Archive for Arthur C Clarke

An Odyssey in Bits: Putting the starch back into Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2019 by dcairns

“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.

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An Odyssey in Bits: White White White is the Color of our Carpet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2019 by dcairns

Or: MISS CARTILEGE REGRETS.Blink! Dave Bowman blinks his way back into normal Metrocolor. And finds all his computer systems have gone offline.Well, they would, wouldn’t they? What follows is… strange. Dave’s accelerated aging starts immediately, though because he’s such an unforthcoming lead, we never find out how he feels about it or if he even is aware of it. And he progresses through this sequence in an odd way, repeatedly seeing himself in an older form… our focus then shifts to the new (older) version, who looks around and allows us to see that the previous Dave has vanished… What’s most interesting here is that there’s no way to make rational sense of it. If Dave at least got out of his spacesuit before the wrinkling set in, if one of his close encounters with himself wasn’t an over-the-shoulder, so that we can see two Daves at once. My memory of seeing this for the first time is that I was so creeped out I completely missed the starchild. My eleven-year-old brain just shut down.

We jump right in on Middle-aged Dave, straight down the eyeline, 1-2-3. A lot like the jumps in on HAL’s cyclopean eye when he’s about to kill Frank Poole. Make of that what you will.

The creative continuity errors of THE SHINING are in action here, and not just in the way the protag’s age and number keep changing. In an uncanny pre-echo of the way the Overlook Hotel’s furniture shuffles around when we’re not looking, the chairs visible from the pod’s window, which appear to flank the bathroom door, keep dancing about, thus:I know it’s a different angle, but the chairs are either the equidistant from the door or they aren’t. Perfectionist my ass.

Then Dave’s pod vanishes which is a creative continuity violation in itself, I guess.

Dave checks out the bathroom. Bathrooms are important in Kubrick’s work. It’s surprising, on the whole, that BARRY LYNDON pays so little attention to the lavatory activities of its historic period, but we do see one bathtub in use.Scary noises: I believe part of Georgi Ligeti’s lawsuit against the film was based on his objection to the filmmakers tampering with his tunes. But if that’s in reference to the creepy, echoing laughter/voices heard in the white room, I think it falls within the parameters of a movie sound mix, just as the propulsive, low-end rumble that undergirds Bowman’s trip through those tunnels of light qualifies as FX, not score. Thought admittedly the use of Ligeti polyphony kind of blurs the line between diegetic and non. But that’s the composer’s fault, isn’t it, for writing such weird, messed-up music.

Are we to take it that the reverberant chatter we hear IS laughter? An excited audience at an alien zoo, watching poor Dave age through one-way walls? “Look, how hilarious, he’s going bald and wrinkly!” If that’s the aliens’ sense of humour, I might be inclined to agee with the conclusion of Spalding Gray, after he interviewed a lot of alien abductees:: these aliens really don’t seem to have ou best interests at heart. Even though they are ultimately going to transform Dave into a celestial foetus in a radiant bubble — and who wouldn’t want that? — their methods seem low on sympathy. The bedside manner is wanting.

From Middle-aged Dave’s POV we track around to look back into the dining/bedroom and see — Dave. But (viewing through virgin eyes) we don’t know it’s Older Dave (made up as Dick Van Dyke). We may assume that Dave is finally about to meet the mastermind responsible for all this. It would be just like a mastermind to appear by magic, unconcernedly munching on his dinner while the fellow he’s been toying with creeps up behind him.

So when Older Dave approaches, investigating a curious feeling that someone’s watching him (we are, and the aliens presumably are, but Middle-Aged Dave has vanished, as if catching sight of your older self immediately erases you. That must be what happened to Young Dave, and his little pod too. Older Dave returns to his dinner, the first apparently real food anyone in this movie has enjoyed since that delicious tapir flesh in the stone age. In fact, it’s been synthesised by his alien keepers, using memories drawn from his dreams, according to Kubrick and Clarke’s interviews and novels. (Back on Earth, is Dave a French duke living in a rococo lightbox?) As I believe Heywood Floyd remarked earlier on the subject of space chow, “They” are getting better at it all the time.

Then Older Dave knocks over his glass, which seems to be merely a device to allow him to notice Very Old Indeed Dave in bed, apparently dying. Noticing Very Old Indeed Dave erases Older Dave, so he never gets to finish his grub.Very Old Indeed Dave’s vision of the monolith standing at the foot of his bed like a doctor or undertaker is clearly a vision of Death. Like the three wooden posts we track towards in PATHS OF GLORY’s execution scene. And, in one sense, 2001 IS Kubrick’s most optimistic film, because for Dave, alone of all mankind, Death is not final. Kubrick was about to get into quoting himself: I think the first striking in-joke is the 2001 soundtrack album visible in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. And the high angle from over the bed-bound Dave is much like that the POV Alex near the end of CLOCKWORK: the giant speakers wheeled in to cheer him up with a but of Ludwig Van have to be a direct joke on the monolith’s appearance here. And so we have to take the later film as a kind of rebuttal, I think, not of 2001’s meaning and purpose, more of the hippy-dippy positivity that flower power audiences attributed to 2001. I never understood Michael Herr’s overjoyed reaction reported in his memoir Kubrick. I mean, I get a lot of joy from 2001 but it’s more about awe at the beauty and mystery and the filmmaking and the ideas than at any idea that the movie is reassuring us that Everything’s Going To Be Alright. Pauline Kael’s outraged review, which I would sum up as “How dare he make a film about space? I HATE space!”, actually describe the film better: cold and desolate, dry and ironic, pessimistic at heart — but engagingly CURIOUS, which she gave it no credit for, being proudly incurious herself. I quite like crackpot theories: Rob Ager’s ideas sometimes drift off beyond what can be taken from the movie in question, but his suggestion that the monolith is a Cinerama screen turned on its side is very pleasing: so the origin and purpose of the monolith are the same as those of the film it appears in: to educate and advance our evolution. Of course, many of the TV and computer monitors in the film are also designed to fit within and echo the widescreen frame (long before widescreen TV was a thing —  and Kubrick was a 16:9 skeptic, it appears, since he released his first DVDs in 4:3 — apart from 2001, which got the correct treatment). But just because some of the 2.35:1 objects in the film are shaped that way just for our viewing pleasure, does not mean the monolith has been designed to echo the frame only to look nice.

The clincher is the way Kubrick tracks (and zooms?) INTO the monolith so that the black vertical “screen” swallows the wide, largely white one, like we’re entering a new movie.

Which, in a way, we are. Maybe I need one more installment of this series to do justice to Kubrick and Clarke’s happy ending…

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?