Anxiety and Acid Flashbacks Made '2001: A Space Odyssey' the Masterpiece for Me
My favorite movie of all time moved me to the brink of insanity.
Stanley Kubrick's science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, is universally praised as one of the all-time great works of cinema. It also rotated the pod of my mind right off my head. Granted, hallucinogenic drugs and a dollop of old-fashioned anxiety had a lot to do with it. But for years, 2001 was not just a movie for me. It was a memory: lived, palpable, and consuming.
I am not so old that I saw this movie in 1968, but I do remember my initial encounter. In an ancient time (the early 1980s), at a now forgotten realm called a "video store," old movies existed on magnetic tape threaded through big plastic cartridges. Since 2001 was a deluxe-sized picture, MGM packaged it in a gigantic box that took up extra room on the shelf -- a monolith adorned with Robert McCall’s gorgeous interplanetary art. The box teased the experience: "Kubrick's 2001 is the ultimate trip."
I was 8 years old when I saw the 2001 VHS case, and early on my own personal sci-fi timeline. At that point, my primary sci-fi love it was probably The Jetsons. I was definitely into Star Wars; in the early '80s, they threw you out of the country if you didn't like Star Wars. I wasn't yet into Star Trek, which would become a major part of my life. Same goes for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But my passion was about to evolve.
My mom was the Keeper of the Video Store Rental Card, and she could be convinced to do fantasy, but never sci-fi. She'd let me rent Dragonslayer and Krull but not Battle Beyond the Stars or Saturn 3. God only knows why. (Krull was actually just as much sci-fi as fantasy, so the joke was on her.) But one time -- at home, not even at the store! -- I was whining that she wouldn't let me rent that cool looking 2001. Why not!?
Oh my God… they've already seen it.
"That's the one with Raquel Welch and her boobies hanging out, right?" my Dad calls from the other room.
"No! That's One Million Years B.C.!" my mother corrected. "You are confusing the ape-man parts. 2001 starts when they are ape men then goes to space. OK, we'll rent it. It's good."
Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is so meticulous and austere that unexpecting viewers might consider it non-narrative. It’s possibly the most experimental work of pure cinema that has ever unspooled for mainstream audiences. But since it was released as the space race was at its apogee with the Apollo flights were about to lift off, it connected with the masses, and became the top-grossing film of 1968. (On its tail: Funny Girl.) My parents -- who are extremely not into anything remotely psychedelic -- somehow ended up at a movie branded as "the ultimate trip." And liked it.
We rented the movie. My life changed.
I took to 2001 like a prehistoric man takes to a stoic, interplanetary device. I remember only being half into it. This isn't Star Wars, I thought. Nobody speaks for the first 25 minutes. Even by early 1980s standards, the videophones on the space station looked a little dated. The ship was cool. But where were the lasers? There was chess. Where were the droids? There was HAL 9000, a disembodied voice and a circular light. Where was the thrilling adventure music? There was Aram Khachaturian.
Everything changed when Dave Bowman entered the "Star Gate," and I entered a new world: the world of inexplicable panic attacks.
Perplexing my mother, who is in the same room as me, but looking at a magazine, I began flipping out. Complete meltdown. All because of zooming lights. And easily shattered dinnerware.
At this point in my life, I am terrified of horror films. My older sister, naturally, loves them, but loves only one thing more: tormenting me by giving me the details of horror films when I didn't ask for them. I develop not so much a fear of horror films (which I bet there's even a name for) but a fear of accidentally seeing a horror film. Every trip to the movies is Russian roulette: I still get queasy about the time I was force-fed the trailer for Wolfen. We didn't have rickrolls back then, but if we did, the paranoia of somehow the universe pulling the rug from under me and – aha! - exposing me to a horror film was a genuine concern.
By the time the Star Child appeared at the end of Dave Bowman’s trip "Beyond the Infinite," I was a quivering mess on the couch. And yet, nothing scary had happened. There were no monsters, no Jasons, no scares. What existential horror gripped my soul? My mother, a caring woman, was dumbfounded. "What's wrong? It's a baby! He's being reborn."
Her interpretation of 2001's ending wasn't exactly accurate. Most agree that Dave Bowman evolves into a higher form of being -- a "watcher" of some sort. But in an effort to chill me out, my mother went the standard reincarnation route, which was an awful move. At the time I was terrified of the concept of reincarnation. I was convinced that I would come back as a blade of grass and people would step on me. I could practically feel the soles of their shoes.
The impressionistic finale kept me up at night, filling my head with nightmarish visions. Other kids had nightmares about zombies. I was driven to panic by images of the Louis XIV-esque furniture at the end of 2001. A popular kiddie show of the era, The Electric Company, would reference the movie in a recurring bit. I'd hear the famous fanfare from Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra and lose my shit.
Why this sequence? I couldn't really answer you. Maybe because I was (if I may be bold) a "smart" kid by all usual measurements, and an artistic confrontation with the unanswerable was something I had yet to exposed to, but to which I was completely vulnerable. Györgi Ligeti’s atonal Atmosphères became the chorus of my fears. I put this all aside for years. Then I went to college in the '90s.
I entered NYU film school with a solid respect for the art-house, film-bro canon, but one thing was certain in those days: Kubrick was King. Movies like A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining and, a personal fave, The Killing, mesmerized devoted moviegoers with precision craft and plotting. I was one of them, and out of self-respect, I returned to 2001 to reforge my memories of Kubrick's radical science fiction.
The transplant was a success. On slightly more stable psychological footing than an 8-year-old’s, the images marveled but did not overwhelm me. I was able to connect the dots of its basic mystery plot, but also enjoy its rich visual impact from the non-verbal Dawn of Man sequence to the lonely space-born three-hander of Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and the voice of Douglas Rain (HAL 9000) living, working and, eventually, scheming in a sealed-off, inhuman environment.
Instead of cowering, I instinctively grooved on cinema’s most in-your-face “match cut,” saw the artistry of the lengthy, balletic “Blue Danube Waltz” docking sequence and loved having my senses shattered by the climactic, cine-fury of the “Star Gate” conclusion. I loved the movie even more because some squares thought it was "slow" or "confusing." By college, I was also way into Pink Floyd and Yes and Genesis and anything that broke narrative rules. I was a pain in the ass.
In the late 1960s, 2001 was sold to the straights as a realistic and exacting look at the near future. We're going to the moon? We're gonna go even farther! This was pristine, American (and corporate!) exceptionalism.
But for a certain sect of drug-indulging youths, it was something to watch when you were high. Seeing 2001 on LSD became a rite of passage, or at least a strong urban myth. At a 1968 screening in San Francisco, a hippie reportedly leapt to his feet and ran down the aisle screaming "It's God!" during the big finish. One can only hope he dove straight into the screen never to be heard from again. I remember Howard Stern saying he saw it with a friend named Dave who was spaced out on drugs, and when the HAL kept repeating the name Dave, it made him all twitchy. Author-DJ Jesse Jarnow, whose recent book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America is a marvelous exploration of the intersection of LSD and mainstream culture, tells me that there was a special screening at MIT where they rolled in high-grade speakers for the "hip" scientists, many of whom were "enhanced." For some, the "ultimate trip" was the ultimate trip.
I never watched 2001 on LSD. (I saw other movies on LSD. Army of Darkness was one. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was another. Don't ask me why; I really can't give you a straight answer.) I was going to get around to 2001 eventually. But I didn't have to: I already had the movie -- the slowly paced, engineered-to-the-finest-detail movie with its big honking visual metaphors -- already etched upon my brain. Which led to some problems. 2001: A Space Odyssey scared me as a kid. It haunted me as a young adult.
It was a dumb night to drop acid. As if hallucinogenic drugs don't mess up your understanding of time as it is, I picked when the artifice of "time" completely shatters and The Man dictates when you are: the April night when clocks sprang forward for daylight saving time. I was in a dorm room on Washington Square Park. A bunch us crowded into a tiny space. A CD of the Velvet Underground's greatest hits was on, the one that everyone thought was skipping when it got to the guitar solo on "White Light/White Heat." As my heart rate increased, sweat gushed from my pores. I wouldn't say "the walls were caving in" because that's a cliché, but I will say that the planes upon which the walls existed began to shuffle, and then as if tossed by a Vegas dealer, they swiftly enclosed me.
I'm pretty sure I started murmuring because everyone was looking at me funny. Then I was laying on my back hyperventilating. Then I realized this whole thing was a trick and I was in a WWI trench and I was about to get shot. But then I realized that was idiotic and besides I was already dead. Then I saw a glowing orb blasting streaks of white neon through impenetrable blackness. It looked like a cross between a Dan Flavin sculpture and Spider-Man's nemesis Venom. An instant later, I didn’t see anything.
I knew what was going on. "I'm being born!" I shouted, no doubt to the eternal snickers of my friends who were there and had merely puffed on a joint. But they didn't know. I was inside 2001.
This sounds lame as hell, and I even had the self-awareness to know that I wasn't actually "inside the movie." It was just that the movie was the only thing that could compare to what was happening to me. Somehow, and I admit this is a preposterous buying-in to the Cult of Kubrick, he knew about the true psychedelic experience and got a visual representation of it up there on screen. That's where I was.
Not only was I screaming, I heard the echoing my mother's voice, as if that first screening of 2001 had actually been a primer for what was happening now. "I'M BEING BORN!"
So I was being born. Mom’s explanation did not calm me down. It further freaked me out. I didn’t want to be born! It was a trick. And time was a construct that just changed when somebody just said “tonight time changes.” That plus there was a fire drill right in the middle of this, which meant I had to walk down 14 floors in a harshly lit stairwell, then, at pre-dawn, wander around lower Manhattan in socks babbling about the transitive nightfall of diamonds. Thank God for friends. I had been blasted beyond the infinite.
For months I was convinced that this "trick" had really crossed me over into an alternate reality. (Keep in mind, there was a lot of pot smoke in that dorm.) Only from that night onward would I notice the blue-hued refractions of the light in my glasses if I looked at a street light. I never had that before, which meant, if I wasn’t actually living in a parallel universe, at the very least I had destroyed the ocular impulses in my brain. I would never be an airline pilot.
Relaying this story, Jesse Jarnow tells me that the concept of the "acid flashback" is more urban myth than anything else. Maybe 5% actually experience something, while everything else can just be chalked up to good old-fashioned PTSD.
Whatever you want to call it, my bad trip, combined with the power of 2001, messed me up. A number of times, when I least expected it, I got sucked back into Dave Bowman’s pod. The walls would start doing that shuffle again, sounds going echoey, drifting into a well and then, whammo, it's me, a compressed metal sphere, and, like my mother’s misinterpretation of the movie, I’m being born.
There was the time I rolled up to a party at Rowan University in New Jersey and found myself alone in my friends' car, waiting for a random ride through the Star Gate to subside. The flashbacks hit me smack dab in the middle of one of my college film shoots; luckily it was the very last shot and we were filming in my own room and I kicked everyone out and hid under the covers listening to J.S. Bach. I figured something structured and mathematical would tether me back to the structured universe. It sounds fun, but it was always a hassle.
The most memorable time was during Clint Eastwood's In The Line of Fire, the squarest of all movies. For some reason, my friends and I had gotten high, then headed to the multiplex to watch the Presidential assassination thriller. When we started laughing at the dumb jokes ruined in the commercials that aired nonstop I knew I was in a simulation. I tried hard to pull myself out of it. I started shouting my own name louder and louder, until I caused a scene, and my friends pulled me out of the theater. To chill out, we sat in a car and listened to Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" and I was like, Fuck no, Lenny, I'm not going your way, I am keeping my sanity, I am staying in reality, take Dave Bowman instead.
I'm no longer riddled with 2001 panic attacks. It took a while. Yet, my love of all things psychedelic remained. I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and found it strangely comforting, but had no interest in testing the waters again. I discovered Grateful Dead, but late; my eternal heartbreak is never seeing them live before Jerry died. For years I avoided "heavy" places, just to be on the safe side. I loved Phish albums, but didn't see them in concert for years. In 2017, I saw them 12 times.
I also grew to recognize, slowly, that 2001: A Space Odyssey was made by humans. It was not beamed down from higher dimensions. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke even disagreed on story points. There were almost aliens in the movie.
But 2001 has a mystique to it. It isn't just me. So much of the conspiratorial lore around The Shining springs from the aura of 2001. How many magazines have based their spreads off the work of Tony Masters, Harry Lange, and Ernest Arche, the three production designers hired by Kubrick to imagine the look of the movie? How many actual pieces of technology piggybacked off the film's vision of the future? How many people still believe the moon landing was faked by a mysterious, detail-oriented director?
However, and this is key, if you've seen the movie three hundred times as I have -- either on 70mm at your local repertory screening house or home streaming off Amazon -- you can still notice new things. I don't just mean reading the fine print of the zero-gravity toilet.
Take the scene where the two clans of ape-men are sniffing each other out and preparing to fight. They do so around the watering hole. Flash-forward a few millennia. Doctor Floyd gets to the space station, sees a group of Russians, and both decide to size each other up for information. They sit in a circle, drinks at the ready. Farrrrrrrr out. Someone only pointed that out to me last year.
2001: A Space Odyssey, which had so tormented me in my youth, is my favorite movie of all time. I've come a long way from cowering in fear when I’d hear the opening brass of Thus Spake Zarathustra. In fact, I usually start to dance my rear off when my favorite band, Phish, does their "cover" of Eumir Deodato's 1970s disco arrangement used to comedic effect in the film Being There. It started as a bit of a gag for Phish, an excuse to show off their new spinning light rig. Then they would play it before launching into their own songs, then it evolved (evolved whoa) into an epic jam of its own.
I've seen them do "2001" (as Phans and most Phish-ologists erroneously call it) on New Year's Eve more than once -- a night where The Man just randomly resets the dial on our calendars. I've never broken a sweat, nor have I found myself back on the Discovery One spaceship, preparing to transcend to the next plane of existence. But I know I can take the trip.
A new 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey is touring this May. I’ll definitely go. But in my head, somewhere if I look hard enough, I’m already there.