Chapter III-B: The Sublimation of Narrative: Film Techniques in 2001: A Space Odyssey
Note: this is a continuation from the 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 3 of 4
7. Film Techniques should be invisible
Finally, and most uniquely to the medium of cinema, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick employs obtrusive film techniques, including powerful match cuts and long, self-aware musical sequences where music goes beyond mood and atmosphere to take on a narrative role. This last element of Hollywood cinema dictates the audience should not become aware of technical aspects of movie-making while watching a film. As film scholar David Bordwell notes, “Hollywood’s pride in concealed artistry implies that narration is imperceptible and unobtrusive” (24). Cinematic techniques, such as music and editing, must not break the movie’s spell by calling attention to themselves.
Some edits in 2001 might feel superficially jarring upon initial viewing, but they are actually pregnant with questions and meaning. Granted, whenever a film is spliced, information is lost, but the Hollywood aesthetic dictates that scenes need to be cut in a seemingly seamless manner. Bordwell explains, “From shot to shot, tonality, movement, and the center of compositional interest shift enough to be distinguishable but not enough to be disturbing” (55).
Much to the chagrin of some critics, 2001 contains several conspicuous edits. As cited earlier, critics like Sarris, Kael and Schlesinger bemoaned the ambiguity between scenes. However, Kubrick’s editing decisions were well thought out. He inserts transitions between many important scenes that force the audience to fill in “gaps” of time and space. These transitions are more associative edits rather than temporal. Nelson pointed to this as an outstanding aspect of the movie: “ embodies a kind of ultimate cinematic universe, where all the assurances of ‘normal’ perspective are literally turned upside down, and ‘settings’ project … a disturbing lack of contextual and historical definition” (110). The narrative effect of this leaves questions of story continuity in the viewer’s mind.
The viewer should not mistake these odd moments of editing with a plot hampered by events strung together haphazardly or coincidental ploys written into the storyline to keep the movie going. These are, in fact, tools that allow the director to raise his story to another level, beyond the theoretical confines of classical Hollywood cinema. In fact, one could argue Kubrick’s movie is more truthful as a result of what he leaves out between cuts as opposed to employing expository dialogue. In Robinson’s Lexicon, the term “cut” is defined as “[The] key to what is carried across from one image to another; whereas with words, inventions of man’s reflective powers, artifice is carried across; with images[,] entities within the visible creations, it is creative power that carries across the cut.” (Lavery 358).
The first scene that compels the viewer to see beyond the action in 2001 is probably the most famous scene of Kubrick’s entire career. It occurs in the early part of the film, during “The Dawn of Man,” when Kubrick introduces the ape-men. He directs the viewer’s attention to a scene involving the ape-men’s cognition that a bone could be used as a tool/weapon by showing the creatures’ transformation from this revelation by using a jump cut to show man’s final stage of evolution: man in space.
During this scene, a screaming Moon-Watcher tosses the bone in the air. As the bone hurtles against the sky in slow motion, the sound cuts to silence before the viewer is presented with the vastness of space and a satellite drifting above the planet earth. A second later, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube begins. Beyond exciting viewers’ intellect with his surprising edits, Kubrick further emphasizes the jarring cuts with the waltz. As this scene clearly shows, “The Dawn of Man” section is not just about man evolving from apes; it seemingly encompasses the lifespan of Homo sapiens.
In his Newsweek review, film critic Joseph Morgenstern pointed out that an extraordinary amount of time is covered in that gap: “The man-ape gleefully hurls his tool of war into the air. It becomes a satellite in orbit around the moon. A single dissolve spans 4 million years” (97). The edit is a trick of the mind, as much as it is the eye. It is a direct association between club and space vehicle. The bone doesn’t turn into a satellite. They are two images literally juxtaposed. To correct my namesake (no relation), the transition is not a dissolve but a simple splice in the film. More specifically, it is a match cut, where two similar looking objects are edited into one another to create a relationship (W. Phillips 130). In effect, quicker than a blink of an eye, the viewer is transported four million years into the future. Nelson defines the implication of the association thus: “The technological leap from the bone to the moon-bound Pan-American spacecraft, imagined against the black background of infinite and unknown space, emphasizes that the next stage of man’s evolutionary rise continues the initial development begun by the ape.” (82).
This becomes the most important cut in the movie, as it clearly sets a profound tone. The match cut of the bone to the space vessel cracks the invisibility element of editing. Maybe not in a literal way that makes one think of the artifice of movie-making, but a jarring, obtrusive way. It calls attention to itself. The film is not looking to explain events, but seeks to stimulate the viewer to inform the action. Hence, the film’s appropriate hallmark of scant dialogue and exposition versus visuals pregnant with meanings. Throughout the film, Kubrick shows the audience that dialogue has little value in exposition. Instead, he emphasizes nonverbal communication like music and images, which he emphasizes through other carefully thought-out cuts within the film.
Classical Hollywood cinema dictates a movie should use music sparingly, supplementing the action on screen but never overshadowing it. As Bordwell says, “The music confines itself to a moment-by-moment heightening of the story. Slight anticipations are permitted, but recollections of previous musical material must be motivated by a repetition of situation or by character memory” (35). 2001 both follows this rule to its fullest effect but also takes a daring turn away from it. Kubrick utilized diverse but, for the most part, famous classical music pieces for the score of 2001. One of the most iconic pieces must be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which appears during the opening credits and during the epiphanies that note the ape-men’s transformation to human and humanity’s ascendance to Star-Child.
Classical Hollywood cinema demands fleeting, associative uses of music that cue the audience into what event might happen next. As Bordwell notes, “During the film, music adheres to classical narration’s rule of only allowing glimpses of its omniscience, as when the score anticipates the action by a few moments” (34). In other words, the tone of the music should be an efficient thematic element scored to the scene that might clue the audience to a character’s intentions or the mood in the scene. Bordwell explains, “Just as classical camera work or editing becomes more overt when there is little dialogue, so the music comes into its own as an accompaniment for physical action. Here music becomes expressive to certain conventions (static harmony for suspense or the macabre, chromaticism for tension, marked rhythm for chase scenes)” (ibid).
The manner in which Kubrick uses music in the film was revolutionary in that entire scenes went on with only musical accompaniment and no dialogue while the narrative developed on an almost subconscious level. In the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, film director Tony Palmer calls 2001 a milestone in cinema history precisely because of the way Kubrick utilized music:
I always think that history of the cinema divides into two essential eras: before Stanley Kubrick and after Stanley Kubrick, especially in relation to the use of music in film. Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in film as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music in particular, it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive of the film.
In fact, Kubrick at first hired composer Alex North for an original score, which would have conformed more to Hollywood cinema’s demands that the music be inspired by the image and try to convey a musical mood in support of the images. North recorded a soundtrack, which is now readily available, but Kubrick was so taken by the classical temp tracks he used during filming, he decided to stick with those instead. “This was a crucial decision,” wrote Roger Ebert in his second review of 2001, where he reflected on the film 30 years after he first saw it. “North’s score … would have been wrong for ‘2001’ because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action— to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action.” Ebert emphasizes the word “outside,” which points to Kubrick’s reaching beyond the actions on screen and drawing the audience into a film that tries to go beyond conventions of Hollywood cinema.
Throughout 2001, non-diegetic music never overlaps with dialogue. There are, however, three questionable scenes focusing on man’s interaction with the monolith. There are the ape-men, who seem to react to the sound of György Ligeti’s high-pitched howling chorus that emanates around them or possibly from within the monolith. Also, the lunar scientists reel in pain after a similar chorus of voices turns into a piercing high-pitched sustained note. Then, during the penultimate emergence of the monolith, Dave Bowman enters the star gate as the chorus once again returns.
One critic referred to the monolith as “the singing slab,” as the imagery seems to respond to seemingly non-diegetic music (Sweeney 229). This minimal use of music that might or might not be non-diegetic adds to the potency of the scenes, which offer a repetitious pattern of similar, yet unique and related events that occur during entirely unique instances during man’s evolution. Ciment explained it best:
The oratorio by György Ligeti which acts as a musical leitmotif for the presence of the monolith coincides with Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that all technology, if sufficiently advanced, is touched with magic and a certain irrationality. Its choral accompaniment leads us onto the threshold of the unknown, just as Kubrick’s use of the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra prepares us for the profundity of his intentions … 2001 postulates the same progression as in Nietzsche’s work, from the ape to man, then from man to Superman” (Ciment 128).
Ciment also notes that 2001’s use of Also Spoke Zarathustra during the evolutionary leap from ape-man to space-man and the rebirth of Bowman emphasizes the film’s Nietzschean tone (105). Kubrick harnesses the power of music to tell the story, rather than limiting the score to offer cues to the audience of what might happen next or set a mood. In 2001, music becomes an essential part of the narrative, while dialogue refrains from offering any profound details into character motivation. With his use of music in 2001, Kubrick goes beyond the limitations of language and even images alone to push his statement.
Although Hollywood film demands some degree of cognitive effort by the viewer, it never calls on the viewer to accept abstractions. For instance, at the end of 2001, an astronaut transforms into a baby floating in space. Traditional Hollywood film demands that there be some kind of explanation as to how this happened, be it exposition or a visual representation of the force that brought on such a change, but the film joins the aged astronaut and the fetus only by a film splice, which is imperceptible to the human eye, considering how fast film rolls. Essentially, nothing joins the two embodiments of the one astronaut. Also, nothing before the transformation hints that this is what will be happening to the astronaut and nothing after the transformation explains why it did, at least not definitively.
The dictates of traditional Hollywood cinema never allow for such ambiguity, as every event in a Hollywood movie must contribute to the story in some definitive manner, be it subtle or obvious. For instance, a classic Hollywood version of 2001 might show an alien wave a magic wand over the astronaut and then a flashy transformation might play out between the human and baby forms, definitively linking the two as a single being.
I believe in cinema as serious art. Not as solely entertainment but a medium that allows us a way of looking deeper at ourselves, a kind of aid to mankind in delving in and discovering ourselves. In turn, finding transcendence in art. 2001 strives to tap into a deeper power of the film medium, inspiring contemplation of the deepest questions of life, such as the origins and future of humanity, while not falling into the trap of heavy-handedness. It can only achieve this by breaking the limits of conventional Hollywood cinema.
I think Ebert hit 2001’s purpose on the head when he revisited the film 30 years after he first saw it and contrasted its purpose with the absence of deeper purpose in movies that follow the classical Hollywood cinema:
Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are.
2001 is constructed to inspire viewers to go beyond the image and ultimately look into themselves and what they can bring to the movie. The pay-off for those watching the film comes only when viewers embrace its open-ended quality, feel liberated by it, and instead of scratching their heads or superficially marveling at the “weirdness” of the film, begin to invest in the scenes that call to them. It is only then that they can grow from within after watching a film as convention-busting and masterful as 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is art, the sort of art that out lives us, intriguing one generation after another.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Ciment, Michel. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. Trans. Gilbert Adair and Robert Bononno. 2001 ed. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001.
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>.
Lavery, David. “‘Like Light’: The Movie Theory of W.R. Robinson.” Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values. Ed. Richard P. Sugg. New York: Golden String Press, 2001. 346-363.
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.
Phillips, William H. Film: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.
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.
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Note: In Miami, O Cinema hosted an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location. This screening was part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which also played at part of the retrospective (see event page). Today is the last day to catch the film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining; both these films have one more screening each this afternoon at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (see calendar).
Room 237 trailer: