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The Monolith Movie

Tao Yue

2001 has come and gone. Though I certainly would like to take part in the flood of retrospectives that comes at the beginning of any new year, I find myself strangely unable to do so. For one, I do not know where to begin.

So many topics, so many interconnections, too many dilemmas. Some people may have sorted it all out, but personally, I will wait a few years and look at it from the viewpoint of a historian rather than a journalist.

There is, however, one small, neglected topic where the facts, if not the reasons, are clear-cut. That is the strange saga of the re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As its namesake year approached, the film worked its way back into popular culture. Everywhere one could hear the strains of the classical piece adopted by the film as its signature theme: Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Advertisements took on a space-oriented theme, making fun of the monolith that figured so prominently in the film. Columnists adopted a new favorite topic: comparing the innovations imagined in the film to present-day technologies.

It would seem logical, then, for Warner Brothers, the studio which bought a substantial portion of MGM’s library and is now the copyright holder of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to participate in the recent frenzy of restorations, re-releases, and director’s cuts (listed in decreasing order of respectability). These have made an incredible amount of money, perhaps because so many current movies are awful. The 1997 Special Edition of the original Star Wars trilogy, featuring a Greedo who shot first, brought in $461 million in domestic box offices for Episode IV alone. The 1998 restoration of Gone With the Wind, which suffered from blurry images and color fringing, brought in $199 million.

Despite criticisms, though, at least the films were released. They also required a fair amount of money, substantial though insignificant compared to digital effects budgets for films like Lord of the Rings, to repair damage and fading of the negatives. But 2001: A Space Odyssey requires neither. Because of Stanley Kubrick’s famous perfectionism, the film was stored in a proper archive, unlike most films which slowly turned to vinegar in stuffy, non-air-conditioned warehouses. The film is in near-perfect condition, and required almost no work before prints could be struck.

Finally, it happened. But only for limited release in the United Kingdom. A few festivals in the United States showed 2001 for special events, such as New Year’s Day, 2001. However, while film buffs waited and waited for a general, or even limited, release, Warner Brothers was silent.

Then in September came the sudden announcement that an extremely limited run of the film would be made, showing in four premier venues. These were places where there’s a curtain in front of the screen, where an actual human devotes all his attention to one film, not twenty-four like at a multiplex; where epic movies are treated as well as live theater. The Seattle Cinerama was bought and restored by overshadowed Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, while the Uptown in Washington, D.C. has not been quite so lucky. Despite those problems, all four theaters tried their best, doing everything possible to make sure the film was presented correctly. All four runs were an enormous success, making it possible for thousands to see the film on the big screen.

Then it was announced that Loew’s Astor Plaza in New York City would get a second copy of the film. The film arrived amid eager anticipation. Then, it was abused. The intermission, which comes at an important dramatic point and was designed to allow the audience to think, was chopped out of the film.

Lack of attention scratched it so badly that it looked worse after two weeks than many movies do after three months. The sound system was not calibrated, leading to warbling. To save costs, a projectionist was brought in only on Fridays, leaving an usher to push buttons to run the film and switch over to a backup when something went wrong. Obviously, with nobody there to take care of the film, something did go wrong, several times, and the backup had to be run.

Why did Warner Brothers wait while everyone around them was taking advantage of the year 2001 to advertise the film for them, then release it when the year was almost over and the side promotion had ended? Allow four theaters to worship it, and one to ignore it?

One thing is for sure -- this story will only get more interesting. A significant number of very vocal people will keep pushing Warner Brothers to do a more general release of the film. In the coming year, whenever you get tired of pondering great world issues, well, here’s something less weighty to think about.