An Odyssey in Pieces #2: The Dawn of Man, Day One

Oh yeah, I was blogging my way through 2001, wasn’t I? Or at least, I said I was. My first post on the matter is here.

How can you have a dawn divided into days one and two? Well, that’s what we’re doing. After all, it’s not a literal dawn, even though there’s literally a shot of the dawn as the caption appears. One of the things I recall about my first ever viewing of the film, aged 11 or so, is that this seemed slightly on the nose. I may have snorted back an inaudible laugh. On the other hand, this vista connects us to the sunrise in space we’ve just seen.

It’s also a day in the life of a tribe of ape-men, subdivided into little blackout sketches. They get up and potter around, rather aimlessly, until one of their number is attacked by a leopard (the life of a caveman is boredom interrupted by flashes of bloody death). Fade-out. They engage in a territorial shouting match with another gang by the waterhole. Fade-out. Night falls and they huddle nervously by the shelter of a cliff. Fade-out.

What do these hirsute ladies and gentlemen eat? We see tapirs foraging fearlessly among them, evidently not regarding themselves as even potential prey. Yet there are a lot of bones about. Maybe leopard leftovers. But the ecology is a little nebulous.

This sequence arguably features the best special effects of the film: I find it impossible to conceive that all the ape-man footage is shot on a front-projection stage with plates of the African desert being shone behind the costumed mimes. And while I know in my heart that the ape-men aren’t real, they’re able to interact with baby chimpanzees without either set of primates looking like impostors. (The little chimps had make-up applied to make them look more like their screen parents, but they licked it off one another: this is the cutest fact I know about 2001.)

I once saw the film miss-projected so you could see off the top of the frontpro screen: a bunch of scaffolding poked out from behind the African skyline. The effect was like something from THE TRUMAN SHOW. The setting remained insistently REAL.

There’s a shot at dusk of a leopard reclining beside a slain zebra, and I simply don’t know if it’s a shot taken in Africa along with the background plates, or a studio mock-up using the trained leopard and a stuffed zebra. Probably the latter. But YOU CAN’T TELL. I suppose the fact that the setting sun is behind kitty, but kitty’s eyes are reflecting something BRIGHT, might be a clue. But not one that triggers conscious doubt until you overthink it like me.

British cinematographers were known not so much for an individual style, though we’ve had a few distinctive DOPs, more for their technical mastery and ability to deliver any style of photography the film in question demanded. Geoffrey Unsworth does seem to have been something of a soft focus specialist — see SUPERMAN, for instance. But there’s no diffusion here. The crispness of this film is one of its signature qualities.

Kubrick struggled to get his prehistoric protohumans to be convincing, and it seems to have been the input of Daniel Richter as “Moon-watcher,” the lead ape-man, which made the whole show come together. Richter’s training in physical performance allowed him to adopt convincing mannerisms, and his thinness, combined with his insistence on a tight monkey suit to perform in, lifted the creature design out of the fake gorilla tradition which Charles Gemora had helped inaugurate. It seems really important that these guys not remind you of previous faux apes you have seen.

(But Jon Finch at the end of THE FINAL PROGRAMME is still the best simian-human cross I have seen. I can’t figure out whether he’s the work of Alan Boyle, Ann Brodie, or someone else.)

I love how, in the waterhole dispute, an ape-man turns and yells right at us at the end. We might compare it to Malcolm McDowell’s insouciant toast at the start of CLOCKWORK ORANGE. And to the Starchild’s restful gaze at the end of this film.

The only unconvincing bit is the night sky, blatantly a blue-filtered day sky. Given the FX budget, a starscape might have been considered, added over a desaturated African desert shot, but maybe Kubrick didn’t want an image that a real camera couldn’t capture. Stars could be photographed in 1968 only using a long exposure. A cloudless sky might have been better, though.

This sequence feels long but isn’t, really. It’s the effect of plotlessness, wordlessness. I suspect that, had Kubrick not originally intended to plaster his film in ponderous voice-over, he might not have thought of such a slow beginning. VO would have added “interest” in the form of information, and made it crystal-clear to us why we were being made to look at these things. It would have removed all mystery, and ruined the sequence’s poetry. Often the very best things in cinema seem to come from catastrophic mistakes, spotted and averted in the nick of time.

One thing the film can’t do, really, is make Moon-watcher into a character distinct from his tribe. Deprived of dialogue, looking the same as everyone else, and behaving the same as everyone else, Richter’s excellent performance blends into the surrounding savages, so that we don’t attribute an individual identity to him until the next bit of action (in my next chapter), where he, alone of his tribe, has a Transfiguring Experience.

By making us live through a typical missing link day, Kubrick prepares us for the shock of change, an unexpected intervention.

 

12 Responses to “An Odyssey in Pieces #2: The Dawn of Man, Day One”

  1. Randy Cook Says:

    In the newly-issued 4K ultra and standard blu-ray, the Ape Folk scenes have had all those suspicious chemtrails digitally removed (they were supposedly artifacts of the jigsaw-puzzle configuration of the front-projection screen to cut down the projector’s hot spot, but that’s only a cover story—wake up sheeple!). The zebra was shot on the stage, and I have heard that it was really a Dead Mule with a Paint Job. Eddie Fowlie had several witnesses to back up his story that he was nowhere near Shepperton at the time. BTW, Dead Mule with a Paint Job has potential for a title of a hard-boiled crime pic, I think.

  2. I hate the way the Kubrick organisation keeps finding good excuses to tamper with SK’s work. Probably removing the reflection of the camera crew from Eyes Wide Shut is defensible, and releasing the later films in widescreen makes sense, but the rest of this tampering…

  3. “The Dawn of Man” actually serves as the sub-title for the entire film

  4. The Kubrick people (and Warner Bros.) pulled Stephen Soderbergh’s 2001 re-edit, “The Return of W. de Rijk,” off SS’s site years ago, but it appears to have found a home of sorts on ubu web

  5. Good point, David E!

    Great news, Jeff, I missed it before. The Kubrick people believe that only the Kubrick people can futz around with Kubrick’s intentions.

  6. Having said that… I’m ten minutes in, and SS’s version is less bold and interesting than SK’s in every way. It alked about how the absence of music in Day One prepares us for the shock of a manufactured object with manufactured sound in Day Two. Soderbergh carefully destroys that by adding score all across Day One. But he does a service by highlighting many of the film’s choices.

  7. I’ll never forget when “2001” was released. it played the Capitol theater in New York as a “roadshow” item (“hard tickets” bought in advance like a play or opera). The reviews were terrible. But word got out and the film was saved — by the audience. That’s a rare occurrence, especially for an item as complex as this. I recall doing a panel discussion on it with the late, great and much-missed Roger Greenspun in which I compared it to Godard’s “2 ou 3 Chose que je sais d’elle” because —

  8. I’ve never taken “The Dawn of Man” subtitle seriously since seeing Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN which opens with the subtitle “The Age of Reason” … long pause … “Wednesday afternoon”, or something like that.

  9. Gilliam was slightly self-plagiarising there, since Life of Brian sets up its Holy Land in biblical times settings with a coupe of captions, then adds “About tea-time.”

  10. Self-plagiarising or thinking Kubrick deserved two digs?

  11. I don’t think it’s specifically a Kubrick knock: Life of Brian makes it more obviously a joke aimed at historical epics, bringing them down to earth with a bump.

  12. […] THE DAWN OF MAN Day One […]

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