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There are many baffling (let’s go with the critical consensus and call them “enigmatic”) aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s going to take a lot more than a rapidly knocked-off blog entry to solve them. Like the blank, featureless monolith at its core, its mysteries cannot be definitively resolved no matter how hard you stare at them. Once you come to terms with that, you can enjoy the movie without it seeming like a space opera that fails to deliver the requisite thrills and resolutions. In some ways, disorientation is one of the film’s central motifs, whether it is created by the vast narrative ellipses, emotionally pale characters or the ambiguous, sometimes abstract spaces it depicts. Watching it again, I noticed numerous shots where Kubrick imposes a strict horizontality on the mise-en-scene. Let me explain what I mean.
2001 is about progress, the development of technologies that precipitate paradigm shifts in human life and relationships. The opening section famously shows the shift by apes from hunted, cowering scavengers into weapon-wielding territorial carnivores. The apes hold their bodies low to the ground, hunching their shoulders and scraping around in the dirt for food. One day, a large black monolith appears in their midst. Fearful at first, they seem to subject themselves in awe to the inert and inscrutable block. In return, it appears to stimulate a major evolutionary leap, inspiring one ape to to notice that the bone of a dead animal can be used to smash the bones of living creatures, providing plentiful meat, but also assisting with the subjugation of rival tribes. They become hunter-clobberers. All the apes are played by actors in suits and heavy prosthetics, except for one or two real chimpanzees to differentiate them from the new breed of enlightened beasts that will presumably evolve into homo sapiens. It will be those who dare to stand upright who will advance. Oh, and those who dare to take up arms and beat the crap out of something.
If the monolith’s appearance is significant in triggering the paradigm shifts that enable the evolution of humankind (and it is not certain that this is the case), then its power is signified by its presence at moments of cosmic order. It completes a pattern, becoming aligned with planets and moons and unlocking (?), sign-posting (?) or simply observing (?) a powerful coincidence of objects. The emergence of patterns becomes important as a graphic motif throughout the film. For the apes, the monolith represents a startling interruption of routine by straight lines and symmetry. From that point on, humans assume a new relationship with objects and tools. The match-cut which elides millions of years of history makes plain that this shift in perception is all you need to know about humans to understand how they went from picking fleas off each others’ backs to putting a space station into orbit.
In zero gravity, it becomes a moot point which way is up or down, with only the distantial relationships between objects making any sense. Hence the blissful docking of spacecraft which have mastered the dance and found a common orientation. In 2001 interplanetary travel is not just for those with the “right stuff”, but rather a smooth, Club Class jaunt; all of the troubles of weightlessness have been circumvented by the innovations of various corporations whose logos pepper the onboard instruments. At various points, the set’s spatial clarity can be upset by a change of direction, a remix of the lines of action you thought were in play. An air hostess steps carefully down a corridor before turning and walking up the walls; later, Frank Poole jogs around the interior of the ship, seeming, from one perspective, to be running perpendicular to the floor. The next shot gives us a different point of view, as if to remind us that the orientations suggested by these interiors are denials of the actual relations between objects loosed from any gravitational pull.
Kubrick’s compositions in interior shots are decidedly horizontal for the most part. The spacecraft, cockpits, docking bays and patterned lines cumulatively depict the imposition of order, straightness and an anthropocentric levelling-out of the inconceivable, directionless emptiness of outer space:
The technologised subjection of space to measurement, alignment and re-orientation is also seen in the focus on the navigation screens which show wireframe drawings of spacecraft on rigid grids that segment and demarcate the blackness. This equipment enables pilots to bring floating craft into a more co-ordinated and stable state:
There are ecstatic moments when clarity and alignment occur, as in the quasi-mystical lining-up of planets in the opening salvo, as if their rare order switches on the film with a cosmic, curtain-raising overture. There are threats to humans’ attempts at universal horizontality. The monolith inserts a resolute vertical into proceedings, and its apparently deliberate placement on the moon is a shocking discovery to a species who had previously believed themselves to be the only beings capable of the careful positioning of things.
Now, although I’ve offered one way of reading 2001 as a depiction of human endeavour as the taming of space and distance, and I’ve done this just by looking at the arrangment of certain shots, this is not the only way to read the film. It would be even more difficult to pin down an editorial attitude to questions of technology coming from Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke. There are plenty of moments of awed contemplation as the camera lingers over its spacecraft, ejecting people from the frame and decentring dialogue to an indistinct babble of small-talk in several scenes. Elsewhere, the beautiful machines turn menacing, either by their sheer scale or under the control of the artificially intelligent computer HAL, whose impermeable logic cannot be reasoned with once he decides on his own course of action. Is this late insertion of a lethally flawed computer supposed to undercut the preceding tech-fetishism? It is difficult to say, since the final shots are impossible to reduce to a closing comment (a reading of Clarke’s story The Sentinel will provide some clues, but the film’s version is not easily assimilable with it in many respects). The transformation of Dave Bowman into a gargantuan “starchild” (the film’s most dramatic reconfiguration of notions of relative scale) overlooking the surface of Jupiter is an evolutionary leap of which we cannot conceive. It moves humankind beyond a trifling interaction with levers, switches and big mechanical toys into a new arena of unbounded space where the rules of up, down, forward and back no longer need to apply. Maybe. That’s the brilliance of 2001. It defies explanation, but manages to give the impression that it is not a surreal refusal of sense, but a distant, advanced form of representation that will only be interpretable the next time a monolith appears to help with the next stage of consciousness.