The first landing on the moon – a moment of human grace amidst the otherwise tempestuous doings of the decade — was still a year away when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in select American widescreen cinemas in 1968. The film brought little enlightenment to the darkness of the era and almost came and went with little real fanfare, except among sci-fi aficionados, some of whom, along with others, were zonked out on psychedelics and puff-the-magic-dragon (wink).
The year 1968 was a particularly ugly snapshot of the human condition: Russian tanks rolled into Prague and installed the Iron Curtain that would stay drawn until the Velvet Revolution two decades later; Paris was consumed with fiery protests, screaming it seemed ‘existence precedes essence’; teenaged soldier Conrad Schumann was making his iconic leap into freedom at the Berlin Wall; the massacre of innocents at My Lai happened; political (RFK) and civil rights (MLK) leaders were assassinated; the police brutality of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed the world American Exceptionalism at war with the Ugly American; and the children of ‘free’ world cryed out loud for an end to the war in Viet Nam (that Nobel Peace-prize winner Henry Kissinger had extended for political reasons) . With so much rage consuming the collective consciousness it’s easy to see how a cerebral film like 2001: A Space Odyssey could have gone neglected by the masses busy ‘doing democracy’ in the streets.
Though a Czech sat on the jury of the Moscow Film Festival in 1969 and considered 2001 for a prize, the film didn’t arrive in Prague until a few years later, and there are no ready reports (in English, at any rate) on how it was received in the Kafka-esque environment of the era. Worldwide interest picked up after the film won the 1969 Academy Award for special effects (it was also nominated for screenwriting). Though dated by today’s digital standards, the special effects continue to be the driving force of the film’s appeal as it performs its 50thanniversary victory lap around the globe. It can still be viewed in select cinemas nationwide.
Stanley Kubrick collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on the screenplay for the film, with the latter’s story, “Sentinel of Eternity,” being the original source of the film’s principal motif. This sentinel is what Asimov describes as a crystalline “signal-sending pyramid” in the tale, a kind of channel-marker that awakens when touched by biological life, with the signal presumably passed back to the Maker. Kubrick altered the sentinel in the story to a black monolith when he couldn’t get the visual effect he desired. The title of the story refers to the archetypal Hero genre passed down to us from Homer – the historical quest for human meaning in the face of the Void, both the cosmos within and the cosmos without. And that is in essence how the story plays out on the screen. You might argue the film begins with the birth of consciousness and ends with its transcendence, a theme totally in keeping with ego experiments of the time.
Structurally, the film has three distinct sections or acts, as well as an intermission toward the end of the second section, before the film’s famous psychedelic effects kick in and the viewer’s mind for a spin. The German philosopher Nietzsche once said (I paraphrase): Man is a bridge between beasts and the Superman, the latter a fully-realized consciousness to be reached sometime in an indeterminate future. Similarly, the film begins with what Kubrick describes as the Dawn of Man: In a kind of wasteland, we see missing-link apes, neither all animal, nor quite yet human, exhibiting little more than a safety-in-numbers pack behaviour to protect an oasis-like watering hole against outsiders. After discovering a black monolith (sentinel) the ape-men appear to be awakened in some mysterious way. One of these apes discovers a tool for smashing heads, both beast and ape, leading to the first domination of others by technology. The sapient ape tosses his bone in the air in jubilant moment of discovery and power.
In Act Two, the airborne bone segues into a spaceship, going from pre-history to Earth-orbiting humans in one fell swoop, cleverly leaving the presumably educated movie-viewer to fill in the wide historical gap unaccounted for, while also seeming to imply that all that millennial bosh of historical events is mere detritus for the human voyage through time. This second section strikes one as a mere bridge to get to Act Three. We’re shown advanced human civilization, man living comfortably in space, but interestingly there is little engaging dialogue, the characters are wooden, the section seemingly in a hurry to sketch a picture of advanced technology on the cusp of the final leg of the human journey. Only one character,Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester),has any life, but he seems to exist simply to lead a lunar expedition, where once again the sentinel is (re-)discovered and the response is transformative, the act ending on a kind of high-pitched wake-up call. So, in a sense, Kubrick returns us back to the original discovery of the sentinel.
The third act moves the viewer further along the technological continuum, humans now travelling in a spaceship hurtling towards Jupiter. While two astronauts lie in hibernation, Frank (Gary Lockwood) and Dave (Keir Dullea) play and converse with HAL, a 9000 series AI system that boasts of its computational perfection, while peering from behind a persona that will soon prove to be psychopathic. HAL lip-reads the men talking about shutting ‘him’ down after he shows signs of potentially-catastrophic judgement lapses. Then an intermission suspends the action. Upon return, let’s just say that one thing turns into another, and Dave is left alone to pass through the “Star Gate” into a kaleidoscopic free-fall toward Übermenschen consciousness.
The Acts are powered by an excellent soundtrack, featuring two Strausses – Richard and Johann. The former’s outstandingly chosen piece, Also Sprach Zarathustra perfectly provides the vibe during the depiction of the ascent of Man. And it’s no mistake that the piece is Strauss’ musical vision of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, a kind of guide or Sherpa in the transition from the Last all-too-human Man to the self-overcoming super-man of the future. Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz is introduced at the moment the thrown-bone becomes a rocket making its way in the starlight toward the waltz-spinning space station, suggesting a bourgeois embracing of technological achievement, not unlike what the Silicon Valley neo-liberals promise humans today.
Many have pondered the meaning of the movie, especially the closing dream-like scenes, ending in a kind of apotheosis or human transfiguration. Kubrick himself, fielding such questions, has likened his film to a Mona Lisa smile, evocative and open-ended, the more you gaze at it, the more it gazes back at you, as Nietzsche might say. The Star Child at the end suggests rebirth. One recalls Carl Sagan’s assertion in a Cosmos segment, a long time ago now, that we humans are literally star stuff. However, one also recalls Nietzsche’s super-human notion of the ‘eternal recurrence’ of all things and his proposed super-human response to something so seemingly dismal – ‘amor fati’. But maybe T.S. Eliot puts it most lyrically and succinctly at the close of his poem “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
One wonders whether Kubrick would have considered that going too far or not far enough.
If nothing else, 2001: A Space Odyssey suggests the usual cautionary predicaments humans face today as we gain almost phantasmagorical momentum heading toward the convergence with digital machines and the mind-blowing, perhaps super-human consciousness we will need to deal with a quantum future and the concept of multiverses. Of course, all such vision-thinging presupposes that humans can reverse the many excesses of our journey, such as climate change and endless power struggles and lurking pandemics. At times it seems we are closer to a transition back to the First Man than the Last Man, with a soundtrack that features an orchestra made up of a thousand sour kazoos. T. S. Eliot writes about returning to the Beginning again, but he also suggests elsewhere that we end not with a bang but a whimper. The jury’s still out, the bone’s still in the air.
Mind rape and the tunnels beneath the borders of the mind
At the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Hundred Blows (les Quatre Cents Coups), there is an amazing, extended tracking shot that begins with the boy protagonist Antoine Doinel’s escape from a youth reformatory, during which the camera follows him as he runs for several minutes. The scene concludes with Antoine reaching the sea and then turning back to the camera, and in the direction of his pursuers and the viewers, for a sudden freeze-frame. When I first saw this movie as an adolescent, the freeze-frame ending was so fraught with resonance for me that I immediately began sobbing as though my heart had been broken.
The documentary The Green Prince, as yet unreleased in the Czech Republic, didn’t produce quite the same profound effect as the Truffaut classic, partly because I’m an old jaded humanist now, but I could feel the same tortured truth tunneling through to me as director Nadav Schirman’s surprisingly eloquent documentary reached its conclusion. For The Green Prince is at heart a morality tale about the crushing power of shame and betrayal, but also of the miraculous, redemptive capacity of trust. Or so, for a moment, it seemed.
Directed by Nadav Schirman
With Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak
Because then it struck me that by the time Mosab Hassan Yousef completes the circuit through the unconscious maze of deceit and disloyalty, switching his allegiance from his Hamas-founding father to asserting that he “would die for” his former Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak, he has merely reached that ocean and that moment of freeze-frame inescapabilty. Although Gonen intervenes on Yousef’s behalf, after Shin Bet won’t, he is left beholden to his ex-handler and interrogator, in a bizarre psychological transference that Freud would have been proud to study.
The film is based on Yousef’s memoir, The Son of Hamas.Yousef grew up in the household of a founding member of the organization. “Hamas was not just a movement to us,” Yousef says. “It was the family business. It was our identity. It was everything.” Ostensibly, the memoir recounts how and why he decided to betray Hamas, which his father helped lead, in order to spy for Israel. I haven’t read the book, but in the film the precipitating moment of changed allegiances comes after he has gone to prison for the first time.
What had happened was that Yousef’s father had been arrested at home by Israeli forces and not returned for a year and a half. When he returns home upon his release, he is arrested again after just six hours. This enrages the young Mosab, who virtually worshipped his Dad, and he vows revenge. He is arrested on gun charges and sent to prison. And it is in prison that he recognizes the utter depravity and brutality that drive the soul of Hamas leadership. Suspected Israeli collaborators are tortured, often to death, by Hamas thugs, trying to extract information about networked fellow collaborators. It turns out there is no such network and that Hamas is often torturing for nothing.
Earlier in the film, Yousef alerts the viewer that collaboration with Israel is regarded by Palestinians as a crime worse than raping one’s own mother. It is hard to imagine a more confronting description of hatred than that. This understanding of the level and degree of betrayal involved in collaborating has profound resonances for Yousef himself. For, as he relates in the film, when he was five years old a friend of his father’s chased him down and raped him during an olive grove expedition. This caused a deep rupture in his psyche. “I was ashamed,” he said. “In my society, the more painful thing than being raped is to have the reputation for being raped.”
Consequently, he is forced to suppress his trauma. But no doubt the prison torture of Hamas on Hamas, Palestinian on Palestinian, brought that repressed energy to the fore. Torture is another form of rape, not so much of the body as of the mind. For him, Hamas becomes “cowards in the name of courage.”
A central theme of the film concerns the multiple layers of shame Yousef must cope with to survive. Shame is extraordinarily powerful in directing the energies of the psyche and to the integrity of self-identity. A person who feels deep shame is caught between the pincers of communal rejection, a sense of being kicked out of the human race, which is almost unbearable, as well as a nauseating and incapacitating loathing of one’s own being. As a moral motivating factor, surely shame is far more ‘useful’ than feeling ‘guilty.’
No doubt this is why Yousef breaks down toward the end of the film when he discovers that Shin Bet will not help him after he quits working for them and, after producing a tell-all book, is threatened by the United States with deportation to Jordan, a sure death sentence. He has spent years betraying his father, family, Hamas and fellow Palestinians, tunneling in among them with his lies, in order, he hopes, to save his people greater grief at that hands of Hamas’ brutal authoritarianism and to provide an opportunity for a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians to germinate. When they reject him, he is back to Shame One.
If the film has a drawback, it is the lack of balance attached to the picture of Hamas’ thuggery. There are indeed theories out there about the cause of the degree of savagery often associated with Hamas militants, and with Islamic jihadists in general, such as the one Judith Butler proffers, which suggests that beheadings are hysterical reactions of grief and rage to being culturally raped by Israelis. But I’m not sure it accounts for the extreme of like-minded violence that occurs in other parts of the Arab world that are not under such pressure, such as in Saudi Arabia, where they seemingly behead at the drop of a hat, so to speak.
Actually, Hamas and the whole Palestinian questions seem to have a parallel in the once-endless evils of Northern Ireland. One might compare the parading Protestant Orangemen of Belfast to the unrepentant radical Zionist settlers of the West Bank. Like the IRA once was, Hamas is split along political and military wings. Like the militant wing of the IRA and horrific blunder in Omagh, Hamas has portioned out episodes of grievous and outrageous violence against their own civilian population. And, of course, religion in each case is key. But the politics are entirely different.
The Green Prince is another one of those award-deserving productions that many people should see but will probably have limited distribution. However, like the recent 5 Broken Cameras (also a somewhat anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian film) and the excellent Shin Bet documentary, The Gatekeepers, in which former heads of the agency explicitly condemn Israeli policy toward Palestinians and lay the blame on controlling radical Zionists, The Green Prince is well worth going out of the way to see and absorb. These are films whose visceral and narrative power go beyond the exhausting and unending chain of rants, bring clarity and precious elements of understanding to an otherwise incomprehensible saga of destruction. They are a freeze-frame of the soul in crisis.
A lot of people don’t know it, but when Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, was a young man he attended a high school in Switzerland, where, among other things, he developed a taste for Western fast foods and a certain degree of proficiency playing point guard for the school basketball team. As with the other kids on the team, he also developed a love of the NBA and its stars. Like just about everyone, Kim was in awe of Michael Jordan’s on-court skill set.
When Kim took over the reins from his deceased father, it was hoped in the West that the young man’s exposure to freedom and capitalist consumption would lead to a greater appetite for both, and a rapprochement with Washington. Surely that was the expectation when Google’s Eric Schmidt and Joel Cohen, along with globalization executive Bill Richardson – all of whom have strong ties to the State department – visited North Korea in January 2013, just before the release of the Schmidt-Cohen futuristic tome, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, hit the bookshelves. One can readily imagine the trio pushing the inevitability of open markets, and trying to ‘honey trap’ Kim by suggesting that if he were to adopt the Google surveillance system Kim could appear to ‘open up’, while continuing to exert total control through algorithms and all-pervasive surveillance. “Works for us,” Schmidt might chirp.
Well, we’ll never know what was said, but it’s clear that the unofficial State department entourage came away empty-handed. And it wasn’t long afterward that tensions were ratcheted up again. And then the mainstream media began to excoriate ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman for traveling to North Korea to indulge Kim’s NBA basketball fanaticism, because, they cried, Rodman should be ashamed for entertaining Kim while a Korean-American, Kenneth Bae, was being imprisoned for alleged proselytizing and Bible smuggling. Rodman’s harassment seemed to have racial overtones, especially given that the Schmidt-Cohen-Richardson trio had barely eked out a pizzicato on Bae’s behalf during their fugal concerto for capitalism.
Shortly thereafter, young Kim went from being a potential reformer to the same old, same old crazy North Korean dictator. Kim played right into the nut job depiction, rattling his missiles; arresting a second Bible-thumper; kidnapping a South Korean movie director and forcing him to make a monster movie; and engaging in risky military escapades on the border.
So that’s the milieu and mood that forms the backdrop of the Goldberg-Rogen film, The Interview.
James Franco and Seth Rogen play best buddies, Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapaport, who produce a TV ‘news show’ that features interviews with celebrities that are gossipy and tasteless. The pair are exceptionally pleased with themselves, like Narcissus and Echo, and especially triumphant after white rap star Eminem comes ‘out of the closet’ during the 1000th episode of the show, causing pandemonium in the public (and in the studio). But when the pair meet up with an old Columbia School of Journalism friend, now a senior producer for 60 Minutes, who mocks the pair’s trash journalism, they are crestfallen. Until…they learn President Kim Jong-un loves their insipid program and wants to meet the pair for an interview. Their jubilation at the prospect of interviewing Kim in Pyongyang bears complexity when they agree to a plot to act as CIA assassins during the interview, during which Skylark is to deliver a lethal dose of ricin during a handshake.
Is the movie funny? The 7.5 IMDB rating would suggest that, yes, it was plenty funny. Certainly, the premise is absurd and comedic, and the acting of the principals was a splendid reach for laughs. And it’s unlikely Rogen-Franco-philes will be disappointed. But how funny it is might depend on whether you find risible a film that begins with a little girl chanting down America, singing her earnest wish for the Land of the Free to perish in “its own blood and feces.” Personally, I was creeped out.
And then after that, well, it became a familiar Rogen-Franco movie. The pair were in the Dumb and Dumber mode. Franco was especially over-the-top pulling Jim Carrey-type faces, and seemingly lampooning a number of famous interviewers, including, it seemed, Jon Stewart. There were some chucklesome moments, but it was definitely a lineup of shtick aimed at young shallow men – guys into the everyday sports argot that includes not-so-secret tasteless sexist jokes (not one woman in the movie had any power not stripped away from her by an objectifying sexual appeal), and there was a tremendous amount of homo-eroticism, involving not just bonding jibes between Franco and Rogen, but also between Franco and Park (who plays Kim), which revolved around how “empowering Katy Perry is” with her lyrical sexual ambiguity, and the relative effeminacy of Margueritas, which Kim’s dad has condemned as a “gay” cocktail (but which film Kim likes, in his secret shame).
Language is coarse and lowest common denominator-oriented. There is comic book horror. There is an awful lot of Asian linguistic parody, which seemed intent on copying the Borat phenomenon of a few years back. Skylark delivers white-appropriated Black hip-hop shoptalk regularly. And Jews may cringe to know that Kim is saved from a ricin death when the leader aborts a handshake when he is told Rapaport, who is intent on following through on the CIA plot (while Skylark becomes best buds with the fat totalitarian), that Rapaport is “a Jew,” causing Kim to cringe. There may be found a lot of hilarity, for some, to discover that Kim “has no butthole. He has no need for one.” When the clownish buddies lose the ricin package, the CIA sends a drone, a la Amazon’s delivery ambitions, with more poison, contained in a phallic device that Rapaport is forced to hide up his ‘butthole’. Essentially, he is forced to rape himself for the viewer’s delight.
I dunno. Sometmes you have to weigh up the costs of the humor versus the karmic gravity of the subject. I enjoy apocalyptic humor as much as the next zombie, and the like, which Rogen and Franco exuded with some delight in their previous film, This Is The End (2013), but I got thrown off by the recent stoush over allegations that North Korean agents hacked into Sony in retaliation for the making of the film, which, even as comedy, has not-so-funny overtones in calling for the assassination of Kim. I mean, deposing ‘dictators’ seems to be an Obama specialty, and little of it has been funny, given the utter chaos the maneuvers have created.
Also, I feel bad for Koreans, North and South. While I haven’t visited the North, I have lived in South Korea earlier in my journeys, and was sometimes overwhelmed by the sense of emptiness and vacated spirit there. After all, the Japanese once literally raped and razed their way through the country with such devastation that Korea became a traumatized wasteland you can still feel. No doubt, the release of the movie by Sony, a Japanese corporation, was especially confronting to North Koreans. That’s if the hacking even took place as advertised; the “breach” certainly boosted the distribution and sales figures for the film.
In a perturbing development, ‘human rights activists’ have vowed to mass deliver 100,000 copies of the film to the North Korean populace by means of balloon, in the off-chance that viewing the film will incite regime-change rioting in the streets. Imagine if the CIA had commenced their toppling of Chile’s Allende democracy with an airdrop of Woody Allen’s Bananas. The propaganda machine is at full throttle, folks.
In the end, if you found it funny that time President Obama told his media guests as a national press dinner that he’d drone to death certain musicians if they made passes at his daughters, then you’ll probably like The Interview and its mindless humor. Me, I keep thinking of the innocent people who’ve been droned, killed without a trial or a warning, including American citizens; and I can’t ever imagine laughing at that.
And I didn’t find it particularly comforting or funny when, after North Korea was publicly (and thinly) accused of hacking into Sony, President Obama said, in all seriousness, “They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” No one from the press laughed. Funny, that.