An Odyssey in Bits: Putting the starch back into Starchild

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

So, the second most dazzling cut in 2001 is probably the one nobody talks about. After Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera tracks into the monolith (death), Kubrick hard-cuts to the moon — seen from space or the Earth, we don’t know yet, and dead-centre in frame, like HAL’s eye. He could have dissolved, but the hard or direct cut makes it clear this is continuous action, just like the switch from bone to orbiting missile, the same process continuing.The moon then appears to rise straight up (its prominent role here would be more meaningful, it occurs to me, if we’d ever really seen Moonwatcher, our lead ape, you know, moon-watching. Yes, Kubrick remembered to show him looking up in awe and terror at night-time, but I don’t recall him including a POV shot. Perhaps showing “the outward urge” and John Wyndham called it seemed too on-the-nose to him at this early point). Then the Earth hoves in, and we realise that the choice of “up” is an illusion of camera angles —And the Starchild, Baby Dave, seen previously hovering or lying on Dave Bowman’s bed in its Good Witch Glinda bubble, hovers into view, the shot framed so His bubble is exactly the size of our world.This is the only shot where He looks cute, as opposed to beautiful and divine.


There had been a plan for Baby Dave to then blow up all the orbiting nukes, seen earlier, which would have closed the narrative thread of East-West tension established on the orbiting satellite earlier (cut to aghast reaction shot of Leonard Rossiter) but this was dismissed because either

(a) It was too pat, too Peace On Earth

(b) Kubes realised he hadn’t made the nukes obvious enough

(c) It lacked ambiguity, like, totally

(d) He didn’t want to end two films in a row with a bunch of nukes going off

SO we simply see Baby Dave, EVA in ECU, slowly turn until he’s looking right at us, which is disarming in a different way. And chimes worryingly with THIS image:“We’re the start of the coming race.”

What happened between the ending of 2001 and the start of CLOCKWORK to account for the sudden sourness, misanthropy and pessimism? Well, it was always there — look at STRANGELOVE. But if the question has any vestige of validity, we might list: the Tet offensive, covered in FULL METAL JACKET; the My Lai massacre; the Manson murders; and the cancellation of Kubrick’s NAPOLEON. The last one perhaps being the most significant.

Kubrick’s (very) informal science fiction series consists of films that seem to rewrite each others’ messages — in STRANGELOVE, mankind is all-but doomed by the brilliance of its scientific thinking and the stupidity of its political and military thinking — in 2001, space travel offers the possibility of a way out of this mess by contacting smarter beings who may help us — in CLOCKWORK ORANGE we’re on our own: the great achievement of evolution is “man — the killer ape” and the great achievement of science is dehumanisation — politics continues to be totally fucked — if THE SHINING qualifies as SF because it relies on ESP and quasi-explains its ghosts with a version of Nigel Kneale’s Stone Tape Theory, then we learn that ESP isn’t very helpful and ghosts are assholes: politics plays no central role but human beings are vulnerable and evil is imperishable — and if A.I. qualifies as a Kubrick film (I’d say only somewhat), it shows his latter-day thinking: human beings are too flawed to survive but we might be able to make something that will outlast us.

(In CLOCKWORK ORANGE scientists produce a mechanical human, organic yet functioning mechanically — what Burgess meant by the title. In A.I. they achieve the opposite, Kubrick’s anti-Frankenstein myth.)

Lots of variety in that “series,” tending towards the somewhat pessimistic. But it’s realistic to say that, since nothing lasts forever, human beings have only a certain amount of time to footer around, and optimistic to say we might get to play a role in choosing our own successors, be they starchildren or Giacometti androids.

I know a lot of people aren’t interested in these questions — it’s all a long way off. But the end of humanity always fascinated and worried me, along with the end of the universe. Maybe it’s not too soon to start planning for the heat death? And in fact, extinction, and not prosperity, may be just around the corner. Kubrick seems like one of the few filmmakers to be seriously thinking these thoughts.

10 Responses to “An Odyssey in Bits: Putting the starch back into Starchild”

  1. “He could have dissolved, but the hard or direct cut makes it clear this is continuous action…” I’m not sure there are any dissolves in 2001. They went to extraordinary lengths to avoid opticals that would require film to be duplicated and lose clarity…

  2. “I don’t really like dissolves,” he told CIment, but used quite long ones elsewhere in his work.

    But I think you’re correct, by Jove! A significant observation I haven’t read anywhere else!

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    You’ve written some very thoughtful comments here that question Kubrick’s so-called inhuman personality and misanthropic tendencies. His films are much more complex and demand deep interrogation. This post contributes to this.

  4. MinorAnnoyance Says:

    The starchild creeped me out no end as a kid. You’re making eye contact with an unblinking you don’t know what; that unknowable is what makes the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come the most fearsome.

    Kubrick never tips whether we’re dealing with a civilization; a single intelligence; or even some purely mechanical detail of the cosmos, like a rock on a hill that, because of its location, will trigger a landslide when touched. I never got that the astronaut was being returned for any purpose. I took it as an inevitable result of falling all the way through that rabbit hole, unconnected to anybody’s intentions.

  5. Thanks for this series. I was a bit behind; on the prior entry, you mentioned the paintings in the Victorian room were copies of paintings from THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Do you have a source for that? The origin of the paintings came up recently in a conversation I had and none of my sources spoke to them.

  6. I just Googled the terms you’d expect and found a Reddit about the paintings. I forget where exactly.

    Thanks for all your comments!

    Yes, Tony, Kubrick may be cold and misanthropic but he’s other things too, some of them in direct contrast.

    The aliens’ purpose is pretty hard to divine. Maybe they want company. But they don’t keep the Starchild. They seem to be in favour of us advancing up the evolutionary ladder, but who knows why.

    Maybe time to rewatch 2010, a film I quite like though you have to forget about all Kubrick brought to the original and just enjoy it as a yarn spinning off from that.

  7. Grant Skene Says:

    Thanks for all the great insights to you and your community. I have contemplated writing “2001 readings of Kubrick’s 2001” because it will fascinate me always, and this series has added more fuel to my imagination?

  8. I particularly love the Jonathan Glazer directed music video for Richard Ashcroft (that pairs up with his take on A Clockwork Orange with Blur’s The Universal) which cheekily pokes fun at almost every aspect of the hotel room sequence in 2001, including the reason why food just ‘magically’ appears (’cause you have your tunes turned up too loud!)

  9. Yes, that ostrich seems to have entered my mind. It informs everything I write, I think.

  10. […] PUTTING THE STARCH BACK INTO STARCHILDAlso there are these three pieces, which, though not part of the sequential voyage through Kubrick’s film, deal with aspects of it or have strong connections to it, and the pieces appeared during my Odyssey in Bits so they belong here as marginalia or something. […]

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