Introduction to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, May 9th, 2012

Bruce Bennett ( Lancaster University, UK)

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for this rare screening of Kubrick’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster, the screening of which was actually approved by the Kubrick estate only because it was accompanied by an introductory lecture)

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2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 (and pronounced two thousand and one, not twenty-oh-one according to the director) was the eighth feature film directed by the American film-maker, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was not a hugely prolific director and completed only another five films before his death in 1999 aged only 70, but, partly as a result of his methodical approach to film-making, all of his films are highly individual, painstakingly crafted, conceptually rich and complex, and, I think, often very beautiful.

Kubrick was born in 1928 in the Bronx, the child of Jewish Austrian immigrants. His father was a doctor and he had a relatively comfortable, secular, liberal, family life. Although his academic performance at school was shockingly poor and he was frequently absent, he was reputedly an expert chess player, playing for money in New York parks, and also a cinephile, a jazz obsessive, and a precociously capable photographer who was employed as a photojournalist by Look magazine at the age of 17. In the early 1950s he directed a few short news-reel documentaries and in 1953 released his first feature, a war film called Fear and Desire. He went on to direct two fascinating, inventive, visually rich thrillers, Killer’s Kiss (1955), about a boxer who winds up in trouble with gangsters, and The Killing (1956), the story of an armed robbery at a racetrack. These were followed by the 1957 anti-war film, Paths of Glory, which starred Kirk Douglas as a WW1 French army officer defending his troops in a court martial against a charge of mutiny. Although it was banned in France, the film was a commercial success and on the basis of that, Kirk Douglas encouraged Universal pictures to hire Kubrick to take over directing Spartacus when the experienced director, Anthony Mann was fired one week into the shoot because of his differences with Douglas. Douglas was apparently prompted by the misguided expectation that Kubrick would be easy to manipulate but in Kubrick’s first revision of the screenplay he cut so much of Douglas’s dialogue that he was left with only two lines in the first 30 minutes of the film.

Douglas later described him as a ‘talented shit’.

Spartacus was an extremely technically and logistically complex film. Shot on 70mm Technicolor, it was one of the most expensive films ever made with a cast of up to 10,000 performers, but it won four Oscars, establishing Kubrick, who was still only 31, as a major director.

He found the experience of working for an egotistical Hollywood star and a major studio frustrating and later claimed it was the only film over which he didn’t have ‘absolute control’, but it also taught him that he could play the system. Indeed, one of the almost exceptional features of Kubrick’s career is that he managed to retain a great degree of independence while working with major Hollywood studios on expensive ‘prestige’ productions – Woody Allen is a comparable figure although he never worked on such large-scale films. As a result of this independence, Kubrick is frequently discussed as an auteur, a film-maker whose work displays a consistent, identifiable individual style and consistent thematic preoccupations. His absolute control was achieved by occupying several roles in the production in addition to direction. He co-wrote the screenplays of most of his films, worked as film editor and camera operator, and, crucially, he was usually the producer which meant that the cast and crew were employed by him – he was employer rather than another employee. Interestingly, while he worked hard to ensure his autonomy, at the same time he also relished the challenge of working on big-budget studio productions. Michael Herr, who co-wrote the screenplay of his 1987 Vietnam film, Full Metal Jacket, recalled,

He was excited by the roar of the propellers as the big money took off and went flying through the system, circulating and separating into fewer and fewer larger pockets […] He had great respect for the box office, if not the greatest respect, and found something to admire in even the most vile movie once it passed a hundred million.

Kubrick’s next film, Lolita (released in 1962), was shot in Britain where Kubrick decided to settle, buying a manor house near St Albans. This is often attributed to a pathological fear of travel – Kubrick was quite private and as a result there are all sorts of wild rumours in circulation about him: he was supposedly terrified of flying (even though he had a pilot’s licence), he hated cars and would only be driven at under 30mph and only when wearing a crash helmet (even though he owned and drove a Porsche), he was supposedly an autistic, sadistic, anti-social recluse with a phobia about germs – but, moving to Britain was probably a strategic move that allowed him to keep a distance from the executives of the LA-based studios who couldn’t drop onto the British sets.

As a result of this carefully managed independence, there are certain signature features of Kubrick’s work that are visible in most of the films he made, and that are evident in 2001.

Precise cinematography: As a photographer Kubrick paid a great deal of attention to the image; the films are full of long takes with perfectly symmetrical compositions, slow zooms and very smooth tracking shots. He often uses wide-angle lenses that produce images with great depth of field, emphasising receding space.

His films are also full of intricate, carefully designed spaces, such as the Overlook hotel in The Shining, and the vast war rooms in Dr Strangelove, and a great deal of attention is also paid to lighting. The costume film, Barry Lyndon, for example, is famous for the interiors that are shot using only natural light and candle light while by contrast much of 2001 is lit with an almost shadowless light – ‘high key against white’ – which required so many lamps that the sets caught fire a couple of times from the heat. Among other things, the film is almost certainly responsible for the cinematic convention of spaceship interiors that glow with light.

Colour schemes in his films are also carefully organized, even where, as in 2001, the range of colours is very restricted. One notable signature of Kubrick’s films is the prominence of whites and reds.

Kubrick’s films are marked by mannered, non-naturalistic performances – in some of the films, like 2001, The Killing and Barry Lyndon actors are encouraged to act in a very minimal, inexpressive fashion, while in others, like Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, actors deliver excessive, exaggerated performances. Kubrick apparently enjoyed working with actors who could improvise and scripts were rewritten day by day during a film shoot, although he was famously impatient with actors who used ‘the method’. When Malcolm McDowell asked him for advice on how to play a scene in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick replied, ‘Malcolm, I’m not RADA. I hired you to do the acting.’ When he was blocking a scene in Spartacus where Laurence Olivier and Nina Foch would be filmed sitting in the arena watching a gladiatorial contest, Nina Foch asked him for motivation, ‘What am I doing Stanley?’, and Kubrick replied flatly, ‘You’re sitting here with Larry waiting for the gladiators to come out.’

The plots of Kubrick’s films are often organised in quite an unusual way. British science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss, who worked with Kubrick on his last uncompleted film, AI, said that Kubrick saw a narrative not as a fluid, linear, chronological thread, but as a series of ‘non-submersible units’ – a series of disconnected blocks arranged in a row that can be rearranged in different orders. This is a very unconventional way of thinking about a film’s story structure and it is evident in the way that Full Metal Jacket is clearly divided into two parts, the first taking place in an army training camp, the second in Vietnam. Similarly, 2001 is partitioned into four separate sections, and is also divided by an intermission.

Editing in Kubrick’s films is often unusually abrupt, rather than seamless. Whereas the goal for mainstream film editing is usually to make the cuts invisible, with Kubrick’s films we are aware of the dramatic cuts between shots. He appears to want us to admire the complex artificiality of the film, to notice that we are watching an aesthetic construction, not to confuse it for reality. French theorist, Michel Chion has suggested of Kubrick’s unconventional editing, for instance, that ‘each cut feels like a decision, a choice, a chess move’. In a particularly clear example of this, 2001 includes one of the most famous cuts in film history – at around 15 minutes in there is a slow-motion shot of a bone spinning through the air and there is a ‘match cut’ (so-called because it joins two visually similar, or matching shots together) from the bone to a satellite floating in space. With this match cut the narrative jumps forwards three million years and implies a direct link from the prehistoric apes’ discovery of tools to the development of space travel. It is the cut that is striking as the images on either side.

Music plays a prominent role in Kubrick’s work and in the films it is often used ironically or in a disjunctive relationship to the image. This is increasingly evident from Dr Strangelove onwards, which finishes with a montage of nuclear explosions accompanied by Vera Lynn’s rendition of ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Just as editing is typically intended to be an invisible element of the film’s structure, so the score is traditionally intended to remain more or less un-noticed, but in Kubrick’s films, the score is often very audible. This is emphasized in 2001 through the scarcity of dialogue, which draws our attention both to the music, the sound effects and to the silences.

Kubrick also frequently worked on genre films – war films, thrillers, science fiction films, costume films, and horror, and it seems that one of the creative challenges they posed was – as with a jazz musician playing a standard – how to take a familiar, culturally debased template and transform it into something highly individual, into a work of art that requires careful scrutiny and reflection. For example, the novelist Arthur C Clarke, who co-wrote 2001, said in a 1966 interview, ‘Science-fiction films have always meant monsters and sex so we have tried to find another term for our film’. So, Kubrick, who was fascinated by the idea of aliens, conceived of 2001 as a ‘mythological documentary’. It was intended to open with ten minutes of interviews with scientists and the opening prehistoric sequence was to be accompanied by a voice-over like a nature documentary.

The film was going to include aliens and a nuclear stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union was going to play a central role in the narrative, which would end with a nuclear apocalypse triggered by the aliens. The first objects we see floating in space are the nuclear weapons orbiting the earth that were going to destroy the planet at the conclusion. Much of these recognisable genre elements were stripped out by Kubrick during the production and editing of the film so that it became progressively more ambiguous. While there is still around 40 minutes of dialogue in the film, there is very little explanation or exposition. The result was a film that became increasingly abstract, mysterious and allegorical as production progressed.

This elusive quality is partly responsible for the film’s fascination (and its significant commercial success – it cost $10.5m and grossed $31m) and has led to a proliferation of interpretations. On its release, Arthur C Clarke observed, ‘If you understand 2001 on the first viewing we will have failed’. There is a huge amount of academic writing on Kubrick’s cinema in general, and this film in particular, and one of the particular strengths of 2001 is that it allows a range of readings.

Michel Chion suggests that Kubrick enjoyed telling stories about systems that go out of kilter and that 2001 is yet another example. It’s been seen as a film about the dehumanising effects of technology, or a cautionary film about surveillance society. Art critic, Annette Michelsen, suggests that the great theme of 2001 is learning, while Michel Chion suggests on the contrary, it is about amnesia. Film critic, Alexander Walker suggests it is about intelligence. It has also been discussed as a film about religion. Kubrick suggested in 1968 that ‘the God concept is at the heart of 2001 – but not any traditional anthropomorphic image of God’, while Clarke claimed it was the first $10m religious movie.

It has also often been regarded as a film about film – that is to say, a film whose central theme is the cinematic experience, the unique experience of film as an audio-visual medium, rather than a literary medium that is primarily concerned with dialogue, plot and character. In spite of his desire for control over his films, Kubrick was reluctant to suggest a preferred reading of the film, ‘I don’t like to talk about 2001 much’, he said in 1968, ‘because it’s essentially a non-verbal experience…It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect.’

References:

John Baxter (1998). Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. Harper Collins

Michel Chion (2001). Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey. London and New York: BFI Press

Michael Herr (2001). Kubrick. Grove Press

Annette Michelsen (1969). ‘Bodies in Space: Film as Carnal Knowledge’, Artforum, vol. 7, no. 6

Alexander Walker (1999). Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis New York: W.W. Norton

 

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