Wednesday, March 4, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey

Wow! Sorry for my long absence from blogging. I guess I'm either on or off.

My son was home sick today and so I decided to rent a classic - 2001: A Space Odyssey. We've talked about this movie in the past, and I thought it might be fun to watch. I was right, but certainly not in the way I expected.

I've gotten in the habit of studying the structure of movies as I watch them. It's so much easier to dissect a movie than it is a book, particularly movies I've seen before. My apologies in advance if 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of your sacred cows - you may want to stop reading now - but IMO, boy was this a good one to tear apart as an example of what NOT to do in storytelling.

The film opens with almost 5 minutes of blank screen with strange music in the background. No title screen. No opening pictures. Just blackness. Okay, it's a space movie. But 5 minutes?

Next, the film shows 20 minutes, TWENTY MINUTES (no exaggeration), of footage of men dressed up in gorilla suits and going about their typical day, until one day when a monolith appears in their neighborhood and suddenly one of them gets the great idea to use an animal bone as a weapon and promptly kills an enemy gorilla. This is progress.

Cut to the future. For another 20 minutes (NO LIE!) we see footage of special effect models - various space vehicles moving and rotating about in space, culminating with an extended scene of a pen floating about in space inside a space shuttle/airplane, while its owner SLEEPS! Riveting. Really. Even allowing for the fact that in the late 1960's, the idea of space travel was new and perhaps needed a bit more set-up than current times (for those who weren't Star Trek fans), twenty minutes was a bit much.

At this point, my 13-year-old son is about to crawl out of his skin, and I'm about ready to end my repeated assurances of "just wait, it gets better". Forty-five minutes into the film, we get our first dialogue. After a brief teleconference with his 5-year-old daughter (presumably to humanize our temporary hero - as nothing else relevant seems to come out of the discussion), our MC of the moment, Dr. Heyward Floyd, speaks to an assembly of scientists on the moon explaining in his monologue that an object estimated to be 4 million years old has been found buried on the moon. All go to investigate and are presumably killed, including the man who until now has been the main character. So much for humanizing him with the daughter. We never really had a chance to care about him as a character.

More long, drawn-out images and we eventually meet our dual heroes, and the infamous HAL. They are on a mission they know almost nothing about. Neither of them seem to have known Dr. Floyd and feel no sense of mission to solve the question of why he had to die. In fact, with the exception of the monolith tie-in, it could be an entirely different movie. Almost all the dialogue is contrived to tell the audience information that needs to be conveyed, rather than showing it in an interesting way. The dialogue is stilted - a third grader could probably be more creative. At this point, my daughter has returned from school and the two kids are rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically at the absurdity of it all. I'm wondering how the film ever became a classic, but keep saying - "Just wait... it'll all make sense in the end."

At no point is Dave (the remaining hero) ever angry at HAL for killing off the crew, nor is he nervous about his ability to succeed in disabling HAL, nor does he run into any real stumbling blocks - HAL is ineffectual at doing ANYTHING to even slow Dave down, and his pleading attempts (in monotone voice) of "Stop Dave. Stop Dave. Stop Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. I'm afraid Dave. The world is getting dark Dave. My mind is fading Dave." had the kids laughing so hard it was hard to hear the next line of dialogue.

Next comes an extended psychedelic tunnel (perhaps another 10 minutes? I don't know the exact time. It did seem to go on and on. We were laughing too hard at this point for me to keep track). The special features included with the DVD stated they spent a lot of time with glue and solvents building the models. This explains a lot!

At this point I tell the kids, "the scene explaining it all is coming up soon now. You'll recognize it by the famous Space Odyssey music?" So we sit through weird, inexplicable scenes of Dave growing older and older in some sort of drug-induced dream, until he comes upon the monolith floating is space. Cue music.

The "famous" scene I remember that explains it all - it was all in my head. It's nowhere in the movie. I must have dreamed it. I can't even blame it on drugs - I was only 5 when the movie was released.

So, what does this movie have to teach about storytelling:

  • When the writing books say "make the beginning exciting. Draw people into the story." they don't mean you need explosions or car chases on the first page, but 20 minutes of gorilla footage may be a bit much. Gorillas get a paragraph, maybe two. Check your opening pages - are they full of gorillas?
  • Create 3-dimensional characters that your readers care about, doing things that matter to the story. A floating pen may be a cool feat in a 1968 film, but if it's not relevant to the story, nobody cares. Check your writing. Does it include beautifully written descriptions that don't really matter in the end? Either make them matter, or send them away.
  • Show your readers what's important in the story. If a strange monolith has been uncovered, take us to the archaeological dig. Letting your character tell the story in monologue is heavy handed and uninteresting. Showing takes longer than telling, but if you cut out the gorillas, you'll find you have more time to engage your readers in the story!
  • Give your characters a mission, something they want to accomplish, something they care about. Astronauts going about their daily business is not particularly exciting. Astronauts trying to solve the mystery of an unexplained monolith, and possibly save mankind - that matters. What is your MC character trying to accomplish? Is he or she simply moving through history, showing off the signs of the time, or is there a purpose to their actions?
  • Provide obstacles, real obstacles, for your character. Being shut out of the spaceship is not particularly frightening if your first solution gets you back in. Shutting down the main computer hardly seems challenging if all that happens is some useless background prattle that hardly seems distracting. What's at risk once the computer is shut down? If he can't get home anyway, what is he accomplishing by shutting HAL down - everyone else is already dead? If it's a suicide mission, should we care if the remaining character lives or dies? How about for your characters? What choices must they make, and what are the consequences of those choices? What are they giving up to reach their ultimate goal - i.e., saving the world.
  • What's it all about? Make the end matter. My mind has filled in all sorts of details for the end of this movie that just aren't there - vividly illustrated in my mind. Perhaps there was a "making of" show, or something similar, that provided the footage I so clearly remember. Perhaps the beauty of 2001: A Space Odyssey to it's fans is the ability to apply your own interpretation. In the story in my mind, new life, a new civilization, was saved from mankind to grown and prosper in its own way without interference. But in your story, make sure there is a payoff for the reader. Even if your message is big and important, give your reader closure on at least some piece of the story - a troubled character made whole again, some wrong righted, hope for the future. Don't leave the ending of your story untold.

If you have a different interpretation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, feel free to disagree here! If you have a "favorite" movie that has illustrated well writing principles (both good and bad), do share! I'm always looking for examples.


Tara Parker said...

LOL - I feel completely justified in never having watched this movie.

Now, can you do the same thing with "Arsenic and Old Lace"? (g)

Great post, Jenny! Reminds me of the first class at Surrey where Bob was showing movie clips.

Jenny Graman Meyer said...

I never saw Arsenic and Old Lace, but it is one of the short stories I remember reading in high school. Did some lady murder her husband and then continue to sleep with him over the next 20? 50? years or something? Wow. How uplifting! ~g~

But seriously, movies are a great way to study story structure because everything has to be so compacted. And see examples of what happens when you don't follow the "rules" is always so instructive!

Tara Parker said...

"Arsenic and Old Lace" was about 2 old aunts that poisoned old men that were alone in the world and buried them in their basement. Cary Grant was their nephew, and he discovers this, along with his cousin that is a criminal and trying to get rid of a dead body of his own.

I didn't realize it was a book also, but I know it was a play.

Definitely ranks as one of my all-time favorites.

Jenny Graman Meyer said...

Well, we did read Arsenic and Old Lace - perhaps in high school drama class. The story I was thinking of was something different - a short story from English class. Ah well, it's been a VERY LONG TIME since High School. One can't be expected to remember ALL the details! ~g~

bluebus said...

I think you've picked out a lot of why I find 2001 such an interesting film. Those kind of stumbling blocks in the narrative do make it a pretty difficult experience, but it's a very deliberate structure, just intended to bring out a different kind of experience in the viewer. Something that's trying to break away from the conventions of a novel and create something visual and unique to film. But if it didn't work for you, I guess it just didn't do its job in this instance :)

Jenny Graman Meyer said...

Thanks for stopping by!

I have to admit that for its time (1968), the movie is visually very advance and the special effects were amazing. It's remarkable how well the special effects have held up.

And I guess my review does show my personal preferences. When I watch a movie, even though it's visual, I'm still all about the story. Perhaps it was the balance of visuals to story that really put me off. The long sequences with no story progress were just not enough to keep me engaged in what was going on.

I respect your opinion though. Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

This was awesome! And I can just imagine your kids rolling around on the floor- priceless.

The short story you are thinking about is "A Rose for Emily" by Faulkner. I think Arsenic and Old Lace was a play before a movie. We rented it one Halloween and I could never figure out why it was a "classic."
Love ya,

Jenny Graman Meyer said...

Hey Tricia,
Shouldn't you be working?

If you really want some laughs, go to IMDB ( an search on A Space Odyssey. Then go to the very bottom, where the lowest of all low ratings are. Some of the people who wrote the negative reviews are very good writers/reviewers, and very entertaining in their delivery!

Thinking of you!

Anonymous said...

For an interesting analysis of 2001 visit

It was penned by a Margaret Stackhouse who was 15 years old at the time she saw this movie and wrote this analysis. The critique made its way to Kubrick who was deeply touched & amazed by it. It was even published in the Stanley Kubrick Archives (Taschen 2005)

And to clarify - the first 5 minutes of the movie was the Overture. This portion was played at most roadshow screenings when people were finding their seats in the theater.