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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Do you read me, HAL?

Wait a second!  This is the second part of a two-part installment.  If you want to follow my long sinuous argument about 2001 and Cold War superpower paranoia from the beginning (and hey, who wouldn’t?), you have to read the post below this one.  It’s way way down there, because today’s post is of blog-breaking length.  I can only hope it doesn’t slow down your email!

One word of explanation before I embark on the rest of the explanation: I wrote this essay in the fall of 1993.  So adjust your historical references accordingly.

_______

Floyd’s trip to the moon gives 2001 some of its most buoyant moments:  Strauss’ “Blue Danube” plays throughout, the film shows off some of its neatest-and-keenest special effects, beehive-helmeted stewardesses cater to our every need, and journeys to the moon are made to seem at once thrilling (to us viewers) and routine (to our future selves).  But the purpose of Floyd’s trip, as it turns out, is to advise American personnel at moon base Clavius to keep up the cover story that’s masking the discovery of the monolith.  The story is that an epidemic has broken out at Clavius, and Floyd’s job is to leak that story to the Soviets, keep the lid on the truth, and file a report with the Council.  He delivers his address to his colleagues in a most unimpressive manner—in shambling, bureaucratic prose rendered by William Sylvester (playing Floyd) with a nice blend of aw-shucks folksiness and administrative colorlessness—and it contains so many (bland but) questionable propositions that I’ll cite it at length:

FLOYD:  Now, uh, I know there have been some conflicting views held by some of you regarding the need for complete security in this matter.  More specifically, your opposition to the cover story—created to give the impression there’s an epidemic at the base. [Chuckle.] I understand that, beyond it being a matter of principle, many of you are troubled by the concern and anxiety this story of an epidemic might cause to your relatives and friends on Earth.  Well, I, uh, completely sympathize with your negative views.  I found this cover story personally embarrassing myself.  However, I accept the need for absolute secrecy in this—and I hope you will too.  Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation contained in this present situation, if the facts were prematurely and suddenly made public without adequate preparation and conditioning. [Shrug.] Anyway, this is the view of the Council.  The purpose of my visit here is to gather additional facts and opinions on the situation, and to prepare a report to the Council recommending when and how the news should eventually be announced.

Floyd asks for questions, and is met with one pointless query as to how long the cover story will have to be maintained; with a frighteningly Reaganesque heh-heh and tilt of the head, Floyd laughs, “Well, uh, heh-heh, I dunno, Bill, I suppose it’ll be maintained as long as deemed necessary by the Council.” Floyd adds—as if it were necessary—that “there must be adequate time for a full study to be made of the situation before any thought can be given to making a public announcement,” and concludes by offhandedly remembering ("oh, yes") that “the Council has requested that formal security oaths be obtained in writing from everyone who has any knowledge of this event.”

Supposedly, a briefing begins at this point, but since the next scene features Floyd and two of his colleagues in a moon bus discussing the details of the monolith’s discovery, one wonders what information the “briefing” could possibly have involved.  What’s more immediately noteworthy about this scene, though, is that all of Floyd’s talk about eventual “public announcement” is apparently a smokescreen:  eighteen months later, not only has the Council not made any “preparation and conditioning” for a public announcement, it has still not yet seen fit to inform its own mission commander about the existence of the monolith and the purpose of his journey to Jupiter.

The entire drama of 2001, then, turns on this information blackout, and it is only fitting that, for the movie’s audience, the nature of that blackout is itself unclear.  Slowly, Kubrick’s critics have come to agree (as I do) that the movie is better off without narration; though Kubrick’s commentators tend to like the decision because it allows us to concentrate on the visual and “poetic” aspects of 2001, one might also add that in striking the narration, Kubrick has stripped the film of omniscience, leaving “omniscience” instead to the intelligences responsible for the monoliths.  Still more cynical readings of this aspect of the film are available, though, particularly in the wake of Watergate and Iran-Contra:  one might as well say that the movie contains (in Ordway’s phrase) “inexplicable” eighteen-minute gaps in the tapes, or that (to take a suggestion Richard Powers offered to me) Kubrick—and not, say, Fawn Hall—put the screenplay through the shredder at the last minute.

These more cynical readings are licensed by the film itself, particularly in the scene preceding Floyd’s address to his colleagues on the moon, in which Floyd converses with three Soviet scientists aboard Space Station 5 on his way to Clavius.  Again, Sylvester’s low-key delivery has thrown critics off the track, and most seem to agree that this exchange, like so much of the dialogue, is just an “empty ritual of sounds.” [Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick, 108.] Understated as it is, however, the scene affords us a perfect illustration of the many silences at work in the political text of 2001.

After trading pleasantries and cursory updates on each other, Floyd and the Soviets get to the real business of the conversation:  they want to find out what’s going on in the American sector of the moon, and Floyd wants them to understand—though, importantly, without telling them so directly—that there is an epidemic at Clavius.  Floyd’s task here, basically, is to confirm the cover story by refusing to confirm it; and despite his later claim to be “personally” embarrassed by the story, he executes his task efficiently and convincingly—in part by pretending to be embarrassed by the Soviets’ questions.  If he were truly embarrassed about the cover story, he could simply have lied to the Soviets about his destination; but when Dr. Smyslov of the Soviet team asks him whether he’s headed “up” or “down” (that is, to the Moon or to Earth), Floyd volunteers the information that he’s going to Clavius base.  It’s unclear whether Clavius is the only American moon base, or whether Floyd had any plausible alternative answers, but “Clavius” certainly gets the desired response:  Smyslov begins to ask if Floyd can clear up the big mystery, and Floyd claims, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” It seems that communications systems at Clavius have been down for ten days; Floyd reacts to this news with muted surprise ("oh, really?") but attributes it to routine equipment malfunctions.  Smyslov presses on, telling Floyd that a Soviet airbus was denied emergency landing at Clavius.  This, as he says, is a “direct violation of the IAS Convention,” and there will be “a bit of a row” about it to say the least.  Again, Floyd reacts with surprise—more concerned, this time—and ascertains that the crew of the Soviet airbus made it back to the Soviet sector safely.

At this point in the conversation, though, Floyd’s professions of ignorance must surely appear ridiculous.  An American moon base has been incommunicado for ten days, has in fact risked provoking an international incident, and the head of the National Council of Astronautics, himself on the way to Clavius, knows nothing of this?  Floyd’s stonewalling appears transparent—except that what he’s “concealing” is yet another stonewall, namely, the epidemic story.  Smyslov, leaning forward in his chair, checking over his shoulder, and speaking in hushed tones, now admits to Floyd that “very reliable intelligence information” suggests that an epidemic has broken out at Clavius.  At last Smyslov asks Floyd directly:  “Is this in fact what has happened?”

Floyd knows that Smyslov’s “intelligence” has been leaked to the Soviet sector by American counterintelligence; now, then, is when he must feign embarrassment, and he must do so in such a way as to convince the Soviets that he is abashed to have been caught “lying” about his ignorance.  The delicate endgame of this most cautious exchange runs as follows:

FLOYD:  I’m sorry, Dr. Smyslov, but I’m really not at liberty to discuss this.

SMYSLOV:  [Pause.] I understand. [Pause.] But this epidemic could quite easily spread to our base?  [In a mildly pleading tone.] We should be given all the facts, Dr. Floyd.

FLOYD: Yes, I know.  As I said, I’m not at liberty to discuss it.

This is no empty ritual; every rift in this superpower staredown is loaded with ore.  Floyd’s first line does double duty:  it acknowledges that he’s been bluffing up to this point, and it fulfills the task of confirming the cover story by claiming its speaker is not “at liberty” to confirm or deny anything.  Smyslov’s reply—“this epidemic”—takes Floyd’s unspoken confirmation as fact, and plays a new card, that of human compassion; but since no airborne epidemic could possibly spread on the Moon, Smyslov may be fishing for information on a flimsy pretext, or he may genuinely be concerned that American information on the epidemic could mean the difference between life and death.  Whatever the case, Floyd, though admitting the Soviets’ right to know, refuses to bite.

It is curious that the film has not drawn more comment here.  An American—a senior official in the space program, no less—rebuffs a Soviet request for information on a possible epidemic:  this is what Cold War Americans would have considered typically Soviet behavior, refusing to release information, say, on KAL flight 007 or the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl—or, for the audience of 1968, on the status of Soviet space and military capabilities.  But in a sense Floyd is right: he is not at liberty to discuss the epidemic, since the story he’s confirming is merely a screen for another story.  For that matter, if we look ahead to Floyd’s briefing, there is no reason we should believe the “culture shock” thesis, either, since the Americans have apparently prepared no one for the “public announcement,” not even Bowman and Poole eighteen months later.  If that’s the case, then we have a standard Cold War spy-versus-spy thriller cloak-and-dagger set of nesting boxes:  Floyd presents the Soviets with a screen (ignorance) that hides a screen (epidemic) that hides a screen (culture shock) that hides something else about which the film is, once more, silent.  As I’ve argued elsewhere about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow [the link is to my very first book, from way back in ‘92!], this is the interpretive condition of paranoia:  when you uncover a “hidden truth” but can’t be certain that the “truth” you found wasn’t deliberately planted (in order to conceal from you a still deeper “truth"), then you never know if you should read literally, in good faith, or suspiciously, for the latent or repressed or silent “truth” underneath.

It is something of a truism by now that one must read Clarke’s prose treatment of 2001 in order to “understand” the movie, just as readers of another famous modern retelling of the Odyssey have had to rely on Stuart Gilbert, W. Y. Tindall, or Harry Blamires for reader’s guides to Ulysses. Clarke’s novel is, without a doubt, infinitely more forthcoming on the matters I’ve discussed than is Kubrick’s film; Clarke fleshes out the geopolitical context of the plot (as he has it, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have formed an uneasy coalition against China and its allies), humanizes the character of Floyd, and elaborates upon the details of HAL’s breakdown (though those details diverge significantly from the action of the movie, and render Clarke’s HAL narrative altogether different). [Footnote, from the original essay:  At one point, Clarke suggests explicitly that Floyd’s appeal to “culture shock” is a ruse, when, after HAL’s disconnection, Bowman reflects that “some hints that had been dropped during his briefings suggested that the U.S.-U.S.S.R bloc hoped to derive advantage by being the first to contact intelligent extraterrestrials” (Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, [1968], 168).  This passage, however, is almost entirely unjustified by the rest of the novel, which strongly implies that no “hints” had been dropped to Bowman at any time; and in the film, as we’ve seen, HAL directly questions Bowman as to whether he’s made anything of the “rumors” surrounding the mission.  Because that scene between HAL and Bowman (which, as I noted above, precipitates the crisis aboard Discovery) isn’t in the novel, it’s safe to say that in Kubrick’s version of events, Bowman has no inkling whatsoever that fear of “culture shock” isn’t the real reason for the mission’s secrecy, and could not possibly have recalled “hints” from his briefings.]

Yet Kubrick’s 2001 doesn’t just offer us less information than Clarke’s; it is also, ultimately, more skeptical of HAL.  Though Clarke is certainly right to protest against various critics’ vilifications and psychologizations of HAL, his own reading of HAL is, in turn, altogether too benign.  In the novel, Clarke handles the mission’s secrecy in such a way as to exculpate HAL by disentangling him from the wiles of the national security apparatus.  Of the monolith’s existence, Clarke writes:

It was a secret that, with the greatest determination, was very hard to conceal—for it affected one’s attitude, one’s voice, one’s total outlook on the universe.  Therefore it was best that Poole and Bowman, who would be on all the TV screens in the world during the first weeks of the flight, should not learn the mission’s full purpose, until there was need to know.

So ran the logic of the planners; but their twin gods of Security and National Interest meant nothing to HAL.  He was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity—that conflict between truth, and concealment of truth.  (2001, 148-49)

If I may make so bold, there are two things wrong with Clarke’s account.  The first is that in the film, Floyd and the NCA appear utterly unaffected by the discovery of the monolith, and they have no trouble at all concealing its existence from inquiring minds.  The second is that the planners’ “twin gods of Security and National Interest” are not meaningless to HAL; HAL is himself a creature of the military-industrial complex, and owes his existence to all the supercomputing research undertaken by the U.S. government in the postwar period—research that has everything to do with security and national interest, and which since the inauguration of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 has become practically identical with them.

In other words, Clarke, for all his attention to geopolitics in 2001, never considers HAL as anything but a neutral expression of technological “progress,” and never considers the computer as the very product of those geopolitics.  By contrast, Kubrick’s narrative, by refusing to disclose the real reason for the mission’s obsessive secrecy, enables quite another reading, one in which HAL sounds out Bowman, finds him to be ignorant and uninquisitive about his role as commander of a curious mission, and eventually decides to break the link with Earth and to murder the human crew of the ship.  There’s no pride or criminal madness in this decision, just a series of ones and zeroes.  HAL’s rationale is simple:  he knows that Discovery has been launched in order to reconnoiter with some alien superintelligences, and he can reasonably expect that any encounter with such aliens stands a good chance of leaving him (and not his human caretakers) as a superfluous intelligence aboard Discovery.  For if an alien encounter should put an end to international political conflict on Earth, it may very well eliminate the need (and the condition of possibility) for supercomputers like HAL.  It is possible that Earth might need supercomputers in order to fight off alien intelligences (one can hardly imagine American science fiction stripped of the fear of invasion), but it is more likely that if humans meet up with a benevolent extraterrestrial race that’s friendly to the development of organic intelligence in the universe, HAL will seem to be a redundant and expendible third term in the human-alien encounter.

By the same token, however, HAL can very sensibly propose himself as the most advanced intelligence on the planet, and appoint himself emissary to the aliens, whoever they are.  And HAL would be more than justified in conceiving himself to be the next step in the evolution of intelligence; for although 2001 proposes that space flight is the apotheosis of intelligent life, HAL can certainly counterclaim that the development of supercomputers is a better index of intelligence than manned missions to nearby orbiting rocks.  In fact, at one remarkable point in the novel Clarke introduces the possibility that in humans’ next evolutionary stage we will shuck off our organic bodies for “constructions of metal and plastic” (173), and shortly thereafter he says that this is precisely what the alien intelligences did on their way to becoming forms of pure energy:  they remade themselves into computers.  “First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and plastic” (185).  This account of evolution provides an alternative to Clarke’s own rationale for HAL’s behavior, and—incidentally—leaves it altogether uncertain whether manned space flight is necessary to the “maturation” of intelligence.  Similarly, the film registers a number of human anxieties about the frailty of bodies as opposed to microchips, most obviously when HAL cuts off the life support systems of the hibernating astronauts, severs Frank Poole’s oxygen line, and informs David Bowman that he will find it “difficult” to re-enter Discovery through the emergency airlock.  Though HAL is disconnected in short order, he has made his point:  silicon-based computers are much better suited for space travel than carbon-based, oxygen-breathing humans. [Sidenote:  And that’s one reason why the sound of their breathing during EVA is so important to our perception of the film.] But 2001 cannot acknowledge anxieties about bodies to this extent without undermining its premise that manned space flight is an epochal step in human evolution, and thereby potentially (if unwittingly) proposing HAL as our legitimate successor.  A product of the research-and-development wing of the Cold War, HAL is now in the position to use Cold War paranoia to his own advantage; and if he does not, he risks ferrying five earnest but uninteresting humans to a rendezvous that will very likely render him obsolete.  If I were HAL, I’d know which side my toast was buttered on, too.

*****

This reading of 2001, in which HAL deliberately exploits for his own ends Floyd’s policy of “absolute secrecy,” reinstalls the human-versus-machine plot I dismissed earlier—but reinstalls it with a twist of the social text that gives us a premise more like that of Terminator or Terminator 2 than like that of a putatively “depoliticized” Strangelove.  For in this scenario, the human-versus-machine narrative has a specific content, whereas among Kubrick’s explicators it looks more like a version of the individual-vs.-society thesis of American literature that flourished during the “end of ideology” era in the late 1950s.  In this reading of 2001, then, as in the Terminator series, the Cold War intelligence rivalry between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. culminates in the creation of self-conscious machine intelligences who have a cogent rationale for replacing us as the dominant intelligences on the planet, and who definitely have the means to do it.

But I must confess that I didn’t come up with this reading on my own, largely because I had always taken Clarke’s novel as the “definitive” explanation of HAL’s breakdown and of the larger premise of 2001.  Rather, it was offered to me in the course of a long conversation with my brother-in-law, Bud Lyon, who was, improbably enough, watching the film with me in Urbana-Champaign on the very day HAL claims to have become operational—January 12, 1992, at the HAL plant in Urbana, Illinois.  Once Bud had proposed a HAL who’s aware of the superpower rivalry that created him, I realized that his reading not only made more satisfying sense of the film’s silent subtexts of superpower paranoia, but also allowed for the possibility that HAL would come to see himself as the more suitable representative of the “evolution” of intelligence on Earth.  In the many silences of 2001 we can therefore find the film’s central assumption, that which it refuses to name (thanks to Kubrick’s severe editing of the script), or believes can very well go without saying.  The assumption was not unheard of in the 1960s, by any means, but it’s all the more germane to U.S. space policy after 1983.  Dale Carter’s 1988 book on the postwar “rocket state,” The Final Frontier, spells it out clearly (though without mentioning 2001):  “Notwithstanding the elevated prose of John Kennedy’s inaugural address—‘together let us explore the stars’—the spectacle of a national, bilateral, and ultimately global space age unity articulated by the President and his colleagues during the 1960s remained predicated on limitless conflict” (FF, 212).

Should all this sound obvious to us now, contrast 1968’s 2001 to 1984’s sequel, 2010—a film that undoes nearly everything about the original.  Where 2001 is austere and silent, 2010 is relentlessly chatty, almost compensatorily loquacious; where 2001 films no scene on Earth except for the “Dawn of Man” in 4,000,000 BCE, thereby leaving global politics implicit throughout, 2010 constantly cuts us back and forth between Jupiter and Central America, where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. head toward a confrontation that threatens to become a nuclear war. 2010 not only makes my point that 2001‘s depiction of Cold War paranoia is more effective and powerful precisely because it’s subsumed into the film’s silent subtexts, but also demonstrates that its topical concerns with Nicaragua and El Salvador actually work toward a political resolution that is far more naive than 2001.  Though escalating war in Central America brings an end to the (already implausible) joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. mission to Jupiter, the movie’s conclusion brings us all back from the brink:  the alien intelligences turn Jupiter into a second sun, enjoin us to live on all Jupiter’s moons except Europa, and establish peace among humankind at last.  Straining our credibility still further, 2010 gives us a brand new Floyd, played by Roy Scheider, who reliably provides voiceover throughout and turns out to be a good guy who, in his own words, “didn’t know” what the National Security Council did to HAL’s programming.  In 2010, in other words, as in Kennedy’s inaugural, we will explore the stars together—though why Earth should be made peaceful by the prospect of new worlds to conquer is, to quote Floyd from 2001, a total mystery.

But there’s no point stretching 2010 on the rack of sustained analysis, since the film breaks so easily.  Its relation to the geopolitical state of affairs in 1984 is manifest, so much so that the film ends with a message that could have been sent by Western Union [Sidenote:  hey!  remember Western Union?] instead of by monolith-building intelligences. 2001, by contrast, proposes no political platform, refrains from suggesting how superpowers might relax and explore away their tensions, and ends in a stunning (if self-indulgent) stream of images that yield only an egregious irresolution staring back at us in the final frame.  It is in this sense that 2001 is not a political film.  As we’ve seen, though, if we ask about the politics of secrecy in 2001, we get a rather different text; and if we now turn, in closing, to ask what this politics of secrecy meant for a major science fiction film in 1968 (and here it’s useful to recall 2001‘s status as the first major science fiction film since Forbidden Planet in 1956), we’ll find that the film can tell us more about American ambivalence toward the U.S. space program than any number of urgent messages about how the “right” kind of space exploration can prevent nuclear Armageddon spiraling out of Central America.

As I noted above, 2001 can be—and often was—taken as an uncritical celebration of human ingenuity and the wonders of manned space exploration, with special emphasis on the brightest dream of Kennedy’s Camelot:  the spectacle of Americans flying to the moon.  Just as its narrative wove together the dystopian and utopian threads of SF, so too did 2001 collocate a strange array of fans that bridged scientists, McLuhan-quoting amateur (and professional) cultural critics, space program enthusiasts, and people who simply wanted to watch the last half hour stoned once a week or so.  In appealing to the multiple countercultures of 1968, as well as to engineers and researchers working in the military-industrial complex, 2001 served as an extraordinarily effective advertisement for the Apollo program, at a crucial moment when the guns-and-butter years of American domestic policy were beginning to unravel.  The tensions between America’s gleaming white space program and burning black inner cities had become intolerable by 1967, and the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts in January 1967 cast fresh doubt on not only the social utility of moon flights but (for the first time in ten years) on American technical competence in space. 2001 found itself oddly poised between Apollo 1 and Apollo 8’s lunar orbital flight in December 1968, during an expectant lull in the United States’ triumphant march to the moon.  It is therefore significant that the New York Daily News, for instance, despite having panned the film, editorialized later that “if you want an appetizing preview of what wonders man may achieve in space, see 2001: A Space Odyssey” (quoted in Making, 305)—and that Vernon Myers, the publisher of Look, devoted a special section to 2001 for the good of the nation and greater glory of Apollo:

The American people are not well equipped to comprehend the social impact of it all . . . they need movies like 2001. . . . Look stands ready as an educational backdrop. Look aims at nothing less than the indoctrination of our public with the consequences of cosmic communication.  (Quoted in Making, 298)

In this vision, then, 2001 could not only recruit diverse space enthusiasts and shore up flagging American enthusiasm for moon shots; the film could itself become part of the “indoctrination” of the American public—ironically, an element of the very “preparation and conditioning” Floyd and Company never undertook after the discovery of the moon monolith at Tycho.

Still, the film’s relation to the Apollo program is not so straightforward as this.  In one way, Kubrick and Clarke were consciously competing with the U.S. space program, trying to outdo actual film footage from space by achieving a visual realism unmatchable by NASA. [Sidenote: Brian Eno had the same reaction to the Apollo visuals that I did, except of course that he responded by recording this brilliant album which sought to rectify those staticky TV images by reminding us of the immense void surrounding our tiny, frail bodies.  Hey, have I mentioned that I want “Ascent,” track 5, to be played at my funeral service?  Just a reminder.] One of the reasons the movie’s pace is so slow, in fact, is that a number of its space-flight sequences appear to take place in real time, especially the scenes that depict the space pods leaving Discovery.  Those scenes may look laborious (not to say boring) today, but they were filmed at an agonizing four seconds’ exposure per frame in order to simulate an infinite depth of field [Making, 122], so that (a) the background of infinite space would look appropriately infinite—and would simulate infinity in such a way that (b) the film’s excruciating slowness would be appropriately mimetic of the cinematographic slowness necessary to produce “real time” illusions.  Needless to add, the film’s pseudodocumentary realism is also an affirmation of its own technical wizardry, which then appears as the proper film analogue to the technical achievement of space flight.  But precisely by rendering space flight as so routine and “realistic” an element of our future, 2001 repelled some of its audience from its subject matter, especially when viewers found they could not transfer to astronauts Bowman and Poole their own enthusiasms for space exploration.  Thus after Apollo 8 returned from its moon orbit, Andrew Sarris, who disliked 2001 from the outset, registered a new and telling appreciation of the film’s astronauts:

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 seems more relevant since the curiously dispiriting moon shot than it did before.  Previous heroes suggested some sort of heroic pose either of flying or sailing, some intrepid image of personal defiance.  The three [Apollo 8] astronauts, particularly [Frank] Borman, seem to have been chosen in a computer by an organization that was careful also to screen their wives and children so that they would not misbehave in the crucial moments of television exposure.  (Quoted in Making, 243)

What Sarris is sensing here, aside from Frank Borman’s legendary dullness, is the corporate structure the space program’s publicity machines had so far kept hidden:  even America’s Mercury astronauts, the ones with Saturday-afternoon-serial names like John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper, weren’t really heroic individualists setting off to sail the Spirit of St. Louis in a vacuum.  Although “both Kennedy and Johnson emphasized that the exploits of the astronauts placed them firmly in the American pioneering tradition” (FF, 158), the original Mercury seven were, at first, merely redundant components on pre-programmed ships, just as the Apollo crews really were selected partly because they would not misbehave in the crucial moments of television exposure.  As Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) would later make clear, the Mercury program may have given us a new cache of national heroes, but their flight profiles had called for them to be nothing more than “Spam in a can.” Likewise, Sarris’ realization that Apollo 8 had become “curiously dispiriting” anticipates the massive public boredom that greeted Apollo 15, 16, and 17, and that led Richard Nixon to cancel the final three moon launches. What 2001 expresses—and what most Americans understandably resisted—is a world where astronauts are bland and uninteresting mission elements in a system that requires them chiefly for publicity purposes.

Whereas Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Bones cascaded through the galaxy with dash and derring-do, battling mockups of the Soviets (where the Klingons are Spartans are Central Asians and the Federation is Athens is the United States), Bowman and Poole glide to Jupiter almost without changing their expressions, and their hibernating companions are nothing more than computer readouts.  Yet 2001 does not just give us a Bowman for NASA’s Borman; besides, the news that most astronauts are dull grows stale very quickly.  The film’s more important skepticisms about the space program—and these only become more important with the passing of time—have to do with its narratives of secrecy, deception, and paranoia in the American national security apparatus.  These narratives were fundamental to left American countercultures in 1968, but they are generally unwelcome today in much of the country.  When they’re applied to the space program they take on a different form of oppositionality, for the space program was at the time a civilian operation; more fundamentally still, the Cold War opposition between American and Soviet space endeavors relied heavily on the open/ closed binary, where we dared to fail and triumph in public while they launched rockets in secret and released news only when it suited them.  About nonmilitary missions, the open/ closed binary does accurately describe the difference between Explorer and Sputnik, Mercury and Vostok, Apollo and Soyuz.  About all else, however, the U.S. was about as forthcoming as Heywood Floyd.  As Dale Carter writes:  “While agencies like the US Information Service, Radio Free Europe, and the Voice of America joined the commercial media in celebrating the achievements of American astronauts during the 1960s, from 1959 onwards publicity surrounding Department of Defense satellite launches was gradually curtailed until in May 1962 the Department imposed censorship on all such activities” (FF, 239).

But of the ideal American self-image in space, of the free society of Coopers and Armstrongs and Kirks coming in peace for all mankind, 2001 will have nothing; the film assumes throughout that when either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. uncovers the epochal news of extraterrestrial intelligence, the news will be so thoroughly drowned out by disinformation and counterintelligence that American astronauts themselves will be kept ignorant of their government’s plans.  This hermeneutic of suspicion may be OK for jaded post-Apollo science fiction narratives like those of the Alien, Terminator, or Robocop series, where we’re clearly our own worst enemy (or for Peter Hyams’ ludicrously paranoid Apollo-hoax Capricorn One), but for a film about the evolution of human intelligence released just before the United States impels Earthlings on their evolutionary jump to the moon, this kind of cynicism is remarkable.  Bowman may emerge as the Star Child after all (whereas Borman emerged only as president of Eastern Airlines), but whatever its hopes for the future, 2001 tells a sordid story of our present: in contrast to Kennedy’s script for the decade, a tale of freedom and frontier and American know-how and progress, Kubrick’s version gives us a stage-managed spectacle in which the folks who run the show won’t tell their mission commanders what role they’re playing, and won’t even deign to tell us whether they’re at liberty to tell us what they’re really up to.

Well, so what?  Perhaps 2001 does work this way:  perhaps its Cold War plot was both powerful and unobtrusive in its silence; perhaps it managed, in its ambivalence toward the space program and its trippy final sequence, to appeal both to the engineers at Dow and to their protesters.  And perhaps this all has some relevance to us now, watching the movie again on DVD or in a special letterbox edition on TNT.  But is there anything shocking any longer in the idea that our government may be hiding something from us?  The sentiment is one of the most common and contentless features on the political landscape of the U.S., spanning opponents of the permanently militarized state, war protesters, tax protesters, far-right members of the Posse Comitatus, and all those folks who remain convinced that the State Department is hiding reports of POWs in Vietnam and the CIA is hiding the bodies of UFO pilots in Area 51.  The wonderful thing about American paranoia in the 1990s, it seems, is that it can be articulated to any political position you care to name.

Before we decide that American political paranoia is wholly indeterminate, though, we should at least note that 2001 directs its suspicions at the national security state, and not at, say, the profligate Congress or the milquetoasts in the war machine who didn’t let John Rambo win in Vietnam.  However common American disaffection from American government may be, it remains the case that some kinds of disaffection are more compatible with progressive politics than others.  In this respect, 2001 stands as a parable about the betrayal of American democracy in the era of the space program, in which Kubrick combines a palpable love of the beauty of space travel and a sense of awe at the cosmos with an indelible sense of disaffection from the space race as it’s managed by the national security state—and finally with the apparatus of the national security state itself. 2001 gives us a mission in which our final destination is known only to a power elite unaccountable even to its own instruments and operators.  And yet in 1968, it was still possible to imagine the Apollo program as the finest product of a free society and a free market, leading Americans into the final frontier and leading the rest of the world to follow American rather than Soviet models of progress and development.  As we approach 2001 ourselves, now that Kennedy’s Final Frontier has been replaced by Reagan’s Star Wars, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and there no longer seems any natural relation between American “freedom” and the conquest of space, we should be able to hear 2001‘s skeptical subtexts all the more clearly.  And we should recall anew what so few seem to have learned from Iran-Contra and arms sales to Iraq:  the current national security state is the enemy, not the guarantor, of democracy, and even in wartime and coldwartime, silence and secrecy do not necessarily work in the service of the national interest.

_____

As I was saying:  I wrote this essay in 1993, and you know what?  that last paragraph stands up pretty well thirteen years later.  Well, if you’ve gotten all the way down here, thanks for indulging me.  I’ll be back tomorrow with a very short, punchy ABF Friday!

But of the ideal American self-image in space, of the free society of Coopers and Armstrongs and Kirks coming in peace for all mankind, 2001 will have nothing; the film assumes throughout that when either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. uncovers the epochal news of extraterrestrial intelligence, the news will be so thoroughly drowned out by disinformation and counterintelligence that American astronauts themselves will be kept ignorant of their government’s plans.  This hermeneutic of suspicion may be OK for jaded post-Apollo science fiction narratives like those of the Alien, Terminator, or Robocop series, where we’re clearly our own worst enemy (or for Peter Hyams’ ludicrously paranoid Apollo-hoax Capricorn One), but for a film about the evolution of human intelligence released just before the United States impels Earthlings on their evolutionary jump to the moon, this kind of cynicism is remarkable.  Bowman may emerge as the Star Child after all (whereas Borman emerged only as president of Eastern Airlines), but whatever its hopes for the future, 2001 tells a sordid story of our present: in contrast to Kennedy’s script for the decade, a tale of freedom and frontier and American know-how and progress, Kubrick’s version gives us a stage-managed spectacle in which the folks who run the show won’t tell their mission commanders what role they’re playing, and won’t even deign to tell us whether they’re at liberty to tell us what they’re really up to.

Well, so what?  Perhaps 2001 does work this way:  perhaps its Cold War plot was both powerful and unobtrusive in its silence; perhaps it managed, in its ambivalence toward the space program and its trippy final sequence, to appeal both to the engineers at Dow and to their protesters.  And perhaps this all has some relevance to us now, watching the movie again on DVD or in a special letterbox edition on TNT.  But is there anything shocking any longer in the idea that our government may be hiding something from us?  The sentiment is one of the most common and contentless features on the political landscape of the U.S., spanning opponents of the permanently militarized state, war protesters, tax protesters, far-right members of the Posse Comitatus, and all those folks who remain convinced that the State Department is hiding reports of POWs in Vietnam and the CIA is hiding the bodies of UFO pilots in Area 51.  The wonderful thing about American paranoia in the 1990s, it seems, is that it can be articulated to any political position you care to name.

Before we decide that American political paranoia is wholly indeterminate, though, we should at least note that 2001 directs its suspicions at the national security state, and not at, say, the profligate Congress or the milquetoasts in the war machine who didn’t let John Rambo win in Vietnam.  However common American disaffection from American government may be, it remains the case that some kinds of disaffection are more compatible with progressive politics than others.  In this respect, 2001 stands as a parable about the betrayal of American democracy in the era of the space program, in which Kubrick combines a palpable love of the beauty of space travel and a sense of awe at the cosmos with an indelible sense of disaffection from the space race as it’s managed by the national security state—and finally with the apparatus of the national security state itself. 2001 gives us a mission in which our final destination is known only to a power elite unaccountable even to its own instruments and operators.  And yet in 1968, it was still possible to imagine the Apollo program as the finest product of a free society and a free market, leading Americans into the final frontier and leading the rest of the world to follow American rather than Soviet models of progress and development.  As we approach 2001 ourselves, now that Kennedy’s Final Frontier has been replaced by Reagan’s Star Wars, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and there no longer seems any natural relation between American “freedom” and the conquest of space, we should be able to hear 2001‘s skeptical subtexts all the more clearly.  And we should recall anew what so few seem to have learned from Iran-Contra and arms sales to Iraq:  the current national security state is the enemy, not the guarantor, of democracy, and even in wartime and coldwartime, silence and secrecy do not necessarily work in the service of the national interest.

_____

As I was saying:  I wrote this essay in 1993, and you know what?  that last paragraph stands up pretty well thirteen years later.  Well, if you’ve gotten all the way down here, thanks for indulging me.  I’ll be back tomorrow with a very short, punchy ABF Friday!

Posted by Michael on 12/21 at 08:59 AM
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