23 June 2019

When Showing Tells

by Leigh Lundin

HAL 9000
Addicted to the Hard Stuff

From about age eight, I devoured science fiction with a passion. If I’d read Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’ then, I didn’t recall. Certainly I wouldn’t have guessed it would inspire arguably the finest science fiction film of the past half century. I didn’t make the connection at the time.

Nothing was going to stop this impecunious Greenwich Village student from seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. For one thing, few critics and even fewer directors understand ‘hard science’ fiction. Those meager numbers unsurprisingly thin as a shrinking percentage of the populace take science itself seriously.

Back in April 1968, articles and advance marketing drove the buzz in New York City. Writers droned on and on about the beauty of the space ballet. Computer trade journals discussed the technology of HAL. Gossip columnists debated how to pronounced the lead actor’s name. New York’s theatre scene gushed that the chimps were portrayed by dancers. Much later we’d learn they were acted out by professional mimes.

2001 going ape

Within days, the excited film talk turned to disillusion and disappointment. Even SF fans emerged from the premier saying, “Huh?”

WTF?

Foremost, the original cut fell victim to that movie-goer tendency to rush from a theatre before the first credit rolls. (The credits stampede has become such an annoying phenomenon that some directors reward fans who sit through until the end with further scenes.) Back then, fatigued by 2001’s seemingly endless ‘acid trip’, theatres emptied moments before the crux of the story revealed itself. Audiences missed the entire point of the story.

Stanley Kubrick sliced and diced the ‘acid trip’ (now called ‘star gate’) and reworked the production’s final few minutes. Even so, readers had to wait for Clarke to finish the novel written in parallel to piece together the entire affair. Clarke’s earlier 1948/1951 short story wouldn’t prove helpful at all.

Down the Wrong Path

As a penniless student, I refused to miss a second of the film’s original two hours, forty minutes. Although I remained through the ending, I left confused for a different reason. Not until the book came out did I realize a common story-telling technique misled me:

Showing, Not Telling

To demonstrate I wasn’t the only person led astray, I quote Wikipedia:

In an African desert millions of years ago, a tribe of hominids is driven away from its water hole by a rival tribe. They awaken to find a featureless black monolith has appeared before them. Seemingly influenced by the monolith, they discover how to use a bone as a weapon and drive their rivals away from the water hole.

That happened, but that’s not what happened.  To flesh in more detail:

Following the unveiling of the monolith, these ancestral apes take up long bones as clubs. In a slow-motion orgy of destruction, they bash discarded skulls into shards. In the next scene, they enthusiastically wield clubs to kill their hated enemies.

2001 Dave Bowman in a pod
That key led some to a false conclusion:  
The monolith triggered violence and aggression.

The writers had intended the scene to show:
The monolith precipitated evolution.

No one knows how many viewers interpreted the scene wrongly. Between that problem and the abortive rush-out-the-door ending, Kubrick and Clarke managed to confuse an entire city and probably an entire nation.

Afterword

I hazard the filmmakers became blinded by proximity– they’d grown too close to that vignette to realize it could lead to misunderstanding. A fix could have been easy.
  1. The primates drive away sabre-tooth tigers or woolly mammoths, not a warring primate clan.
  2. The primates learn to dig, devise, or divert water using their evolving brains, not brawn.
They had me as a fan of science fiction, of Clarke, of Kubrick, and especially oblique story-telling, but a small mistake left me in the wilderness. As I write, I try to bear that lesson in mind.

Afterward

Nonetheless, I love 2001. Revisions have clarified and far more answers are available now than on opening day.

Months later, I would see another of my favorites in that same theatre district, Silent Running. About the same time while still on a student budget, a faded poster lured me to spend a couple of hours in a drab Greenwich Village dollar theatre, an elephant graveyard of soon-to-be-forgotten films. Filmed on a shoestring budget, that obscure celluloid strip turned out a gem in the rough. THX-1138 was the product of an unknown 24-year-old writer/director… George Lucas.

Arthur C Clarke’s short story? After seventy years, it shows its age, but it’s worth reading. We’re pleased to bring you ‘The Sentinel’ PDF and MP3/M4B audiobooks. You can also read or listen to 2001: A Space Odyssey provided for free by the thoughtful people at BookFrom.net. To listen or download, don't be misled by the nearby ‘Text-to-Speech’ icon, but click on the Listen 🔊 link in the upper right corner of the page.

8 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Got me thinking early on a Sunday morning. Well done.

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun and interesting stuff, Leigh. I have to admit I'm not a big fan of 2001. You really did have to be stoned to like it. And I remember in film school (USC) Lucas, who went there, was a big deal as was THX, which we had to watch at least once a semester :-) .

John Floyd said...

Leigh, what a great post, and an interesting analysis of a groundbreaking, and yes, confusing, movie. I saw 2001 while in college, and--as you said--all of us left the theater mumbling and grumbling.

Thanks also for the chance to read "The Sentinel" again.

Lawrence Maddox said...

I like your monolith “fix,” Leigh. My favorite part of 2001 has always been the showdown with Hal. It’s a scary depiction of AI, way ahead of its time in that regard. I also appreciate your reminder of how important going to movies used to be.

Eve Fisher said...

I was lucky enough to see 2001 in 1968, at a cinemascope theater. I was 14, and it blew me away. I felt like I'd actually been in space, afterwards, and while I had lots of questions - it still didn't matter.

R.T. Lawton said...

Leigh, I took the monolith scene as the apes getting an advancement in technology, but as we have learned, an advancement in technology can also have the unintended consequence of providing another way or a better way to kill our fellow man. For instance, dynamite was originally intended to more safely blast rock. Airplanes were intended to transport people, but they also led to fighter jets and bombers. Even advances in chemical fertilizers to help crops grow better and pesticides to protect crops from insects have now helped pollute our environment to lethal levels in some areas. Man needs to learn how to control technology advances BEFORE they end up in a confrontational situation like the astronauts did with HAL.

Leigh Lundin said...

Hey, O’Neil! That’s an accomplishment for anyone on a Sunday morning!

Paul, I remember your talking about film school. THX-1138 is worth watching once, but sheesh. I wouldn’t want to sit through it every year. I seem to recall a bit of wheel-spinning, which slowed the pace. Likewise, as much as I like 2001, the psychedelia scenes seemed interminable.

John, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s easy to misjudge ‘speculative fiction’ of ¾-century ago— fossilized plants on the moon, canals on Mars (which now appears possible). But science fiction isn’t about that at all, but about us. Thanks, John.

Larry, in one of my grad school courses, I posed a question: If we program a computer to simulate intelligence, how can we distinguish an evolved program from real intelligence? Put another way, can step-wise refinement AI become sentient? We’re rapidly approaching the point when the questions– and Asimov’s Laws– become important. We’ve long fretted about introducing compassion into artificial intelligence, but now we wonder about a world in which governments discount or dismiss compassion as a matter of policy. Personally I prefer Helva to HAL.

Eve, it’s impressive how well 2001 has aged. The ships and spacesuits still seem modern. We’re led to believe HAL is physically huge. A ship of today might have compact CPUs but might have a siszable server room for storage.

RT, your comment makes me think of the author John Brunner. In one or two of his novels, he comments on superior races who didn’t invent CBR warfare, internal combustion engines, and plastic refuse.

Stephen Ross said...

Great post, Leigh!
One of my favorite movies. First saw it around 73 in a "Cinerama" theater (we had one of those in Auckland). Have seen it many many times since. Best one was a 2 a.m. screening when I was at university. Oh, and the first movie I ever bought in blu-ray format.