An Odyssey in Bits: The Fantasy Department

A spacecraft floats/falls through frame and at the exact moment we realise were going to lose it from view, the big blue balloon of Planet World drifts into view to replace it.

A series of different satellites and vehicles are picked up, as Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube begins, not without controversy, to play. Here’s Quincy Jones:

“But you can’t get too cute with that sort of thing. I was really bugged by the over use of Strauss waltzes in 2001. That would have been OK as a one-liner, but it bugged me when it developed into the main theme. I knew that Frank Cordell had written Mahler variations for a year and a half for that picture, and they threw it all out. Then Alex North came in and wrote about six reels, and everything he did was thrown out too. I’m sure that between them, those two composers came up with something a lot hipper and a lot more appropriate for a picture that important than what we finally saw. Kubrick had already made that kind of musical point in Dr. Strangelove with “Try a Little Tenderness.” I personally think 2001 is too important a film for this kind of cute musical self-indulgence.” 

Leaving aside the inaccuracies — there’s only one Strauss waltz in the movie and it isn’t the main theme, except of the two sequences it’s used for — does Jones have a point? I doubt anybody today has a problem with the use of library music here. Jones seems concerned that it’s too cheap-sounding for an “important” film.Kubrick’s treatment of his two composers was awful: Cordell was put to work with practically no instructions, whereas North only found out his score had been cast aside in favour of the temp track when he attended the premiere. Imagine sitting there and hearing Also Sprach coming up instead of your close-but-no-cigar title theme. And then thinking, “Oh well, he’ll have used the rest of it.” And then along comes Ligeti. And then The Blue fucking Danube. And on and on until, only after three hours can you be sure that your entire score has been binned. Ouch.

However, I think Kubrick was correct to prefer the Strauss and quite right to say those who had a problem with it were being affected by the associations the piece had for them: ball gowns and tuxedos and waltzing. Whereas he was merely trying to evoke “grace in turning,” which is what the music seems to do. Certainly putting it up over shots of the actual Danube, as Duvivier does in THE GREAT WALTZ, isn’t nearly so effective. Did Jones also object to Clouzot’s use of it in THE WAGES OF FEAR, where it partly accompanies a dance, and partly a truck lumbering homewards?The first spacecraft we see are a bit 2D: they move like photographic cut-outs. But then the big wheel space station hoves into shot and its rotary motion, and the shadows cast over itself by its spokes and ring give it a majestic sense of solidity.

The Pan American spaceliner reminds us that corporations will always let us down: like the neon Atari ads in BLADE RUNNER, they date the thing, although modern audiences probably haven’t even heard of PanAm so they won’t care. The bestest shot in the whole space ballet is when we, out of nothing more than sheer joie de vivre, we fly BETWEEN the rings of the space station. It’s not any of the five normally accepted motivations for camera movement, it’s just WHEE! And maybe making the camera behave like a spaceship. It never flies into position and stops in this sequence. Sometimes it observes from a sort of geostationary point, sometimes it sails past or towards or around the action. It’s a proper zero-gravity camera.This docking bay is VERY Death Star, isn’t it? About the only design trait Lucas’s film shares with Kubrick’s. Love the little windows, all showing, Escher-fashion, different gravities (because the station creates gravity by centrifugal force, and the docking bay is in the hub, gravity is pulling outwards in all directions.

Meet Dr. Heywood Floyd! He’s asleep at the moment but you might as well meet him now as he doesn’t get much more interesting when he’s awake. “I like to work with the best actors in the world,” Kubrick told Michel Ciment, so naturally he got the guy from GORGO and DEVIL DOLL. An American who happened to be a UK resident. But I’m OK with him. W.S. always seems both matter-of-fact and chummy, which suits the character of a space spook, a government guy and scientist. One of the bureaucrats ultimately responsible for HAL’s nervous breakdown, though the movie doesn’t make that clear.The floating pen is such a neat effect: it’s stuck to a big rotating pane of glass in front of the camera, and the stewardess gives it a very slight twist to detach it.

I don’t so much dig how the lines of seats are sunken either side of the central aisle, like a slave galley. Makes me fear that stewardess Edwina Carroll Heather Downham might step on his drifting hand with her grip shoe. Or trip over him and go literally flying.

But I guess the seats being in trenches is an excuse for the low angle showing off the grip shoes.Edwina Heather is very attractive: a flashback to those days when all airline stewardesses were young and pretty, to distract the anxious hetero male passenger, via her pulchritude, from his fear of a fiery death. As one lot of pretty girls retired to get married, the airline could replace them with new, younger models. No more.

TV screens. In-flight movies, shot specially for this movie, and computer read-outs, all running on 16mm. Here’s an extract from John Baxter’s Kubrick bio ~

‘He called me and Ivor Powell into his office one day on 2001,” recalls Andrew Birkin. “He had all these international model directories, and he’d gone through them, marking up all these girls.’

“‘We could get them in,’ he said, ‘for an audition.’

Birkin and Powell looked blank. ‘For what?’

‘We could always say we have to shoot one of those 16mm docking sequences,’ Kubrick mused. (The films of sports and news that appeared on TV screens in the PanAm shuttle sequences were all back-projected 16mm.)

‘But it was all a fantasy,’ Birkin says, ‘He never did it. He also had an obsession about meeting Julie Christie. He was always trying to work out some sort of scheme whereby he could audition her. I knew her a little, and I said, “I’m sure she’d come up if you just called her.” But he didn’t want to do that. It all had to go through the Fantasy Department.’

That’s kind of sweet, or as sweet as casting couch ambitions can be said to get. We could guess from EYES WIDE SHUT that fantasies of adultery were a part of Stanley’s very successful second marriage.The auditions for CLOCKWORK ORANGE don’t sound so sweet.


9 Responses to “An Odyssey in Bits: The Fantasy Department”

  1. I’m with Jones on this, sorta. I just don’t think the Strauss cuts it; possibly because I’ve just never been all that knocked out with “Danube.” I get that we’re listening to the Strauss in the liner, and it’s a perfectly normal corporate choice; just…meh. The Khachaturian and Ligeti work better, but the Ligeti is compromised by the dippy polarized footage flying through Monument Valley and over Lake Powell. Nolan did it much, much better, though of course it would likely never have happened without Kubrick. I like 2001, it’s just those occasional lame-ass, wholly unnecessary but inveterately choices that pop up every so often in the canon that make it hard to fully embrace 2001 in particular, and others in general. I do no include STRAGELOVE, PATHS OF GLORY, or BARRY LYNDON in the generalization.

  2. I think the only suggestion that the music might be playing in the liner is that it cuts off at the end, violently, as a door opens, but he’s already treated the Ligeti that way during the earlier stone-age stuff.

    Of course it could work as airline muzak, though maybe it gets a bit too lively for that purpose.

    Kubrick’s belief that those who don’t have strong mental associations with the music will respond to it better, seems to hold up. “Grace and turning” seem to fit for me, and though a more obscure Waltz (as in Eyes Wide Shut) might be commendable, I can’t think of one that’s as exciting. Except maybe “Shall We Dance?” and then I think we *would* be crossing a line.

  3. Kubrick was right to go with Strauss and Ligeti. The North score is available on CD. It’s quite good (North was far from chopped liver) but it doesn’t have the specifically LIERARY reference that “The Blue Danube” does, nor the familiarity that viewers/listeners have with it. This was essential for the trip Kubrick was creating to take us toward the cosmos. Once there Ligeti takes over.

    The Shoshtakovich waltz (a pop concert fave) serves much the same purpose in “Eyes Wide Shut”. Here’s a clever use of it that’s a Kubrick homage.

  4. QJones’s idea that an important film must have an original score seems quaint now. And North’s score is one of those jobs where you can hear the temp track bleeding through (see also Poledouris’s rousing Conan the Barbarian Orff-isms).

  5. bennettbruceandrew Says:

    “’I like to work with the best actors in the world,’ Kubrick told Michel Ciment, so naturally he got the guy from GORGO and DEVIL DOLL. An American who happened to be a UK resident. But I’m OK with him.”

    Sylvester is great(ish) in Cliff Owen’s OFFBEAT and Robert Tronson’s RING OF SPIES (which also features Margaret Tyzack – Elena in 2001). After the Eady plan and the US presence in the UK film biz went kablooie in the 70’s, he returned to Hollywood to play an unending series of DA’s and Generals on American tv.

  6. Sylvester had unusually good material in ‘The Prisoner’, a diverting episode of DANGER MAN in which he plays five characters, three of them in uncredited cameos. He may not have been the most colourful of actors, but I always enjoy seeing him.

  7. bensondonald Says:

    It’s been quite a while , but my memory has “Also Sprach” and “Blue Danube” as the ONLY music in 2001.

    “Blue Danube” tied the space station to human history and culture; it shorthanded a lot of what came between the bone and Pan Am. It’s hard to imagine getting the same effect with newly composed music, no matter how good.

    I don’t remember any music on the odyssey proper; its absence emphasized the quietly unnerving loneliness and remoteness from, well, everything. I’ve said before, the shot that rattled me showed the spaceship at a distance while a few meteors silently tumbled through the foreground.

    Compare to more playful science fiction, where civilizations are everywhere and space itself feels a bit cluttered.

  8. WS is good DA material, but should have stayed off the generals. It’s nice to hear support for him, though.

    Khachaturian does play a role in the voyage, but it’s a lot less eye-catching (ear-catching?) than the Strausses’ contributions. And there’s Ligeti at intervals, as we’ll see.

  9. […] THE BLUE DANUBE: The Fantasy Department with special guest Quincy Jones […]

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