"The Awful Power": John Updike's Use of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in Rabbit Redux

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"The power of the cinema, the awful power of it."

-John Updike1

John Updike's dozens of references to films and allusions to screen actors and actresses reveal not just a passing knowledge of an important aspect of American popular culture but offer verisimilitude and nostalgia, while providing a clever disclosure of character and support for theme. So adept is Updike at using every element of film that even titles on marquees foreshadow and counterpoint his themes. Individual films reveal ironic relations to his images, plots and characters, most suggestively in the use of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in Rabbit Redux, where parallels focus attention on the growth of Rabbit's wife, Janice Springer, and the significance of the black messiah, Skeeter.

Certainly the idea of so consummate a literary stylist as Updike showing a passion for movies must strike some as an amusing irony, yet Updike's enthusiasm for film is well documented. He early intended to work as a Disney animator, but when he saw that his career lay in writing he became anxious to adopt film techniques to fiction, though he eventually became disillusioned with the nouvelle roman's employment of the nouvelle vogue's devices. Yet from his earliest work, Updike has filled his works with references to films and film personalities in his fiction, poetry and essays. They record nostalgia for the past that modulates into symbolic and psychological revelations. Updike early found in movies a "moral ideal," and a model of "debonair grace." Film contained such "awful power" to captivate and hypnotize that he attributed to "Being There" the answer to his personal question, "Why am I here?"2

Dilvo Ristoff has called for a change in the direction of Updike commentary to focus upon scene (the enclosing context of historical fact which suggests psychosocial determinants in character) and away from the concept of the "hero." Perhaps the best novel for such an approach, Rabbit Redux encloses the simple story of a wife's desertion with great events in American life in 1969-the moon landing, the civil rights/black power movements, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution. At the same time, Marshall McLuhan prophesied the evolution in human response from the "Gutenberg media" (emphasizing linear thinking) to the "post-Gutenberg media" relying on non-linear thinking (television and film). Updike explores this opposition in Harry and Janice Angstrom. In so far as both media gather information, they are the conduits for the facts enclosing the context of action. Since 2001: A Space Odyssey posits a parallel between the evolution of man through technology and violence, the film provides a suggestive background from which to evaluate the development of the Angstroms' quest for love and quest for self.

To appreciate how thoroughly Updike uses film in this way, consider how marquee film titles underline the action and publicize a character's private attitude. In Rabbit Redux this device objectifies Rabbit's fear of social exposure in cohabiting with a hippie and a black militant. Perhaps such a device, akin to the "gimmick" of using imaginary headlines as ways of revealing Rabbit's sense of himself as a social outcast, exemplify how Updike can "convert the gimmick into fine art" in Rabbit Redux} For example, placement on the marquee of 10 with other films permits a multileveled pun that radiates throughout Rabbit Is Rich : "The four features at the mall cinema are BREAKING AWAY STARTING OVER RUNNING AND 10." Harry thinks, "He'd like to see 10, he knows from the ads this Swedish-looking girl has her hair in corn rows like a black chick out of Zaire" (Rabbit Is Rich 347). As Rabbit, Run has shown, Rabbit ran from his family because he no longer felt "first-rate," no longer a "ten." This image of Bo Derek blends with Rabbit's continual fantasies of sex, including curiosity about black women, stirred since he ogled a black waitress in Rabbit, Run. …