Archive for 2001: A Space Odyssey

An Odyssey in Pieces: The Million-Year Jump Cut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2019 by dcairns

A moment of time — the present instant — is so slight as to not truly exist. How long is the present? Less than a second, a nanosecond, a zeptosecond, or even maybe a jiffy.

We inhabit a non-existent moment situated between the immeasurable past and (presumably) immeasurable future. We live in that division, our consciousnesses, it seems, exist there. Just as a cut in a film occupies no time in itself, but is the division between two shots.

A good friend argued that the brilliant jump-cut in 2001, from flung bone to drifting satellite, would be a lot more brilliant if not preceded by an unnecessary jump cut — Kubrick extended the spinning bone by tacking two takes together, resulting in a slightly jarring jump when his subject drifts out of frame and is rediscovered in a fresh shot. But this never bothered me. It was also pointed out that the match cut could have been an even better match if it happened sooner. But clearly, Kubrick wanted the bone-spin to last as long as he could make it last (without getting into the ugliness of step-printing to create an artificial slomo).

Was Kubrick thinking of Winston Smith’s description, in his 1984 illegal diary, of the film he saw — a boatful of children is exploded and in a “superb shot” the camera follows a child’s severed arm spinning through the air. If anyone were to stage such a shot today it would look unavoidably like a Kubrick swipe.Apparently Clarke and Kubrick intended the spacecraft we see to be, not the Satellite of Love as you might think, but an orbiting missile platform capable of raining down Death from Above, setting up the Cold War scenario that plays out later when we meet Leonard Rossiter (East-West tensions will play a greater role in 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT). When Kubrick decided (wisely) to avoid all VO, it became unfortunately impossible for an audience to tell that the innocuous looking craft is meant to be a weapon of mass destruction. A shame, I suppose, that they didn’t make it look  like a bunch of missiles mounted on something, or have open tubes with missile noses poking out. Not only is this a plot point later (and could have been a bigger one: there was a plan that the Starchild would cause all the orbiting missiles to detonate harmlessly in space, giving an optimistic clue as to what his future actions may involve), it would make the cut from bone to rocket a weapon/weapon match, not just a tool/tool one.

At least one of the snooty contemporary reviewers called the transition “naive” and referred to it as a dissolve. Film critics should be cine-literate. This doesn’t mean they have to have seen everything (which is impossible), but they at least should see what they do see. I guess if it were a dissolve, it probably WOULD be naive. The dazzle of the execution imparts sophistication to a simple idea. Nothing can be bolder than jumping millions of years with a single cut.This is the film’s first really striking use of silence, too. It’s there in the fade-outs, but movies otherwise are supposed to always have some sound going. But there’s no sound in space, and Kubrick honours that: he’ll allow non-diegetic music, and the subjective sound of an astronaut’s breathing inside his helmet, but otherwise, unlike nearly every one of the space epics that followed (including the Sensurround European release of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA that gave me a pounding headache when I was eleven), his interplanetary space is properly soundless.

Two of the reasons that 2010, despite being quite enjoyable, is an inadequate response to this film: it doesn’t add any new music, just recycling Kubrick’s choices, and it has sound effects in space. Lack of imagination and lack of nerve.

Of course 2010 helmer Peter Hyams has nothing in his whole, perfectly decent, filmography to compare to this single edit, which stands alongside the match-to-sun cut in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as a pre-eminent moment not just in the sixties, but all time. Anne V. Coates is credited cutter on that film. Ray Lovejoy, her former assistant, headed the team cutting 2001 (and died *in* 2001). It was his first film as chief cutter.Both did a magnificent job on their respective films. But we have to give primary credit to their directors who conceived the shots always intended to lie either side of those cuts.

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Reflective Value

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on January 8, 2019 by dcairns

I got a second-hand copy of King Vidor on Film-Making for Christmas. Really, the only two helpful books by filmmakers are the Lumet and Mackendrick ones, though Roger Corman has invaluable insights too. Vidor’s volume is quirky and entertaining, but its value is more anecdotal than educative, and though there are some really good nuggets and first principles, it doesn’t really give you the overview of the whole process it aims for.

But it does have Vidor explaining the process of front-projection, which was introduced years after his retirement and this shows he was keeping up with developments. In light of my discussion of 2001’s opening scenes, I thought it might be worth reproducing here. Of course, I can’t swear that all the details Vidor gives are correct because I’m less technical than him. Footnotes are mine.

“A recent development of the process background shot is done with front projection instead of the usual rear projection. It seems strange that a picture could be projected onto a background screen with actors in front of it and yet not have the background projection scene show on the performers’ faces or bodies. Interestingly enough the discovery of this possibility grew out of the development of an automobile bumper-sticker and a material that would deflect heat from fire-engines.

“The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (the 3-M people responsible for much sound-recording tape development and a wide variety of cellophane sticker tapes) had developed a material with such a high reflective value that it seemed to increase the intensity of light projected onto it. Hence it was put to use, as an attention getter on the rear bumpers of automobiles. Then Sherman Fairchild, who developed and built the first automatic camera for the United States Signal Corps, became interested in the material. He collaborated with a Hollywood technician named William Hansard, who had been experimenting with the material because of its adaptability for use in background motion picture photography.

“In the Fairchild-Hansard technique, the lens of the projection machine is placed as near the lens of the camera as possible. Because the extremely high reflective quality of the background screen, the intensity of the projection lamp can be very weak, so weak in fact that the projected image is not perceptible upon the faces or clothes* of the actors. To the eye, the background image seems too faint to photograph and yet when one looks through the camera lens the image appears with startling brilliancy.

“The screen material is made up of one million beads to the square inch and is fifteen hundred times more reflective than the actors**, or objects in the set which absorb the projected image rather than returning it to be recorded by the camera. This extremely high reflective value of the background screen makes possible a sharp focus and rich color registration on the negative film.

“The process was first used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Mike Nichols’ CATCH 22.”

*or ape costumes.

**unless you have a very sweaty Rod Steiger.

An Odyssey in Pieces: The Dawn of Man, Day 2, Day 3

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2019 by dcairns

As the sun rises slowly in the east… we fade up pic on a slumbering prelapsarian primate, and simultaneously we fade up a nice, creepy bit of Ligeti on the soundtrack. I don’t know that Ligeti had been used in a movie before, certainly not a mainstream one. He was so off-the-beaten-track that Kubrick didn’t even bother to clear the rights, perhaps assuming that all composers found in the “Classical” section must be safely dead. Ligeti successfully sued, not just for the unauthorised usage, but for the tampering done to his work, particularly at the film’s end.This music is the first “man-made” artificial sound we’ve heard since earthfall, and it accompanies the appearance of the Monolith, the first “man-made” artificial object we’ve seen, not counting Saul Bass’s MGM logo and the credits. The first shot of it is surprisingly matter-of-fact: the towering intruder doesn’t even break the horizon line, being tucked neatly into the landscape so it seems less tall, less celestial, than later. A follow-up shot lets it touch the sky, and it appreciably grows in grandeur. I guess Kubrick is onto a slow build-up thing here — certainly he would have thought about whether we should initially see the slab standing out against his front-projected African skyline.

The composition, importantly, is an exact repeat of a wide shot already used at least twice. And this n’t laziness, it’s the clearest way to make it evident that SOMETHING HAS CHANGED in this timeless desert.I do wonder, realistically, if the ape-men, who have apparently not figured out how to use a rock to hit a tapir (or another ape-man), would really be that curious or freaked out by this new, but obviously inert object. But possibly it’s already doing whatever it is it does to their brains. Certainly the view of the sun cresting its upper side seems significant later.

Chimpanzees can use sticks to get ants out of holes. But they don’t think of picking up rocks and bashing each other’s heads in, so far as I know. Though they do get into murderous battles, and they do sling poop at each other. The real evolutionary breakthrough may be in MANUFACTURING tools, seeing an object and being able to imagine it changed and newly useful.

Still, Kubrick & Clarke’s vision is very persuasive as it unfolds. Our primitive ancestors calm down and are next seen pottering about amid bones and tapirs. A transition achieved by a straight, sharp cut, which runs clean through the soundtrack too, severing Mr. Ligeti’s choral freakout with Godardian abruption. That kind of musical cut was undreamed-of, I believe, before JLG and the nouvelle vague, and it points up the fact that this is the possibly greatest needle-drop soundtrack of all time.And Moonwatcher gets an idea. Kubrick signals this by cutting to the sun-on-monolith shot he used earlier — so this is clearly a mini-flashback as the sun would have moved on from this position. It signals a switch being thrown in Moonwatcher’s brain. I remember when I first saw the film, I’d read a plot synopsis beforehand — I wish I hadn’t! — and I was looking at the screen wondering, “How are we supposed to KNOW the monolith has implanted a thought in the ape-man’s brain? Today, it seems perfectly clear to me.The impossible low angle of Moonwatcher smashing up old bones was shot on an elevated platform outside the studio, with buses going by in the background, according to Arthur C. Clarke, who calls it the only time Stanley went on location. The reason being, presumably, that such an angle, if attempted on a sound stage, would have shot past the top of the front projection screen. Anyway, we get some really funky editing to Also Sprach Zarathustra, along with the slomo — the tapir falling over in a fleshy wobble-tumble (HOW did they make the poor thing do that?) is cut in twice in a way that’s always surprising, and the editing becomes more fragmented exactly as Moonwatcher’s boneyard does. The first closeup of M’s arm with clutched thighbone shows him raising the instrument to strike, but in the second iteration the arm is already raised and descending, despite having been seen at ground level, smashing, one frame earlier. It’s the kind of aggressively discontinuous action cutting Peter Hunt brought to the cutting of the Bond films.

It’s also the great Eureka! moment in all of cinema, and the exception to Billy Wilder’s rule that you should never show a character’s face as he’s having an idea.Keith Moonwatcher.

Now the ape-men all have bloody handfuls of meat and are munching away contentedly. The tapirs continue to graze around them — they can’t adjust, all at once, to the fact that their previously passive bipedal friends are suddenly going to kill and eat them. They’re going to be extinct soon.And so is the neighbouring tribe, judging by what happens next. Although these guys at least have the sense to run away when one of their number is clubbed to mulch. So, gifted with the ability to hunt more effectively, our fore-fore-forebears promptly use their extraterrestrial superpower to commit hominidcide. Great. As a kid, I definitely didn’t catch on to the harsh judgement Kubes was passing on his own species.The pace has increased — we no longer fade gently to black between scenes. Night falls, demonstrated by a single sunset, and then it’s abruptly daylight again and the big monkey ruckus is kicking off, Moonwatcher and his droogs confidently moving in on Billy-Boy’s gang for a Bedrock rumble.

Moonwatcher throws his weapon triumphantly in the air. And Arthur Clarke, in The Lost Words of 2001, describes being on hand, with the buses going by in the background, when Kubrick got the idea, just after he’d filmed the bone-smashing montage. “The shot was repeated so many times, and Dan [Richter, as Moonwatcher] smashed so many bones, that I was afraid we were going to run out of wart-hog (or tapir) skulls. But eventually Stanley was satisfied, and as we walked back to the studio he began to throw bones up in the air. At first I thought this was sheer joi de vivre, but then he started to film them with a hand-held camera–no easy task. Once or twice, one of the large, swiftly descending bones nearly impacted on Stanley as he peered through the viewfinder; if luck had been against us the whole project might have ended then. To misquote Ardrey (page 34), “That intelligence would have perished on some forgotten Elstree field.””

(Robert Ardrey is the author of African Genesis, a source text Clarke drew upon for the Dawn of Man stuff.)I can’t decide how to treat the famous match cut from bone to spacecraft. If I make the next chapter about the Blue Danube sequence, I risk chopping the cut into two sequences and missing what’s great about it, which is the way it unites them (cuts are really joins). So I’m inclined to devote an entire post to it…