I’m not fond of those endless online clickbait lists. I couldn’t even name my Top Ten films, because, you know, only TEN? Art can’t and shouldn’t be placed in some sort of numerical scoreboard.
Everybody beholds with different eyes and finds their own meanings in even the most obscure and inconsequential films - a good friend of mine ranks Tango & Cash as his most favourite movie. So, to admit to myself that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, is my favourite film of all time, is a personal challenge which I hope to resolve by the end of this article. Do stick around.
Fifty years since its first release, 2018 gives you the welcome opportunity to see Kubrick’s ode to mankind on the canvas for which it was truly designed - the cinema screen. Preferably played very big and very loud. Which is where I first fell for the film, at the late, lamented Savoy One, during the Dublin Film Festival - a story I’ve told here before. I wasn’t yet for this world when it first came to Ireland, on July 26th of 1968. I saw it first on TV, back in the '80s when I was about 12. It bemused but never bored me. There was much discussion the next day in school (back then, everybody watched the same four channels) as to what the hell was going on with the old man and the baby bits? The same discussion continues to this day.
Despite its present day pedigree, the film’s initial path to acceptance was a rocky one. Back in 1968, when a major American critic like Pauline Kael crucified your movie, it was usually dead and buried. And she hated 2001. But those were the days of the long game when it came to releasing films. The days of living or dying on the opening weekend were still years away. With a 161 minute running time, and a plot that doesn't care much for narrative, the movie was never going to be an easy sit. Released first in only a handful of major US cities, after the first week, the word wasn’t good. People were simply not sure what to make of it. So Kubrick took the matter literally into his own hands, re-cutting new prints himself in the basement of the MGM building on 6th Avenue in NY. This reduced the running time to 139 minutes, which is the version we know today. As a rule, Kubrick destroys all his cut material. So those 17 minutes of scenes, seen only by audiences in those cities that first week, were never to be seen again - until the year 2010, when they were discovered down a disused salt mine in Kansas. I’m not making that one up.
The somewhat shorter cut made things a little easier for audiences, but still 2001's eventual success was down to something that still stands to any film today: word of mouth. In time it became clear that the audience that was embracing the film was the counter-culture generation. On realising this, Kubrick approved a new advertising campaign and posters. Instead of showing off the astronauts, the space ships and the moon, the new posters led with images of the star child and psychedelic stargate, proclaiming in bold type ‘THE ULTIMATE TRIP’. A bit on the nose, you say. But it was right. And it worked! The film became a worldwide phenomenon over the years of its initial release, winning Kubrick his only Oscar - for special effects.
It’s a real shame Stanley didn’t live to see his film released again in the year 2001. He died, exhausted, from the three-year long Eyes Wide Shut shoot, only months away from that film’s release in 1999. A decade earlier, he walked into the Forbidden Planet bookshop on Dawson Street in Dublin, which I was managing at the time. I didn’t recognise him at the till. (Who did? He continued to live a reclusive low profile in England. Something that he later expressed some regret over). But someone in the shop, who worked in the arts, knew he was in town, grabbed me and said, ‘That was Stanley Kubrick! What did he buy?’ A pile of David Brin novels, as it turned out. This was likely around the time he was doing research for A.I. - which Steven Spielberg eventually made years later. I’m kinda glad I didn’t know it was him. I’m sure I would’ve made him uncomfortable if I’d let on that I knew who he was. And I certainly would not have asked him for an autograph - I’ve never been the type. Oh how the man would’ve hated selfies!
The Irish Film Institute’s near-annual 70mm screenings of 2001 in recent years are when I finally fell head over heels with 2001. As a projectionist, dealing with such a monster film print on seven stainless steel reels is an intimate, hands-on affair. In my privileged position up in the booth, I have the luxury of being there for every single show, listening and watching out for my favorite moments and discovering new ones. I’m currently obsessed by the sound old man Bowman makes with the silverware on the porcelain plate as he eats dinner in the white bedroom.
In April of this year, Kubrick's driver Emilio D'Alessandro retired to his home country of Italy, and auctioned off the contents of his garage. As you can imagine, after three decades spent working for Stanley he had accumulated quite a cross section of paraphernalia: including props, posters, costumes, paperwork, christmas cards and the like. The big ticket items, like Jack Nicholson’s coat from The Shining, went for huge money, €25K in that case. Even Kubrick’s Visa-sized membership card to the Screenwriter’s Guild sold for ten grand.
When I got my hands on the catalogue, I flicked through the pages humming, "If I was a rich man….Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum". But I’m also not getting any younger. So when I saw this one particular item, I said feck it, I’ll take a punt and place a bid. And to my delight (and, you know, financial horror) I won. The note from Stanley sits on my desk in a frame now. The first thing I see when I sit down to write, and the last thing I see when I turn off the light:
So, yes, it’s official. Even the Credit Union concurs: 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favourite film. So, do go and experience it this year. Life, on this planet at least, is short. But it’s about the journey. This one is enlightening. A good trip guaranteed. I have it in writing.
The restored 2001: A Space Odyssey premieres at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and will screen at the Irish Film Centre later this year.