Last week, Steven Soderbergh offered his own cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a much more complete fashion than he did with either Raiders of the Lost Ark or Psycho. He didn’t merely provide a navel-gazing soundtrack to a black-and-whitified version of Indy so that everyone could focus in on how Spielberg staged his scenes, or combine the two Psychos together so that everyone could focus in on how much cooler Anthony Perkins is than Vince Vaughn. Soderbergh’s cut of 2001 is the product of a complete vision for the movie (in as much as it can be without shooting new scenes or having access to any footage that didn’t make Kubrick’s cut). If aliens learn about human civilization through the internet, and they find this video without the accompanying text, they’ll think that it’s the “real” 2001. They’ll also wonder why our space program has moved backward in the past 14 years.
But that’s not going to happen. The original is safe and sound, and no one should care what those aliens think.
I gave my take on the cut (there’s a lot of value in it) and also offered some thoughts on the True Film subreddit where the response was robust – including several people who couldn’t believe he’d done it. The Kubrick fan club on Reddit was also disgusted, and I wouldn’t have thought it worth commenting on except 1) the viewpoint was more widespread than I’d assumed and 2) we also got a spec editorial from a writer castigating, in detail, Soderbergh for daring to mess with a sacred cow.
It’s that attitude I want to respond to. It’s a mindset that’s undoubtedly well-meaning – emerging from a place of reverence for a master filmmaker or filmmakers in general – but it’s one that requires we think of movies as delicate flowers that can’t be recut.
It’s a concept that I don’t fully understand, but it’s one I can sympathize with occasionally. It’s similar to the gut reaction when we hear a favorite is being remade. I think, “How can they touch that?” before taking a deep breath and recognizing that no matter what they do, nothing will destroy my appreciation for the original (or its existence). Nor does Soderbergh’s 2001 somehow poison Kubrick’s. Nor does Kubrick’s somehow poison Arthur C. Clarke’s book. These feelings are all in the same ballpark – a notion that once something is excellent, no one else should come near it.
What situations like this do achieve, though, is to remind us that movies are fantastically malleable. They aren’t made of glass, meant to be handled with white museum gloves. They should be fooled with, poked and prodded, pushed on and challenged because putting them under a little heat can reveal new things about them. Filmmakers should feel free to experiment, and we should appreciate the potential that comes from that time in the laboratory. Some results will be intriguing, most will be abominable, but the idea that some movies are untouchable is a dangerous one. Writers can learn a lot by taking scissors and glue stick to the Chinatown screenplay, and directors/editors can learn a lot by dissecting work like Soderbergh has done.
At the same time, a shocked response might also stem from the tension between who movies belong to. Is 2001 Kubrick’s or is it ours? Is it Soderbergh’s to do with as he wants as a fan? After all, that’s what this is: a fan cut of a famous film. It just so happens to come from a highly skilled, high-profile fan (which is probably one factor that gets the negative nerves tingling stronger). If you think it’s Kubrick’s alone, it’s easy to imagine why you’d be aghast at someone having the gall to fool around with it. If you see art as fundamentally leaving the hands of the creator, then seeing transformed versions probably isn’t so problematic.
All of this to say that I hope filmmakers – from Soderbergh to the kid down the street – continue to test movies through direct contact. There’s a lot to discover, and if you’re bothered by it, don’t watch, and the meddling never has to be a part of your experience.