My case of cinephilia can be traced back to idle weekend afternoons spent watching TCM and [back when it showed movies] AMC with my father. Dad could always be counted on, as I can be now, to list the other significant roles of an actor as soon as they appeared on screen. One such happenstance screening I remember is To Catch A Thief, less because the film made any particular impact on 9 year-old Pat, and more because I learned who Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were, as well as what a “cat burglar” was.
When I was in my early teens, among the most important expressions of my burgeoning independence was using my brand-new personal library card. The library, I had discovered, has movies. Asking Dad for recommendations whenever the new releases had been exhausted, I expanded my horizons. Older films like Lawrence of Arabia and Patton made it onto my viewing list—though the technical limitations of VHS sometimes obscured the qualities they were most known for.
The decisive moment, though, came sophomore year in high school. I had the worst cold of my life—as did the rest of the wrestling team, because wrestling is gross. Home from school for an entire week, I killed the stretches of time during which I was semi-conscious with DVDs I had rented from Blockbuster. One in particular, though, was reserved for a moment when I was more alert and patient: 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’d heard the film was long and slow, and wasn’t about to venture a viewing in my illness-induced fugue state.
But one night, still up coughing and congested at three am, I decided to pop the disc in. At that point the notoriously languid film seemed the most likely thing to finally lull me into sleep. Much to my surprise, I was absolutely transfixed—astounded when the film opened with “The Dawn of Man [sic],” enraptured by the revelation of the mysterious monolith, amused by the banality of humans in space, terrified by HAL and the “Unknown.” It was the first film I had seen that had the gall to presume the audience could reach its own conclusions, that left the origins of the monolith open not as a mistake but as an object of thought, as a metaphor for the mysteries of our own human origins.
The film didn’t seem slow at all. Every frame was packed with interest and meaning, or even a dirty joke about man’s hubris, like the sperm-shaped space ship. Every extra second spent staring into HAL’s single eye was necessary, to search it for a sign of humanity; every minute spent watching the astronauts float outside was needed to feel the coldness and isolation, the complete otherness of space. 2001 was utterly hypnotic, and before I knew it, the film was over. It was almost six am. I’d failed to put myself to sleep, but I felt like I’d discovered the movies all over again.
2001 remains the gold standard, for me, for what narrative film can do. It also introduced me to a radically new way of conceptualizing film, made me attentive to what it means for something to be cinematic, and opened me up to all kinds of films I otherwise wouldn’t have seen the virtue in. Whatever it is I’m doing with my life—writing about movies for almost-a-living—it’s because of this trippy old sci-fi movie.