From time to time I'll meet someone who was underwhelmed by "2001: A Space Odyssey." Because I consider it one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life, I ask them how they saw it. They invariably saw it on home video. Just as there are movies--"Moulin Rouge" seems to be one--that benefit from return visits via DVD, so there are a few movies that should not be seen that way--not the first time, anyway.
Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece is above all a big-screen experience. To work, it must dominate and overwhelm the viewer. Its power resides in the immensity and emptiness of its images of outer space, and in the frailty of man, dwarfed even by his tools. The first awesome shot of the shuttle approaching the orbiting space station is humbling and exhilarating, one of those rare moments when you really do believe the movies can lift you into another dimension of experience.
I have seen "2001" many times on the big screen, but most people have not been so lucky. Theatrical re-releases of great movies are less common in these days of a video store on every corner. But wonderfully restored 70mm prints of "2001" were struck by Warner Bros. (current holder of the rights) in honor of the film's title year, and have been making their way around the country.
Starting Friday, the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, will be presenting "2001" in true 70mm. Special equipment has been installed for the run. The theater's web site (musicboxtheater.com) has a page explaining the different between 70mm and widescreen 35mm, and blown-up frames to demonstrate that the light from the 70mm projector is streaming through four times as much surface area--for incredible visual clarity. The format is also famous for its sound, and the theater points out that HAL 9000, the onboard computer, always speaks on the "surround" track, subtly reminding us that it controls the total environment of the astronauts.
Seeing "2001" on a big screen in 70mm is one of a handful of obligatory experiences during a film lover's lifetime. While this engagement may not be the last chance you will ever have, it could be; both 70mm and expensively restored prints are threatened in the new Hollywood, which focuses on the millions rolling in from DVD. If you have thoughtful children or teenagers, going to the movie with them may provide an experience they will remember all of their lives.
I said I've seen the movie many times on 70mm, and so I have, starting with its first public American screening at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in March 1967. I saw it two more times during its run in Chicago at the Michael Todd (now part of the Goodman). In 1968 I saw it at the Moscow Film Festival, and my Intourist guide confided that Russians in the audience were whispering that "they doubt the Americans really have such technology."
I saw it circa 1985 on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles at the legendary Cinerama Dome theater. And at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at Cyberfest 1997, a birthday celebration for HAL 9000, who reveals in the film that he was born in 1997 at the university's computer lab. (There was a panel discussion featuring Arthur C. Clarke, live from Sri Lanka, on a huge screen over the stage; told by a panelist that HAL "sounded gay," Sir Arthur said, "I think you'll have to ask HAL about that.") And I saw it most recently last April at my Overlooked Film Festival, also at the University of Illinois.
During all of those experiences, the film has never grown old or lost its power--perhaps because it is not a narrative but an experience. Just as it doesn't matter how many times you have approached Venice by sea at dawn , or crept to the edge of the Grand Canyon, it doesn't matter how often you've seen "2001" on the big screen. It is one of the noblest and most awesome works of film.
Of film, but not of video. "2001" on a TV set is like the Grand Canyon on a postcard.