Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Moonwatcher and Oppenheimer

In the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke introduces the character of Moonwatcher, a proto-human and the alpha male in a tribe of ape-men who are in conflict with another tribe of ape-men over access to a water source.  A fight for survival.

In filming this section of the book, Stanley Kubrick used the same actors and the same ape-men costumes to represent both Moonwatcher's tribe and their enemies.  Moongzer's mask was different, more articulate, and more detailed than the others, but all the other masks were taken from the same mold.  Kubrick calculated (correctly) that by having the actors play double roles, both as the protagonists and the antagonists, it would look like he was using more ape-men than he actually was.  

Despite Kubrick's clever means of filming the sequence, Clarke had a different point in mind.  Clarke wanted to show that these proto-humans were extremely similar genetically; what tiny differences there were made them mortal enemies, and extrapolating that point out tens of thousands of years, Moonwatcher's tapir bone weapon used to kill his enemy becomes a satellite loaded with thermo-nuclear weapons, pointed at earth.   There are minute genetic differences between us and the Russians, and yet we stand (as we actually did stand at the time of the film) moments away from destroying each other.  Moonwatcher is both Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Although we see a leopard kill and eat one of Moonwatcher's tribemates, the real threat, the difference between extending his genetic material and oblivion, was the other ape-men.  

A principal theme of the 1960s was xenophobia on many levels.  Arabs hate the Jews.  Russians hate the Americans, whites hate the blacks, and North Koreans hate the South Koreans; all genetically very similar, but all are perceived as a mortal threat by their counterpoint.  In 1967, when Kubrick and Clarke were making 2001, in Mississippi, some white men in a truck set bombs in the office of Perry Nussbaum in the Beth Israel synagog in Jackson.  After tens of thousands of years, ape-men were still willing to kill each other over access to water they could have shared.

Clarke was a very prolific writer.  Much more prolific than I.  Of all his works, 2001 remains his most famous by far.  It's hard to say if it's a hopeful work or not because the aliens make us take the next evolutionary step even though we still have death pointed at each other.  He discussed the matter further in 2010, but not that many people read it, and even fewer saw the movie.

This weekend, when Oppenheimer comes to Jackson, I'll see it at the Capri.  I'll also spend some of the time thinking about Arthur C Clarke and Moonwatcher.  We can't seem to escape what he said about us.  

No comments:

Official Ted Lasso