An Odyssey in Bits: To Infinity and Beyond


The intertitles in THE SHINING start out factual and dependable, and they maintain that APPEARANCE, but as the film goes on they actually go insane, so you get WEDNESDAY, for instance, and you think, OK, Wednesday, a normal enough thing to be told about, but then you think WHICH Wednesday, and then WHY Wednesday? We’re on random.

So with 2001, where the baldly factual THE DAWN OF MAN superimposed over an actual literal sunrise starts us off thinking this is going to be a doddle, this space odyssey business. It’s always going to tell me where and when I am. But no.

JUPITER, AND BEYOND THE INFINITE comes up just after the little recorded message from Heywood Floyd, which had seemed to settle the narrative into a comfortable place where things made sense. We could tie it all together, couldn’t we? But now astronaut Dave Bowman, in the form of hand-painted ice-sculpture Keir Dullea, is leaving the Discovery in his pod and we have no idea why. We need HAL to tell us. But HAL is deactivated (not dead, according to the sequel, which redeems him and is lovely, but not Kubrick and so not canonical). We’re on our own, with Dave, and Dave’s not talking.If there’s a narrative progression to the next bit, it eludes me. People talk about the tunnels of light and the white room / human zoo as being perplexing, but if you don’t get too analytical they might be said to be quite straight-forward, in an abstract way. What I’m talking about is the business with the Discovery floating around Jupiter’s moons, the Monolith showing up, and Dave eventually taking the pod out for a spin. As I’ve described it, that all sounds plain sailing, but as presented, with the Ligeti drones on top, it’s deeply mysterious. Motivational stuff like Dave SEEING the monolith and getting in his pod — that’s all omitted. And there are A LOT of shots of those moons, with the camera drifting from side to side or up and down, the Discovery or the monolith drifting into view, and they’re not presented so as to create a build-up of information amounting to a dramatic situation. We get to feel a bit unmoored by the lack of obvious progress towards anything concrete, perhaps a necessary stage in our journey beyond the infinite and beyond the (comparative) narrative certainties we’ve been allowed thus far.And hey, as with all UFO stories, what the aliens are up to makes no sense, which is why they’re so fascinating. They plant a monolith on earth which gives apes an intellectual boost, fine. They put the next block on the Moon, so we’ll only find it when we’re sufficiently advanced in our use of bone-based implements that we can build spacecraft. This monolith does not provide any evolutionary boost though, it just sends out a radio signal that causes painful feedback. Is this a test? We now have to follow the signal to Jupiter — we have to be interplanetary-smart, not just moonhopping smart. Why?

Oh well, grumble grumble, I suppose they know what they’re doing (puts on space suit, gets into pod).

When the BBC showed this the first time, they showed it in widescreen, an unheard of thing (this was either the late seventies or early eighties). But they were evidently nervous of leaving some of the screen black, so they put in starscapes, the worst idea anyone has ever had. They screwed up ALL the space shots, with star patterns doing different, contradictory things. (Kubrick and effects wiz Trumbull have stars drifting by behind the Discovery, which is already quite wrong, but I guess they felt they couldn’t get away with having it look completely stationary relative to its surroundings.)

Anyway, during this TV screening my sister leapt to the conclusion that the monolith found drifting out by Jupiter was ENORMOUS, because it looks bigger than the Discovery. Far away/small and close-up/big are hard to work out in space.It’s not too confusing, or shouldn’t be: there’s an unexplained monolith out there and Dave has gone to have a look at it. Reasonable enough. But nothing is spelled out and we may already be a bit edgy here.

Then we get the last of the movie’s suggestive astrological alignments, though it’s not a sunrise, this time.

And then this happens. So, we have to assume Dave is passing through some kind of PORTAL, right? Long before such things were popular or fashionable. But assigning a genre-appropriate meaning to this imagery won’t really help us with what follows…

Ironic that a few of the miniature shots in the film do have, now, a regrettable 2D quality, smacking of still photographs being zoomed about on a rostrum, but the part of the film that is almost 100% rostrum photography of still photos and artwork (apart from the cutaways of Dave, and even he’s freeze-framed) are maybe the most deep-perspective, propulsive, vanishing-point-seeking stuff in the movie. Then we get the paint-in-water nebulae and galaxies, recently recreated by Terrence Malick, with Doug Trumbull again supervising. These might seem a bit more naturalistic, more like what you’d expect from outer space, but if those are big starscapes, they’re moving much too fast. They must surely be millennia-spanning time-lapses. If so, are they real, or are they just projections Dave is being shown? Perhaps this is a history lesson from the aliens, only we, and Dave, are too primitive to grasp the significance?  A couple of the more colourful images have a distinctly placental quality. This seems in no way inappropriate. It’s only recently that I’ve read of people finding the tunnels of light business a bit dated, in particular the alien landscapes produced by mucking about with Technicolor dyes (it’s not solarisation, I think, though that’s what it feels like). I never minded. It seems odd that 2001 passed through the eighties, when anything smacking of psychedelia was considered unbearably passé, without me hearing any grumbles about this stuff.The thing is, the slitscan images are certainly more intriguing because, even if you know how they’re done, they’re still wondrous and you still don’t REALLY know how they’re done, whereas the weirdly hued helicopter shots are just that. BUT I still love them. I want to go to those places. I want to paddle about in these metallic shallows. Maybe I ought to wear my wellies, and maybe they will accrue strange glistening sediments, until they are Emerald Wellies.This is the only one I don’t like, because there’s no way to read it except as a special effect, a double exposure. I don’t believe Dave’s THERE.

Plus, the diamond thingies appear to be alien artifacts (their origin and purpose a complete mystery) and I don’t think we need them.Arguably Monument Valley is too recognizable also, but I love what they’ve done with the place. Shadows inflame into hellish lava-lakes. John Wayne is down there somewhere, but his feet are green and his hands are blue. And Scar isn’t a Red Indian anymore, he’s a lovely shade of lavender.

I wonder why they didn’t turn some of the shots upside down? Maybe Kubrick thought that wouldn’t make sense, that this is supposed to be a planetary surface, and therefore DOWN. But I don’t see it as a planetary surface, to me it’s something more abstract (which makes it silly that I object to the double exposure, but I can’t help how I feel, damnit. I’m a doctor, not a geologist). This sequence also contains Kubrick’s only Scottish footage that I know of (Harris, in the Western Isles). So I *could* go there without too much difficulty. But I have a strange feeling that it wouldn’t be the same. It feels like they must have gone to a dozen different countries. Apparently not. They just used different colours.

Oh, and the quick cuts of Keir Dullea, all reflected lights and staring eye, freeze-frames to contrast most jarringly with the onrushing planetscapes and lightscapes, those are magnificent. Let’s have more of that kind of thing please.

And it’s great the way his eye blinks its way through a variety of lurid dyes and back to normal. I kept trying to do that while watching Baz Luhrman’s MOULIN ROUGE.

We’re into the home stretch now! TO BE CONCLUDED.

20 Responses to “An Odyssey in Bits: To Infinity and Beyond”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Godard apes (pun intended) Kubrick’s solarized images from “2001” throughout his exceedingly disappointing “The Image Book.” As for Kubrick’s White Room, I kept expecting “Miss Cartilage” to show up.

  2. Grant Skene Says:

    I love the diamond thingies. They appear to be constantly cycling through the Platonic solids (or D&D dice), an early attempt to philosophically describe the nature of the universe. They also have the feel of a tesseract, the glitter actually being the endless journey through the fourth dimension. Very apt.

    I do find the LSD landscapes ho-hum. However, in a film that has made us realize how tenuous our reality and sense of reality is. Gravity is not constant, breathing is a privilege, it makes sense to be shown that colour is in the eye of the beholder, or in the wavelength of the energy source.

  3. I’ve read some articles sating the isle of Harris stood in for Jupiter in 2001, but it’s definitely not Jupiter, is it? Those tunnels of light have taken us somewhere much, much further away…

  4. Grant Skene Says:

    I have wrestled with that, too. It does seem like he goes through the monolith, and so could be transported via a wormhole to anywhere. My other question is, after showing HAL as a big red eye throughout the previous section, why does Kubrick not show the Great Red Spot on Jupiter? Surely it was the obvious visual echo. Or, was it because he didn’t want to make it appear that Bowman journeyed into the red eye.

  5. And, unlike in Soderbergh’s recut and in 2010, HAL has nothing to do with the aliens and maybe he didn’t want that connection.

  6. Grant Skene Says:

    Yes, good point. I feel, like HAL, the aliens are curious observers of humanity, and that red eye of HAL gives us that Kubrickian distance. That “Oh what fools these mortals be.” Personally, I don’t think the monolith necessarily is spurring the apes’ evolution (although that is certainly how Clarke sees it in his contemporaneous novel). I see the monolith as more the call to action, the blank page, the dark screen, that inspires those capable of inspiration. A calling card left by an ancient race. The duel between Bowman and HAL is a competition to see which intelligence (human or machine) is best able to find the alien door and knock.

  7. That’s a charming interp, but surely we all know Kubrick would have had the machine win if it were a contest of worthiness? The robots DO become the next stage of evolution in A.I.

  8. Grant Skene Says:

    Sometimes, man outwits his tools at his cost. Consider Dr. Strangelove’s battle with his artificial parts, and Slim Pickens’s heroic and ingenious battle to make his damaged plane complete its mission. Kubrick seems to see our ability to solve problems as our fatal flaw. Our solutions create even greater problems until, ultimately, the problem will defy solution.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

  10. One thing that struck me on a recent rewatch is how little forward movement the camera has for much of the film (even the “track” of the jogging Poole effectively goes in a circle) until the stars break toward the camera’s POV at the onset of The Stargate Sequence. This certainly contributes to the impact of the moment.

  11. I was going to say that maybe FX limited Kubrick’s ability to do his usual movements, but this is clearly not so: using (really good) in-camera effects for the space station windows, for instance, allows him to keep things fluid where early movies would have ground to a halt for an unconvincing matte effect.

    (I can’t really work out why filmmakers EVER thought matte shots were a good idea for people in cars, planes etc, anything involving human movement.)

  12. I do wonder if the simple size and weight of the cameras were a factor in the relatively less fluid camera movement as well — Spartacus strikes me as similar in this regard … but Strangelove also employs a more locked-down camera in many of its scenes.

    I think that Lolita is where Kubrick finally gets over (well, through) the Ophuls influence, then he has a couple of “stable” movies, and then in A Clockwork Orange we get the consolidation of stylistic effects that become his hallmark: wide angle lenses, lateral and forward-and-back tracks (as opposed to diagonal tracks such as in Lolita and Ophuls, or unmoored as in the early scene in Paths of Glory where Menjou convinces MacReady to mount the attack — shot on the day Ophuls died and in homage to him), zooms to open scenes (though those are less frequent in Full Metal Jacket and especially Eyes Wide Shut), etc. Clearly, all those techniques were there before, but they all really come together in ACO. (Aside from the zooms, Barry Lyndon is an outlier, as the fast Zeiss lenses were longer than Kubrick’s usual and the style of the whole film builds off of that.)

  13. Baron Waste Says:

    Jerome Agel’s “Making of Kubrick’s 2001” (1970) is invaluable, if this subject interests you. Sir Arthur’s novel helps too, obviously. Yes, he’s doing the Stargate (the line heard in ‘2010,’ “My God – it’s full of stars!” is in the book), so yes, he left Jupiter and went… wait for it… “To Infinity – and Beyond!” [Now you know. Trivial Pursuit indeed.] So those are supposed to be planetary surfaces, _alien_ and thus weird, and the diamonds are not artifacts per se, those are… Them. The Monolith makers. They’re escorting the pod. [The music gets staccato, giggly, which represents their speech.]

    And your sister is right: TMA-2 was colossal. Originally ‘Discovery’ herself flew into it. All it requires is the proportional magic numbers 1:4:9.

    [You can buy a Monolith action figure, by the way. “Zero Points of Articulation!” ]

  14. I have that book, and also The Lost Worlds of 2001, which I recommend in turn. Basically a Clarke scrapbook reproducing the source stories and tracing the development and his involvement in the project.

    If TMA-2 is huge, I’m struck that Kubrick never proves it by filming the Dicovery in front of it. The only way you could clinch the idea with nothing around to provide scale.

  15. Grant Skene Says:

    I think the size/location confusion is not unlike the time confusion in the next segment. We are being freed from the bonds of our space-time existence. I think it is impossible to give the sense of size of TMA-2. As Kubrick keeps showing with the planetary alignments, size is relative. Once the decision was made to make the monolith black, and orbiting in the blackness of space, even putting Discovery right next to it, doesn’t give us a sense of scale. Just like many people think the Star Child is massive, even planet-sized, while others (such as myself) think it is typical baby-size. All this confusion adds to the profundity, in my opinion, akin to the experience the astronauts had seeing the Earth so small that they could hold it in their hand… or blot it out. That strange sense of how big, and yet how small, we are, at the same time.

  16. Yes but but but: putting the Discovery next to the monolith does nothing. Putting it IN FRONT OF the monolith would show how the big the latter is.

    But I’m not sure I like the idea that the aliens needed to make a specially big slab for this task, just as I’m not sure I like the idea that the diamond things are the aliens.

    What I do like is the UNCERTAINTY.

  17. Grant Skene Says:

    I agree. The uncertainty is everything. The fact the film dares to ask big questions, but refuses to deliver what would inevitably be cliché or hollow answers, is why it is still holding fascination 50 years later. There is a big difference between saying, “What does it all mean? Who knows, but here are some ideas.” And, “I have nothing to say.” Some critics seem to think that a lack of definitive answers downgrades 2001. Personally, I think it is what makes it great. These questions will only be answered on the other side of the monolith.

  18. I always think that the solarised landscape shots would be perfect for a visualisation of the ending of any adaptation of Greg Bear’s Blood Music (as the whole of humanity is turned into sentient mush that covers the planet), preferably scored to this M83 track:

  19. I guess now they could take a real helicopter shot and digitally alter it so the ground looks solarised and the sky is normal.

    Just had a horrible image of Kubrick, in the old age he never reached, digitally “updating” 2001. Ugh.


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