2001: A Space Odyssey’s Village Roots

Forty-six years ago today, on April 2, 1968, the groundbreaking film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released.  The epic story of the man’s evolution, his limitations, and his future in the space age was considered by many a landmark of modern film, with its influence seen in everything from the recent movie ‘Gravity,’ to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” to episodes of The Simpsons.

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The original movie poster

While 2001’s influences on the broader popular culture are well known, its roots are less so.  And as may come as a surprise to some, this science fiction classic about space travel and the moons of Jupiter owes quite a bit to down-to-earth Greenwich Village.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), the director and co-writer behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, was born and raised in The Bronx.  But in 1949, not long after marrying high school sweetheart Toba Metz, he came to settle in Greenwich Village. Around this time, Kubrick began regularly attending film showings at the Museum of Modern Art , where his interest in photography was evolving into an interest in movies.

At the age of 17, Kubrick had been hired as a staff photographer for the venerable Look magazine.  But as his interests shifted to filmmaking, his need to supplement his income grew.  So Kubrick, a skilled chess player, began playing for money in Washington Square Park, near his home.  His chess hustling was fruitful enough that it enabled him to finance his first film, a 16-minute documentary about a Bronx-born Greenwich Village boxer named Walter Cartier whom he had photographed for Look.  The film was called ‘Day of the Fight.’

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Photo by Stanley Kubrick, 1948, for LOOK Magazine, “Walter Cartier, Prize Fighter of Greenwich Village,” with his twin brother Vincent seated behind him on the left.  From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/Walter-Cartier,-Prizefighter-of-Greenwich-Village-%5BWalter-and-Vincent-Cartier-with-an-unidentified-man-sitting-on-steps.%5D-24U39YDHFQX.html

The film was successful enough (it was picked up by RKO for their ‘This Is America’ series and played at Times Square’s Paramount Theater) that Kubrick was able to quit his day job at Look and dedicate himself full time to filmmaking.  Thus began a nearly half-century movie-making career.  Many would consider 2001: A Space Odyssey the masterpiece of that oeuvre, though other classics such as Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket no doubt give 2001 a run for its money.

2001’s Village roots are not just evident behind the camera.  The film’s main protagonist (if there is one) is the astronaut David Bowman, the sole survivor of the Discovery One Jupiter Mission (while David Bowie has professed that the song “Space Oddity” was inspired by the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ — he wrote it directly after seeing the film — it’s unclear if the similarity of the film’s main character’s name to his own was also partly responsible for that inspiration).  Bowman is played by Keir Dullea, who while born in Cleveland, Ohio, moved at a young age to Greenwich Village.  Keir’s parents Margaret and Robert Dullea ran a bookstore in Greenwich Village when he was growing up.

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Keir Dullea as David Bowman

Dullea’s dramatic change in environment as a child may have helped prepare him for his role in 2001.  In the film, astronaut Bowman is sucked through a space-time vortex around the moons of Jupiter, bringing him to a surreal world where he watches himself grow old.  He is ultimately transformed into the star-child which emerges at the end of the film, the latest leap in man’s evolutionary arc.

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The star child

Dullea’s star child was probably not the only one to emerge from Greenwich Village in the 1960’s.  But none can be said to have been immortalized quite as memorably on film.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.