Archive for African Genesis

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…

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Euphoria #26: “Throw me a frickin’ bone here!”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , on January 23, 2008 by dcairns

bonnie scotland? 

Newly-declared Shadowplayer Mike Paterson writes from the other side of the planet to suggest this slice of Cinerama Euphoria, a brilliant example of cinematography and editing with awe-inspiring scale and scope, and one of the most daring and imaginative transitions in film history.

“There’s something about the scale of the cinema experience that seems to heighten our emotional response isn’t there? One that gets me every time is the famous edit in 2001; A Space Odyssey where the ape, triumphant (euphoric even) flings the bone into the air for it to become a satellite floating in stately orbit. Cue big lump in the throat and welling of the eyes at the greatness of it all. Actually, when I saw the re-released, restored version at The Curzon, Mayfair in 2001 I began to lose it from the first frame when the opening throb of Thus Spake Zarathrustra announced itself. It’s all a childhood thing. Like Life on Mars. And yes, The Iron Giant gets me too.

“2001 is a film that has haunted me every since I was taken to see it in glorious Cinerama (I think) at the old Colosseum in Glasgow’s Gorbals (now a Bingo Hall I think) in 1968 as a five year old. Its images seared themselves onto my consciousness. In 2006 I was lucky enough to attend a screening of a new print at St Kilda’s Astor Theatre here in glorious, cinema-filled Melbourne and met Keir Dullea. He was charming, courteous and patient as was his wife who chatted with us about the art galleries they’d visited.

David, your blog is like some Elysian afterlife. Thank you.”

Thanks! But — “afterlife”? You’re not dead, I hope? Not that there are any prejudices here at Shadowplay.

(Stanley Kauffman, who sneered at this “dissolve” when it is, in fact, a breath-taking instantaneous CUT will burn forever in the legendary Critics’ Circle of Hell.)

I couldn’t resist leaving the whole of the Blue Danube space station docking scene attached too.

Where did the idea for the bone to spaceship cut come from? Where do ANY ideas come from? The most one can do is trace the moment of inspiration, which Arthur C. Clarke helpfully does for us in The Lost Worlds of 2001:

‘The skull-smashing sequence was the only scene not filmed in the studio; it was shot in a field, a couple of hundred yards away–the only time Stanley went on location. A small platform had been set up, and [ape-man] Moon-Watcher (Dan Richter) was sitting on this, surrounded by bones. Cars and buses were going by at the end of the field, but as this was a low angle shot against the sky they didn’t get in the way–though Stanley did have to pause for an occasional aeroplane.

‘The shot was repeated so many times, and Dan 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 joie de vivre, but then he started to film them with a handheld 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 [author of African Genesis] “That intelligence would have perished on some forgotten Elstree field.”‘

(If you watch FILMING THE SHINING you can similarly see the exact moment when Kubrick thinks of filming Nicholson from the floor of the food locker as he talks to Shelley Duvall through the door.)

It’s amusing to note that when Kubrick was looking around for some sci-fi writer to write with, and Clarke’s name came up, his reaction was, “But isn’t he a crazy recluse?”

Clarke, it turned out, was not living “up a tree in Sri Lanka” because, like some aloof Garbo of SF,  he wanted to be alone — he was delighted to collaborate with the Great Stanley K.

Fastward to decades later (I hurl a can of film in the air, and we jump cut to a flying DV tape): when the Prince of Wales was about to present Clarke with an award, rumours spread that Clarke’s real motivation in moving to Sri Lanka was the plentiful supply of affordable boys. Clarke issued an odd non-denial-denial: “I haven’t been sexually active in years,” and the matter was dropped.

Perplexing. But in the absence of any actual aggrieved Sri Lankan ex-rentboys baying for his blood, I think Mr. Clarke deserves every award the British Empire can cough up, in recognition of his major contribution to the Greatest Science Fiction Film Ever Made.

Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World of Boys

“I can feel it. I can feel it.” ~ H.A.L.