Archive for 2001: A Space Odyssey

An Odyssey in Bits: To Infinity and Beyond

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2019 by dcairns

NOW READ ON!

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.

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An Odyssey in Bits: The Computer Wore Carpet Slippers

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2019 by dcairns

2001’s intermission plays for several seconds with just the hushed mechanical hum/sussuration of the Discovery (and probably HAL’s cooling system), continuing over from the HAL POV shot Part 1 ended on. This feels quite avant-garde.

A nice, ominous Ligeti drone carries us through the entr’acte, and then we’re abruptly in an extra-vehicular wide shot with astronaut Poole leaving the Discovery in his repair pod. Kubrick doesn’t try to reorient us. As often in this film, he jumps ahead as far as he can and lets us catch up through our own thought processes.And HAL goes murderous, using Poole’s own pod to snip his air-tube. Great use of sudden silence as Kubes jumps in, straight down the line to the pod, showing HAL’s cyclopean sunset of an eye staring out of it. Astute visual storytelling. The abrupt enlarging cuts (about four of them, I think?) remind me of the bomb that’s about to explode in Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE.Poole’s rapid movements as he asphyxiates are all the scarier for occurring in the eerie silence of space. ASTONISHING that other space movies don’t use the lack of sound as a positive effect.

Watch Keir Dullea’s movements as he goes to the rescue, and we can tell he’s meant to be in zero-G with grips shoes for traction. So that settles it: only the big rotating hamster wheel in the Discovery’s frontal globe has gravity.

In his haste, he forgets his space helmet. What would HAL have done if he’d brought it along? Apart from the pods and maybe the airlocks, he’s helpless, a brain in a box. But right now, he seems to have his opponent in check.

Also, a rule that is never explained but seems to be important: though HAL can take over a pod while it’s unoccupied, he can’t override the pilot’s manual control. So Dullea-as-Bowman is able to retrieve Poole’s corpse. Which allows the next stuff to happen.Meanwhile, very quietly, without any fuss, HAL kills the sleeping crewmembers. VERY funny conversation between Bowman and HAL. HAL periodically adopts the snooty tone of a teacher scolding a recalcitrant child. “I think we both know what the problem is.” The dialogue is blackly comic, and enhanced by the shots, which show a small round spacecraft talking to — negotiating with — a big long one.I love the projections on Keir Dullea’s chiselled features, especially this one. No REAL reason why they should happen, file under “visual interest,” but they pass by our defenses without a struggle. The monitors and lights in the pod MIGHT have that effect.

Funny how HAL’s closeup is always exactly the same shot. Kubrick must have shot a whole reel of it. Knowing him, probably two reels. You COULD vary it for “visual interest” and to make HAL seem alive, give him moods. But HAL is not alive, and Kubrick does not want to anthropomorphize him unduly. Which is why he cast a Canadian, I guess. (I’m kidding!)“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.”

What Bowman does now may not be exactly possible/scientifically accurate. Kubrick has been ridiculously careful to set up the EXPLOSIVE BOLTS that can open the back of the pod all at once. So that’s fine. The air rushing from the pod cannons Bowman into the Discovery airlock. But he doesn’t explode like the guys in OUTPOST. Douglas Adams produces a “fact” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about how long a human can survive in the vacuum of space, but in reality I believe the amount of time you can survive is none time. Now, since Bowman is wearing a space suit sans helmet round his body, maybe he’s protected from having his lungs explode. And only his head will freeze. But look: Keir Dullea is holding his breath. His little cheeks are puffed out. Well, I think either he’d be forced to exhale or else those cheeks would pop like soap bubbles.But he might be able to survive a few seconds of airless, empty lungs and a freezing head as the airlock closes and repressurizes. And it’s a gripping, convincing sequence. The tension is such that you can’t call 2001 an unemotional film.

Always interesting when the control freak director goes wobbly and handheld, though I’m posi-sure he’s operating the camera himself. (US union rules might have forbade this, but in the UK things were looser in this one respect.) Dave, now helmeted (a dissolve disposes of the question of whether HAL has voided the ship’s atmosphere) goes in for the kill.

HAL’s brain is composed of numerous perspex slabs — like mini see-thru monoliths — which haven’t dated at all because who knows how they work? Whereas earlier, HAL had popped a punch card out a slot, which seems a little embarrassing now.

Characters who sing touching songs in Kubrick films: Christiane Kubrick at the end of PATHS OF GLORY; HAL here; any more?MEMORY TERMINAL

Poor HAL! I remember as a kid finding his slurring voice hilarious, and I still do, but as one gets less callous with age, I also get a big charge of pathos from the scene. “My mind is going. I can feel it. There can be no question about it.” And he reverts to childhood: the song was part of a demonstration he gave shortly after activation.

Interesting choice by Dullea — and I want to give him credit for it BEING a choice, not just his sculpted inexpressiveness. He plays the scene tense, and there’s an undercurrent of anger, but then the anger goes away. He doesn’t perform sympathy for us, like he feels sorry for HAL, but the removal of the anger tells us that he does. A bit.

EXTREMELY bold use of repetition. Very few human characters in films have had their death scenes lingered on so lovingly.

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a…fraid.”

I had a friend whose Mac would say “My mind is going,” in Douglas Rain’s voice whenever he powered it down.Then Dr. Heywood Floyd pops onto a screen for plot reasons. No obvious reason why it happens now — no reason why HAL’s termination should activate the autoplay function, since mission control never anticipated that HAL *would* be deactivated. 2001 only appears rational and precise: Kubrick and Clarke play fast and loose whenever it suits their purposes.

Clarke always felt it was a shame that the film never made clear why HAL went crazy: it’s all mission control’s fault. Not because they didn’t program him with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but because they told him to lie. This would appear to be the moment when Kubrick expects us to figure that out, but all we’re told is that only HAL knew the purpose of the mission. All this to keep the Russkies from knowing about the Jupiter signal.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford a Monolith Gap.”

But Floyd’s appearance does add a weird blast of mental energy to the plot, despite his trademark laid-back manner. It’s a big AH-HAH! for the audience since for the first time it’s confirmed that the Jupiter mission does have some connection with the previous part of the film. Remember, we know the ape-man and Clavius sequences had a narrative link because the monolith was in both. But for its entire duration until now, the Discovery mission has been some random astronauts and their fun-loving onboard computer off on a spree. We didn’t know the whining noise on the Moon was a message, a beacon, pointing to Jupiter. We do now. What next?

 

An Odyssey in Bits: Keir Dullea and Gone Tomorrow

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by dcairns

Thanks to the acid wit of Noel Coward for the title. Noel co-starred with Dullea (happily still very much here today) in Otto Preminger’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING.

2001’s second superimposed caption appears: it’s not altogether certain that THE DAWN OF MAN has finished (it was apparently in play all through the orbital and lunar ballet) but at any rate the JUPiTER MISSION has begun.What was strange to me, this time around, was how fast this section of the film seems to go by, when you watch it in isolation. The pace of the shots may be slowish, but the narrative is super-economical.1. The Discovery sails past us.

(Various spaceship designs were considered with various propulsion systems, but the final look chosen is less about scientific practicality and more about style. The bony colouring adds to the Discovery’s resemblance to a giant skull and spinal cord. Also a little like a spermatozoa. So it also makes me think of the miniature Spike-creatures in ERASERHEAD.) 2. We cut to inside Kubrick’s giant hamster wheel. Here’s Gary Lockwood jogging, in a whole series is striking shots, including an up-butt angle as startling as the one George Sidney devotes to Ann-Margret in VIVA LAS VEGAS. Bruce Bennett’s citation of TRAPEZE as an influence gets backed up here — not only for the earlier use of the Blue Danube, but for turning the image sideways so it can fill the WS frame. It’s true that Kubrick lingers over these images, but they’re well worth it. My problem with EYES WIDE SHUT was its, to my mind erronious, supposition that Tom Cruise walking down a street or into an apartment was worthy of the same following-too-close attention.

(How does the craft generate its gravity? It’s not rotating in the exterior shots. Is there actually a big rotating wheel inside it for the living space? Seems to be the case. Wild.) 3. & 4. Then we get a couple of video bits — Lockwood’s taped message from home, and the BBC interview with the crew and HAL, which infodumps all the necessary exposition on us in a reasonable engaging and natural way.

Bowman and Poole have i-Pads so they can watch TV as they down their space-chow (from plastic pallettes packed with nutritional coloured pastes. Yummy).5. And then HAL is glitching right away — his mental breakdown is really just as speedy as Jack Torrence’s in THE SHINING. It’s when he says, “Just a moment. Just a moment.” Computers shouldn’t repeat themselves. It feels wrong. Later, he will repeat himself A LOT, so I know I’m right.

Dullea and Lockwood are beautifully blank. GL said they looked at reports on what astronauts were like, and their inexpressive performances reflect the demands that those fired into space should NOT be hysterical, hand-flapping types of furious fist-wavers. Ryan Gosling’s unemotive Neil Armstrong in FIRST MAN makes this a big story point, whereas Kubrick and Clarke and the cast just take it for granted. The fact that HAL is more appealing and warm is certainly no accident — Kubrick liked machines. Unfortunately, the story he’s telling requires HAL to turn homicidal, so this is far from the “alternative Frankenstein myth” he hoped to achieve with A.I., proving to us that our machines might be our heirs, our best hope of leaving something of ourselves behind.HAL trounces Poole at chess.

Clarke thought it a shame that the film didn’t make clear the reason for HAL’s malfunction: mission control had instructed him to withhold the true purpose of the voyage, in effect to lie, which was against his programming. (To lie is already to err.) When he tries to sound out Dullea’s Dave Bowman about the mission parameters, he’s probably looking for a chance to open up and get things off his metallic chest. Bowman brushes him off, and so he has to kill all the damn humans who are clearly going to screw this thing up. Again, his motivation connects him with Jack Torrence’s rant about “MY responsibilities to my employers,” though he expresses himself with a less hysterical tone.

I read somewhere that all Kubrick films are about somebody being entrusted with administering a system, and then screwing it up due to “human error.” Which sounds sort of right, but then you need to get out the old shoehorn to make it fit LOLITA (how not to be a step-parent) and THE SHINING (how not to look after a hotel: a sort of Fawlty Towers with axe murders) and EYES WIDE SHUT continues to be an outlier (the system failing to be administered is what, adultery?). But anyway, mission control has screwed up royally, somewhere in between the Clavius freak-out signal and this sequence, and now our eerily calm astronauts are going to pay the price. 6. The first EVA scene, though we’re our Extra Vehicular Activity is taking place in another, smaller vehicle. Contemporary critics harped on about the heavy breathing here, as if it were a showy and clumsy stylistic touch, rather than a logical solution to the problem of What can you hear in space? Kubrick alternates bold silences with music and subjective space-suit sound, all of which are great choices.

(William Friedkin on the excellent The Movies That Made Me podcast complained of Kubrick’s extreme low angle shot in THE SHINING when Jack talks to the food locker door. “Who’s POV is that meant to be?” But it’s another logical solution: how to shoot a man talking to a door and see all of his face rather than a profile. If you just do very logical things, like a machine would do them, maybe you will develop a striking personal style, because everyone has their own logic. And that’s why there’s so much trouble in this world.)7. HAL can read lips.

(Just like in real life, as soon as somebody goes a bit wrong mentally, everyone else starts tiptoeing around and lying and humouring them and unintentionally but very effectively escalating their paranoia…)

Though his eyeball was a fisheye lens earlier, and I think he even asks Dave to hold his drawings closer, but now he has a zoom and can follow a conversation in which his two pals are plotting to murder him. Which confirms him in his decision to off them first, which presumably he was going to do anyway since why else is he tricking them into cutting off communication with Earth and going E.V.A.?

And at this point, Kubrick goes audaciously to an intermission, and so shall I.Incidentally, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY stars the Marquis de Sade; Sir George; Sam Slade; Emanuel Shadrack; Lord Beaverbrook; Off-camera voice of Jesus; Scrimshaw’s henchman; Commander Ed Straker and Hank Mikado.

Imagine you somehow find yourself watching a sixties Canadian TV play and the off-camera voice of Jesus rings out and it’s instantly, chillingly recognizable as the dulcet tones of HAL-9000.

Also, you should see the 1957 version of OEDIPUS REX directed by Tyron Guthrie and Abraham Polonsky, in which among the voices issuing from behind Greek tragic masks are those of Douglas Rain and William Shatner. Sophocles has never seemed so interstellar!