Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #6

The reputation for 2001: A Space Odyssey often precedes the film these days. The same can be said of director Stanley Kubrick, as well. Before making his science-fiction opus, Kubrick was already a known commodity, coming off a streak of well-recieved films that included the enormous Spartacus (1960), the controversial Lolita (1962), and the satirical Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). He was already becoming notorious for his perfectionist process of filming and desire to be in complete control of the project. In most ways, he was very close to becoming "Stanley Kubrick," the much-celebrated ideal of a great filmmaker.


It was 2001: A Space Odyssey that brought him to that level. The film is famous for its four-part structure, two of which feature no dialogue at all. It's best-known segment is the third, in which, on a mission to Jupiter, the ship's artificial intelligence HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) rebels against the ship's crew, including astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). It's also well-known for its visual effects, then revolutionary and earned Kubrick his only Oscar win. But it is perhaps most notorious for how the film raises more questions than it answers, with a loose narrative spanning millions of years and only connected by large, black, rectangular monoliths.

Over the years, there have been numerous interpretations to what Kubrick's epic is really about. These interpretations range from the possibility/impossibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to more bizarre theories, including proof that Kubrick helped fake the 1969 Apollo moon landing. A lot of the talk about "what it all means," though, causes some of Kubrick's more formal achievements to be overlooked. Particularly, the film's editing - courtesy of credited editor Gary Lovejoy - is remarkable in how it subverts conventional editing techniques, sticking to one crucial type of cut.

More after the jump.


In most films, editors use a variety of edits, called "cuts," to piece together the raw footage that is shot during production into a coherent version of the film. In many cases, these cuts are meant to link images to one another, whether within the same scene or between scenes. For example, when two characters are talking, cuts may be used to switch between the faces of the characters reacting to what is being said. These types of scenes employ a variation of what is known as cross-cutting, though a cross-cut does not always have to link characters or events in the same location. For example, in this scene from 2001, notice how David and HAL do not occupy the same space: David is in a pod outside of the spaceship, while HAL is safely ensconced in the pod bay of the spaceship.



The camera cuts between David and HAL as they converse, even though they are not together in the same location.

Another key cut from 2001 is the match cut, which links two different images that are similar but exist in different scenes. In the case of 2001, the match cut bridges the film's first and second segments, linking the ape-like humanoid Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter) tossing a bone into the air with a satellite orbiting the Earth:



What's unique about this particular match cut is that it does more than just link two similar images. It also functions as a jump cut, which is a cut that breaks the continuity of the film. Within a single cut, millions of years of evolution is passed over, with the assumption that the audience will be able to fill in the relevant information themselves. In the first segment, the humanoids were an herbivorous species until Moon-Watcher discovers the violent power of using a bone as a weapon (perhaps with the assistance of the monolith he and his pack encountered?). In this moment, it is to be understood, killing is discovered, the humanoids transitioning from peaceful herbivores to vicious omnivores capable of unfathomable destruction. With the match cut, though, it gains further meaning: this is the birth of technology, with the bone as the beginning and the satellite as a logical vision of the future.

It's significant to note this jump cut because of how abrupt it is. Generally speaking, when a filmmaker wants to convey the passage of time - especially a passage as expansive as that between these two segments - they will use either a dissolve or a wipe, two types of cuts that either slowly fade out of one scene before beginning the next (the former) or visually show the next scene replacing the previous (the latter). In either case, these types of cuts are noticeable indicators of the passage of time by putting an ellipsis between the two scenes. The match cut in 2001, however, is jarring because it seems to put a period in the middle of the sentence and immediately launches into a new one. It's disorienting to the viewer, and it requires a few moments for the audience to regain their bearings in the film. The story has transitioned from humanoids discovering weapons to a Pan Am spacecraft heading for the Moon.

Throughout the film, Kubrick and Lovejoy stick almost exclusively to these kinds of abrupt cuts, employing only one wipe cut throughout the film's 142 minute runtime. The purpose of doing this is to keep the audience guessing throughout the film, wondering what the meaning of the images onscreen is. Both Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke (whose story "The Sentinel" served as the film's backbone) have both stated that the film is meant to confound more than it explains, with the gonzo "Star Gate" sequence that makes up the fourth segment the most ambiguous of all. By using these kinds of cuts repeatedly, Kubrick was able to give his film a more impenetrable structure, leaving it open to interpretation through the seeming omission of key facts and images.

There's still plenty to discuss about what the film means, and how Kubrick goes about achieving the film's epic scale and ambitious ideas. But examining the film's editing techniques is a crucial piece to unlocking the film's multitudinous meanings, as well as to appreciating Kubrick's considerable prowess as a filmmaker.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": The General (1926)

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