How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 1 of 4
April 22, 2013
From the Internet to followers in my hometown Miami, I have long been asked to share my MA thesis that capped off my studies in American Literature at Florida International University, something I titled “the Sublimation Of The Classical Hollywood Cinema Form In 2001: A Space Odyssey.” This was a 76-page paper based on the work of eminent film scholar David Bordwell’s theory of classical Hollywood cinema. I contrasted the seven rules of his theory with criticism both scholarly and popular on the film as well as published interviews with both the film’s director Stanley Kubrick and its co-writer Arthur C. Clarke. The point was to reveal how the director achieved a more profound film— philosophically, spiritually and artistically— by breaking the rules of classical Hollywood cinema.
I had the opportunity to do that at O Cinema a couple of weeks ago following a rare theatrical screening of the film during a retrospective of Stanley Kubrick’s films (see event page). The art house’s co-director, Kareem Tabsch, invited me to present my argument in a discussion with an intimate audience illustrated by a presentation I designed on Prezi.com (see it here).
In a series of posts this week, I plan to share a redux version of my MA thesis, culled from notes from the discussion for O Cinema. This is by no means the full paper and will be missing deeper arguments. But I hope these summaries of my three chapters will provide a clear picture of my thesis. I will welcome any questions in the comments section if something seems unclear.
This work would not have been possible without the members of my thesis committee: my thesis director, Dr. Richard P. Sugg, who was highly influential in my studies and appreciation of cinema during my undergrad and graduate work. Dr. Jamie Sutton was the supportive rock throughout, and I thank him for the extra effort he put in getting me over the most difficult part of writing this thesis: helping me arrange my thoughts into a cohesive paper. Last, but not least, Dr. Bruce Harvey pushed me the hardest, challenging my conclusions and opening my eyes to how deep “beyond” can mean.
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Chapter I: The Classical Hollywood Film Theory, Stanley Kubrick and Beyond Subversion
Not long after its release, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey would gain a massive following despite some major critics’ backhanded reviews. Kubrick biographer and film scholar, Michel Ciment documented an efficient summary of their comments:
Who now remembers the firing-squad directed at 2001: A Space Odyssey by New York’s ‘establishment’. ‘It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie’ (Pauline Kael, Harper’s magazine); ‘A major disappointment’ (Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic); ‘Incredibly boring’ (Renata Adler, The New York Times); ‘A disaster’ (Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice)? Variety, the American show-business Bible, is the most reliable barometer of the profession’s suspicion of any unique, unconventional artist… as the ultimate criticism [they stated], ‘Film costs too much for so personal a film’ (43).
Yet, 2001 was the second highest grossing film in 1968, earning over $25.5 million for MGM that year alone (boxofficereport.com). Some went to augment acid trips with the film’s visuals. Others felt a spiritual sensation during the same sequences (see the Life in Pictures documentary). Beyond these sensory experiences, the film also begs an intellectual involvement to reconcile a film that would disappoint those expecting a classical Hollywood film.
One of the reasons for the harsh critical response toward 2001: A Space Odyssey upon release comes from the fact that several popular critics of the time approached this film with an aesthetic expectations stemming from classical Hollywood cinema. Their complaints were all about how the film did not follow Hollywood conventions, and it frustrated them. Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti wrote in Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis: “The first wave of critics wrote mixed reviews. While seeing a new use of film, they reacted with responses geared to conventionally shaped films” (Walker, Taylor and Ruchti 162).
However there were some that understood the film as something rather different and special during an era where many independent filmmakers were redefining movie’s structure (remember, this was the time when Easy Rider hit the scene). “Newsday” film critic Joseph Gelmis actually wrote two reviews within days of each other reversing his position from his original review, which had a title that stated “Space Odyssey Fails Most Gloriously” to admitting in his second review: “After seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey a second time, I’m convinced it is a masterwork.” (documented on-line here).
Since these first reviews, of course, there have been many critical books and articles that champion the breakthroughs in film narrative championed by 2001. There are people like Michel Ciment, Thomas Allen Nelson, Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti (those who’ve read books on Kubrick might recognize these names). I especially enjoyed William R. Robinson work, which includes two dense articles that appeared in a book by my thesis mentor Richard P. Sugg, a humanities and literature professor at Florida International University: Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values.
In his essays on 2001, Robinson recognizes that Kubrick was aiming to share something that could only be told through images and as such becomes impossible to explain with dialogue and words, much less the limits of conventional story-telling in cinema. As Robinson said, “[Kubrick] had a story to tell that could be rendered, perceived, followed and completed only through moving images … he committed himself to telling the story of the active eye” (Robinson 77).
Kubrick’s own thoughts regarding 2001’s interpretation correspond with the approach by film analysts like Robinson, Walker and others. As Kubrick once said:
“2001 … is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer’s subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting” (qtd. in Gelmis 89-90).
If an interviewer asked him for an interpretation, Kubrick would respond: “They are areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer” (qtd. in Nordern 47).
Rather than strive to produce yet another interpretation of this classic film with my Master’s thesis, which, as Kubrick described, is a “subjective” experience, I decided to hold 2001: A Space Odyssey up against the theories of classical Hollywood cinema, a theory that would not be defined until 1985 by David Bordwell, a famous film scholar based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (he’s now professor emeritus there but still writes on film at www.davidbordwell.net). Keep in mind, this theory had still been almost 20 years away from relevance in film studies.
But by holding this film against this theory that defines what Bordwell called “classical Hollywood cinema” I want to show:
- How easy it is to pull apart the same old stories from major studies looking to to appeal to the lowest common denominator to sell the most tickets.
- Reveal something about my own approach to film criticism.
- How breaking the rules of Hollywood film can feel more fulfilling to a viewer looking for something more at the movies.
- Demonstrate how this film has inspired so many competing interpretations (check YouTube for some).
Going back to Gelmis, he wrote that populist critics seemed “‘threatened’ by the film ‘because the conventional standards don’t apply’” (20). It was that little bit of commentary that inspired me to compare Bordwell’s later theoretical work in defining the classical Hollywood cinema form to see how this film fits in with that approach. I wasn’t surprised to find that it does not fit in his theory of Hollywood film at all.
Columbia University Press published the Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 by Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Bordwell’s wife and longtime collaborator Kristin Thompson. It remains in print and essential to film studies to this day. This is what Bordwell said of the film studies world that inspired this book: “During the 1970s and early 1980s film scholars of various stripes were referring to a ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ cinema, centered in the U.S. studio system,” He continues about the book he co-wrote: “In this very long, densely printed, heavily footnoted book, two colleagues and I tried to describe, analyze, and explain what this concept might mean.” For the purpose of my thesis, Bordwell’s section of the book proves most useful, and it breaks down along seven pretty plain and easy-to-understand rules, dealing with narrative structure, style and the technical devices of movies:
- The film follows a particular character or group of characters from beginning to end
- The principal character or characters have a defined, primary goal or several goals.
- The main characters must overcome obstacles presented by antagonists to achieve their goals.
- Events that occur in the film have clear causes and effects and are unambiguous.
- The story should unfold as if it were in the present with key events occurring in consecutive order, although flashbacks, fantasies, dreams and character point-of-view shots are permitted.
- By the film’s conclusion, no questions are left unanswered that may have arisen in the plot.
- Film techniques such as editing and sound should not call attention to themselves (236).
With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick decisively breaks out of these rules of the classical Hollywood form to make the audience not only look deeper at his film, but experience something beyond the images. In other words, context should be projected by the audience, not dictated by explicit meanings in the narrative.
In my second post in this series I plant to show how Kubrick subverts rules 1 – 3 to offer a grander experience for the viewer. Jump to it here:
How Stanley Kubrick broke the rules of Classical Hollywood cinema and made a better film with ’2001: A Space Odyssey’: My MA thesis redux – part 2 of 4
Watch the original trailer:
O Cinema is hosting an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location (that’s a hot link for tickets and more information). This screening is part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which is also currently playing at O Cinema (see event page). The film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining, continues to expand this week in the Miami area. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).
Bordwell, David. 2004. David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema. 2 Nov. 2004. <http://www.davidbordwell.net/books.htm>.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
“Box Office Report – Revenue Database – 1968.” 2005. Box Office Report. Ed. Garris, Daniel. 24 May 2005 <http://www.boxofficereport.com/database/1968.shtml>.
Ciment, Michel. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. Trans. Gilbert Adair and Robert. Bononno. 2001 ed. New York: Faber & Faber, 2001.
Gelmis, Joseph. “The Film Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick.” 1970. Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 80-104.
Nordern, Eric. “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick.” Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001. 47-74.
Robinson, William R. and Mary McDermott. “2001 And the Literary Sensibility.” 1972. Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values. Ed. Richard P. Sugg. New York: Golden String Press, 2001. 77-91.
Walker, Alexander, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti. Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: Norton, 1999.