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.