An Odyssey in Bits: Dr. Smyslov, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Squirt

Complicated bit now. We’re moving through Kubrick’s 2001 in sort-of chapters. This one contains several sub-sections.

First, Kubes chops into The Blue Danube at an opportune moment, so the transition to the interior of the Big Space Wheel is neat yet abrupt. The grinding sound of the rotating chamber that introduces William Sylvester’s Heywood Floyd to the wheel’s security atrium helps as aural interruption. There’s another of those pretty stewardess types (Maggie London) in the room with him (it’s not quite an airlock, something like an elevator that doesn’t go up or down, just around… a revolving door you can sit down in), and then another (Canadian Chela Matthison) at the sort-of customs desk.

Floyd meets a faceless functionary, Miller, who has something to do with security, bland pleasantries are exchanged, blandly. The first dialogue of the film, discounting ape-grunts, is arguably the noiseless lip-flap of the characters in the TV show Floyd is sleeping through on his shuttle trip, but these encounters offer the first audible speech and it makes about the same impression.“Here you are, sir.” “See you on the way back.” “We haven’t seen you up here for a long time.” “Very nice to see you again.” “Did you have a pleasant flight, sir?” “Sorry I’m late.” “You’re looking great.” “It’s nice to have you back.” “Did you have a good flight?”

Let’s assume this is all deliberately dull. Science fiction writers believed for a long time that their stories should feature rather bland, standard-issue characters without distracting quirks, so that the strange situations could stand out by contrast and there would be a grounding in what they’d probably insist on calling “normalcy.” This was a false good idea, because boring cut-outs don’t help make a story credible. But there’s more to that going on in 2001. The functionaries we meet here are rather dull men and women doing, what are to them, dull, everyday things. The astronauts, later, embody what the filmmakers’ and actors’ research told them, accurately, astronauts would be like: flat and not very emotional. You don’t want hand-flapping hysterics piloting your interplanetary craft, you want Neil Armstrong.

There are two characters called Miller in this film. Which gives you an idea of the deliberate blandness. This one is played by Kevin Scott, whose immediately previous film credit was THE COOL MIKADO for Michael Winner. “I like to work with the best actors in the world,” said Kubrick. Worth repeating that every so often as we watch this film. But Kev is fine here, exactly right for what’s called for.Good to see that the Dutch are prominently represented in space travel.

I like the weird garbled stuff Floyd is forced to say by the security screen woman (Judy Keirn, who plays an actual stewardess in her only other film, Sidney Lumet’s THE DEADLY AFFAIR) for his voice print identification: destination, nationality, full name, surname first. So he has to say “Moon. American. Floyd. Heywood R.” Which is certainly the best line of the film so far.Then Floyd says he has to make a couple of phone calls, but in fact makes one: he tries to speak to his wife but gets Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, playing his daughter, Squirt. Is it an issue that she has an English accent, despite Heywood being a yank who lives in America? I don’t mind it: she’s so cute and the conversation has such a realistic awkwardness — the authentic feeling of talking to a distracted child via technology — and we can easily invent an explanation. Mrs. Floyd must be English, they must have lived there until recently…What IS a mistake is that the camera filming Squirt is able to pan right to keep her in frame during her hilarious and random postural contortions. A videophone wouldn’t do that, and if it had some motion-sensor capacity to do so, it would look more automated than Kubes’ spontaneous movement. But I guess he couldn’t bear to have a misframed daughter disappearing out of shot in his space epic. And the scene appears to have been filmed casually in the Kubrick home so it hasn’t had the rigorous thought put into it that you’d expect from S.K.

Vivian Kubrick later joined the Church of Scientology (I blame Tom and to a lesser extent Nicole) and is now completely estranged from her family. Horrible.Leaving the phone booth having been billed $1.70, which I guess was a lot of money in 1968, Floyd is ambushed by the Russians. It seems foolish of station security man Miller to have let HRF out of his sight like that, but maybe they actually WANTED this encounter to take place — because Floyd proceeds to bamboozle the Russkis, refusing to confirm the cover story his own people have leaked out, thereby making them think this story must be true. (To conceal the discovery of an alien artifact at the Tycho Clavius base on the moon, they’ve concocted a false tale of infection and quarantine.)

This scene features two actors who don’t quite fit the film’s pattern of nondescript performance. Margaret Tyzack would return in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, her plummy English solicitude acquiring a sinister edge. And Leonard Rossiter would nearly capsize BARRY LYNDON with the comic flamboyance of his performance. Here, he’s Dr. Andrei Smyslov, pumping Floyd for info as they all sit around on their comfy ’60s space chairs.

We should previously have praised Tony Masters, Harry Lange and Ernest Archer for their production design, and it’s a bit crap that I focus on them here where the design is noticable in a partially negative way. The curve of the floor, indicating that we’re inside that big wheel we saw floating in space, is fantastic. And the contrast of the white white set with the red furniture is really beautiful. But of course within ten years the chairs dated it. But then a little later we could appreciate how attractive they were, and by the time the year 2001 rolled round for real they seemed perfectly plausible space furniture.

This sequence, so soon after one of the great cuts of film history, contains the worst cut in 2001 ~

A jolting jounce inwards, not far enough to feel like a meaningful change, with a jarring continuity glitch in Rossiter’s stance. OK, not quite as bad as my frame-grabs suggest. And they make William Sylvester’s head-turn the focus, and preserve the continuity of movement there. But it’s the small size of the reframing that makes the whole cut ugly. Perfectionist, my ass!

This scene also has some beautiful pausing. If Harold Pinter was writing it, he wouldn’t even put “(a pause)”, he’d go all out and put “(a silence)”, indicating that the actors should really go for maximum discomfort. The seeds of THE SHINING’s creepy conversations are sown here.

Our latest two podcasts have a science fiction theme:

SPACE MADNESS

LET’S GET SMALL

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10 Responses to “An Odyssey in Bits: Dr. Smyslov, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Squirt”

  1. Randy Cook Says:

    I saw it in the early weeks of its release and I remember a BIG laugh at the exorbitant amount when Heywood got his phone bill.

  2. Yeah, it makes sense. I *think* there was even a laugh at the ABC in Edinburgh in 1978, though the audience had to translate the currency. A joke lost to time…

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    While the anti gravity toilet is evergreen.

  4. Yes, that one never gets old.

    I think it’s ZERO gravity toilet, though. Why would you want an anti-gravity toilet? Likely to get unpleasantly karmic.

  5. Randy Cook Says:

    Right you are. The notion does not appeal, at all.

  6. Rossiter isn’t the only hoot in LYNDON (Arthur O’Sullivan, the Highwayman, is also in fine form), but his delivery of the line – “Myeh. Mrnh.” – just before the duel with Barry is probably the comedic high point of the film.

  7. The dance is funny, but I still hold that both “Myeh. Mrnh.” and the way he cocks his head to the left while marching forward edge it out for yuks.

  8. Rossiter is one of those players who makes Kubrick’s assertion that he liked working with the best actors in the world a bit more tenable. His two main sitcoms, Rising Damp and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin are legendary. I guess outside the UK, Billy Liar and Britannia Hospital, are better known.

  9. […] DR. SMYLSOV, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SQUIRT […]

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