Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001

This week, I present the first of what I hope will develop into a regular series of short video podcasts. Last year, I experimented with ten audio podcasts, most of which adapted posts previously published on this blog. As much as I enjoyed making those shows, I missed being able to show images and clips, so this is an opportunity to refer very directly to particular scenes from films; sometimes I’ll analyse a single clip, and other times the subject will be more of a video essay like this first entry, which revisits a post about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can read the original entry here, but I really wanted to start with something familiar to get used to the editing software. I’m using iMovie for now, but might progress to something more complex if needed. This equipment serves my purposes for now.

I plan to follow this with two more short videos about 2001, and then a broader variety of films. If time allows, new video podcasts will appear every fortnight. Feedback on episode #001 would be greatly appreciated:

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001: 2001: A Space Odyssey – This Way Up from Dan North on Vimeo.

Spectacular Attractions Podcast #1: 2001: A Space Odyssey

[#1 Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey]

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, it was partly so that I could foist some bits of my brain on you, the reader, and partly to let myself try out gadgets and social media. This has often meant displaying all of my trials and errors in the public domain as I got to grips with writing, formatting and maintaining a web presence. My latest trial is a podcast, and here you can download my first attempt. I thought about trying to get it perfect before publishing, but now I’ve decided I might as well throw it out there and leave it to you to tell me what I’m doing right or wrong. That way, future podcasts can improve as I get the hang of the slightly odd experience of talking at my computer, which I only usually do when I need to swear at it for not working properly. In future, once I’m more rehearsed, I can post new reviews and posts in audio and text formats if there’s a demand.

What I’ve done in this instance is record a reading of an earlier post, which you can read by following this link if you prefer. In it, I describe an interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that finds meaningful patterns in the film’s many horizontal, symmetrical compositions. If your mp3 player (or whatever other device you use for playing this sort of thing) can play video and images, you’ll be able to see stills from the film. The music used is some stuff I put together using loops from Garage Band, plus a bit of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer before I go ahead and make any more of these or set up shop in a corner of iTunes.

Download the podcast here! Spectacular Attractions Podcast #1

[Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here.]

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New Look, Old Posts.

I’m in a meeting. I’ll be back soon. Apologies for the relative lack of updates here at Spectacular Attractions. I’m entering a period of exceptional busyness which will keep me in meetings for the next week or so. The first casualty of gainful employment is blogging, apparently, so although I’m keen to share with you my current research on puppets, ventriloquism, motion capture, anime and bunraku, I can’t give it all the attention it deserves. Instead, I’m going on a brief hiatus.

To mark my absence, I’m testing a new look for the site (again). I may change it again, but this outfit should freshen things up a little. To see how the new theme sits with the archive of older posts (sometimes changing the furniture can upset the formatting of posts that were designed to sit in different places), I’m going to repost some of my old favourites which you may have missed. I hope you like them – most of them come from an earlier time when this place attracted far less traffic than it does today, so they may not have been noticed by more recent visitors. I’ll also repost, separately, my massive shot-by-shot analysis of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, with updates, not least because it took me ages and I’m keen to get it noticed and to keep on developing it from your suggestions and comments. Thanks again for stopping by.

If you’ll excuse me lolling about on my laurels for a bit of self-reflection, here are Spectacular Attractions’ ten favourite posts:

2001: This Way Up?: Did the world really need another blogger’s opinion of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Was yet another interpretation going to finally solve its mysteries? Probably not, but this is one of my most concise and cohesive bits of blogging and it would make me feel warm inside if more people got to read it.

Avalon: Analysis of Mamoru Oshii’s beguiling/maddening, existential cyberthriller, distinguished by some fascinating discussion in the comments section – thanks to all concerned. Includes updates following repeat viewings.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime: Modern Life is Noisy: It’s one of my favourite films of all time, and it just gets more fascinating every time I see it. It’s also one of my most valued teaching aids when it comes to talking about film sound.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Gentle Art of Murder: I wrote this as an introduction for some first-year students who weren’t sure why they were meant to be watching it. Hardly anyone has read it, unfortunately. It took me a while to put together. Sadness.

Nine Minutes of Cows: When I wrote later about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, thousands of people at least glanced at it, and some may even have read the words, but next to nobody took a look at this, one of my first ever posts at Spectacular Attractions (and one of the early, funny ones). It talks naively about the opening shot of Tarr’s Sátántangó and could probably do with some sub-editing, but I’m a bit fond of it as a starting point.

Why don’t you send us a photo?”: Chantal Akerman’s News From Home: Against the odds, this film has quietly lodged itself in my mind as an all-time favourite. It’s a meditative, solemn experience, and most of my students object quite strongly against it, so I hoped that this post would go some way towards explaining its significance.

Unbreakable Patterns: Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was a promising talent who treated genre films with reverential care and a defiantly contemplative visual style? If not, I humbly hope this post about his classy, glassy superhero drama will jog your memory.

Two or Three Things I Reckon: Written as an introductory guide for some of my students to one of Godard’s trickiest, but most rewarding 1960s films, putting this together reminded me of how deliberately composed, how compassionate, humane and hungry his films were back then.

J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor: I can’t get enough of Jan Svankmajer’s dense, incantatory short films, and maybe one day I will have managed a post about each and every one of them. There are four so far, but this discussion of his musical, montagist, puppetless masterpiece is the one most starved of readership to date.

Don’t Look Now: “Did You Really See Her?”: It took me ages to get the appropriate frame grabs to illustrate this analysis of Nic Roeg’s endlessly rewarding maybe-ghost story, and at the very least I want to repost it to check that the new theme hasn’t ruined the arrangement of pictures. If it picks up a couple of new readers, that can only be a bonus.

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Picture of the Week #4: Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut Censored version [Click to Uncensor]

[Click on the image to uncensor it, i.e. to see it as it was originally intended, but beware the naughtiness within…]

OK, adults only for this one. Spectacular Attractions is usually a family show, but this is a different kind of Friday. Here, go and look at Pinocchio, or possibly the Muppets.

A frame grab from Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick died shortly after completing the film, having promised to deliver an R-rated movie (apparently, he watched a bunch of Hollywood’s more sexually explicit films in order to gauge what would be considered acceptable to receive such a rating). The sequence in which Tom Cruise visits a masked orgy was considered to be NC-17 territory, a rating which ostensibly marks something out as unsuitable for children, but which actually decreases its chances at the box office, rejection by self-righteous finger-waggers and unwarranted controversy from a wide variety of spoilsports. However, although MGM surely would have just snipped out the relevant glimpses of humping, they found themselves hidebound by their commitment not to re-edit or cut a frame of Kubrick’s footage. What to do? The simple answer would be to suck it down and release the film unadjusted, take the reduced box office safe in the knowledge that you hadn’t compromised the artistic vision of a man on whose name you’d been happily trading for years. Alternatively, you could take some digital people and graft them onto the film to cover up those dangerous bits of flesh. Very clever – loyal to the exact wording of their commitment to Kubrick, but actually snuffing out the spirit of it in one quick application of polygons. The result can be seen in the image above.

Barbara Creed saw this as an advance notice of the coming age of the synthespian, when human actors would routinely be replaced by digital substitutes. She suggested that as they took over, we might have to change the way we relate to people onscreen, since the virtual actor would have no Unconscious, and thus not be “subject to the same experience as the living star, experiences such as mothering, Oedipal anxiety, hunger, loss, ecstasy, desire, death.” But then, she also predicted that porn stars, already artificially augmented beyond the realms of realism, could be doubled by virtual actors. It all sounded a bit William Gibson to me, and this week’s picture instead made it look as though digital people were just going to show up in films where they weren’t wanted and spoil everyone else’s view.

2001: A Space Odyssey: This Way Up

[You can now hear this post as an audio podcast via this link. It is also available in video form here.]

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.

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