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1 year ago
Sight & Sound List #6: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)

A Metaphysics of 2001 in Three Cuts

by Ben Mauk 

If all art is juxtaposition, then all film is editing. 

It is trivially true, of course, that films are processions of images, coherently arranged by an editor and director for (semantic, emotional) effect. Between shots A and B a change by definition occurs, and this change serves to define the ontology of the film—what exists in its universe, how its metaphysical facts are arranged, etc. 

That these changes can be, in some important sense, where the meaning is in a film, is somewhat less trivial: that a film announces itself in a language built from a lexicon of editing techniques, and that the viewer knows and understands this filmic lexicon intuitively, even prior to thinking of, say, aspects of framing, character or plot. For Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film, though, characters and events are indeed ancillary. The major signifiers in 2001: A Space Odyssey are edits. Let’s look at three of them. 

I. 19 minutes, 50 seconds (i.e. the bone and the satellite) 

The opening “Dawn of Man” section adopts the form and habits of a nature documentary. It is free of dialogue and lingers on wide landscapes and faunal activity. Most of its scenes are presented without music—without the emotional cues a soundtrack provides. The viewer is thus lulled into the expectation of a certain vocabulary of edit—the long take of a sunrise cuts to the society of ape-like prehumans, which cuts to a shot of a particular prehuman, which cuts to a close-up of said prehuman engaged in some prehistoric activity or narrative, etc.—as well as an expectation of certain standards of the documentary style. 

These standards tend to make entreaties toward objectivity. The camera’s eye is reportorial and unflinching. It does not distinguish between placid landscape and animal violence. It is unattached to any particular point of view, either a character’s or a partial, invested omniscience. There is no “rooting” for or against the on-screen creatures, who fight for survival and against each other in short scenes that play out as parables of man’s cognitive evolution. There appears to be no point of view. 

Against this lulling, twenty-minute introduction, a single edit disrupts violently the viewers’ experience and announces the film’s structure. 

The match-cut is justly famous: as rotating bone cuts abruptly to floating artificial satellite, and prehistoric silence gives way to Johann Strauss’s Waltz of the Blue Danube, Kubrick is not merely creating temporal unease. He is showing us the sort of moves available in this universe. This includes the ability to teleport “instantaneously” four million years into the future. The cut is therefore both instant and enormously long, and serves as a statement as to the non-human scale of the film. Only an inhuman intelligence could be the audience of a story that encompasses both the bone and the satellite. The film is superhuman in scope. (Not for nothing is Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra the film’s most recurring leitmotif.) 

On the other hand, despite the temporal discontinuity there is nevertheless the suggestion of thematic continuity, through smoothness of movement between the bone and satellite, plus the shared implications that each serves a violent, societal (as opposed to natural) function. The cut suggests, with almost painful self-consciousness, continuity between sections—perhaps even a simultaneity. (We can imagine the title card: “Meanwhile, millions of years in the future….”) 

In effect, we see the same story four times—on Earth, on the moon, in interplanetary transit and at/around Jupiter. The cut argues for the existence of parallels between them, and even that they are not necessarily linear progressions of a single story. Perhaps, the cut says, they are presented chronologically only for the sake of cinematic (and narrative) convention. 

And importantly, the film’s second section is the only one without title card. This break with the other three suggests that seamlessness of transportation was paramount to Kubrick’s vision for the scene, more so even than consistency with the rest of the film. Unlike the other sections, here there are no extra-textual clues to the passage of time. Only our prejudices as 21st-century viewers insert the four million years into the instantaneous cut. Indeed, if the viewer of these events can be considered an alien or superhuman intelligence—a possibility I will argue below—there is no reason to doubt that the film’s four sections are perceived nearly at the same time. Not even in its opening sequence is 2001’s timeline linear. 

The film may thus be thought of as a four-ringed spiral, the same story occurring concurrently four times over, the two gyring images here themselves suggestive of the gyring plot, which of course concerns—not accidentally—order and the force of science. 

2001 is not merely a science-fiction film or a film about science; it is a film in which the force of science is the protagonist. It is this force’s point-of-view depicted most often by the camera’s eye, which we had previously mistaken as impartial and reportorial. 

(Of less interest but still relevant are the minutiae of the iterations. With each of the film’s sections, civilization progresses toward greater order and intelligence—one reading of the evolutionary process—and this evolution is further marked by a literal revolution: of bone, of satellite, of voyaging craft, of Saturnine space-child. The film’s four sections orbit its central theme as planets orbit a star. The sole visitor to all four planets—the only “character” who appears in all of them—is this unnamed force, the force of science. 

I’ll add as footnote that despite its reputation as crackpot-fodder, 2001 is about as non-crackpot as a film of ideas can get, its philosophy familiar within the Western canon. In addition, Kubrick’s style feels so stark as to be textbook—he aptly emulates the documentary style—and almost everything, really, about the film, strives to be as unspectacularly scientific as possible. But onward.) 

II. 87 minutes, 4 seconds (i.e. HAL-9000 can read lips) 

      “…science never sacrifices itself, it is always murderous…”

                                                                 – Jean Baudrillard 

This parenthetical aside in Simulacra and Simulation is meant literally. It follows a description of ethnologists who must necessarily kill their objects of analysis, either through artificial preservation or invasive study—in the name of science. “In any case,” Baudrillard continues, “the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself increasingly from its object, until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy is only rendered even more fantastic—it attains its pure form.” 

Science—briefly given voice in the form of HAL 9000 during “Jupiter Mission,” the third and most conventionally narrative segment of the film—certainly possesses a fantastic autonomy over its passengers. And the autonomy is necessarily murderous. Even if HAL-9000 had not needed to kill his passengers, man must eventually be superseded as the force of science outgrows him. It is, to paraphrase one of the film’s proposed titles, How the Solar System Will Be Won. The story of 2001 is the story of the attainment of this pure form. 

There’s no reason to belabor this point about force of science and POV. Suffice to say that Kubrick makes it ambiguous, at least in the “Jupiter Mission” section, just who the protagonist is—who is watching whom, whose consciousness dictates those scenes we see and those we do not. Thus Kubrick shows us a HAL-human interaction from the perspective of a human: 

And, shortly afterward, from the perspective of HAL: 

One feels odd to be looking out at the world as HAL. 2001’s human viewers could not know What It Is Like to Be a HAL-9000. The shot is meant merely as a rough approximation of HAL’s phenomenal experience. (I know the same could be said of any film—that it approximates a phenomenology—but the fact is particularly striking when the character in question is a spaceship computer.)  

The resulting confusion of POV is not brought to a head until the following cut—I find it the single undeniably brilliant moment of the film—in which the entire conflict and ultimate, fated resolution of man vs. science is silently conveyed. 

How can one not be startled here? And yet the surprise is managed by nothing more than a 180-degree change in camera angle, one that reveals nothing new on-screen. The meaning is entirely in the edit. This late-in-the-scene reveal of a silent voyeur, who has been watching the proceedings and plotting murderously, feels masterfully Hitchcockian. (And of course the device itself is much older: it is Hamlet behind the curtains.) 

Because HAL-9000 stands in for the force of science—the film’s protagonist—when HAL is killed, it feels not like a triumph but like a tragedy, a failure of the scientific spirit. Kubrick depicts as inexplicably heartfelt the moment when HAL reverts to his infancy and—in a scene more profoundly “human” than any shown by the film’s literally human characters—dies afraid, insane, and singing “Daisy.” I find myself deeply torn during this scene, almost pathologically so. The convention of rooting for man against machine has been ruthlessly subverted. The scene feels unavoidably murderous. I can’t help but mourn for HAL. 

But this is a mistake. Every visible protagonist thus far has been a red herring, and HAL-9000 is no different. Our eligible stars include the prehuman, who murders and disappears from the film, followed by the slick and unlikeable Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (whose young daughter is the only character in the film to betray emotion—except for HAL, who admits fear with the chilling “I’m scared, Dave”). And there is the milquetoast astronaut David Bowman, who could almost serve as de facto protagonist except for the film’s last section, when any pretentions toward a human narrative arc are exploded. 

But this is all to say that HAL-9000 is no more the film’s focus than these other false clues. The protagonist can suffer no tragedies because the protagonist is a force: science itself. If we are at times led to believe otherwise, it is the result of our own homocentrism, our temporal and spatially bound prejudices, none of which are any fault of Kubrick’s. 

III. 132 minutes, 40 seconds (i.e. the voyager watches himself) 

This section—and the film itself—is often linked with Nietzsche’s conception of the superman, to which I’ve referred loosely above, and which I won’t develop here. It is an interpretation with obvious appeal but limited critical oomph. Which is to say: so what? Kubrick cares little for humans throughout, and if Nietzsche’s superman enters the final section it is only to accompany the film’s real hero, the force of science, as the latter triumphs once more in the film’s final cycle. (Or, to use a loaded, non-cyclical, linear term, the “ending.”)  

And what to make of this ending? The interesting cut here is actually several in a series of devious tricks of point-of-view, by which it appears that Bowman watches himself as he moves around the room, grows old, and eventually dies. 

It’s uniquely disquieting to see Bowman in a sense haunting his own consciousness. He rises from his dinner to investigate a noise he himself made several years ago. He turns to find himself in bed, years later, dying. The shots are not fast enough to be acceptable to the viewer as montage, and so they linger, inexplicable, absurd, unnerving. 

Inexplicable, that is, by a human understanding of time. These shots compliment and extend the instantaneous transportation that ends the “Dawn of Man” section. Here Kubrick is again widening the film’s ontology, opening the possibility of shots that fold back on themselves, leap ahead and backward in time, and encompass several human perspectives at once. It is life as observed by an eternal, temporally unbound quantity. 

The idea that Bowman has somehow evolved into the final image of the orbed baby is widely held (or so suggests an Internet search for the film’s meaning), but this transformation is only necessary if one believes Bowman to be the film’s protagonist, which would give him precedential access to its final images. I won’t add my greasy interpretive thumbprint to these end scenes, which I find ethereal and enormously affecting, but ultimately meaningless, or perhaps just endlessly malleable, like the medium itself—contingent on an angle, an author, an edit. 

Ben Mauk is a writer. He lives in Iowa City.

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