Chapter II: The Decoy Characters and the Frivolity of Obstacles in 2001
Note: this is a continuation from yesterday’s post: How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 1 of 4
Film theorist David Bordwell states, “Character-centered—i.e., personal or psychological—causality is the armature of the classical story” (13). In its entire narrative span, which, at the very least, covers millions of years (not to mention infinity), 2001 does not feature a single apparent, dominating character over the course of the whole film. Of course, the film’s timespan could not allow for one mortal character or group of characters to steer the story’s development from start to finish. By examining each of the film’s three sections, as introduced by title cards, one can observe both the absence of central characters and the presence of something else in their place.
One of the consistent complaints by dissenting critics was precisely about this. Andrew Sarris, writing for The Village Voice, called 2001 “a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view” (45). In his review for The New Republic, entitled “Lost in the Stars,” Stanley Kauffman states he would have preferred if Kubrick had disposed of all film that did not feature the astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), in effect making Bowman the film’s main character (224).
Some critics made the stretch to make the Monolith the film’s main character. In her review, Adler referred to it as “the sentient slab” (207). But there’s something missing from the Monolith as the decision-maker in plot. This brings us to the second principle of classical Hollywood cinema, as Bordwell has noted: “… the character assumes a causal role because of his or her desires. Hollywood characters especially protagonists, are goal-oriented” (17).
- Characters Have Goals
The inference Adler made to call the Monolith “the sentient slab” does not fit with Bordwell’s second rule of the classical Hollywood form. Kubrick presents the Monolith as a mysterious object of unknowable quality. In the last spoken lines of the film, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) states: “Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert. Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.” After all what happens in the film to that point, we are still only left with mystery.
Kubrick has good reason not to explain the ambiguities of the monolith, much less reveal the alien beings behind it, as the black slab more correctly represents an idea or a presence rather than a real person or thing. Taking the unfolding events within the film into consideration, one might find it easy to consider the monolith a stand-in for divine intervention, as it plays a God-like role in the film. Kubrick himself even once admitted: “I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God” (qtd. in Nordern 49).
Kubrick posits the potential existence of species comparable to man, but ahead of man in millions of years of evolution, already refined to such a degree that they might appear like gods to the young race of humans on Earth: “Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans” (qtd. in Nordern 50). “They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation”
According to Kubrick, “Mere speculation on the possibility of [the alien beings’] existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without attempting to decipher their motives” (qtd. in Nordern 51). He wants the viewer of 2001 to experience this sentiment, based on the information provided by the images and sound on the movie screen. Keeping in mind the specifics of the second character-related convention key to classical Hollywood cinema, it becomes clear that the main character of 2001 cannot be the monolith precisely because Kubrick never gives away any sense of the monolith’s motivation. Rather, the viewer can only grasp a vague notion of something beyond the monolith. Kubrick purposefully creates a gap of interpretation, as the only thing the viewer knows for certain is that this object is mysterious, just like the unknowable drive of God.
In 2001, three particularly engaging characters stand out: Moon-Watcher (the name given one ape man in Clarke’s novel), Dr. Floyd, and Dave Bowman. The first truly relatable character for the audience is Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter). Based on the action surrounding this creature, one can deduce his most basic goals are the acquisition of food, water and safe shelter. Comparatively, Dr. Floyd’s goals seem less visceral, besides travelling to a space station, casual meetings with colleagues, a chat with his daughter on Earth, before it becomes apparent that he is on a trip to see a monolith that has been unearthed on the moon. As for Bowman, lengthy scenes of him jogging, eating and playing chess with the Discovery’s onboard computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) is later overshadowed with his life and death struggle with that same computer.
The only time a character overcomes an obstacle and does something that defies orders arrives when Bowman disconnects the Discovery’s onboard computer, as it begs for its continued existence. Otherwise, obstacles are interchangeable with routine that hold little drama for the people on the screen. But even when Bowman disconnects HAL, he maintains a cold, never swaying determined look, despite the computer even singing to him. Bordwell states, “The character assumes a causal role because of his or her desires. Hollywood characters especially protagonists, are goal-oriented. The hero desires something new to his/her situation, or the hero seeks to restore an original state of affairs” (Bordwell 16).
The conflict with HAL finally shows a character moving beyond a surprise obstacle. Still, for Bowman, any real effort on his part to achieve anything has ended by the start of the third and final section of the film, where he seems to simply exist until his death, when he is reborn as the Star Child. Here again the critics who opposed the film tuned out. Schlesinger dismissed this part of the movie when he writes, “At this point, 2001 dissolves into phantasmagoria” (76). In his review for Newsweek, Joseph Morgenstern (no relation) wondered if the monolith represented God or “Maybe it was a nephew of the New York Hilton” (100).
The notion that something beyond the main characters might be driving the story seemed to disappoint Kael. “‘2001’ is a celebration of a cop-out,” she writes in her review. “It says man is a tiny nothing on the stairway to a paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway” (150). With her comment, Kael responds to the idea that the force driving the characters in 2001 lies beyond them, rather than within. The tone of her writing sounds personal, which would be appropriate considering she wrote her movie reviews after her first and only viewing (“Film Critics Roundtable”). One might consider her reviews knee-jerk reactions, and Kubrick himself would give little credence to such an approach. “Very few critics work carefully, thoughtfully enough,” Kubrick once said. “To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity” (qtd. in Hofsess 106).
A presence involved in the grander scheme of things constantly overshadows these characters’ personal goals. In fact, one Kubrick scholar noted a common thread in his films includes characters that possess the antithesis of a goal-oriented drive. In his introduction to a new compilation of essays on 2001, Robert Kolker writes: “[Kubrick’s characters] are never in control and not really characters at all, in the traditional movie sense. Kubrick’s characters are ideas given human form, acting out their own processes of destruction” (6).
In what came very close to an overt description of 2001’s theme, Kubrick, speaking with the threat of nuclear war on his mind, once said:
“Man must strive to gain mastery over himself as well as over his machines … We are semi-civilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Since the means to obliterate life on Earth exists, it will take more than just careful planning and reasonable cooperation to avoid some eventual catastrophe. The problem exists, and the problem is essentially a moral and spiritual one” (qtd. in Nelson 104).
This quote, with its concluding philosophical turn, sums up what Kubrick attempts to illustrate with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith plays a god-like role by intervening with man’s destiny. By making the monolith’s power mysterious and seemingly omnipotent, Kubrick alludes to a spiritual solution. What the audience takes away from the final, powerful scenes of the film is a metaphor: Kubrick’s optimism that man’s spirituality and morality will transcend his violent ways. This leads to the question, are other men (or ape-men or computers imitating men) the true antagonists of the film or could human nature itself be the opposing force of the film? By flattening the central idea of character as fundamental to filmmaking, Kubrick points to new ways of understanding film, ways that have to do, in fact, with not only the pushing aside of character-driven plot, but the sublimation of narrative as well.
Part 3 in this series of posts examines three more rules of Hollywood film that are challenging to place in the context of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jump to it here:
How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 3 of 4
Also, don’t forget…
In Miami, O Cinema is hosting an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location (that’s a hot link for tickets and more information). This screening is part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which is also currently playing at O Cinema (see event page). The film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining, continues to expand this week in the Miami area. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).
Adler, Renata. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. New York Times 1968. The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Ed. Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970. 207-209.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
“Film Critics Roundtable.” Narr. Neal Conan. Talk of the Nation. Natl. Public Radio. WLRN, Miami. 9 Sept. 2002.
Hofsess, John. “Mind’s Eye: A Clockwork Orange.” 1971. Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 105-107.
Kael, Pauline. Going Steady. New York: Warner Books, 1979.
Kauffman, Stanley. “Lost in the Stars.” Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. New Republic 1968. The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Ed. Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970. 223-226.
Kolker, Robert. Introduction. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: New Essays. Ed. Robert Kolker. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 3-12.
Morgenstern, Joseph. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. Newsweek 15 April 1968: 97-100.
Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze. New and expanded ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Nordern, Eric. “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick.” Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 47-74.
Sarris, Andrew. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. Village Voice 11 April, 1968: 45.
Schlesinger, Arthur Jr. “2001: A Space Odyssey: ‘a superb wreck’” Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. Vogue June 1968: 76.
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Thank you for the amazing insight!
I’m going to cite you on my final paper (film class) this semester; it is called Stargate Symphony: A Film Odyssey.
I concur with most of your observations!
Great to hear! I hope your professor likes it.
Good stuff. Do you mind if I use a brief credited quote in a post I may be doing soon (on Kubrick)? Pauline Kael was never a particular favorite of mine, and her response to 2001 and other Kubrick films did seem personal, as if Stanley had treated her rudely at a party one time. She wouldn’t even grant him willing suspension of disbelief, calling 2001 a “home movie.” Rather silly, really.
No problem. I never got the love for Kael’s work. She was a pioneer of film criticism, but she wasn’t one of the best film critics.