2001: A Cinerama Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.

Oh, I’d seen something that was called 2001: A Space Odyssey before. I’d seen something called that on an old-style square TV and thought it wasn’t all that good. I’d seen what seemed to be a different film on a widescreen TV and on DVD — that one was much better. Last year I saw what seemed to be a different film again in a cinema — that one was *much* better than the one you get on DVD.

But then I saw it in Cinerama, the way it was meant to be seen. NOW I’ve seen 2001.

2001 wasn’t filmed in Cinerama proper (the three-strip process used for, for example, How the West was Won), but was intended to be screened on Cinerama screens, which is rather unfortunate, as there are now only three working Cinerama screens in the world — in LA, Seattle, and Bradford. For anyone who can’t get to those when they’re showing it, I’m afraid you’ll just have to never actually see 2001.

For a start, the sheer size of the screen makes a difference to how you experience the film. Every window on the various spaceships has something moving in it — little back-projected films to add a sense of scale and verisimilitude — and that’s *sort-of* visible on a standard cinema screen. What you can’t tell from that is that every shot of back-projected footage was filmed at precisely the right angles, and from precisely the right distance, so that when you can see what is going on the effect is seamless. Compare this to, for example, the scenes with the shuttle going to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which uses the same techniques nearly a decade later, but where the vanishing points are different so Kirk looks like a cardboard cutout. Normally, the bigger the screen, the more you can see the flaws with effects — these actually look *more* realistic as the screen gets bigger.

There’s also the way the shots are composed. All those curves make far more visual sense when seen on a curved screen — I saw someone once describe 2001 as being “about” circles and lines dancing together, and the compositions come together on a curved screen in a way they just don’t on a flat one.

And some of the odder compositions make sense when you remember that the film was meant to be shown in Cinerama — in fact it *looks* like Kubrick composed the shots as if he was filming in three-strip Cinerama. This might be because (as I later found out) the film was planned in the early stages to be filmed that way, or it might be because he was playing with audience expectations of what Cinerama films look like, but if you watch any three-strip Cinerama films you’ll notice strong verticals appearing time and again one third and two thirds of the way across the screen, because having vertical lines in those places helps to cover up the join. So if you look at, for example, the scene where the monolith first appears, it doesn’t appear in the centre of the screen, as one would normally expect, but at the 1/3 point. And this kind of composition occurs over and again.

The Cinerama screen also helps explain why so little of the film involves actual dialogue — it’s almost impossible to compose a Cinerama shot to have actors actually looking at each other, and it *is* impossible if you want that shot to also work on a conventional screen. The curved screen means the eyelines all go past each other. So, as Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects supervisor (who gave a talk after the showing, which I unfortunately had to leave half-way through to get home) said, the choice was made early on to make 2001 *immersive* — rather than being driven by the experiences of the characters, the film was meant to give you that experience.

Almost all the odd or unusual decisions in 2001, in other words — all the things where, when watching it on a flat screen, you think “now that’s interesting, why did he do that?” — suddenly make sense.

But there was something else, something that put the film in a whole new light for me, that I only realised from seeing it in that particular space.

You see, I’m something of a fan of the Cinerama format, and go along most years to the Widescreen Weekend at the Media Museum in Bradford, where they show Cinerama films, as well as showing 70mm prints of spectaculars from the past on a conventional but large flat screen. And 2001 is working within the conventions of Cinerama, as opposed to normal cinema.

The overture before the curtains open, the interval with music — the basic structure of the film is the one that was used by all the Cinerama films, which were intended as full “experiences”, not just as a film you’d go and see. Everything from This Is Cinerama to It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World was structured that way. And I hadn’t realised that obvious fact about the film before — and once I did, I realised that in fact the whole film was playing with the tropes of the Cinerama film. Specifically the Cinerama travelogue.

Remember where I talked about how this film was meant not to be about the characters, but about you having the same experiences as them? There was a whole genre of films that did just that — the Cinerama travelogues, narrated and produced by Lowell Thomas (usually with the involvement of Merriam Cooper, who had pioneered the special effects-driven film with King Kong). They put *you* in the centre of events, whether a Papal mass, a rollercoaster ride, a helicopter journey over a volcano, or whatever, in just the same way as 2001 does.

And those films usually had a structure that started from supposedly-“primitive” people in Africa or Asia doing tribal dances, and the “wonders of nature”, progressing through the wonders of technology and good-old American engineering knowhow, with shots of fighter planes, and then ending with something spiritually uplifting (for example travelogue shots of Golgotha and the alleged location of Jesus’ tomb). PRECISELY the same structure used by 2001 — and watching 2001 on the same day as having seen The Best Of Cinerama (a compilation of parts of those travelogues) I couldn’t watch the transition between the ape people and the space station without hearing Lowell Thomas saying something like “and from the marvels of nature we turn to the technological wonders of modern science”.

I could have had this down as a coincidence, except for one thing — as I said earlier, it’s difficult to do character in Cinerama, and so the travelogues would have a couple of broad audience-identification figures, and one thing that happened in *many* of the Cinerama travelogues was a jokey section where the film would depict some sort of amazing journey (a train ride up a mountain in India that becomes a runaway train going down the mountain, a plane flight over marvellous scenery) with a “dopey” character sleeping through the whole amazing journey.

Just like Heywood Floyd sleeps through the journey to the Moon. And, indeed, just like the characters in the hibernation pods on the Discovery.

2001 isn’t an amazing piece of cinema. It’s an amazing piece of Cinerama. If you ever get the chance to see it in the format for which it’s intended, do so (and a bit of advice — get a central seat; the sides of Cinerama screens can seem to break up into their constituent strips when watching from an angle). And if you can see it *after* becoming familiar with the tropes of Cinerama, all the better.

I’m very glad I finally got to see one of my favourite films for the first time.

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4 Responses to 2001: A Cinerama Odyssey

  1. Garry Maurice says:

    Ok, seriously—that was like reading porn. Actually scrap that; now it’s just raw jealousy I’m feeling. Damn you! The closest I’ve gotten to that was watching it on a 50 inch TV! Next time you write something so envy-mongering, perhaps write it a little more shittily? At least then we Kubrick fans won’t be forced to change our trousers.

  2. plok says:


    It all makes sense now!

    Just like knowing Dial M For Murder was made for 3D!


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  4. Bob Jameson says:

    I remember seeing 2001 at the Cinerama in Detroit. Years later watched it again at a local theater outside Detroit in Ann Arbor and recently on Blu Ray. Nothing compared to the Cinerama projection. Lots of theaters in new multiplex’s have nice large screens but the Cinerama effect was something really special. I am glad that I am old enough to have enjoyed it.

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