The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: A Space Odyssey at Eight Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Winton is in fourth grade, his teacher wheels a television into the classroom and finds the channel for the 1969 moon landing. The children watch Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon, taking cues on the importance of the occasion from their teacher’s emotional reaction. The event doesn’t excite Winton as much as it excites the adults around him; it seems like an inevitable progression of the space race and something people have anticipated for a long time—and, after watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he feels like he’s already been to space.
The moon landing has more impact on the adults around Winton than it does on him and his peers: he grew up at a time of technological advancement, which made the moon landing feel like just another step in humanity’s progress. The fact that the moon landing footage isn’t as exciting to Winton as Kubrick’s fictional representation of space suggests he’s more compelled by events of the imagination than those in real life, hinting at a creative career in his future.
Themes
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The year before, Winton and a group of his friends go to the cinema to see 2001 for the first time. The opening and its uneasy, suspenseful music spook him and his eight-year-old friends. A teenager sits down next to him and says, “Don’t you just love this?” A pack of apes has appeared on the screen, but they don’t do much for a few minutes. Eventually, breaking the tension, the sun rises on the plain to reveal the Monolith, a tall geometric object. The apes react with chaos and violence, and then suddenly, the viewer is transported to the stars. 
Winton’s reaction to the estranging violence of the film’s opening sequence echoes his behavior in situations of danger: he’s both compelled and repulsed. Furthermore, it’s a reaction that suggests that this is Winton’s first time seeing a film that spends such a long time depicting nothing happening, which is perhaps why it’s such a creative awakening for him.
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The film continues to perplex Winton and his friends—it seems to lack an ordinary narrative, and yet the sense of dread it creates about being taken into space and isolated never dissipates. Though Winton contributes to his friends’ unforgiving critiques of the film on the way home, the film moves him in a way he can’t understand. It holds sway over his imagination for many years after, and its excitement endures longer than that of watching men actually walking on the moon.
The dreadful isolation of space in the film echoes some of Winton’s later experiences in the Australian desert, where he’s both amazed and overwhelmed by emptiness and isolation. Later, Winton will drive into the desert and feel as connected to his creative spirit as he did in this movie theater.
Themes
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
As an adult, Winton still revisits this film occasionally, but it’s never a nostalgic experience. Each time, he thinks about how technology will soon swallow up the human race and then spit it out into space. He applauds Kubrick’s use of sound—not only his choice of music, but the way he uses silence to instill fear in the viewer, especially when the astronaut is abandoned in the vacuum of space. The sound of astronauts’ breathing creates claustrophobia and anxiety, saying more than language could.
Winton’s lack of nostalgia when watching this film as an adult suggests he’s still compelled by the idea of vast nothingness. His appreciation of Kubrick’s creation of a claustrophobic effect will play out later in the book, as Winton describes his teenage years, when it becomes clear that imminent danger makes him feel alive.
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Winton notes that the irony of 2001 is the transformation of the human characters into robotic beings followed by their murder of the robot HAL, who has become more and more sentient. The viewer must question who the real monster is—and who the real robots are. Winton notes that as a middle-aged viewer, he pays more attention to the human cost of progress that the film reveals. The astronauts’ families send their loved ones into space not knowing if they’ll see them again or what they’ll have become if they ever return home.
Winton’s changing reaction to the film—his increasing focus on the families left behind after the astronauts’ departure and death—suggests that as he’s matured and become a father, his connections to other human beings have become both more precious and apparently more tenuous. He’s aware of the effect his attraction to danger has on others, and he’s no longer just playing with his own life.
Themes
Danger, Violence, and Death Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Winton thinks about what humans will become at the hands of technology; the film suggests that progress will lead to the end of humanity as we know it, and this prospect doesn’t excite him. He isn’t sure he’d show the film to an eight-year-old today. But though it overwhelmed him as a child, it also opened his eyes to the power of filmmaking and the vast realm of the imagination, as well as the idea that the products of human creation can far outlast humans.
Winton is deeply attached to the world around him and the people who populate it. Perhaps it’s this that helps to spur his creativity in response to the film: the idea that if he creates something, its humanity will outlast him.
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
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