to take your page out of my Speed Dial, to boot.)


  2. Nope...not dead yet. Just pushed through the dreaded writer's block.

    I'm really glad you're enjoying these...

  3. Indeed. 2001 is the my own cinematic monolith. It spoke to me on a gut-level the same way music had since I were in the single digits. The low volume and pacing of the thing were so unlike anything I had seen before.

    I sort of disagree with your line: "This is because, like the best poetry, it doesn't have a "point." It doesn't have any meaning at all." I tend to describe the meaning of 2001 as being about exactly what it is. Similar to Roger Eberts remark: "It's not what a film is about, but how it is about it."
    But this is pedantic semantics. I entirely agree that attempting to describe 2001 directly is fruitless. And, to me, that IS the point of 2001. Kubrick (assuming here) attempted and succeeded at shifting the popular cinematic emphasis from plot points to impulsive/instinctual reaction on the part of the viewer. He knows something we do not, and we desperately want that same satisfaction, vis a vis your third paragraph.

    On a related note, I've wondered if Larry David was aware of 2001 when he (or whoever it was) wrote the line: "You yadda-yadda'd sex?" I think of the bone-toss in 2001 as the ultimate cinematic yadda-yadda, as, not only did it yadda right over thousands of years of evolution, but sex and sexual reproduction are simply taken for granted. Some read allegorical sexual themes into 2001: the phallic spaceship, the seminal-looking fluids during the stargate trip, Dr. Floyd referring to his daughter as "Squirt".
    And the obvious fetal Starchild. Overall I feel that Kubrick was intentional in leaving out the ongoing battle of the sexes; focusing instead on a singular idea of humanity, one without sexual identity, and possibly without a body.

  4. I believe the sexuality in the docking sequences, punctuated by the Blue Danube Waltz, was intended by Kubrick to be a clue for us that the transcendent, evolutionary process was taking place within technology, inferring man’s own transcendence toward “Creator.” If the phallic Pan Am ship approaching the space station was not enough, the opening of the moon base doors, also to the Blue Danube, to receive the moon lander ought to have left no doubt.

    Kubrick and Clarke, both, intended to show the HAL 9000 as becoming more human by demonstrating self-awareness and fear (Kubrick) and the clearly examined moral dilemma and subsequent insanity the computer faces in Clarke’s novel. Further supporting my belief that the human transcendent story was told with the parallel imagery of technology evolving into human-like existence, is Clarke’s portrayal of the HAL 9000 in 2010. There, we find the computer in spiritual and or intuitive contact with the aliens behind the monolith and, ultimately, embracing a willing self-sacrifice which is accepted, overcoming fear, because the machine believes the promise of hope—that it will continue to exist as something more—it will dream.

    It is reasonable to assume that Clarke used self-sacrifice as an expression of the pinnacle of readiness to transcend. Unconsciously, perhaps, the story includes the important myth which was still vital in 1968 culture, that human evolution is as much about moral growth as genetic advance— that there is a necessity of will. Since it is in the will where meaning has importance, only when a creature has a will, does evolution have meaning; and then the word is not evolution, but transcendence.