An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Monolith
Image credit: Taste of Cinema

In Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick thematically expresses that there is a cyclical evolution of man where his intelligence will continually evolve in order to survive in the hostile environment in which he exists until he reaches a state of perfection.  To signify moments of man’s evolutionary intelligence, Kubrick uses a mysterious black monolithic figure that appears or is mentioned in each of the film’s four separate segments, and Kubrick’s theme of an evolutionary cycle is present in each of the four segments as well. 

The first of the four segments is subtitled “The Dawn of Man.”  In this segment, Kubrick explores his evolutionary theme in the prehistoric past where the human race was born from apes.  Kubrick begins this evolutionary process by immediately indicating the hostility of the man-ape environment as well as the their inability to defend themselves in it.  This is shown five minutes into the film when a leopard leaps from a rock and easily slays a man-ape.  Thus, it is obvious that the man-apes live in fear and are scavengers.  Kubrick represents the first shift in evolution when a black rectangular monolith materializes in the man-apes’ den.  This attracts the curiosity of the apes and they all embrace the foreign object.  Following the encounter with the monolith, Kubrick illustrates that the man-apes are evolving in order to survive in their hostile environment.  This is exemplified in the scene during the afternoon after the monolith arrived. 

Ape using bone as tool
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

In this scene, a man-ape is seen looking for food.  He begins to play with a bone found on the ground from an animal’s skeleton.  A quick shot of the monolith appears indicating that it has inspired a new step in the evolution of the man-apes.  In a montage of shots set to Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the man-ape begins to smash at and shatter the skeleton on the ground symbolizing the discovery that the bone can be used as a weapon.  Kubrick includes in this montage a shot of an animal falling to the ground further symbolizing that the man-apes have learned to hunt for food as well as to protect themselves from danger.  In a later scene, the man-apes, with their newfound discovery, war with other weaponless tool-less tribes easily overcoming their adversaries.  This symbolizes that man has become capable of survival in their hostile environment, however more importantly, the environment has remained hostile.          

Satellite from 2001 A Space Odyssey
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The Dawn of Man segment of the film quickly transitions into the film’s second segment.  This segment is untitled illustrating that mankind is in a new setting but he is essentially the same aggressive man from the dawn of time who must again struggle to survive in another hostile environment, thus continuing Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme.  In the previous segment, an ape-man throws a bone into the air in slow motion and the camera follows it upwards.  Then, in a brilliant transition, the bone dissolves into the image of a space satellite in the year 2000.  This dissolve from a tool/weapon of the man-apes to a satellite of 21st Century man connects the satellite as a distant evolutional and intellectual development from the first tool/weapon.  Here, technology is quite advanced and is relied upon for almost everything from guiding ships in to dock to talking to family members.  The reliance upon technology in this segment foreshadows the hostility technology will cause in the third segment. At the end of this segment, man once again finds the monolith, this time on the moon.  This uncovering of the monolith once again signals that man is about to reach another more improved level of intelligence. 

The third segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later,” and it is here that man’s hostile environment is once again realized.  The second segment ended with the monolith emitting a loud radio signal toward Jupiter.  The Jupiter mission is a nine-month expedition to search for the destination of that signal.  Kubrick again reminds the viewer that the crew of the Jupiter Mission spacecraft Discovery are completely reliant upon technology and are in fact using technology to follow a radio signal from a different alien form of technology.  It is in this segment that Kubrick introduces the film’s protagonists Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as well as the ultimate realization of man’s reliance upon technology, a “thinking” and “feeling” super computer named HAL-9000.  The HAL-9000 computer maintains the systems of the spaceship, thus putting Dave and Frank at the complete mercy of technology. 

HAL 9000
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The HAL-9000 is introduced on a BBC television program that Dave and Frank are watching and is said to be “capable of virtually all functions of the human brain, [including insanity and homicidal qualities].”  Thus, the monolith’s unearthing eighteen months earlier yielded another jump in man’s evolutionary intelligence, the ability to virtually recreate the human brain in computer form.  However, with this intelligence comes the possibility and realization of a new level of hostility in man’s environment.  Only HAL-9000 knows the actual purpose of the Jupiter Mission.  The computer has been designed to withhold this information from Dave and Frank until they are to Jupiter; therefore, man has in fact created an artificial intelligence that knows more than the men who control it.  Thus, a false trust is put into HAL because the computer is not ever supposed to make an error or malfunction.  The computer does malfunction creating a hostile conflict between the astronauts and HAL who ironically justifies his behavior by saying the astronauts “jeopardize the mission,” a mission they do not completely understand anyway.  HAL proceeds to murder Frank by ejecting him into space while he was outside the ship replacing a part HAL had misdiagnosed as faulty allowing the audience to realize HAL had planned this murder.  Dave is now alone and Kubrick brilliantly creates a sequence where man must improvise a non-rational solution to survive much like the man-ape that discovered weapons in the first segment.  In a failed attempt to retrieve Frank’s body from space, Dave exits the ship in a space pod leaving his space helmet on the ship.  HAL locks Dave out of the ship allowing no way back in except through a small air lock, but without a helmet, Dave can not leave the space pod.  Dave devises a complex and creative solution using his “human tool” of intelligence that ejects him from the pod and into the air lock.  Dave deactivates HAL and once HAL’s voice is silenced, the ship enters into Jupiter space triggering the announcement of the discovery of the monolith and the true purpose of the Jupiter mission.  This message symbolizes Dave’s intellectual triumph over HAL by mentioning the monolith and revealing the one piece of information previously known only by HAL.      

Monolith
Image credit – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

The final segment of the film is subtitled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.”  In this sequence Kubrick’s cyclical evolution theme is fully realized.  Dave completes the flight to Jupiter without any dependence upon the ship’s computer.  Dave then partakes in a transcendental journey through time and space activated somehow by the monolith that floats by his pod.  This journey is symbolic of a final transformation into an eventual higher form of intelligence of evolutionary life.  This transformation is further completed in the ingenious sequence after Dave arrives at his destination.  In this scene, Dave arrives at some obscure white bedroom decorated in a luxurious style. Kubrick shows Dave transitioning through four different stages of his natural human life.  In the final stage of his life, Dave is a dying old man lying on a bed.  At the foot of the bed, the monolith towers over him.  Dave is then transformed into a fetus in utero, evolved, and reborn as an innocent, intelligent, superhuman being orbiting through a non-hostile universe without any dependence on technology.  The cyclical evolution from ape to man to spaceman to perfect superhuman is complete. 

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick expresses an evolutionary theme that man will constantly evolve in order to survive in his hostile environment.  He illustrates, with the use of a cyclical evolutionary theory, a rather hopeful and confident future for mankind and leaves open what future stages of evolution the superhuman creature is capable.  

It’s All About Choice

choice_mainThe recent film Baby Driver forced me to spend an unhealthy and inordinate amount of time contemplating film narrative development. My upcoming review of that film will go into more specifics in terms of how that film’s narrative is “driven” from a most unsuspecting source. In broader terms though, Baby Driver got me thinking about what at its core drives film narrative, and the answer I arrived at is one word: choice. Well choice, or the absence of it. Historically, there has actually been some debate about what the basis for Hollywood storytelling and narrative style is; however, in order to really arrive at any conclusions, we need to go back to the early days of film. There are actually two film theorists, Robert Ray and Jeanine Basinger, who hold two popular yet different views on the topic.  Robert Ray says in his book A Certain Tendency of the American Cinema 1930-1980, that classic Hollywood narratives revolve around the ideology of “the denial of the necessity of choice,” and this ideology can be utilized both in story as well as in film style/technique. What he means by this is that the narrative is propelled forward due to the appearance of a lack of choice for the protagonist and/or the filmmaker.  Jeanine Basinger, in her book A Woman’s View, on the other hand believes that choice, especially in the case of the movie female, is key to the storytelling and workings of classic Hollywood cinema.  Each of their views can be analyzed separately. For example, Ray’s view can be seen quite clearly in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach while Basinger’s view is well illustrated in Alfred E. Green’s 1933 film Baby Face.

Coach-1In his book, Robert Ray uses the western genre as the best way to document the “denial of the necessity for choice.  He focuses on the western male individual and his “ad hoc solutions for problems depicted as crisis.”  Thus, Ray seems to believe the western hero, a man who is in complete control (or appears to be) of the world around him, is the ultimate example for his theory on how to drive a movie narrative.  Ringo (John Wayne) in John Ford’s Stagecoach is a character that strongly illustrates Ray’s theory.  Ringo is the perfect example for Ray’s statement that “the denial of the necessity for choice…discourag[es] commitment to any single set of values.”  Ringo has no solid set of values and the audience is well aware of this.  As the film progresses, the audience realizes Ringo is unique in the sense that they know the drunk is a drunk and the prostitute is a prostitute but they know very little, if anything at all, about Ringo.  Thus, he is the ultimate individual who can form his own values and not be labeled or expected to act in any particular way.  This frightens most of the characters in the film at first, but Ford demonstrates that Ringo’s qualities are reputable and add to his control of the narrative.  One scene that shows this is the famous dinner scene.  In this scene, everyone stops to eat at a dinner cabin and no one wants to sit near the prostitute, but Ringo thinks that everyone leaves the table because they do not want to sit by him.  Here the audience sees Ringo as completely nonjudgmental and honorable.  Much of this also rings true to the character of Baby (Ansel Elgort) in Baby Driver. He remains a mystery to most of the other characters in his “stagecoach,” yet his stoic silence and individuality propel the film. Watch the scene where Baby jams to his tunes while Doc (Kevin Spacey) lays out the plans for the next robbery, and tell me there are no similarities to the dinner scene in Stagecoach!

This also brings up Ray’s statement about the “law” versus the “heart.”  He says, “This sense of the law’s inadequacy to needs detectable only by the heart generated a rich tradition of legends celebrating legal defiance in the name of some ‘natural’ standard.”  In Stagecoach, Ringo shows that he defies the law for a moralistic reason, avenging his brother’s death, both when he went to prison as well as with the gunfight at the film’s finale (both instances also echoed in Baby Driver).  Ford also uses stylistic technique to show Ringo’s control over his environment.  In the scene where Ringo is first introduced, he climbs into the stagecoach with all the other passengers.  Here, Ford positions Ringo in a way so that every time the camera goes to him he dominates his own frame.  All the shots of the other passengers share the frame with other people, but Ringo is always shown as alone.  This preserves his individual characteristics as well as to allow the audience to identify with him and trust in him.  Furthermore, Ford also allows Ringo to wander freely in and out of frame throughout the film.  Several scenes show Ringo with this freedom of movement.  This represents the fact that Ringo is in control of his environment.  Therefore, Ringo is a strong example of how the western hero can demonstrate the “denial of the necessity for choice” forcing audience identification and, thus, drives the film’s narrative.

BabyfaceThe 1933 film Baby Face is a film that fits nicely into Jeanine Basinger’s theory about women in film.  The crux of that theory is that films on one hand show women with a passion for success where there are unending opportunities and outlooks for them.  However, on the other hand by the end of the film this power of opportunity and choice they once had is somehow deeply undercut and forced in one direction which usually adheres to the current cultural status of women.  Baby Face demonstrates this quite flawlessly.  One scene that brilliantly illustrates Basinger’s ideology is towards the end of the film.  In this scene, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) has received Trenholm’s (George Brent) fortune.  This money represents all that she has passionately and ruthlessly worked for since she joined the workforce.  However, when Trenhom’s bank is bankrupt, Lily is faced with the choice to either help her husband whom she may love or leave with the money.  She eventually chooses love but at the cost of her husband shooting himself before she makes up her mind.  This alone strongly depicts Basinger’s theory that the woman full of passion is forced to make a choice, usually involving love.  However, Basinger is truly correct when the audience learns that Lily and the recovered Trenholm move to the factory town to start a new life together.  Here the film shows that Lily’s choice that she was forced to make deeply undercuts the passion she had earlier and she is forced to conform to a more socially accepted role for women of her time.  Thus, supporting Basinger’s statement that many films show women doing amazing things, however, in the big picture, the life of the average culturally accepted housewife is the best way to end up. Watch the evolution of Debra (Lily James) in Baby Driver compared to that of Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). How does the narrative treat them? What choices were made? Where do they end up and how does that reflect the current cultural status of women? Also, I would be remiss to not mention the similarity in title: Baby Face, Baby Driver.

MildredAlthough Ray and Basinger’s views are contrasting in some respects, I propose that the two theories can be reconciled.  An excellent example of this reconciliation can be found in an analysis of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce.  Although Ray and Basinger’s theories for the basis of classic Hollywood narrative success differs on many fronts, Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film Mildred Pierce seems to correlate both theorists ideas into a very cohesive classic Hollywood narrative structure. It is at this reconciliation, that I believe we stand today in terms of what is driving our modern Hollywood narratives as well – Baby Driver being a strong example.  As Ray states, films of the classic Hollywood era were quite careful to try to draw as little attention as possible to the actual production of the picture itself.  That is to say, trying to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie or that choices are made for every step of the film’s progression.  However, as time passed many films began to deviate from this normal classic Hollywood style and create new genres of film style and mythology.  This transition away from the classic Hollywood style and storytelling did not occur over night and, thus, it is these transition films of the late 30’s and early 40’s that illustrate a clash of Ray and Basinger’s arguments.  Although they are still classified to be of the classical Hollywood style and narrative structure, these films also began to include new styles, choices, and techniques which, in the case of Mildred Pierce, were strongly focused towards the movie female.

choice2It is clear that Mildred Pierce demonstrates many of the characteristics Ray would say are commonly found in the classic Hollywood formula narrative.  For example, in the scene near the beginning where Mildred (Joan Crawford) is summoned to speak with Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), Curtiz uses classic Hollywood style to show Peterson’s control and authority over the situation.  In this scene Peterson is positive that he has found the murderer and he explains the mechanics of how his detective work has succeeded.  In the first shot of the scene, the camera is positioned behind Peterson’s desk.  This shot allows Peterson to tower over Mildred as he stands up to greet her.  After he sits down, Curtiz cuts to a close shot of Peterson so that he dominates the frame as he begins to explain his case.  The camera then cuts to a longer shot of Mildred and then back to the same closer shot of Peterson.  This technique of cutting back and forth during a conversation while emphasizing one individual’s contribution more than the other’s echoes Ray’s theory of how there is very little choice involved here.  Like Ford, Curtiz too shows one character as completely dominant.  This method forces the audience to identify more with Peterson than with Mildred without drawing their attention to any camera movements.  This scene also uses other classic Hollywood techniques to show that Peterson is in control of this conversation.  Later in the scene Mildred wants to know who Peterson believes the murderer to be.  Peterson stands up and again the camera is positioned behind him allowing him to tower over Mildred.  After he tells Mildred that she is entitled to know who killed her husband, there is an eyeline match between Peterson and the buzzer on his desk, which alerts one of his officers to bring in the suspect.  Peterson is very much in control of his diegnesis here; all he has to do is push a button to make something happen.  This use of an eyeline match to reinforce Peterson’s control over the conversation helps suture the viewer into the film, and is also a common characteristic of the classic Hollywood cinematic style.  Before the scene ends, there is another shot that adds to Peterson’s control of the scene.  After Mildred’s first husband is brought in as the suspect, the camera cuts to another shot of Peterson.  In this shot, the camera is pointing slightly upwards at him to give him an aura of superiority as he confirms his position by saying calmly, “Yes, he did it, your first husband, Pierce.”  This technique again enhances the viewer’s trust and assurance in Peterson without drawing attention to the filmmaking process.  Thus, this scene is a very strong example of Ray’s theory that the classic Hollywood narrative is driven by an appearance of a lack of choice by the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

Basinger’s voice can be heard in another sequence of the same film. Mildred Pierce is one of the films of the late 30’s and 40’s that experiments with adding a distinct and noticeable style to the film and, thus, beginning to deviate from the transparent classic Hollywood style of filmmaking.  It seems that it is these stylistic sequences that hold strongly to Basinger’s theory of the movie female in classic Hollywood narratives.  A scene that demonstrates a deviation from classic Hollywood style is the final scene of the film.  Here Curtiz uses bright imagery contrasted with dark imagery in the same scene.  After Mildred’s daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) has been discovered as the murderer, Mildred exits the police station.  As she exits, her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) is waiting for her.  As they leave the police station they walk out from the shadows and out through a bright sunlit arch.  This obvious contrast of darkness to brightness stylistically implies a positive future for the couple.  Here Basinger shines through as Curtiz creates an establishment or reestablishment of a man/woman couple.  He does this with rather expressionistic style as well as constructing his narrative so that the woman has made a very hard choice; Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter and, thus she chooses to start over.  This scene comes quite soon after the audience learns that Mildred lost her restaurant to Wally (Jack Carson).  This connection strongly supports Basinger’s statement that while movies say women should be both woman and wife, these same films show, (as in Baby Face) these “woman” options fail leaving the woman left to become the wife.

ChoiceRobert Ray and Jeanine Basinger have two very strong arguments about what drives a film narrative.  Ray has strong evidence to support his view that a film that guides the audience thematically and stylistically by displaying a “denial of the necessity for choice” is the best way to drive a narrative.  Stagecoach is a good example of this theory through use of the western hero.  Basinger, on the other hand, finds that characters, usually woman, forced to make a choice is what makes a film work and is seen in the film Baby Face.  However, most remarkably, is the fact that both theorists can be represented in one film, Mildred Pierce, and more modernly – Baby Driver, where their theories are demonstrated separately while still making the film work as a whole. This has lead to the evolution of the American film narrative paving the way for pioneers like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and most recently Edgar Wright.

Designing Women

GTY-Jessica-Chastain-ml-170530_12x5_1600If you’ve been following the film festival circuit, you no doubt have heard the fascinating observation from Cannes Film Festival jury member, Jessica Chastain about the current role of women in films. If you are unfamiliar with Chastain’s comments, the basic gist is that it is uncommon to find a female character whose main motivation is not simply reacting to what the male characters do. This complaint is not unfamiliar territory for Hollywood; however, Cannes is a renowned international film festival. In fact, most of the films that screen there are not from American filmmakers. Additionally, many of these films do not even get distribution in the United States, including the winning films.  My point being, the inferiority of women’s roles in film is often attributed to the American film industry, but Chastain’s comments open the conversation to a global stage.

What makes Chastain’s words ring even more true than most is the genuine way she presented herself. She introduced herself as someone who loves movies, and then discussed the unique experience of viewing 20 movies in 10 days, which is the process for the Cannes jury members. Having that broad and expansive experience allowed Chastain to make a relevant and sustained observation that with few exceptions, women in film are “mostly passive and empty shells of characters,” rather than resembling any woman she’d encountered in real life.

And, to put an even finer point on things, all of this occurred on the eve of the release of the American film Baywatch, a film supposedly all about the women starring two men, Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, and some women presumably – I don’t believe the trailer or promotional posters gave any names of the female stars.

Speaking of Johnson, just to prove I am not simply a bandwagon feminist, please take my review of another of his films, San Andreas, a film I enjoyed actually, but contained plenty of blatant and institutional misogyny…and also raked in $474 million globally.

Here’s the interesting thing though. Money is not necessarily where the sexism is. As I mentioned, the Cannes Film Festival is not the destination for films that generally rake in the box office dollars. Cannes is more of a home for the prestige pictures that hope to play in awards circuits. In many cases, these films represent a more accurate picture of how artists see the real world. Blockbuster films present, in many cases, a fantasy that can and often does include well-developed female characters.

Top grossing film of each of the past three years:Rey-Star-Wars-Rogue-One-mother

2015: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (female protagonist, Disney)

2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (female protagonist, Disney)

2017: Likely to be a battle between Beauty and the Beast (female protagonist), Wonder Woman (female protagonist), Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (female protagonist) – Disney, Warner Brothers, Disney.

Best Picture for each of the past three years:

2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (male protagonist fighting with another male who wants to be the true protagonist)

2015: Spotlight (a bunch of male protagonists uncovering criminal conspiracy of men molesting boys)

2016: Moonlight (three separate actors portraying one male protagonist)

So what does all of this mean? It means that as an art form, the studios, auteurs, actors, writers, and directors who are responsible for the underlying reputation of the business are compelled to depict the stories that matter most to our culture from an overwhelmingly male perspective. It’s not that these artists or the system is sexist, but rather the society of which they wish to reflect is.

Fortunately, the art that imitates life has an impact and the response from Jessica Chastain is evident of this. As our Cineplex’s continue bombard us with the traditional summer fare, take notice of the entertainment the film industry thinks we want to see and how the stories are portrayed. More importantly, after the blockbuster season, be aware of the films that are selected as the year’s best and think about if they represent the society and culture you want to live in!

 

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