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  • Michael Ballard

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): The Pursuit of a Pure Cinema


I still remember the first time I saw Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was 1968, at the Cinerama Dome (the Imax of its day), in Hollywood. I remember the buzz of anticipation as people filed into the auditorium; once the film began, I remember trying to figure out why a movie about outer space was beginning in prehistoric times; and, last but not least, I remember the cut.

You know what I'm talking about. The ape-man has just learned how to use a bone as a weapon. This newfound ability to make connections (in this case, seeing a discarded femur as a useful tool, something other than the worthless remains of last night’s dinner) is a major step in the development of consciousness. In a moment of exultation he flings the bone into the air and as it starts to come back down to earth, the image cuts to a shot of a satellite floating through space. It is an incredible feat of cinematic legerdemain. Not only does it yank us, in one-twenty-fourth of a second, millions of years into the future, it makes a trenchant comment on who we are as human beings. This need to explore, discover, develop, is an integral part of our being. Our tools and instruments may have grown more sophisticated, but those fundamental traits remain a constant and have changed little over the course of human evolution.

The splice felt 'round the world

Of course, back in 1968, I was a tender prepubescent. I had no idea what the story was about. If anyone had asked me, I’m certain my response would have amounted to little more than a forced smile and a timid shrug. But when the cut--that startling splice--crossed the screen, a vibration rippled through the auditorium as if it had been hit by a current of energy. Over 900 people had just shared an extraordinary moment, and we knew we were in for something different. It is one of my earliest memories of the power of the cinematic experience.

The language of cinema

Stanley Kubrick's goal, almost from the start of his filmmaking career, has been the pursuit of a pure cinema. In 2001, one example of his desire to convey story and ideas primarily through image and sound can be seen in Kubrick’s spare use of dialogue. A human voice is not heard until twenty-five minutes into the movie; and with the exception of HAL’s pleading for mercy, the last thirty minutes are without dialogue as well.

Slow and steady

The deliberate pacing, which has probably discouraged more than a handful of viewers over the years, is designed to add gravity to what we are witnessing. And Kubrick prepares us from the very beginning. During the first three minutes of the movie we are looking at a dark screen, listening to Gyorgy Ligeti's portentous Atmospheres. Like the protracted pace of evolution itself, this is going to take time.


Cinematic vs dramatic

Speaking of evolution, the final sequences appear to be Kubrick’s cinematic representation of man’s transition towards the next step in his evolution. One of the expectations of drama is character change (and change, we all know, is never easy, nor does it come without some measure of suffering). The protagonist struggles against whatever obstacles block his path to the goal he wants to attain. How he deals with those hurdles, the choices he makes, determines the type of person he will become by the end of the story. Kubrick, however, forgoes the use of conventional dramatic signposts.

Again, he employs image and sound to depict David Bowman's (Keir Dullea) transition: familiar landscapes in unfamiliar colors; harsh freeze frames of Bowman’s face, painfully distorted; abstract, multi-colored lights shooting by--on either side, above and below--as if Bowman is being pushed through some psychedelic birth canal. And underneath all this startling imagery is the beautiful dissonance of Legeti's music, another indicator that Bowman's excursion is going to be anything but easy.

At the extraordinary climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are actually witnessing the achievement of two major milestones. First, in the story, astronaut David Bowman takes mankind up another rung on the evolutionary ladder as he mutates (or is, perhaps, reborn?) into a sort of uber-being. Second, director Stanley Kubrick advances the language of cinema as he explores innovative approaches to the depiction of a story on film.