A gene for artistic interpretation and 2001’s odyssey

December 13, 2010 | By | 18 Replies More

I have four sons, in two sets – 23, 20 and 13, 11.  One cool benefit of this “arrangement” is that I can re-watch movies I like for reasons other than I just want to: Hey! They haven’t seen Tron, let’s watch that! (of course they have, that’s just a for instance.) Some are movies my wife and I both like, some are movies that only I like (Goonies is a good example.)  Some will still have to wait – Terminator, Conan, Die Hard, etc. – we believe most of the ratings are for good reason.  But I can wait.

Last night I introduced my younger two to “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  It’s still a great movie after 42 years.  I was not surprised when my youngest said he didn’t understand it.  I explained about the (SPOILER ALERT! In case someone hasn’t seen it and may want to someday, skip to the next paragraph) extraterrestrial influence nudging evolution and then about the TMA-1 monolith signaling humankind’s advancement to sufficient level to discover the monolith on the moon.

In a rare moment of parental thoughtfulness, I refrained from commenting on the third and fourth segments.  You see, I happen to think that all of the interpretation and analysis of the ending are a bunch of hogwash.  Kubrick was deliberate in his tedious treatment of what I thought was a very thin script, plodding without dialogue, enhancing the pre-Vader breathing of Bowman, flashing pretty colors with the intent to impress a much greater than human intellect and meaning at work.

(Ooops.  Forgot to alert.  Not really)

Flashback: in the sixth grade, my class read “Jonathan Livingston Seagulland we discussed as a group the “meaning” of the book.  I put that last word in quotes, because as you might guess, I found no meaning.  My first out loud responses to the thoughts being bandied were along the lines, “Where does he [author Richard Bach] say that?” But I got squashed by the group and the teacher, and kept quiet after that.  I started thinking something was wrong with me for not being able to “see” the “meaning” behind the work.

Some years later, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t me; they were the ones making up that crap about positive thinking and human potential. It really was just a simple, very simple children’s story with no deeper meaning. (I bought a copy last year on the Half Price Books $1 shelf just to see if I had changed.  Still not impressed.)

Several many years later, I came to the conclusion that it was both me and them.  Well….me.   I can’t be sure about them.

My wife is an artist. And she understands people. I understand people from a perspective of leadership and that works well in my life.  She really understands people.  (Good thing she’s the mother of my children, because if it were just me, they’d be emotional lepers!) We’d get into “discussions” over books and films on what the director (or author) was trying to convey.  I, in my obstinate cynicism, used to dismiss with prejudice what she had to say, because after all, they are telling a story, not expounding a deep philosophical commentary on the human condition, because that’s a load of hokum anyway.  Yeah. I couldn’t be more wrong, right?  Besides, just because I dismissed it didn’t mean she dismissed it.  Anyway, there have been more than one occasions where I might have had  negative comments on films.  I usually learn a lot during the subsequent analysis. Andrea has told me in many certain terms, “here, the director was trying to …”  Once, I rented the DVD and played the director’s commentary.  At all the scenes she pointed out in our earlier discussion, the director said something like, “in this scene, I was trying to …” … same as what she said.

It’s like a magic trick.  I stopped trying to figure it out.  But she’s usually right. And that applies to art and sculpture as well as film and print.  I just don’t get it.  I don’t see why Jane Austen is a great author.  Hemingway? Fitzgerald or Faulkner? Nope. Not buying it. Oh, they did things I don’t do – write, get published, etc. But how are they any better than Stephen King (not a fan, by the way)?  I also feel that if something can’t stand on face value without apologetics, then it shouldn’t be lauded. How is one interpretation more right than another? Yeah.  I know. Different discussion altogether.  But with film, print and art, it’s me. Sans interpretation gene.

Now, given that my sons are mostly artistic, I think that understanding people the way Mom does is more valuable than the way I do, because what I do can be taught (even though some people come by it naturally) at any time.  I think that much like learning other languages, if the appropriate synapses are not used early enough, then they atrophy and that makes learning those skills that much harder later, if possible at all.  I think some synapses are more like stem synapses (I’ll take credit for coining that phrase if it hasn’t been used yet) in that they can serve any function. And some are specialized.  Just a theory.  Not a scientific theory, but more of a Holmesian theory.  So my sons need to understand how authors and artists may (or may not) have intended meanings beneath the superficial. I think they’ve got the gene that I don’t.

And back to “2001”.  I found a few sites – here, here, and here, and an interesting flash presentation at Kubrick2001.com that offer explanations and I’m showing them to my son so that he might understand. This one talks about a scene near the end of part III (before HAL: “What are you doing, Dave?”) as “one of the most exciting, suspenseful sequences in all of movie history.”  See, I don’t get that.  I like the movie for the science and technological vision in the context of 1968. But, I’m given to understand that there might be more to it than that. Apparently.

So here are two questions for the home audience:

1)      Anybody else out there sort of like me?  Don’t usually see much alternative meaning in {art, film, literature} where other people do? Don’t be shy.  Oh, that is not to say we don’t appreciate art, movies, literature; just that the “meaning” is not apparent.  Gee.  Kind of quiet here in Kubrick’s space…

2)      If you’ve seen the movie, what are your thoughts on it?  I’ll pass on to my son, so that he can see what other people think, and maybe I’ll learn something too.

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Category: Films and Videos, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

Comments (18)

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  1. Tony says:

    I think I fall in the same camp as you – not firmly, but definitely your camp.

    My theory to all this (from what I read) is that there are two channels of communications we humans use: verbal and non-verbal. And usually through experience we can (or could) read both channels (like your wife or your children). (I will exaggerate from here on to make the point a bit clearer) But in some situations we are exposed to conflicting verbal and non-verbal communication, to paradox communication (like when a kid does something bad telling him verbally "I love you, why you do that!" yet punishing him with looks). Or one channel is suppressed (when people try to be rational, e.g. teaching only the facts). The more often we get in these situations, the more we are torn between two conflicting messages. Some people don't choose (and life their lives in limbo whenever they get into paradox communication situations), but some choose one channel and discard the other. "What was said is good enough for me." or the other "There is a different meaning, the real meaning behind what was said."

    Well, nobody said human society is easy 🙂

    About the movie:

    I have studied evolution intensely in the last year (with a very intense focus on the transition from Ape to Man) and as I watched (a couple of weeks ago) the first hour, the the story was a too strong mystification of science for my taste (I even think it is dangerous for those confuse it with science). The artwork (I count myself lucky to have seen the Kubrick exhibition while it was in Berlin) is phenomenal, the science-fiction is best of its class and by now I love that the movie leaves open to possibility to make your own interpretation. That gives a movie so much more, if you can make it your own world.

  2. Xtech says:

    re: question # 1 – You're an engineer! That explains it.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Tony: What you have just written reminds me of the Jonathan Haidt metaphor of the (rational) lawyer riding on a much bigger (emotional) elephant. http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/06/26/why-a

    I do often find myself clueless when watching movies that my wife instantly "gets." I so often take the "lawyer" mentality into a situation. Paradoxically, though, at work I pride myself on being quite able to anticipate the future moves of opposing attorneys. I guess the answer is that I am wired in such a way to anticipate others like me, but not differently-wired others.

    Jim: Thank you for your confession. I hereby confess that I am very much like you, and that I often feel left behind when trying to understand works of art that others deem extraordinary. My special weak spot is poetry (not all of it, but much of it), which so often makes me feel clueless. While reading poems I often annoy myself with a repeated question: "What did he mean by THAT?" "And That?" "And THAT?" It's often torture for me. We'll not often torture anymore, since I tend to avoid most poetry. I'm such a Philistine, at least in some ways.

  4. Ben says:

    I don't have enough space to list all my movie recommendations, so here is just the top 250 movies ever.

    http://www.imdb.com/chart/top

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    Tony: Despite Clarke's involvement, I don't see much science in the Dawn of Man segment. One interesting (to me, anyway) trivium is that Planet of the Apes got an Special Honorary award for its makeup, when 2001 didn't. Now, Clarke's influence was most seen in the futuristic elements. I guess Kubrick was the guiding force behind the mystical parts. But, as promised, I'll pass your observations on the film on to my son.

    Xtech: True, but I'm not a "normal" engineer! I do fit much of the stereotype, though. And I very much appreciate the art of a beautiful design, a well planned project, elegantly crafted code (a tragic lost art), the screenwriting and acting of Boston Legal (well, Shatner, Spader, Bergen and later Laroquette) and much more.

    Ben: I feel IMDB's list suffers from temporal and popular culture/fan influences and IMO is not a list of the better movies made. See how many films from the classic era made the top 10? As opposed to 2010's "Inception" at #8?? Visually interesting but disappointingly simple screenplay in which the director clumsily tried to confuse the audience to simulate depth. My opinion of course. But a strong example of recent popularity weighing in and not actual quality. I could rant for days at how horrible Jackson's treatment of TLOTR was, but that's not the point of my post – for in those three movies there was nothing that I didn't "get" because there was nothing "to get" (fan of Tolkien, in case you might have doubts). Oh, The Shawshank Redemption is probably deserving of the #1 from that list of the top 15. "Pulp Fiction"? Please. "The Dark Knight"???? Horrible film (hmmm, link Chris Nolan to two in the top 10? Yeah, right). But I need to step back to this thread again…

    Erich: I should have mentioned poetry, because I get it less than the other media. Two years ago, I heard the 2005 Poet Laureate of Texas read one of his meter-less (and obviously rhyme-less) pieces at a memorial dedication and my immediate reaction was, "how is that a poem…" – not "what does it mean?" – "…and not an overly-dramatic reading of prose?" Clear and obvious to someone else, but not to me. Maya Angelou? Um, okay. I avoid poetry probably as much as you.

    And I guess in a similar vein, I don't hear music lyrics without concentrating really hard. I remember many Rush lyrics, and can't explain how or why, but everything else? I could be listening to a song for 20 years and suddenly realize what they are saying! That's why I like classical (to go with my classic rock) – no lyrics to get in the way of the music.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jim: I play the guitar and sing well enough to get paid to do it. With that as the context, I also need to focus hard to learn the words of songs. Yet I am highly cognizant of the drums, bass lines and guitar solos. It's a rare song that I actually know all the words too. This is a bit embarrassing when I perform, as I need to make sure that I have the lyrics in front of me for the times when I don't remember the next line. This is even true of songs I have song many times. I don't get it. The music sticks, but not the words.

      I work as a lawyer for a living too. I do a lot of legal research, but I don't remember phrases and sentences. Even very important ones. Rather, I remember ideas. It's almost like I'm feeling the hydraulics of an argument rather than walking through the words. I've been told that I am rather innovative, and I wonder whether my inability to lock onto specific words frees me to express the arguments more freely (though when I need to quote passages, I dutifully look up the excerpts and carefully do this).

      I rely heavily on words in many things that I do (including writing for this site), but introspection suggests that I'm not locked onto words. But then again I don't consider myself to be all that intuitive regarding many of the things people do, except when they make arguments, and then I do seem to be able to see through them. Perhaps I've made myself into this. I don't remember being this way when I was younger.

      You see, your post is provocative in a way I didn't anticipate. It has triggered strong visceral reactions, which is ironic given the topic.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Seagull" was not my first book by Bach, so I had already been more explicitly exposed to his subjectivist view of reality. That is, the universe will be whatever we believe intensely enough it to be. Sort of like Affirmations or "The Secret".

    I was thirteen when I saw the first run of 2001 in the cinema. I'd been reading hard SF for a couple of years, so I didn't find it puzzling, unlike much of the audience whom I heard grumbling confusedly on the way out. (Their consensus seemed to be a preference for "Dark Star".)

    I was also already beginning to understand the difference between words and meanings, objects and images. So I could take the fancy visuals and macabre imagery in stride.

    2001 did suffer from the usual difficulties when expanding a tight short story ("The Sentinel") into a feature length film. But I won't go into those.

    The foundation topic of this post seems to be deconstructionism, or the squeezing of every possible meaning from a creative work, whether the creator intended it or not.

    Asimov once secretly attended a lecture about his story "Nightfall", and was dumbfounded to hear how it was being interpreted. Afterward he introduced himself to the lecturer, and argued that he had intended no such meanings. The lecturer stared him down, and asked, "Are you sure?" Asimov then ruminated that perhaps, unconsciously, he had put all those things in there. But probably not.

    One of my favorite exposés of the practice was on the Northern Exposure episode "The Graduate"

    Chris Stevens' prepares a Masters' thesis defense for a dense, deconstructive analysis of "Casey at the Bat," but over the course of the episode, comes to question this approach. At the appointed time for his defense, he summons his advisors to a baseball field, where he takes the role of the pitcher, and one of the advisors takes up a bat. Chris strikes him out while reciting the poem, with each pitch and strike at the appropriate point in the poem. Chris walks up to him, and points at his midsection. "That's what 'Casey at the Bat' is about. That feeling in your gut."

    So sometimes a monolith is just a monolith.

  7. Jim Razinha says:

    Dan, you are an anomaly: artistic and technological. Much cool in that combination.

    I don't think I was inferring deconstructionism so much as understanding the obvious to the larger majority of the population (even if only the right-brained population) meaning behind something. I do agree that too often some people over interpret to the point of absurdity, but my claim to be unable to discern the basic meaning doesn't ever get to the "over" part. I've spoken to artists about their works and heard some with specific intent (choice of colors, positioning, symbolic representations) and others who just want people to feel whatever they feel and are not surprised as Asimov was. And in a brilliant attempt to get an easy "A" back in the dark ages of undergraduate work, I took an art appreciation class that unfolded horrifically half way through when the prof had us critique yet another painting that this time happened to be his. Suddenly I (and many others) went from an "A" to a "C" with a crushing final exam, coincidentally following a dressing down for not knowing what we were talking about (I at least admit I didn't.)

    In this case, Clarke intended for the monolith to have a purpose, if not a meaning. And that is the crux of my issue with philosophy…why does there have to be meaning? (Hmmm, teaser for another blog post…)

  8. Jim Razinha says:

    Well put: "Rather, I remember ideas." I'm like that, too, but I suppose I haven't thought about it enough to quantify it. But now I recognize it, so I'm going to add that to my toolbox.

    I don't do design as an engineer. The education allows me to look at a design and question concepts and be able to convey the questions in ways engineers can understand. But in the Navy, my training/development keyed on leading and not calculations. Unlike so many engineers I know who have not had that managerial and leadership training/ development, I can look at the big picture. Oh, I can get wrapped around the axle on details as well, but I see that as a product of my brand of ADD and I've developed coping mechanisms to let me step back out.

    I know I am not "intuitive regarding many of the things people do" but I do understand a way to lead and motivate people. And yet I don't pretend to understand what motivates people. There's a difference in knowing how to motivate and what motivates. I use a coaching style which works for me (though I can play the authoritarian when necessary). And my natural and cultivated skepticism helps in seeing through arguments, even if the words to counter escape me!

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    "Remembering Ideas" is the way that I first thought of it. But decades of introspection and casual study of mind and information has led me to another interpretation: We remember transitions, verbs. It's not so much the objects that we remember, as the way the objects interact and change.

    Much like the way video has evolved. A century ago, video was stored and transported as a series of frames, dozens of individual exact objects per second. That held fast until the late 1980's, with the evolution of visual information theory (bmp to gif to jpg to mpg). Now most video is stored as one frame (compressed to a Fourier series of waveforms as jpg) followed by dozens of transitions. Only the differences between subsequent frames are stored and transmitted. Every once in a while, a new key frame is stored. But it saves on storage space, allowing many more "ideas" to fit in the same space. This is how DVD's and streaming video work.

    I cannot remember lists unless I can contextualize relationships between the items. I cannot remember even a dozen digits of pi, but I can tell you several different ways to derive as many as you want. And I can argue that π really is wrong!! Don't get me started. What?

    Squirrel! (Dug)

  10. Ben says:

    Pulp Fiction was one of my all time favorites. I think it makes a big difference when in time (in terms of age) one sees a movie. I was an adolescent when I saw it for the first time and it was just plain awesome, though I feel that if I had been older when I saw it I might not have seemed so "rad".

  11. Ben says:

    Jim, offhand can you recommend a few movies not found in the imdb list? I agree that the top 250 list is imperfect, however it is still very useful.

  12. Jim Razinha says:

    Ben: Let me think on it. I'm pretty sure many are actually in that list, just buried deep. Several of Capra's for sure. I like some of the Cohen brothers' works, too – The Big Lebowski. Shamalyan's Sixth Sense the first time was awesome

    I'm not a Tarantino fan, as I struggled to watch all of Kill Bill and while Pulp was okay, it certainly was not all that.

    More later.

  13. Rich Paxson says:

    Jim, I enjoyed your article. Thanks! I first watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the loge at the one and only theater in Kodiak, Alaska in 1970. Loge is the name for the front section of a theater balcony. In Kodiak’s theater however the entire upper-level was loge, not balcony!

    Kubrick also directed "A Clockwork Orange," which we watched from the main floor, not the loge. A disconcerting, in-your-face movie, “A Clockwork Orange” used Beethoven symphonies to accompany scenes of random street violence. Kubrick also used “Singin’ in the Rain” as the soundtrack for a scene, which was the polar opposite of the 1952, Gene Kelly movie “Singin’ in the Rain!”

    Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director who died in 2007, married soundtrack and cinematography quite well in the first seven minutes of his 1975 movie of a live performance of Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute." Bergman used a sequential collage of individual faces from the audience for his visual interpretation of the opera’s overture. Since the performance was filmed in Sweden, you might imagine that all the faces were stereotypically Scandinavian.

    Not so! The faces composing Bergman’s visual essay were quite diverse beginning with a beautiful little girl, who Bergman came back to periodically, and with whom he ended the essay. Wikipedia’s Magic Flute article says the girl is Bergman's daughter! Bergman's visual essay is one of the most moving seven minutes of any movie that I've ever seen. I don't exactly know why, and I won't attempt an interpretation, but I will end this paragraph with a YouTube URL where if you want to, you can watch it for yourself:

    It's a long way from a 1970s Alaskan loge or 1970s Sweden to the Internet and Netflix! Thanks to Netflix however I've developed a taste for the work of French director Patrice Leconte, whose cinematography has some of the same immediacy, what I think of as immersion, that the work of Bergman and Kubrick have for me. I felt like Bergman was pulling me through the screen to become a part of his “Magic Flute” audience. Kubrick jarred me into intense attention. Patrice Leconte in "Man on the Train," one of his better known films, makes me feel like I'm actually sitting with the two main characters on a chateau veranda in the scene where they discuss their nefarious plans under the starlit, night sky.

    I have one last item to share. It’s about soundtracks and cinematography again. Last Sunday, December 12th I listened to "The Sounds of Star Wars" on NPR. It was a fascinating half hour of learning about George Lucas's approach to selecting the sounds he used in “Star Wars,” and also learning how the sound engineer produced those sounds. Perhaps surprisingly, given the nature of the film, Star Wars sounds did not begin with electronics, but they all began with sounds from the natural and built physical worlds. Those sounds were then engineered into the specific sounds used in the movie! It was a fascinating half-hour, which you can hear by following this URL: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/12/131968222/-the-soun

  14. Jim Razinha says:

    Starting to see a crossover between this thread and my other one on the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame – likes and dislikes vice interpretation and understanding artistic intent.

    I am going to have to check out Leconte – I like french comedies (subtitles, of course), but a few of the dramas I've watched I didn't like. Kubrick is hit and miss with me. I admit that Bergman's genius falls flat as well. He appeals to emotion, and that's virtually impossible to bring out of me in print and difficult for any director to evoke in film (for me).

    My wife can go deep into in a film, whether good or not (unless it is really bad – Watchmen comes to mind), whereas I cannot. I can get wrapped up in intense sequences, and I was actually surprised at the end of Sixth Sense, but most of the time I'm not "into" them, which is a symptom or side effect of the artistic understanding gene I lack. That's not to say I'm not entertained, just not on the same level.

    I like most things Star Trek but was so put off by Abrams dreck that I would have walked out if I wasn't stuck in the middle of a long row in a packed theater. My wife liked the movie well enough, but looks at me and knows I'm going to be a jerk after (or during) the film…it's a failing of mine. Inception was a another example because at the end, she stood up and said, "That was a good movie." I, in a rare moment of discretion for I am wont to voice those opinions immediately, said, "That's funny. I was going to say it wasn't very good at all." If she's in the mood to educate me, or just have a spirited discussion, she might ask me why, or tell me why. Sometimes I just tell her why, or listen to why. She even got totally immersed in the finale of Lost. That [expletive omitted} ruined the entire six year run for me. Must have been the understanding. That and I can't stand cheap copouts, like they used when BSG ended. Ooops. Starting with the jerk. Better sign out.

  15. Jim Razinha says:

    Partial update: On Tarantino, I still have yet to try Resevoir Dogs, but I had to turn off Inglourious Basterds when I started to watch it on TV. Dude likes his gratuitous violence. Funny how the lead review on IMDB said "In short, see it. I'm sure you'll see it again and again."

    Uh. Not even close.

    It's clear yet again that I do not understand "art."

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