Our veteran reviewer Cliff Lampe takes time from work on his PhD to give you the lowdown on one of the most unusual books about a science-fiction movie that you are likely to encounter. Ever.
The ScenarioThere are times when you read a book and think the author has it dead wrong. Then are times when you suspect he is right, and that thought scares gives you the cold shakes. Wheat's analysis of 2001 is exactly like that. No, this is not another whiney look at the sad differences between Kubrick's vision of what this year would be like and the McDonald's sponsored nightmare of reality television, boy bands and public disinterest in science that we ended up with. This is much crazier than that. Leonard Wheat examines 2001 from the perspective of three different allegories: the Odysseus myth, man-machine symbiosis and the Nietzschean Zarathustra legend.
Wheat is a retired economist, who has a doctorate in political economy and government from Harvard. That in itself does not qualify him to review old movies, but it does say he's used to pretty rigorous analysis. His book is an examination of the movie rather than the book. He points out that the movie was based on a Clarke short story, and the book came after the film. This being the case, Wheat is very centered on Kubrick's vision of the story rather than Clarke's. He uses scripts, director's notes, and some interviews to provide evidence for some of his claims.
So what are those claims? Alot of it makes good sense. For instance, Dave Bowman relates to Ulysses (a reknowned bowman in the myths). He goes on a long voyage and loses all his crew. Pretty neat so far, but Wheat tends to go to far in some oif his claims. Here's an example:
"In the next scene, the moon monolith scene, it becomes evident that TMA-1 symbolizes the wooden Trojan Horse: hence, we are looking for hidden meaning that refers or alludes to the Trojan Horse. And that meaning can be found in TMA-1. Spell out the figure '1' and you get TMA-ONE. These letters, like the last nine in Frank Poole, can be rearranged to form an anagram. In this case, the anagram is "No Meat." A wooden horse has no meat on its skeletal framework."
You had me at "Bowman". *sniff* But the whole "No Meat" thing is just a skoach over the top. It stays pretty topsy-turvy. For example, in the discussion of the man-machine symbiosis allegory, Wheat claims that HAL represents a new type of human called homo-machinus. I don't usually quote this much in a review, but you need to hear this from the horse's mouth. In this next passage, he is showing the anthropomorphism of the HAL-Discovery by claiming the six rockets at the back of the ship, encased in three hexagonal casings, have meaning.
"But why the hexagons? Why not circles or squares or nothing? When I was growing up in the 1930's, which is the same time Kubrick was growing up, most reasonably modern houses had white tile bathroom floors. The tile, in vogue from the turn of the century through World War II, were hexagons, one inch across and fitted together in a honeycomb pattern. The rear-end hexagons are bathroom tiles! They symbolize bathrooms. Hal-Discovery has three bathrooms, one for each mouth. And what is the only being that uses bathrooms to answer the call of nature? Homo sapiens. Once more we see that the intelligent spaceship is a humanoid." Yeah, I know.
There's much, much more where that came from. The thing is, these allegorical statements do make sense. I can see 2001 on a level as being a retelling of the Odysseus myth, and on another level being a moralistic story about the dangers of increasingly blurred lines between the mechanical and the biological. Hell, science fiction is littered with similar stories, and Kubrick is not usually without some sort of moral framework. The Zarathustra allegory obviously fits as well. The death of God, the realization that all humans could become god (or Star Children) as well, the whole schmeal. The problem is that one gets so caught up in the loony evidence like that presented above that it becomes easy to lose track on how cool the idea really is.
It reminds us how good human minds, especially smart ones, are at finding patterns in crazy shit. Reading this book you are impressed with two minds: Kubrick's and Wheat's. Wheat has the premise that Kubrick was so wicked smart that these long strings of meaning are not only possible, they are a sure thing. You also come away with the sense that Wheat is a pretty smart man himself. This book goes too far at times, but is worth reading. One thing's for sure, you'll never watch 2001 again in the same way.
Note: There is a very nice Post-It on the book I was sent saying the cover showing the HAL2000 red eye is a cover designer's screw up. I believe that, since after having read the book I doubt Wheat could have ever missed something as simple as Hal's name. Must kill him every time he looks at the cover in fact.
You can purchase this book at Fatbrain.