Archive for Arthur C Clarke

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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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…

Room 237 1/2

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2017 by dcairns

What’s THE SHINING about? Is it a puzzle with no answer, a labyrinth without a centre, a sentence stuck on repeat?

When I first saw the film, underage at the school film society (but film societies aren’t subject to the BBFC), we all “got a good scare” (as Kubrick said he wanted) — there were persons of a nervous disposition, teenage girls for instance, and it rubbed off on all of us. But then we were all furious at the ending, which didn’t make any bloody sense.

I like that now. At 17, one’s negative capability isn’t fully developed so things are supposed to make sense. I think the irrationality of the film, which is more extreme than 2001’s non-verbal sense of the numinous and unaccountable, probably does derive from King’s novel. King’s stuff never makes total sense, does it? I think because he’s maybe a little lazy or easily satisfied when it comes to plotting. But Kubrick certainly was after a disturbing quality that would result precisely from things not making sense. How did Jack Torrence end up in that 1921 photo? Had he always been the caretaker? How does that work, when the person telling him that used to be the caretaker?

The film actually spends half an hour at the start explaining everything — how to look after a hotel in winter, how the isolation can get to you, how a previous caretaker went nuts — and how things can leave a trace of themselves, and how a person with a psychic gift can detect that trace. But it can’t hurt you.

Over the course of act II and III, most everything Stuart Ullman, the Overlook Hotel manager, tells us turns out to be true, barring some confusion about the caretaker’s name. Delbert or Charles Grady? Delbert isn’t a typical English name, you know, and Grady turns out to be English. (Torrence also calls him Jeevesy, and Grady really does phrase things like Wodehouse’s immortal manservant.) Even though Kubrick shot a deleted ending in which Ullman turns out to be in league with the Overlook.

But what the reliable and sympathetic Mr. Halloran (Scatman Crothers) tells us turns out NOT to be true. He’s outlined what is called The Stone Tape Theory, based on Nigel Kneale’s superb TV play: ghosts are like psychic echoes of emotionally charged events. They have no will of their own, they only repeat the actions from their lives, and they can’t hurt you. This theory, concocted for fictional purposes, seems to describe really well most ghost encounters described by real people.

Unfortunately it turns out to be a really bad description of what goes on at the Overlook.

Stephen King has really committed the sin of double voodoo in his story. You’re only supposed to have one aberrant concept per story, but he has both ghosts and telepathy. But he makes this OK by tying them together: only people with “the shining” can see these traces of past events. This makes the story seem to be set in our world with only one additional element for us to swallow, so the story goes down easily. And by the time it turns out there are at least TWO aberrant concepts at play, it’s too late. We’re deep in the maze.

Halloran’s Stone Tape starts decaying when Jack starts talking to Lloyd the bartender, but we take Lloyd to be kind of an imaginary character at first. Maybe not even a ghost. He’s an odd kind of ghost, anyway, serving drinks. We may note that some of his banter has a Mephistophelean cadence to it.

Meanwhile, SOMEBODY unlocks Room 237 and Danny is apparently attacked by “a crazy woman” inside. It’s significant that we don’t see this attack, even though we soon after see the woman — the question of ghosts being able to interact with humans and with corporeal objects is kind of left open.

The headfuck is when Grady lets Jack out of the walk-in storage locker. A ghost has turned a key. At the Portobello High School film society, my friend in the next seat went “WHAT??” at this point. Grady spilling advocaat over Torrence is one thing, nothing is really affected, but this makes him a physical presence in our world, with a will of his own. I guess he could still be a projection of Torrence’s ego, but he’s a telekinetically able-bodied one, if that’s the case. Triple or quadruple voodoo.

Despite appearances, maybe it really IS a great party — read on…

Finally, in the third act, Wendy starts seeing all kinds of Overlook inhabitants. Wendy has been, arguably, the least psychically perceptive character, but even she gets it now. (How rare is the shining ability? Four out of five major living characters in this movie seem to have it.) King speculates that all mothers can shine a little, but Kubrick is having none of this pseudo-progressive sentimentality. The Overlook comes to life in the winter, and when it’s in full flush, even a dope like Wendy can’t miss what’s up.

The entertaining doc ROOM 237 offers a series of fun crackpot theories about what the film really means. In a way, the Indian one is the one most supported by the film. The hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, and we somehow know that’s to blame for everything. POLTERGEIST, released two years later, somehow makes us accept that all the crazy stuff is happening because the house is built on a former graveyard. And we just go with it. But anyway, “built on an Indian burial ground” has become this joke in the culture signifying something that is clearly cursed and no good, and it’s a pretty good joke if you think about it because, if you think about it, wasn’t the whole United States built on an Indian burial ground?

Yet the evil lurking in the Overlook doesn’t have anything to do with Native American mythology. And it seems to espouse a very white male privileged attitude. Chauvinistic, racist. And when you die in the Overlook, you don’t go to the Happy Hunting Ground. You go to a New Year’s July 4th party in 1921. But it seems like this is maybe a kind of pocket universe, existing eternally within the Overlook. And people get recruited into it when they die there. That makes me feel awful for Mr. Halloran. Because the idea seems to be that this is a nostalgic vision of a time when the white male was king. Although Grady ended up as a waiter and Torrence, despite his tuxedo and grin in the film’s final image, is apparently still going to be caretaker, only without his wife to do all the work.

Like all afterlifes (afterlives? technically better but sounds wrong) it’s very hard to visualise, even if that’s a photo of it at the end of the film.

Here’s what I think is going on. As in King’s Pet Sematery, the Indian burial ground thing is a signifier for a powerful spiritual site full of energy that white people don’t know how to channel. This energy starts to affect Danny, Jack and finally Wendy when they move in and are left alone with it. Jack proves to be the most vulnerable, and the energy creates images and character’s drawn from Jack’s mind — if he hadn’t known about Charles Grady the caretaker he would never have hallucinated Delbert Grady the waiter.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he tells us that the environment Dave Bowman finds himself in — visualised in the movie as Louis Quinze interiors with an illuminated floor — has been created by the unseen aliens from Dave’s memories. When he gets some chicken from the refrigerator, it proves tasteless, the ersatz ghost of chicken, because the aliens have just gone by a memory of chicken’s appearance.

I think Kubrick has returned to this promising idea. The Indian burial ground energy — probably nothing to do with Indians, originally, something in the very mountain itself which was detected by the Indians and treated with due deference — works on Jack, with mayhem as its object. It uses imagery drawn from his mind to twist him to violence, and when he dies, it transplants him into that world of fantasy, forever, ‘n’ ever, ever.

And in that fantasy it is New Year’s Eve July 4th, 1921, always, because Jack’s dream is to write the great American novel (which he will call All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy). Or at any rate, to be the great American novelist. The one who writes and drinks and parties and is celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, right?

The Beautiful and the Damned