An Odyssey in Pieces: The Million-Year Jump Cut

A moment of time — the present instant — is so slight as to not truly exist. How long is the present? Less than a second, a nanosecond, a zeptosecond, or even maybe a jiffy.

We inhabit a non-existent moment situated between the immeasurable past and (presumably) immeasurable future. We live in that division, our consciousnesses, it seems, exist there. Just as a cut in a film occupies no time in itself, but is the division between two shots.

A good friend argued that the brilliant jump-cut in 2001, from flung bone to drifting satellite, would be a lot more brilliant if not preceded by an unnecessary jump cut — Kubrick extended the spinning bone by tacking two takes together, resulting in a slightly jarring jump when his subject drifts out of frame and is rediscovered in a fresh shot. But this never bothered me. It was also pointed out that the match cut could have been an even better match if it happened sooner. But clearly, Kubrick wanted the bone-spin to last as long as he could make it last (without getting into the ugliness of step-printing to create an artificial slomo).

Was Kubrick thinking of Winston Smith’s description, in his 1984 illegal diary, of the film he saw — a boatful of children is exploded and in a “superb shot” the camera follows a child’s severed arm spinning through the air. If anyone were to stage such a shot today it would look unavoidably like a Kubrick swipe.Apparently Clarke and Kubrick intended the spacecraft we see to be, not the Satellite of Love as you might think, but an orbiting missile platform capable of raining down Death from Above, setting up the Cold War scenario that plays out later when we meet Leonard Rossiter (East-West tensions will play a greater role in 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT). When Kubrick decided (wisely) to avoid all VO, it became unfortunately impossible for an audience to tell that the innocuous looking craft is meant to be a weapon of mass destruction. A shame, I suppose, that they didn’t make it look  like a bunch of missiles mounted on something, or have open tubes with missile noses poking out. Not only is this a plot point later (and could have been a bigger one: there was a plan that the Starchild would cause all the orbiting missiles to detonate harmlessly in space, giving an optimistic clue as to what his future actions may involve), it would make the cut from bone to rocket a weapon/weapon match, not just a tool/tool one.

At least one of the snooty contemporary reviewers called the transition “naive” and referred to it as a dissolve. Film critics should be cine-literate. This doesn’t mean they have to have seen everything (which is impossible), but they at least should see what they do see. I guess if it were a dissolve, it probably WOULD be naive. The dazzle of the execution imparts sophistication to a simple idea. Nothing can be bolder than jumping millions of years with a single cut.This is the film’s first really striking use of silence, too. It’s there in the fade-outs, but movies otherwise are supposed to always have some sound going. But there’s no sound in space, and Kubrick honours that: he’ll allow non-diegetic music, and the subjective sound of an astronaut’s breathing inside his helmet, but otherwise, unlike nearly every one of the space epics that followed (including the Sensurround European release of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA that gave me a pounding headache when I was eleven), his interplanetary space is properly soundless.

Two of the reasons that 2010, despite being quite enjoyable, is an inadequate response to this film: it doesn’t add any new music, just recycling Kubrick’s choices, and it has sound effects in space. Lack of imagination and lack of nerve.

Of course 2010 helmer Peter Hyams has nothing in his whole, perfectly decent, filmography to compare to this single edit, which stands alongside the match-to-sun cut in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as a pre-eminent moment not just in the sixties, but all time. Anne V. Coates is credited cutter on that film. Ray Lovejoy, her former assistant, headed the team cutting 2001 (and died *in* 2001). It was his first film as chief cutter.Both did a magnificent job on their respective films. But we have to give primary credit to their directors who conceived the shots always intended to lie either side of those cuts.

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14 Responses to “An Odyssey in Pieces: The Million-Year Jump Cut”

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    Is there any evidence that any of the prime movers involved would have seen the centuries-spanning jump cut, hawk to Spitfire, in A Canterbury Tale from 1944, or are the similarities a coincidence ???

  2. Early Resnais is filled with startling cuts. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour” Rive kissing her Japanese lover becomes her kissing her German lover. “Je t’ame Je t;aime” consists entirely offcuts between different spaces and time periods.

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    I wonder if, when Kubrick first got the idea for the jump cut, that he envisioned cutting from the bone to Heywood Floyd’s floating pen. I have no evidence for that, though. But cutting to the satellite is far more dramatic, and removes all the “pen mightier than the sword” connotations.

  4. Grant Skene Says:

    Kubrick revels in the science rather than timidly ignoring it. As you say, his use of silence is scientifically accurate, but it also enhances the suspense and eeriness. The breathing in the space helmet reminds the viewer that there’s no air here! You must fight for every breath. Each breath may be your last. Just ask Frank Poole.

    Of course, the lack of gravity becomes the inspiration for countless images in this film: the Escher-like compositions where astronauts sit on what would be his colleague’s wall or ceiling, the iconic hamster wheel jog, etc. All, of course, introduced by that jump cut. Ancient man leaps into Newtonian physics (gravity) and Einsteinian physics (time). What goes up, must come down… unless it achieves orbital velocity. That’s the real story of Newton’s apple. He asked the question, “If an apple can fall and hit me on the head, why doesn’t the moon, a really big apple, do likewise?”

  5. Grant Skene Says:

    2001 parody scene:

    Moonwatcher has suddenly got the idea that the bone can be used as a weapon. He starts bashing the bone pile as the iconic strains of Thus Spake Zarathustra play. The music gets more and more exhilarating as the camera pans left to reveal the music is being played by the rest of his tribe. Moonwatcher sheepishly drops the bone and slinks away.

  6. That’s better than the 2001 gags in History of the World Part One. Orson’s VO in that does give us an inkling of what 2001 might have been like if they’d kept the narration. (Kubrick got a long, irate letter from one of his scientific advisors protesting the deletion. I don’t believe it was ever recorded, but it WAS scripted.)

    A girl turns around in Marienbad and finds herself relocated, like Buster in Sherlock Jr.

    I don’t know if Kubrick ever saw A Canterbury Tale, and this was Powell’s wilderness years, I guess. I know SK was busy seeing every sf movie he could, for special effects ideas and to see what had been done. His view was that there were no good science fiction films and a fairly exhaustive viewing did nothing to convince him otherwise. After Clarke recommended Things to Come, he snapped, “That was terrible! I’m never watching anything you suggest again!”

  7. Mark Fuller Says:

    Definitely his wilderness years….and I’m fairly sure that whole Prologue doesn’t appear in the US edition of A Canterbury Tale that was released in 47/48., so unlikely that SK would have seen it himself when younger… But it is so similar, and equally designed to bridge so much elapsed time….who knows. Great Minds, etc., perhaps.

  8. Andreas Flohr Says:

    Isn‘t here the use of a pompeous Musikstück like „Also sprach Zarathustra“ a kind of Kubrick „Mickey-Mousing“?
    We see the bone-cut and Richard Strauss explains it …

  9. chris schneider Says:

    For me, one of the signs that 2010 didn’t “work” was Hyams giving a p.o.v. shot to one of the astronauts. Unthinkable in a Kubrick-ian context.

  10. Hmm…

    Kubrick COULD have seen Canterbury on TV in the UK in the sixties, I guess. Let’s ask Sheldon about airings!

    Wrong Strauss: after the bone/spaceship cut, we get the gradual opening of The Blue Danube, which doesn’t “explain” or refer back to the cut, but accompanies the graceful circling motions of the craft.

    The way the credits appear with Zarathustra at the start IS very Mickey Mouse.

    Kubrick does use POVs, though they’re often linked to groups (the men walking to the firing squad in Paths of Glory, the astronauts on Tycho) rather than individuals…

  11. The woman turning around in “Marienbad” doesn’t really count as space and time in that film/puzzle is utterly imaginary. Resnais goes infinitely farther in “Je T’Aim Je T’Aime” (1968) a film very much worthy of your close attention. In it a suicide played by Claude Rich, is brought back from the dead and used as an experiment by scientists wishing to explore space ad time through his consciousness. VOILA

  12. I really like Je t’aime, Je t’aime, especially that mouse! And the bizarro time machine runs a close second to George Pal’s.

    Somewhere down the line a Shadowcast on time travel is a must, no doubt featuring La Jetee and maybe the Resnais. In a sense, ALL AR’s films are about time travel.

    All films are, in fact.

  13. “Mon Oncle D’Amerique” is another great Resnais Mouse Movie.

  14. eht--%/%--eht Says:

    ALLL directors are SPOOKs. NO exceptions. NONE !

    And we wonder if Kubrick, in 68, was aware that NASA
    and ‘space’ were a money bilking psy op and HOAX ?

    Looking back on Kubrick’s work, its instantly recognized
    that he is on page with INTEL’s ‘Men are Pigs’ project
    from the very outset.

    And in 2019, we also recognize that perhaps his
    entire ‘male’ casting – – -reads, and –for the innies–
    is meant to be read as FTM.

    Take another look with what we now know in 2019.

    — — BEHOLD ! ! !

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