On the John
One small step for the most primitive of beings
Originally completed April 13, 2008
During my most recent viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I keyed in on something I’d never keyed in on before. It came during the opening ape sequence. The sequence begins with a title card THE DAWN OF MAN, followed by several shots of the Vast, Barren Landscape. We see sand and rock. We see bones of dead animals. We see…nothing. Then we see the apes. They scrounge for the same food as the neighboring tapirs. They are hassled by leopards. They clean each other. We see them as men because we know where they are headed, but we also see they are no better than the tapirs and certainly threatened by the leopards.
A group of apes squat around a water hole, crouched down like animals, using their hands to drink. From behind a rock creeps another group of apes, and here’s where things get interesting. What does this second group want? To drink from the water hole, presumably. Or maybe just to intimidate. Regardless, the first group spots the second, and all involved begin to hoot. They jump up and down. They fling their arms. In an act of showmanship, one ape does a somersault, and immediately two things leap to mind: these apes look ridiculous, and they all look alike. Certainly there is some discernable difference between them. They have formed deliberate groups, and we see no accidental hootings between group members. Clearly they can see differences, but all I see are apes.
Night falls. In the morning, a large, black slab of Something appears. The apes run from it, then creep towards it, then touch it. Following that, one ape leaves the pack and begins to play with the bones that lay about. An idea comes to his mind, perhaps the first he’s ever had. He picks up a bone and uses it to strike the others. They crack and bounce. Now it is a weapon! He spots a tapir skull, and with an unmistakable urge that can best be described as a pure zest for violence, he grips the bone with both hands and smashes the skull to bits.
It is clear: never has this ape felt more alive than he does now. Oh glorious day!
We return to the water hole, the first group screaming at the second, only now the second has bones. Two opposing apes step forward, circling each other, and here, for the first time ever, I key in: the water hole is disgusting! It is sudsy and greenish and filled with dirt and rocks. It is no more than ten feet in diameter and not even a foot deep. Are they serious? This is cause for war?
The boneless ape charges. Bone Ape strikes Boneless Ape on the head, incapacitating him. He strikes once more, and then watches as his fellow Bone Apes approach their incapacitated rival and beat him with their bones. Checking to see if they work I suppose, or maybe, ya know, just to send a message.
This is a stunning piece of storytelling, one told solely with images and driven by simple human actions. Each shot shows precisely one thing, a circumstance, a motivation, a decision, a consequence. We are witnessing something incredible, evolution in practice…it really is a sight to behold…
But then we look again at the water hole. And we see the two identical groups, trying limply to intimidate. And it all looks ridiculous. Through divine intervention or alien contact or whatever it may be, these apes are handed the concept of technology. And how do they use it? To claim superiority over…themselves. And then off they trot like a pack of doped-up idiot children, searching for something new to conquer.
Now, I understand that the apes see themselves as different from all the other apes around, but that is simply ignorance, a lack of the full perspective. If they were like me, a fully evolved human in 2008, they would see themselves as I do: as primitive creatures, all the same, worthless, weak, fighting for unrivaled access to a dirty water hole I wouldn’t let my dog swim in. Watching them fight is like watching children argue. We laugh at them, the foolish children, because they cannot see how insignificant their dispute is, how remarkably powerless they are, how no matter who “wins” they are still just children who cannot survive without parental aid. And maybe as we laugh, we wonder why they engage in such childish pig-headedness over what amounts to nothing, and maybe, just maybe, we feel shamed, because so many years ago we behaved like that…
I feel that way when I watch those apes waging war amongst themselves over that water hole. And when they hoot at each other, and when they declare themselves victorious, I have to laugh, because come on! They are but simple apes, for crying out loud! And their only weapon is a bone! A bone! If I went back in time, do you realize how easily I could conquer? I wouldn’t even have to shoot them; I could just fire a round or two into the sky. And if that didn’t scare ‘em off, I could do as they do: shoot one of the beasts right in the head, incapacitating him. And maybe once he was down, I’d shoot him a few more times, ya know, just to send a message.
Copyright 2008, jm silverstein
From online critic Alex Johnson’s wonderful Kubrick series (The whole series gets the official JACK M SILVERSTEIN STAMP OF APPROVAL)
Another JMS stamp of approval series: Rob Ager’s wonderful video essays, most notably his work on Kubrick films.
Kubrick 2001: The space odyssey explained (this is great!)
Ebert’s original review from April 12, 1968
Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ review from March 27, 1997
And, because you deserve it…