Chapter III-A: The Sublimation of Narrative: Narrative Structure in 2001: A Space Odyssey
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 2 of 4
4. Events have clear causes and effects
As film theorist David Bordwell notes: “Coincidence and haphazardly linked events are believed to flaw the [Hollywood] film’s unity and disturb the spectator. Tight causality yields not only consequence but continuity, making the film progress ‘smoothly, easily, with no jars, no waits, no delays.’23 A growing absorption also issues from the steadily intensifying character causality, as the spectator recalls salient causes and anticipates more or less likely effects”* (18). This formula effectively eases the viewer into the story, but when it came to 2001: A Space Odyssey, critics felt disappointed that Kubrick did not follow this convention.
Throughout the film, many causes and effects have an ambiguous relationship, which unsettles the viewer. The premiere screening of 2001 in New York featured many walkouts and complaints. Kubrick himself counted 241 (as Jack Nicholson recalled in the Life in Pictures documentary), and movie critic Roger Ebert noted one Hollywood actor at the screening, namely Rock Hudson, who “stalked down the aisle” and grumbled, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?”
Beyond the frustrations of an actor accustomed to working in the Hollywood form, many esteemed film critics also felt hindered from appreciating 2001 because they expected a classical Hollywood film with clear causes and effects. One of the most notable dissenters was Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice. In his review, he sounded frustrated by the obliqueness of the monolith, precisely because of the ambiguity surrounding an object that plays a key role in the transformative events in the movie: “A big black slab figures in each section of the film, but we never find out exactly what it is or what it signifies” (Sarris 45).
Others hoped Kubrick could spell out the meaning of his film less ambiguously. In his review for Vogue Magazine, Arthur Schlesinger, like many critics, blamed Kubrick’s attention to special effects** for the film’s seemingly failing, unintelligible narrative. “In 2001 he has gone mad over electronic artifacts … Obsession continues to outrun explanation, and this reviewer, at least, could not understand a good deal of what was going on.” (Schlesinger 76).
With 2001, Kubrick often violates the rule of “tight causality” Bordwell speaks of in his fourth rule of the classical Hollywood form. For instance, after disconnecting HAL, Bowman decides to leave the spaceship Discovery in a space pod and make the ominous decision to blindly approach the mysterious monolith floating in space, but in Arthur C. Clarke’s book, the author gives a clear reason. The book establishes Bowman living in the now derelict ship, carrying on the research for some time after HAL’s disconnection, until, one day, he reports to mission control that he wants a closer look at the monolith floating outside and offers his plan to return to the Discovery in about 90 minutes (Clarke 247-248).
This monolith, which Clarke names “the Star Gate” in his book’s narrative (effectively loading it with more meaning) later seems to absorb Bowman and the space pod as if it were a kind of portal to a place beyond space and time (Clarke 243). The genius of Kubrick’s ambiguous set-up lies in the slipperiness of it. Bowman’s actions startle the viewer, adding to the shock of the lengthy Star Gate sequence, which would only be hampered by exposition. The special effects during the rest of the movie are all meant to dazzle and create an experience beyond words, reflective of Bowman’s unearthly experience. It involves the viewer on a visceral level, rather than if the director served up clear explanations as to what he or she is seeing.
Key to Kubrick’s harnessing the power of ambiguity, the director stays away from using language to explain what might be happening in the movie. 2001 has the rare characteristic of having very scarce dialogue, which contributes to the film’s vagueness. Clarke explains: “[B]ecause we were dealing with the mystery of the Universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they [the forces] could not be totally understandable” (Clarke 249).
5. Narrative has chronology
Bordwell states that fifth convention is almost taken for granted by the audience. “[T]hrough its history Hollywood cinema seeks to represent events in a temporally continuous fashion; moreover, narrative logic has generally worked to motivate this temporal continuity” (Bordwell 9). As already can be seen, it is impossible for 2001 to fit this convention because there is no clear character or group of characters that influences the film’s story from beginning to end.
If the fact that Kubrick focuses on three different characters, during three lengthy sections of the film does not already do enough to undermine this convention, the presence of the Stargate sequence blows this rule away. Kubrick called this voyage to Bowman’s destiny— depicted in a drawn-out sequence of lights and brilliant geometric and amorphous shapes, not to mention freeze frames, flash cuts and reversed images— “a journey through inner and outer space” (qtd. in Gelmis 91).
Actually, one of the most confounding moments of the film happens here. Kubrick once explained: “In a timeless state, [Bowman’s] life passes from middle age to senescence to death. He is reborn … and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny” (qtd. in Gelmis 91).
The critics who disliked this film hated the long, ponderous Stargate sequence so much, they would have preferred to see it cut. Sarris and the Christian Science Monitor’s Louise Sweeney did not find any value in Bowman’s trip through space and time at the end of the movie. In addition, Kauffman joined Sweeney in sharing a preference for having the scenes with the ape-men excised. This leaves the tight chronology of the Discovery trip as the only section of the film that mattered in these critics’ eyes, hoping for relief in the classical Hollywood form.
Going somewhere beyond man’s perception of space and time, specifically during the Star Gate sequence, the narrative announces its dramatic move to go “beyond infinity.” As Robinson has observed: “Since nothing beyond infinity can be rationally conceived, the title of Part III [‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’], a verbal paradox, itself signifies that Dave has embarked upon a venture too subtle for reason to comprehend” (163).
6. Unambiguous ending
2001: A Space Odyssey is all about open-endedness. However, as Bordwell notes, in classical Hollywood film, “[t]he ending becomes the culmination of the spectator’s absorption, as all the causal gaps get filled” (Bordwell 18). With a film that conforms to classical Hollywood cinema, a viewer should feel confident that, by the film’s conclusion, he or she will understand how all of the film’s causes and effects lead up to the finale of its story. By contrast, the end of 2001 concludes with many gaps in the film’s plot left open, in effect leaving many questions in the viewer’s mind unanswered. This demands the viewer see beyond the visuals of the film. After all, Kubrick’s goal, as he has already stated, was to create an experience. In an interview with The New York Times’ William Kloman in April 1968, Kubrick explains, “Essentially the film is a mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level rather than in a specific literal explanation.”
Several critics who wrote negative reviews of the movie indeed had problems with how Kubrick ended his movie. “By the end three unreconciled plot lines—the slabs, Dullea’s aging, the period bedroom—are simply left there like a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology” (Adler 209). Adler specifically voiced her disappointment that the film did not attempt to conform to classical Hollywood cinema, saying the film could not work if it did not spell out its intentions: “This is a long step outside the convention, some extra scripts seem required, and the all-purpose answer, ‘relativity,’ does not really serve unless it can be verbalized” (209). I shiver at the thought of cinematic experience reduced to verbalizing all its intentions.
Sarris also complained about the vagueness of the finale, stating the film ended on an arrogant note of artiness: “The ending is a mishmash of psychedelic self-indulgence for the special effects people and an exercise in mystifying abstract fantasy in the open temple of High Art” (Sarris 45).
Like Kubrick, Clarke was quite aware of the contentious points the New York critics brought up against the film and offered many vocal counter points to their criticisms. “[T]he ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simple-minded critics to the contrary. (You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick’s. Nor is his necessarily the ‘right’ one—whatever that means.)” (Clarke 249).
The arrival of the Starchild ends Homosapiens and begins a race of something else… if one can even call it a race. But, in keeping with the filmmakers’ intent: who knows? Kubrick meant to leave you wondering with that jarring finale. Classical Hollywood films are constructed in such a manner that no questions are left unanswered; their stories and messages may seem clear-cut, but they are also limited in scope. Audiences are effectively force-fed a conclusion and an idea that has as much value as the popcorn and soda they consume while viewing it. Meaning is closed, shut down rather than encouraged by such movies. Films, like any art that hopes to stand the test of time— should mean something to the viewer personally. Kubrick wants to leave the audience with a feeling more so than a thought. As Kubrick once said, “The truth of a thing is in the feel of it, not the think of it” (qtd. in Gelmis 80).
Part 4 in this series of posts will examine the final and most complex rule of Hollywood film challenged by 2001: A Space Odyssey (as of hte posting of this third part in the series, it stands at double the length of this post, but I hope to shrink it, and it might take more than a day).
Meanwhile, do not 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 opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables will begin a run on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).
* Bordwell here quotes from Barret C. Kiesling, Talking Pictures (Richmond, Virginia, Johnson Publishing Co., 1937).
**According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2001 won the Oscar® for Special Visual Effects that year. It was also nominated in three other categories: Art Direction, Directing and Screenwriting.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Clarke, Arthur C. Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
— –. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Millennium Edition. New York: Roc, 2000.
Ebert, Roger. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. 27 March 1997. Rogerebert.com. 6 Feb. 2006 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970327/REVIEWS08/401010362>.
Gelmis, Joseph. “The Film Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick.” 1970. Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 80-104.
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.
Kloman, William. “In 2001, Will Love Be a Seven Letter Word?” New York Times On The Web 14 April 1968. 5 July 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/041468kubrick-2001.html>.
Robinson, William R. “The Birth of Imaginative man in Part III of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values. Ed. Richard P. Sugg. New York: Golden String Press, 2001. 161-187.
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.
Sweeney, Louise. Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick. Christian Science Monitor 1968. The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. Ed. Jerome Agel. New York: New American Library, 1970. 227-229.