Thursday 5 June 2014

Great Wine Moments In Movie History V - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

You have to hand it to Stanley Kubrick: his hit rate was amazingly high. Once you get past a clutch of early-Fifties apprentice works (Flying Padre; The Seafarers, anyone?) and onto The Killing of 1956, just about all his movies were international successes (Spartacus; 2001; The Shining; Dr. Strangelove), or, failing that, technically groundbreaking (Barry Lyndon; The Shining, again), or at the very least, magisterially controversial (Lolita; A Clockwork Orange). And of the big hits, 2001 - the only one with an Academy Award - scoops the trifecta on account of being an international success, a technical tour de force and, for over forty years, a source of chronic, aggrieved, debate.

After all, what the hell's it about? Yes, a sleek black monolith - as it might be, a support for the refurbished Hammersmith Flyover - makes timely appearances in the course of mankind's evolution from ape hominid to intergalactic starchild. But the narrative (if indeed it is the narrative) is so stately, so glazed with symbolism, that, for all its musicality and its frigid beauties, it quickly becomes (in the wrong hands) a Sixties chess challenge, a revenant culture puzzle with a top dressing of A Saucerful of Secrets.

The last ten minutes of the movie were the trickiest part of Kubrick's overall plan, and certainly provide the most fruitful ground for disagreement. These are the moments where astronaut Bowman (played by the intentionally interest-free Keir Dullea) disappears through the acid-trip star gate and ends up in a denatured Louis XVI hotel room with a spooky light-box floor. A series of enigmatic visual translations gets him out of his space suit and into the room, where he ages, dies, and at the moment of contact with the monolith, superevolves.

But just before that, he eats a meal. And not a Soylent Green-style putty, such as he and his colleague, Poole, have been stoically scarfing up while on board the big spaceship. This is a daintily-served main course, on a table, with some greens and a bread roll, and a glass of white wine (Why not red, to match his space suit? Or betoken blood? Wrong visual register?). The ageing Bowman takes a swig of the wine (a nice Pouilly-Fumé let's say) and forks in some greens. He eats with pensive slowness. With the edge of his hand, he accidentally knocks the wine glass over. The glass shatters on the glowing floor. He leans over and stares at the breakage for a full fifteen seconds, before lifting his gaze to see himself, lying on his own deathbed.

What does the bedroom mean? What does the meal mean? What the shattering of the wine glass? The critic Roger Ebert got out of it at the time by interpreting the whole environment as a 'Non-descriptive symbol'; while Kubrick himself kept questioners at bay by talking about 'Areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer'.

Move on to the present day, however, and it's open season: one online obsessive claims that the shattering of the glass is a concretion of Bowman himself breaking 'The film's visual code'; another argues that it refers to the Jewish tradition of smashing a wine glass at a wedding; 'Even after all that he has been through Bowman still makes mistakes,' asserts another; yet another ties it with a thousand knots to the Kabbalah and the Philospher's Stone; 'The symbolism is related to the smashing of the Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove,' says one nutter, somewhere; 'I should have read the book,' admits a straggler on reddit; and so on.

The thing is, it is clearly wine - suggesting a return to a more harmonious, pre-technological existence (also implied by the curly furniture and the dodgy Old Masters on the walls), as well as hinting at liturgical overtones/ritual sensibilities/cultural centrality. And the glass falls and shatters: a sign that things are about to move from one state to the next, causing Kier Dullea (with that sinister overgrown-baby look, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange) to give it his fifteen seconds of attention, before transubstantiating into a starchild and bringing the movie to a close.

We know that the last things anyone will find in a Kubrick movie, are unintended things. We also know that one of the things 2001 is not terribly much about, although not not about, is food and drink. And yet the last thing we see Bowman do is knock over a glass of wine.

I think I've said enough.



  1. When I see his expression after knocking the glass over I always think he's about to make some vulgar Hollywood expletive but thinks better of it because he's just seen his dead body. Which would shut anyone up.

    great post for this balmy June evening

  2. ...Damn...there goes the last of the '95...

    Or something to that effect?

  3. Since now great moments saying forever: "The Dawn of Humankind"


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