1001 Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This week for the 1001 Movies You Must See Club, we watched 2001. I’ve written about this movie quite a bit, so I’m just going to rehash an article I wrote for an old blog about classical music in film. It’s a bit long, but that’s only because I’m really brilliant.

2001: A Space Odyssey came out in a difficult time period for both hard science fiction and classical music film scores. Predated by films like The Thing from Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Godzilla, 2001: A Space Odyssey offered a kind of hard science-fiction that genre fans weren’t quite used to. The film incorporated a sense of verisimilitude that rubberized pod people don’t quite measure up to. After a series of lousy reviews from important voices like Pauline Kael (wikipedia.org), 2001 won a few academy awards and soon became a wildly popular and important film. Titles such as “The Blue Danube” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” became even better known and film viewers continue to incorporate 2001 into their expectations of science fiction. After the release of 2001, sci-fi was never the same. Kitschy, cheap genre films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers were much harder to pull off after the level of verisimilitude had been raised so high. Along with another film released in 1969, Planet of the Apes, science fiction started to appeal to a much larger fan base than the usual genre crowd and viewers came to demand new things of the genre.

In the first half of film history – and even lingering somewhat today – using classical music in film scores was very unpopular among film and music critics alike. Using pre-existing music in what was seen by music scholars as such a crude and popular medium was almost sacrilege. It seemed to suggest that the two forms of classical music and film were on the same level, which they clearly weren’t. Classical music in films was also unpopular to film scholars who thought that it distracted from the image, or lead to less creative efforts by film scorers (Duncan, 10-33). It seems that because of this widely held opinion, the score of 2001: A Space Odyssey – consisting of entirely pre-existing pieces – was extremely unpopular among scholars. Kahn Atkins claimed that the music in the film had a “frozen, congealed-in-aspic quality; another, that they are a throwback to the clichés of silent theatre music, with ‘tried-and-true’ classics from ‘the old masters.’” (Duncan, 20-21). However, it seems to me – because of the subsequent popularity and parodies of the two most popular pieces in the film – that it is largely because of the recognizable score, placed alongside an extremely unrecognizable setting, that the film because so popular among audiences.

“The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss was originally only mildly successful. In fact, Strauss himself is quoted as saying, “the Devil take The Waltz.” However, through the years, “The Blue Danube” has become one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music (wikipedia.org). Though Kubrick could never have known the future reception of 2001, it seems to mirror that of the “Danube.” It took time for audiences to warm up to – and eventually admire and love – these two artworks. In his book, Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and The Narrative Film, Dean Duncan talks about how both music and images create their own narratives, and when those narratives combine in the form of film, both narratives inform the story. This seems to be the case with the “Danube” and 2001, as they boost each other up to eventually create wide appeal.

The piece first occurs in relation to a special effects spectacle near the beginning of the film. As images of giant, intricate spacecrafts – as opposed to the cardboard flying saucers in previous science fiction – the Waltz plays all the way through. Eventually – and with the appearance of humans – the Waltz picks up pace. At this point in the film there is nothing frightening about the technology being used in this setting. The music clues us in to the fantastic, almost regal, position of technology in this world. Humans have successfully learned to interact with the space stations and lack of gravity. The song offers a calm background. There is no sense of urgency in the piece, only a cresendoing sense of importance. In this way, the classical score here is parallel to the image. This scene will later contrast with a more contrapuntal scene when technology has failed the human race and HAL is being disassembled while singing the popular song “Daisy Bell.” Going back to the Atkins quote, the song does have a “frozen” feel to it. It is frozen and time and endlessly floating in space as an example of the perfection man has achieved in the technological world.

The most famous use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the other Strauss piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” As the song plays when pre-historic man discovers the use of tools – and thus violence – and then again as man enters a different realm of being in the end, we get the sense that the song symbolizes change. The change appears to be both triumphant and terrifying at the same time. The film seems to suggest that though mankind must progress through certain stages, something is lost in the process, in this case, our innocence and control. The song is based on Nietzsche’s book of the same title. Nietzsche once described his own book as “the deepest ever written,” which, judging by Kubrick’s lack of response to questions about meaning and symbolism in 2001, he might believe about his own work. The book was written in a new, experimental style and famously proclaimed that “God is dead.” Written into the narrative of the musical piece is this same phrase. God is dead because we have killed him. When coupled to the visual images of the film, this death seems to have come about by the invention of tools and technology.

Since the release of 2001, these songs have been used for parody countless times. “The Blue Danube” is featured in Spongebob, Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off, Dogma, Curious George, Austin Powers, etc. In fact, it seems that after 2001, it is impossible to use the song for anything but parody. The film is so well known that the song will always be associated with images of zero gravity space activity. The same is true of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It is used in The Simpsons and Zoolander as direct parodies of the film. It is also used frequently when sports teams enter the arena, as a symbol of power and importance. Like the “Danube,” the associations with 2001 are too strong to ever divorce the song from the film.

Besides just having an affinity for classical music, Stanley Kubrick seems to be tapping into a larger theme with his use of the Danube and Zarathustra. He seems to be suggesting that man’s moral evolution was halted with the introduction of tools and that it can only be driven to the next level when man successfully overcomes those tools. The first used of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” marks the beginning of art, as the monkey picks up the bone and proceeds to smash everything in his path. Art develops from man’s mastery of technology, and so art is also limited by technology. With the use of classical music, Kubrick implies a sense of perfection. Classical music is the epitomy of civilization. It is the best man could ever do with the technology he has created. At the end of the film we see a reincarnation of art and beauty, suggesting that there is something greater to strive for. However, the classical score implies that in the state that we know – dependant on technology – classical music is the greatest we can hope to achieve.

Duncan, Dean. “Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film.” Fordham University Press: New York, 2003



Filed under 1001 Movies, Whitney

8 responses to “1001 Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey

  1. dw

    remember when hal ashby uses that funk version of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Being There? that kills me every time.

  2. I love that you focused on a very specific aspect of the film instead of the film as a whole. It makes reading all of these reviews a lot more interesting.

    Obviously there’s exceptions to every rule. I know David Lean’s Brief Encounter used Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for its score. I wonder what the critical reception to that was. It’s hard to criticize though when the music fits the images so well…

  3. Its a film that will test your comfort zone, especially when it comes movie viewing. But, it is one of the most influential sci-fi films of all-time, and brings up great questions about a universe we may never know about. Check out my review here: http://dtmmr.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/2001-a-space-odyssey-1968/ Nice Review!

  4. This film was billiant. As a computer scientist, involved in the forefront of Artificial Intelligence research, I consider the HAL9000 computer as visionary. HAL used polymer sheets for memory, a technology that is only just being pioneered, using lasers to read and write in the polymer. A small cube of polymer can hold many hundreds of terabytes. The computer was trained, not programmed. This is the same with a technology that my company is patenting – a computer architecture that is based on the brain that learns from input, rather than using rigid programming. Like HAL, the system never stops learning.

  5. Stefan

    I only watched the film for the first time in my life last night, what an experience! I was absolutely transfixed by every shot!

    This is an interesting entry, both pieces of music were used perfectly – it’s hard to imagine anything replacing them. However, I’m a little confused as to why you didn’t mention the several György Ligeti pieces that featured quite prominently (think of the monolith and the ‘stargate’ scenes). This was the music which really grabbed me in the film, and personally found these scenes far more affecting. Next time you watch the film listen out for it – it’s truly sublime!

  6. Pingback: Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) | Alex Kittle

  7. You are very wrong for using Jesus’ name in vain. This is not funny and I pray you repent before you spend an eternity in Hell. Then you’ll be calling “Dear Jesus” for real and He won’t answer you. I was going to use “Dear Jesus” for my blog. Please repent. Jesus loves you.

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