by Jamie Stuart
At the Q & A following the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky relayed an anecdote regarding a phone call he received from Kubrick in the mid-1980s. Apparently, Kubrick was desperately concerned about the nuclear reduction talks going on between the United States and the USSR; he argued that it didn't make a difference whether there were 20,000 warheads or 2000, when even 50 could destroy modern civilization. Minsky told Kubrick that he didn't have the answer, but that Kubrick himself had summed up the end result pretty succinctly in Dr. Stranglove. This was followed by silence on Kubrick's end, then: "That hadn't occurred to me."
I'm sure humanity has continued far longer than Kubrick ever imagined when he blew up the world at the end of Dr. Strangelove and subsequently turned a hurtling tapir bone into a nuclear satellite orbiting Earth like the sword of Damocles in 2001. Both films were produced at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. Yet decades later, both masterpieces are still undyingly popular and relevant, and both are also products of purely analog filmmaking now being watched by more people in digital form than their original celluloid format.
I've seen 2001 well in excess of 100 times (it is, without peer, the greatest motion picture ever made), in formats as disparate as 70mm, laser disk, VHS, broadcast TV, DVD and even the awful, scratched, discolored 35mm print, complete with a missed reel change, at Tribeca. My opinion of the film has never wavered, regardless of the picture quality or format idiosyncrasies. I will admit, however, that different formats play 2001 differently, as is true of all films. For instance, when watching the movie in digital (DVD, laser disk, now Blu-ray), the sense of physicality during the space scenes is lost. I'm not talking about scale, just the very obvious realization when viewing it in celluloid form that the photographed models do have physical dimensions and that light from real sources is falling on them naturally. The FX feels different, more organic than it does in digital, where everything is flat and has a perfect sheen about it.
Kubrick's films on home video have inspired a great deal of controversy, most notably in the rendering of theatrical aspect ratios. While all of his pre-1980 films have more or less consistently maintained their proper ratios on video (varying between 2.20:1 to 1.66:1), his last three films all appeared at his request in the full-camera negative ratio of 1.33:1, though they were composed and cropped theatrically for 1.85:1. This was done, in part, to avoid lopping off the sides for video and TV — and a lot of filmmakers, from James Cameron to Bernardo Bertolucci, have done the same thing. But those other filmmakers aren't Stanley Kubrick, who maintained complete and impregnable autonomy over every minute aspect of his pictures. And at this point, with only one new Kubrick release in the past 20 years (Eyes Wide Shut), many fanatics of his work believed that his last three films were actually screened in the full-negative 1.33:1; accordingly, they cried foul when it was announced that the latest DVD/HD releases from late last year would appear in 16:9.
My own personal favorite oddity in Kubrickian home video occurred when I switched from laser disk to DVD. For anybody who remembers, laser disks took up both sides of each giant disk — and the number of disks was determined by both the movie's length and also the bit rate of the transfer. Having bought the highest quality special edition, the movie took up three whole disks. Now, the final image of the Star Child came exactly at the end of side-5, and that being the end of the movie, I always hit stop. The lack of end credits made the picture seem practically divine. Of course, this all changed when I watched the DVD for the first time, because as soon as the picture faded out on the Star Child, on came The Blue Danube to accompany the end credits. This completely changed my perception; all of a sudden, this mythic work of art became Earthborn. That transition is probably my favorite moment of 2001 now: it's Kubrick deflating the hot air balloon.
More recently, I had an experience while watching Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth that radically altered my perception of the movie. I initially saw it last fall at a press screening and was completely underwhelmed by just about every aspect. In particular, I had been interested in seeing how the F950 HD-lensed photography would come out. The 35mm print I saw had soft focus, bland colors and muddied contrast. I didn't know whether this was the intended look of the film or simply the result of a bad HD-to-film transfer. Well, viewing it again on DVD from the HD master, I learned that, indeed, the poor quality was the result of a lousy 35mm transfer. The DVD is gorgeous: sharp and clear with rich colors and bottomless blacks.
By changing the picture's aesthetic, I found myself focusing more on the content, and in doing so, this changed my overall impression of YWY. The first time, it played like the main character Dominic was given a second chance both to finish his life's work and also find love again — yet I'd found both tracts tedious. This time, though, I realized that was a near-complete misreading. What's going on is that Dominic's basically been given a mission to create a record of human language/consciousness because a nuclear war will occur in the near future, and the next generation of humanity will need that as a reference — however, he ultimately chooses love over finishing his work, and by doing so, he fails in his mission. Moral: We're all fucked — we all die in the end, nuclear war is inevitable and it can't be stopped — so the best we can hope for in life is to experience true love.
I'm sure one day the big bombs that Kubrick and Coppola have anticipated will fall. Luckily, we have their movies to watch until then. And who knows, perhaps enough copies of their movies will exist in enough formats to survive.
Filmmaker Jamie Stuart has developed shorts for several years through his production business, The Mutiny Company. Working almost entirely on his own, Stuart has carved out his own niche in the film community, documenting the festival environment with experimental shorts for Movie City News, Filmmaker magazine, Focus Features and others. In this series of columns, Jamie examines the way that new technologies have aided his personal adventures in filmmaking. Read his last entry here.