Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] 2001, Lion Hunt, What’s Going On

[99 Problems] 2001, Lion Hunt, What’s Going On

Originally published on 7 June 2010, a time when I apparently believed Stanley Kubrick to be good.

The other night I accidentally stabbed myself in the left pinky while whittling. I have never been able to appreciate the ease of playing octaves on the piano or using the left-side shift key so much. On an unrelated note, I had the joy/unjoy of reviewing 2001: A Space Odyssey the last couple days. I’m waiting to get a movie that is less than 180 minutes long. I’m also checking out the eternally cool What’s Going Onby Marvin Gaye and the ancient Lion Hunt reliefs.

2001 is the most boring film I have ever seen. It is devoid of plot. There is very little character development. There is about 45 minutes of dialogue in the whole thing. And the most emotional moment is when a computer is shut down.

2001 also happens to be one of the most beautiful and breathtaking things I have experienced. I have never wanted to fall asleep, scribble copious notes, and obtain a civil union with a dead director simultaneously before. The film is about pictures, machines, unanswered questions and primal instincts.

Kubrik was obviously a gamechanger. His revolutionary insight is one of the few that comes close to Hitchcock. 2001 is full of shots that would develop into staples of Kubrik’s repertoire. The camera-work is long, wide, colorful, and dizzying. There is also the famous cut where a bone turns into a spaceship. Really wacky. The director also makes solid use of non-pictures. At the beginning of the film, even before the MGM logo, there is a 3 minute black screen with only Ligeti’s Atmospheres playing. Ligeti’s music is puzzling and terrifying to most listeners, especially when paired with a black room and black screen or a bunch of apes jumping around. It evokes the primordial instincts that govern the first section of the film. It also refers to chaos before creation, a kind of pre-time wobble and confusion. Almost as important as the pictures themselves, Kubrik made famous use of “classical” music instead of an original score. It skillfully employs Johann Strauss’s On the Banks of the Blue Danube to compliment the whirling and twirling of a spacecraft – not unlike a Viennese waltzer. Like the Ligeti scores involved, 2001 uses the introduction to the Richard Strauss tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is used a few times, and they all are pretty incredible. While some suggest that this is a hint to read into the film as a Nietzschian allegory, I believe it bears a more musical purpose. The notes of the primary melody in Zarathustra outline the harmonic series, a combination of tones that are inherent in nature. By using these tones, Strauss (and subsequently, Kubrik) is suggesting the same primitivism as the Ligeti. And since the song is used to bookend the film, it also encourages the timelessness and infinity that the film preaches.

That huge paragraph was necessary. So are the next few.

HAL-9000 is just as much of a social statement as What’s Going On. While the Gaye album protests and preaches the injustice of war, the iconic computer named HAL represents the backfire of intelligence and the self-defeat of man. Ultimately playing a kind of villain (sort of), the computer displays a number of perplexing behaviors. It is programmed by a human to have strangely human reactions. HAL plays chess and responds that the game was “enjoyable.” Polite computer? Why should we care? HAL also asks to see some sketches and judges the superiority and improvement of the artist. This dictates the objectification of art and experience in 2001. In order to successfully judge the artwork, the computer must have been programmed with a set of criteria on which to quantify the results. Even through the creepy monotone, HAL manages to inflect his questions (computer also programmed to be curious?) as a human being would. The craziest part comes when HAL makes some decisions of his own and ends up killing some astronauts. There is the famous line, “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Those two sentences detail man’s self-ruin as a machine programmed by humans ends up defeating humans. This motif would be repeated ad nauseam in sci-fi works to come. The climax of creepy is when Dave is shutting down HAL and the computer keeps repeating “My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” Feel it? Feel what?

The movie is ridden with unanswered questions. Kubrik intentionally retained a full stock of ambiguity. In our album of the day, What’s Going On, Gaye asks his own set of unanswered questions. In fact, the album moves much faster and with more fluidity then the film comes close to. Many of the songs chain together and there is a cyclical motion to it – some even call it a song cycle. The first track, “What’s Going On“, as well as the final track, “Inner City Blues“, contain the question, “Who are they to judge us just ’cause we wear our hair long?” The album is an anthem of counterculture and anti-war sentiment – the questions represent a general angst and confusion of youth. “What’s Happening, Brother” contains poetry with questions in all but four lines. “Save the Children” reads like a letter home from a forsaken soldier, dictated then sung. It is littered with pleading – “Who really cares?” and “Who’s willing to try?” With the recent disaster in the Gulf, “Mercy Mercy Me” takes on renewed meaning by asking “Where did all the blue sky go? What about this crowded land? How much more abuse from men can you stand?” Also observing, “Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas. Fish full of mercury.” “Right On” is an oasis of optimism in a deeply downtrodden work while “Wholy Holy” plays on a biblical verse and furthers the spiritual message of the album.

Opposite from the primal howls of Ligeti and Strauss, the music of What’s Going On is jazzy and harmonically complex. It is tough to find a chord not tinged with 7ths or 9ths. Vocal backgrounds are thick, as are the instrumental tracks recorded by members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Not to mention the smoothness and flexibility of Gaye’s voice.

While What’s Going On is an experiment in how much you can extend triads and still remain pop, I draw your attention back to the music and message of 2001. Using more of Ligeti’s music, the final 20 minutes of 2001 function as a psychological epilogue. The visually insane “Star-Gate” sequence was enough to attract hippies to sit through the whole thing just to check those few minutes out. Also, in the beginning of the work we are faced with a bunch of apes jumping around, learning to eat meat and use each other as a weapon, and protecting territory. Kubrik raises the issue of evolution and instinct. We view the apes as ourselves. Are we really animals? Is that where we came from? Kubrik rightly leaves his decision unannounced.

The ancient Lion Hunt reliefs found in Ninevah as a leftover from the Assyrians are their own discussion of primal instinct and animal.

The reliefs detail the ritual slaughter of lions. There is image after image after image of a lion being stabbed or maimed by a king. This activity was, indeed, reserved for royalty alone. It announces the power of human beings over animals while displaying the innate hunger and passion of the lion. These reliefs dismiss the notion that we are animals. Instead, they often show royal carts driving over dead beasts. An assertion of power and strength, the humans in the picture often appear far less emotional than the animals. Machine-like, even. They have HALitis.

These three cases were a discussion of human curiosity in the face of challenge, terror in the face of answers, and instinct in the face of the eternal. Unfortunately, I don’t really have the room or reason to post my full analysis of 2001, but if you are a fan of the film let me know and I would be glad to write it out. In the end, we become the eternal. We enter a place of no time. But until then, the answers might be terrifying and questions might remain unanswered for a reason.

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