Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Obsolete Vision of Dr. Heywood Floyd

When I was very young, I went to see 2001 in what must have been a 35 mm print in Richmond, VA.  . I was of course bored out of my mind.  I remember the concerns in the city that people might go to see this movie stoned, and I could certainly understand why.   Boring but beautiful.      But even though I was bored, it was clear to me, even then, that a particularly innocuous scene, that of Dr. Heywood Floyd's briefing on the Moon was filled with meaning.   A meaning that I, as a callow youth, could not understand.

Many critics have noticed this scene as well.  And completely misunderstood it.    One of the more well known, by Tony Macklin of Film Comment, said as early as 1969 that this scene was filled with tongue-in-cheek Kubrick irony.   And he made fun of his fellow critics for not realizing this irony and satire.  Or maybe it is the case that Macklin completely screwed the pooch here and himself misunderstood this subtle but criitical scene.

But before we go much futher, perhaps it would be best if you reviewed the scene to refresh your memory.

The scene can be found on Youtube. Note the natty checker suit of the photographer.

A partial transcript of the scene:

Dr. Ellison: Well, I know you will all want to join with me in welcoming our distinguished friend and colleague from the National Council of Astronautics, Dr. Heywood Floyd. Dr. Floyd has come up especially to Clavius to be with us today. And before the briefing I know he would like to have a few words with you. Dr. Floyd ?


Dr. Floyd: Well, thank you Dr. Ellison. Hi everybody. Nice to be back with you. Well, first of all I bring a personal message from Dr. Howell who asked me to convey his deepest appreciation to all of you for the many sacrifices you have had to make. And of course his congratulations on your discovery which may well prove to be among the most significant in the history of science. Well, uh, (laughs), I know there have been some conflicting views held by some of you about the need for complete security in this matter. More specifically, your opposition to the cover story, created to give the impression that there is an epidemic at the base. I understand that beyond it being a matter of principle, Well, I completely sympathize with your point of view. I found this cover story personally embarrassing myself. However, I accept the need for absolute secrecy and I hope you will too. Now I am sure you are all aware of the extremely grave potential for cultural shock and social disorientation if the facts were made known without (bla bla bla, I got tired transcribing this dialog).. Anyway this is the view of the council. Oh yes, the Council has requested that a formal security oath be signed by everyone present. Well, are there any more questions?

Now how does our intellectual interpret this scene in Film Comment ? Tony Macklin says:

“When Floyd gives his remarks at the briefing the satire of the inept language fairly leaps out. It is trite and inarticulate. But it is not Kubrick's (or Clarke's) inadequacy, it is the characters' inarticulateness, their loss of language. A parade of meagre "well"s fills the air. Halvorsen, who introduces Floyd, starts out, "Well, . . . " He sticks his hands in his pockets. If this were done once, one might assume that it didn't matter. But this stance and feeble language are the imprint of the scene, the exposing of dullness.
“Floyd is no more competent in talking, "Hi, everybody, nice to be back with you," He follows this with the refrain, "Well, . . . " and then comments "Now, ah . . . " He too puts his hands in his pockets. When the floor is opened for questions, there is only one, about the danger of "cultural shock." Floyd responds, "Well, I, ah, sympathize with your point of view." (The questioner is against the cover story of an epidemic which has been used to protect the secret of the monolith on the moon.) Floyd concludes. "Well, I think that's about it. Any questions?" Halvorsen thanks Floyd, "Well, ... " "No more questions [there was only one]. We should get on with the briefing."

In my humble opinion, this is wrong, wrong and completely wrong.  Idiots.  Wouldnt you know that he would write for Film Comment, a nutty intellectual film magazine if there ever was one.

Instead of seeing Dr. Floyd's speech as inept, I see it as a masterwork; a bureaucratic tour de force and just what the situation called for. You see, Dr. Floyd is not there to bring new information: his mission is to tell everyone that they must keep quiet and do as they are told, and he finds the nicest possible way to say that.

In other words, Dr. Floyd demonstrates that he is in fact a senior and skilled bureaucrat perfectly capable of getting up in front and saying absolutely nothing in a genial and businesslike fashion.  And if there are no more questions as he points out, they can go on with their briefing.

But this is not the end of the story of the search for meaning in 2001.  Although 2001 is a solid 14 years behind us, clearly we can see that our psychohistorians have gone awry.  Pan Am and AT&T are way out of business, we do not have bases on the moon.  We did not send a manned expedition to Jupiter.   The interpretation of Dr. Floyd's speech required a firm grasp of the cold war aesthetic and the cold war bureaucracy.   But where is that bureaucracy now that Communism no longer exists and we have in its place the gangster capitalists of China and gangster gangsters of Russia not to mention the incompetent scum-politicos of America without two neurons to rub together?

New art requires new artists and our new society requires a new Heywood Floyd.  In the modern cinematic aesthetic, I can envisage Heywood Floyd ducking into the back to put on his superhero outfit and go out and punch a monolith in the nose.   Take that you damn monolith, he will say, go back to your masters, the giant robots, we will never allow you to turn Jupiter into a mini-mall.

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