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Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: '2001: A Space Odyssey'

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Oct 04, 2010 | 5:36am EDT

2001: A Space OdysseyThree times this weekend someone asked me the difference between writing a screenplay and writing a play. By the third time I had a pretty decent answer. I think there are two main differences. First of all, a play is mostly just dialogue. You don’t do much describing. Successful plays get many productions, and each production has its own unique vision as developed by particular directors and designers. A screenplay, on the other hand, is meant to make a movie happen in the reader’s mind. It’s much, much more detailed. Reading a good screenplay is like watching a good movie. You’re swept up in the images and sensations and particular rhythms and moments.

Secondly, good old-fashioned playwriting is all about sustained scenes. You really have to take your time to build the action, the conflict, the rise, the climax and the falling action. It all happens in real time. In movies, one can cut – in fact, a great deal of the language of cinema comes from what editing can do to meaning. When someone writes a screenplay, the scenes are pared down to almost nothing. Just as much meaning comes from the transition from one scene to the next as does the scene itself.

A lot of movies nowadays use editing and framing and all that good cinematic technique to tell a story and create pacing and give a sense of forward momentum, like the Facemash sequence in The Social Network, or any sequence in any Michael Bay movie, ever. For some movies, however, the movie itself is just as much about the images on the screen as it is about the story those images are telling.

Case in point: 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I always hated 2001. No, hated is too strong a word. It bored me. I’d be at someone's place, and 2001 would be put on and I’d watch the ape sequence, the most famous match-cut of all time, the space waltz sequence, and then go outside to talk to some cute girl or get a Slurpee. Then I’d get called back to the TV for the part where they kill HAL, fall back asleep, and wake up just in time for the hyperspace time-warping space baby bit. Nothing compelling. Nothing interesting.

Then one day a new print of 2001 came to the Castro Theater in San Francisco. If you’re anywhere near the Castro Theater, go there. Go now. Anyhow, my friend Steve Klems and I end up in the Castro Theater watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, and, by God, I understood the movie for the first time. The story of 2001 has to do with evolution ... humans and tools and how tools become intelligent and how eventually we might become smart enough to join a kind of union of souls that exists in some distant part of the universe accessible only through wild psychedelic hyperspace trips.

2001: A Space OdysseyThat’s what the story of 2001 is about.

The movie 2001, however, is about movies. It’s about cinema. It’s a pure cinematic experience. There is so much silence and space in that movie, and it’s all rendered with as much care and planning as an architect or a painter might use to create a masterpiece. The movie isn’t narrative entertainment; it’s more like a moving sculpture. The medium is just as important as the message.

When you watch 2001 on a little screen at home it’s just a complete waste. You honestly haven’t seen the movie. But the next time a print of 2001 makes its way to your local art-house theater, do yourself a favor and go watch it. By the end, you’ll have a sense of why its’ still valuable to go out and see movies. There are things that happen in the movie theater that can’t happen in even the most high-tech home screening room.

Sometimes, movies are still magic.

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