1968: A Personal Odyssey
Updated: Mar 4
How astronauts real and fictitious launched my life and career.
The year 1968 has a lot of… history. It was a pivotal, dramatic year in human events, and folks who lived through it have a lot of visceral memories of that time. Assassinations. War. Tragedy. Rebellion. I lived through it as well, but I was a ten year-old boy, shielded in a small town from most of the big events that rocked the world.
A precocious fifth grader, I watched a lot of TV, read even more books and comics, and loved to draw and build things. My pursuits were creative, my interests were fantastical, my concerns were otherworldly. I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, not because that was the job du jour of the 1960s, but because I wanted to be an explorer.
In April of that year, amidst other, far more significant events, two movies opened in theaters. These were movies about lone astronauts on incredible journeys beyond the world that we know. As an eager young space cadet, I could not ignore them. Their gravitational force was irresistible. And as I would soon discover, their influence would be inescapable.
We were not a regular movie-going family, so trips to the theater were a special event. The big screen and immersive sound were not just thrilling, but sacrosanct. No interruptions, distractions, or dilution of the experience. To an impressionable child, it was magical.
My first movie astronaut was a profane physical specimen, who stripped off his spacesuit at the first opportunity to go skinny dipping. That shocking scene was topped moments later when he was collared and captured by rifle-toting, talking gorillas on horseback. Where are we? It was, in his words, “…a madhouse!”
There were not many sci-fi films in circulation at this point, and talking chimpanzees were truly unique. Even as a pre-adolescent, I understood some of the broader satire, congratulated myself for catching it, and went along for the ride. Until the climax, when the astronaut learns in the shadow of a great green statue, that he’s been home all along! He learns that his world — and my world — was a failure.
I sat dumbstruck in the theater as the lights came up. The sound of crashing waves from the movie echoed in my head. That was soon drowned out by murmurs in the audience. The chatter grew louder as everyone in the theater wrestled with their shock and surprise. Whatever they were thinking, I was sure of one thing. We all were doomed.
My next cinematic adventure began where the last one ended. With apes, in Africa, a million years ago. My father had warned me that this new movie didn’t have any talking for the first hour or so. He seemed concerned about this. I didn’t mind, it was exciting. And with a single sweeping gesture, we traveled from a planet of apes to an odyssey in space.
My second movie astronaut was very different. A little boring, much less interesting than his talking computer. But he got to walk upside-down, pilot his ship, and eventually, go where no one had gone before. And we came along on his dazzling, hypnotic, existential trip. When the movie ended, the theater was quiet (except for my dad, who was still snoring). I, however, was exhilarated.
That summer I read the novel and the “Making of” 2001: A Space Odyssey from cover to cover, to make sense of what I had seen. I sought out the Planet of the Apes novel (translated from the French), but found it disappointingly different. I devoured any articles that I could find about either film, which were big hits that stayed in the theaters for months.
Both films bestowed great gifts upon me. They inspired a lasting love of avant garde music, like that of Goldsmith, Strauss and Ligeti. I spent countless hours catching up with the works of Kubrick, Clarke and Schaffner. The spectacular visions of the future by artists like Creber, Chambers, and Trumbull ignited my career as an artist and filmmaker. I studied graphic design, special effects, and computer software to recapture the magic that they revealed.
My worldview was shaped by these journeys, hot and cold. One to a nuclear wasteland, the other beyond the Infinite. Both trips encompassed thousands, if not millions of years. I began to look at life with a grand, anthropological view. If the world today was not yet ideal, perhaps in time, we might achieve greatness. As long as we made the right choices today. Because the future is not certain, but it is inevitable.
1968 ended with three more astronauts on a journey. The crew of Apollo 8, in a desperate stunt to beat the Russians, circled the moon, and sent back pictures of the Earth from space. For people alive then, it was an amazing new perspective, to see that we lived on a small blue dot in the vastness of space. Sadly, that insight would soon be lost to matters earthly and trivial.
Some of us can never forget what we’ve seen. Two movies taught me to ask questions that can only be answered by more questions. I try to follow that curiosity wherever it leads.
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