Friday, January 20, 2017

An Earthling

The late Stanley Kauffmann, like every other great film critic before him, was much more than just a film critic. He turned to film criticism in mid-life after writing plays and novels, and working for a time in book publishing. In 1958 he submitted a film review, unsolicited, to The New Republic. On the strength of that initial essay, Kauffmann became The New Republic's resident film critic for the next fifty-five years.

One of the many things that made Kauffmann a great critic was not just that his judgements often left him alone, but that he obviously didn't mind being alone. A good case in point is his disappointment at viewing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. When he embarked on the production of 2001, Kubrick already had a considerable body of work behind him. He was a singular inspiration of hope for American film, whose coming of age has been an interminable wait.

But it isn't Kauffmann's disappointment at 2001 that is the most interesting part of his fifty year old review. A year before the first moon landing, Kauffmann used his review of 2001 as a platform from which to inveigle against what Kubrick's film celebrates: space travel.

"His film has one special effect that certainly he did not intend. He has clarified for me why I dislike the idea of space exploration. A few weeks ago Louis J. Halle wrote in The New Republic that he favors space exploration because:

'Life, as we know it within the terms of our earthly prison, makes no ultimate sense that we can discover; but I cannot, myself, escape the conviction that, in terms of a larger knowledge than is accessible to us today, it does make such sense.'

I disbelieve in this sophomoric definition of 'sense,' but anyway Halle's argument disproves itself. Man's knowledge of his world has been increasing, but life has, in Halle's terms, made less and less sense. Why should further expansion of physical knowledge make life more sensible? Still it is not on philosophic ground that I dislike space exploration, nor even on the valid practical ground that the money and the skills are more urgently needed on earth. Kubrick dramatizes a more physical and personal objection for me. Space, as he shows us, is thrillingly immense, but, as he also shows us, men out there are imprisoned, have less space than on earth. The largest expanse in which men can look and live like men is his spaceport, which is rather like spending many billions and many years so that we can travel millions of miles to a celestial Kennedy Airport. Everywhere outside the spaceport, men are constricted and dehumanized. They cannot move without cumbersome suits and helmets. They have to hibernate in glass coffins. The food they eat is processed into sanitized swill. Admittedly the interior of Kubrick's spaceship is not greatly different from that of a jetliner, but at least planes go from one human environment to another. No argument that I have read for the existence of life elsewhere has maintained that other planets would be suitable for men. Imagine zooming millions of miles all those tiresome enclosed days, even weeks in order to live inside a spacesuit.

Kubrick makes the paradox graphic. Space only seems large. For human beings, it is confining. That is why, despite the size of the starry firmament, the idea of space travel gives me claustrophobia."(1)

Kauffmann's reservations about space exploration might be regarded by some as just another way of saying, "If God had wanted us to fly, He's have given us wings." But it goes much deeper than that. I have never been a star-gazer. I know very few of the constellations in the night sky, and I certainly pay no attention to astrology. This lack of knowledge should perplex me, I suppose, but space has always disinterested me. One of the reasons why I don't take most of science fiction seriously as a literary or a film genre is its general acceptance of the notion that in the future human beings will be scattered throughout space, the other planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

The reason, I think, that space doesn't interest me is precisely the possibility of living there. I don't care for sea exploration, either, and for the same reason: both water and space are not our element. We are incapable of inhabiting the oceans or space without being enclosed in air-tight ships or suits that allow us to use our lungs to breath. In both elements, we are like fish out of water - we would die after a few short minutes under water and instantly in the absolute cold of the vacuum of space.

But proponents of space travel regard it with what seems to me an almost religious zeal. The search for an "earthlike" planet with a more amenable environment has acquired an impetus of its own, even if such possible planets are many light years away. It gives me the feeling that, as the despoliation of the earth is reaching an alarming stage, many people are considering travel to another earth as a last resort for humanity.

2001, though disappointing, still represents a pinnacle of the science fiction film genre. It even became the object of pseudo-mystical wonder by technologues. In a postscript to his review of 2001 published in his collection, Figures of Light, Kauffmann mentions a number of letters he received from people who wanted him to see what they saw in the film:

"Usually letters that disagree with my reviews do so in pretty angry and direct terms. I got a number of such letters about 2001, but I also got a quite unusual response: about two dozen very long letters, from four to eight typewritten pages, calmly disagreeing, generally sad but generally hopeful that I would eventually see the light. They came from widely scattered parts of the country, from students, a lawyer, a clergyman, a professor, and others. Most of those letters must have taken their authors a full day to compose and to type, and I felt that this disinterested, quite private support (none of the letters was sent for publication) was the best compliment that Kubrick could have been paid."(2)

Subsequent films in the science fiction genre have been far less ambitious than Kubrick's and have met with varying success. While aiming at much more accessible targets, the degree of their success is proportionate. Look at the latest space adventures, like Gravity or The Martian. Gravity begins with the serenity of an extended space walk that turns deadly. In an important sense, all of the weightless wonder that the first minutes of the film inspires is belied by the lone astronaut's incredibly hazardous struggle to return safely to the surface of the earth - to the very gravity that she had been sent at such enormous expense to escape.

The Martian is kind of like Cast Away on Mars - an astronaut, believed to be dead, is left behind by his crewmates on Mars and is forced to find creative ways to survive until he is rescued (a conclusion as foregone as the prisoner's escape in Bresson's A Man Escaped). I thought the film was a total failure because it never convinced me of the hero's absolute solitude on Mars, or indeed that he was stranded on Mars (which is as yet, I know, impossible) and not some desert mock-up of Mars somewhere in Patagonia. (And I couldn't bring myself to believe in the film's premise - that a man believed to be dead based on sketchy eyewitness conjecture would simply be abandoned by his crewmates.) The Tom Hanks movie Cast Away (2000) at least succeeded in making us feel the isolation of a FedEx efficiency expert on that South Pacific island - so much so that the intervening title "4 Years Later" comes as a shock.

I sense, in so much of the passionate faith in the inevitability of departing our planet and relocating to another - the promise of a life after earth - a strange renewal of a "next world" salvation once promised by religion. Like every good humanist, I reject such a prospect outright. A few years ago I published a post on this blog that presented my reaction to the prospect of the earth becoming so uninhabitable - no breatheable air, no potable water - that it had to be abandoned and humanity evacuated to another world. When the time came to climb aboard the rescue rocket and take my designated seat, I would politely decline. Even if it meant perishing on a poisoned and poisonous earth, I would face extinction with the only world I cared to know. Robert Frost said it much more beautifully:

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.(3)


(1) "Lost in the Stars," The New Republic, May 4, 1968.
(2) Figures of Light, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
(3) "Bond and Free."

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