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I'm sorry Dave- I can't do that

Added: Monday, February 21st 2011 at 9:36am by bhughes9

"I'm sorry Dave- I can't do that

This is possibly one of the most famous lines ever uttered in movie-dom. Chances are, even if you have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know at least this line.  You might also know that this line is a turning point for both HAL, Dave, and the audience. Now, while avoiding spoilers for you non-film-seeing-folk, Dave comes back from a quick jaunt in his space-mobile and tries to open the bomb-bay doors, but nothing happens. He asks the computer to open them  but gets no response so he continues his request until very quietly, the computer says "I can hear you." Dave at this point is understandably upset and may or may not have found out HAL did something to someone so he demands HAL open the doors.


"I'm sorry Dave-I can't do that"


In context, that is one scary line. Dave is outside, with limited oxygen, floating  and the computer which runs everything and controls everything is denying him entry. Even more, the computer is aware that Dave and co-worker Frank were planning to disconnect it.  While the terminology suggests unplugging your computer and giving it a time out, there's something in the way HAL speaks that suggests he sees this as death.  HAL is willing to do whatever is necessary to preserve his mission, his life- even if that means killing the very people he was entrusted to care for.


"I'm very sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter"


Aside from sounding like HAL went to boarding school, this line is relatively innocuous on its own. Like "I'm sorry Dave," it is polite and gently denies the other party whatever it is they want. In Dave's case, he was denied entry (and potentially, his life), but in the case of Lord Darlington's guest, Mr. Spencer, he was denied conversation. While this denial was far from disastrous for Lord Darlington's guest, the result for Stevens is- whether he knows it or not. With this denial comes the proof Mr. Spencer needs to make his case, a case which had Stevens not been "on duty" he might have disagreed with.


"Tell me, do you suppose the debt situation regarding America is a significant factor in the present low levels of trade? Or do you suppose… the abandonment of the gold standard is at the root of the matter?"


Spencer asks this and several other current questions of Stevens, to which Stevens replies each time… "I am very sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter." Each time he says this, the repressed laughter of Spencer's colleagues becomes less and less repressed. He is proving Spencer’s point that the “huddled masses ,” as it were, should not be allowed to make decisions or offer opinions, that such duties are better left with those of standing. By not commenting, Stevens has accentuated the guests’ beliefs that everyman is “unable to be of assistance” where it counts.


Stevens most likely will agree to this philosophy, that the work is better left to those who do it. However, also implied thanks to his denial is that Stevens is absolutely unaware if not unable to communicate with the guests on these topics. ie: ignorant. Being the butler of a great estate and a politically charged Lord means you have access to a plethora of information not to mention it is his job to know everything about those present. Stevens most likely does know what is going on in the world and has a comment, benign or otherwise, but he is so embedded in his role that he does not step outside of those bounds to even suggest it to Spencer. "A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothingmore than a pantomime costume (169)."


While HAL’s comment is compounded with a knowledge of existence, Stevens’ promotes the exact opposite. A “great” butler’s presence is barely known and then only for the work left behind (or, as with the tiger story, not). A “great” butler does not exist in the same sphere as those he serves let alone converse with them. A “great” butler doesn’t exist.

“I’m very sorry but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter.”

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