2001_SK

Chapter III-B: The Sublimation of Narrative: Film Techniques in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Note: this is a continuation from the post: 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 3 of 4

7. Film Techniques should be invisible

Finally, and most uniquely to the medium of cinema, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick employs obtrusive film techniques, including powerful match cuts and long, self-aware musical sequences where music goes beyond mood and atmosphere to take on a narrative role. This last element of Hollywood cinema dictates the audience should not become aware of technical aspects of movie-making while watching a film. As film scholar David Bordwell notes, “Hollywood’s pride in concealed artistry implies that narration is imperceptible and unobtrusive” (24). Cinematic techniques, such as music and editing, must not break the movie’s spell by calling attention to themselves.

a. Editing:

Some edits in 2001 might feel superficially jarring upon initial viewing, but they are actually pregnant with questions and meaning. Granted, whenever a film is spliced, information is lost, but the Hollywood aesthetic dictates that scenes need to be cut in a seemingly seamless manner. Bordwell explains, “From shot to shot, tonality, movement, and the center of compositional interest shift enough to be distinguishable but not enough to be disturbing” (55).

Much to the chagrin of some critics, 2001 contains several conspicuous edits. As cited earlier, critics like Sarris, Kael and Schlesinger bemoaned the ambiguity between scenes. However, Kubrick’s editing decisions were well thought out. He inserts transitions between many important scenes that force the audience to fill in “gaps” of time and space. These transitions are more associative edits rather than temporal. Nelson pointed to this as an outstanding aspect of the movie:bonedit  “[2001] embodies a kind of ultimate cinematic universe, where all the assurances of ‘normal’ perspective are literally turned upside down, and ‘settings’ project … a disturbing lack of contextual and historical definition” (110).  The narrative effect of this leaves questions of story continuity in the viewer’s mind.

The viewer should not mistake these odd moments of editing with a plot hampered by events strung together haphazardly or coincidental ploys written into the storyline to keep the movie going. These are, in fact, tools that allow the director to raise his story to another level, beyond the theoretical confines of classical Hollywood cinema. In fact, one could argue Kubrick’s movie is more truthful as a result of what he leaves out between cuts as opposed to employing expository dialogue. In Robinson’s Lexicon, the term “cut” is defined as “[The] key to what is carried across from one image to another; whereas with words, inventions of man’s reflective powers, artifice is carried across; with images[,] entities within the visible creations, it is creative power that carries across the cut.” (Lavery 358).

The first scene that compels the viewer to see beyond the action in 2001 is probably the most famous scene of Kubrick’s entire career. It occurs in the early part of the film, during “The Dawn of Man,” when Kubrick introduces the ape-men. He directs the viewer’s attention to a scene involving the ape-men’s cognition that a bone could be used as a tool/weapon by showing the creatures’ transformation from this revelation by using a jump cut to show man’s final stage of evolution: man in space.

During this scene, a screaming Moon-Watcher tosses the bone in the air. As the bone hurtles against the sky in slow motion, the sound cuts to silence before the viewer is presented with the vastness of space and a satellite drifting above the planet earth. A second later, Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube begins. Beyond exciting viewers’ intellect with his surprising edits, Kubrick further emphasizes the jarring cuts with the waltz. As this scene clearly shows, “The Dawn of Man” section is not just about man evolving from apes; it seemingly encompasses the lifespan of Homo sapiens.

In his Newsweek review, film critic Joseph Morgenstern pointed out that an extraordinary amount of time is covered in that gap: “The man-ape gleefully hurls his tool of war into the air. It becomes a satellite in orbit around the moon. A single dissolve spans 4 million years” (97). The edit is a trick of the mind, as much as it is the eye.  It is a direct association between club and space vehicle.  The bone doesn’t turn into a satellite. They are two images literally juxtaposed. To correct my namesake (no relation), the transition is not a dissolve but a simple splice in the film. More specifically, it is a match cut, where two similar looking objects are edited into one another to create a relationship (W. Phillips 130). In effect, quicker than a blink of an eye, the viewer is transported four million years into the future. Nelson defines the implication of the association thus:   “The technological leap from the bone to the moon-bound Pan-American spacecraft, imagined against the black background of infinite and unknown space, emphasizes that the next stage of man’s evolutionary rise continues the initial development begun by the ape.” (82).

This becomes the most important cut in the movie, as it clearly sets a profound tone. The match cut of the bone to the space vessel cracks the invisibility element of editing. Maybe not in a literal way that makes one think of the artifice of movie-making, but a jarring, obtrusive way. It calls attention to itself. The film is not looking to explain events, but seeks to stimulate the viewer to inform the action. Hence, the film’s appropriate hallmark of scant dialogue and exposition versus visuals pregnant with meanings. Throughout the film, Kubrick shows the audience that dialogue has little value in exposition. Instead, he emphasizes nonverbal communication like music and images, which he emphasizes through other carefully thought-out cuts within the film.

B. Music

7b music

Classical Hollywood cinema dictates a movie should use music sparingly, supplementing the action on screen but never overshadowing it. As Bordwell says, “The music confines itself to a moment-by-moment heightening of the story. Slight anticipations are permitted, but recollections of previous musical material must be motivated by a repetition of situation or by character memory” (35). 2001 both follows this rule to its fullest effect but also takes a daring turn away from it. Kubrick utilized diverse but, for the most part, famous classical music pieces for the score of 2001. One of the most iconic pieces must be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which appears during the opening credits and during the epiphanies that note the ape-men’s transformation to human and humanity’s ascendance to Star-Child.

Classical Hollywood cinema demands fleeting, associative uses of music that cue the audience into what event might happen next. As Bordwell notes, “During the film, music adheres to classical narration’s rule of only allowing glimpses of its omniscience, as when the score anticipates the action by a few moments” (34). In other words, the tone of the music should be an efficient thematic element scored to the scene that might clue the audience to a character’s intentions or the mood in the scene. Bordwell explains, “Just as classical camera work or editing becomes more overt when there is little dialogue, so the music comes into its own as an accompaniment for physical action. Here music becomes expressive to certain conventions (static harmony for suspense or the macabre, chromaticism for tension, marked rhythm for chase scenes)” (ibid).

The manner in which Kubrick uses music in the film was revolutionary in that entire scenes went on with only musical accompaniment and no dialogue while the narrative developed on an almost subconscious level. In the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, film director Tony Palmer calls 2001 a milestone in cinema history precisely because of the way Kubrick utilized music:

I always think that history of the cinema divides into two essential eras: before Stanley Kubrick and after Stanley Kubrick, especially in relation to the use of music in film. Before Stanley Kubrick, music tended to be used in film as either decorative or as heightening emotions. After Stanley Kubrick, because of his use of classical music in particular, it became absolutely an essential part of the narrative, intellectual drive of the film.

In fact, Kubrick at first hired composer Alex North for an original score, which would have conformed more to Hollywood cinema’s demands that the music be inspired by the image and try to convey a musical mood in support of the images. North recorded a soundtrack, which is now readily available, but Kubrick was so taken by the classical temp tracks he used during filming, he decided to stick with those instead. “This was a crucial decision,” wrote Roger Ebert in his second review of 2001, where he reflected on the film 30 years after he first saw it. “North’s score … would have been wrong for ‘2001’ because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action— to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action.” Ebert emphasizes the word “outside,” which points to Kubrick’s reaching beyond the actions on screen and drawing the audience into a film that tries to go beyond conventions of Hollywood cinema.

Throughout 2001, non-diegetic music never overlaps with dialogue. There are, however, three questionable scenes focusing on man’s interaction with the monolith. There are the ape-men, who seem to react to the sound of György Ligeti’s high-pitched howling chorus that emanates around them or possibly from within the monolith. Also, the lunar scientists reel in pain after a similar chorus of voices turns into a piercing high-pitched sustained note. Then, during the penultimate emergence of the monolith, Dave Bowman enters the star gate as the chorus once again returns.

One critic referred to the monolith as “the singing slab,” as the imagery seems to respond to seemingly non-diegetic music (Sweeney 229). This minimal use of music that might or might not be non-diegetic adds to the potency of the scenes, which offer a repetitious pattern of similar, yet unique and related events that occur during entirely unique instances during man’s evolution. Ciment explained it best:

The oratorio by György Ligeti which acts as a musical leitmotif for the presence of the monolith coincides with Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that all technology, if sufficiently advanced, is touched with magic and a certain irrationality. Its choral accompaniment leads us onto the threshold of the unknown, just as Kubrick’s use of the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra prepares us for the profundity of his intentions … 2001 postulates the same progression as in Nietzsche’s work, from the ape to man, then from man to Superman” (Ciment 128).

Ciment also notes that 2001’s use of Also Spoke Zarathustra during the evolutionary leap from ape-man to space-man and the rebirth of Bowman emphasizes the film’s Nietzschean tone (105). Kubrick harnesses the power of music to tell the story, rather than limiting the score to offer cues to the audience of what might happen next or set a mood. In 2001, music becomes an essential part of the narrative, while dialogue refrains from offering any profound details into character motivation. With his use of music in 2001, Kubrick goes beyond the limitations of language and even images alone to push his statement.

Conclusion:

6endings

Although Hollywood film demands some degree of cognitive effort by the viewer, it never calls on the viewer to accept abstractions. For instance, at the end of 2001, an astronaut transforms into a baby floating in space. Traditional Hollywood film demands that there be some kind of explanation as to how this happened, be it exposition or a visual representation of the force that brought on such a change, but the film joins the aged astronaut and the fetus only by a film splice, which is imperceptible to the human eye, considering how fast film rolls. Essentially, nothing joins the two embodiments of the one astronaut. Also, nothing before the transformation hints that this is what will be happening to the astronaut and nothing after the transformation explains why it did, at least not definitively.

The dictates of traditional Hollywood cinema never allow for such ambiguity, as every event in a Hollywood movie must contribute to the story in some definitive manner, be it subtle or obvious. For instance, a classic Hollywood version of 2001 might show an alien wave a magic wand over the astronaut and then a flashy transformation might play out between the human and baby forms, definitively linking the two as a single being.

I believe in cinema as serious art. Not as solely entertainment but a medium that allows us a way of looking deeper at ourselves, a kind of aid to mankind in delving in and discovering ourselves. In turn, finding transcendence in art. 2001 strives to tap into a deeper power of the film medium, inspiring contemplation of the deepest questions of life, such as the origins and future of humanity, while not falling into the trap of heavy-handedness. It can only achieve this by breaking the limits of conventional Hollywood cinema.

I think Ebert hit 2001’s purpose on the head when he revisited the film 30 years after he first saw it and contrasted its purpose with the absence of deeper purpose in movies that follow the classical Hollywood cinema:

Only a few films are transcendent, and work upon our minds and imaginations like music or prayer or a vast belittling landscape. Most movies are about characters with a goal in mind, who obtain it after difficulties either comic or dramatic. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is not about a goal but about a quest, a need. It does not hook its effects on specific plot points, nor does it ask us to identify with Dave Bowman or any other character. It says to us: We became men when we learned to think. Our minds have given us the tools to understand where we live and who we are.

2001 is constructed to inspire viewers to go beyond the image and ultimately look into themselves and what they can bring to the movie. The pay-off for those watching the film comes only when viewers embrace its open-ended quality, feel liberated by it, and instead of scratching their heads or superficially marveling at the “weirdness” of the film, begin to invest in the scenes that call to them. It is only then that they can grow from within after watching a film as convention-busting and masterful as 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is art, the sort of art that out lives us, intriguing one generation after another.

21-space-odyssey

Works Cited

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1985.

Ciment, Michel.  Kubrick:  The Definitive Edition.  Trans. Gilbert Adair and Robert Bononno.  2001 ed.  New York:  Faber & Faber, 2001.

Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  27 March 1997. Rogerebert.com.  6 Feb. 2006 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970327/REVIEWS08/401010362&gt;.

Lavery, David.  “‘Like Light’: The Movie Theory of W.R. Robinson.”  Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values.  Ed. Richard P. Sugg.  New York:  Golden String Press, 2001.  346-363.

Morgenstern, Joseph.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Newsweek 15 April 1968:  97-100.

Nelson, Thomas Allen.  Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze.  New and expanded ed. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2000.

Phillips, William H.  Film: An Introduction.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Sweeney, Louise.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Christian Science Monitor 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York:  New American Library, 1970.  227-229.

* * *

Note: In Miami, O Cinema hosted an encore screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday, April 27 at its Miami Shores location. This screening was part of O Cinema’s on-going Kubrick retrospective inspired by Room 237, which also played at part of the retrospective (see event page). Today is the last day to catch the film, inspired by Kubrick’s the Shining; both these films have one more screening each this afternoon at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (see calendar).

Room 237 trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

4 cause and effect

Chapter III-A: The Sublimation of Narrative: Narrative Structure in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Note: this is a continuation from yesterday’s post: 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 

4. Events have clear causes and effects

As film theorist David Bordwell notes: “Coincidence and haphazardly linked events are believed to flaw the [Hollywood] film’s unity and disturb the spectator. Tight causality yields not only consequence but continuity, making the film progress ‘smoothly, easily, with no jars, no waits, no delays.’23 A growing absorption also issues from the steadily intensifying character causality, as the spectator recalls salient causes and anticipates more or less likely effects”* (18).  This formula effectively eases the viewer into the story, but when it came to 2001: A Space Odyssey, critics felt disappointed that Kubrick did not follow this convention.

Throughout the film, many causes and effects have an ambiguous relationship, which unsettles the viewer. The premiere screening of 2001 in New York featured many walkouts and complaints. Kubrick himself counted 241 (as Jack Nicholson recalled in the Life in Pictures documentary), and movie critic Roger Ebert noted one Hollywood actor at the screening, namely Rock Hudson, who “stalked down the aisle” and grumbled, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?”

Beyond the frustrations of an actor accustomed to working in the Hollywood form, many esteemed film critics also felt hindered from appreciating 2001 because they expected a classical Hollywood film with clear causes and effects. One of the most notable dissenters was Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice. In his review, he sounded frustrated by the obliqueness of the monolith, precisely because of the ambiguity surrounding an object that plays a key role in the transformative events in the movie:  “A big black slab figures in each section of the film, but we never find out exactly what it is or what it signifies” (Sarris 45).

Others hoped Kubrick could spell out the meaning of his film less ambiguously. In his review for Vogue Magazine, Arthur Schlesinger, like many critics, blamed Kubrick’s attention to special effects** for the film’s seemingly failing, unintelligible narrative. “In 2001 he has gone mad over electronic artifacts … Obsession continues to outrun explanation, and this reviewer, at least, could not understand a good deal of what was going on.” (Schlesinger 76). 

With 2001, Kubrick often violates the rule of “tight causality” Bordwell speaks of in his fourth rule of the classical Hollywood form. For instance, after disconnecting HAL, Bowman decides to leave the spaceship Discovery in a space pod and make the ominous decision to blindly approach the mysterious monolith floating in space, but in Arthur C. Clarke’s book, the author gives a clear reason. The book establishes Bowman living in the now derelict ship, carrying on the research for some time after HAL’s disconnection, until, one day, he reports to mission control that he wants a closer look at the monolith floating outside and offers his plan to return to the Discovery in about 90 minutes (Clarke 247-248).

This monolith, which Clarke names “the Star Gate” in his book’s narrative (effectively loading it with more meaning) later seems to absorb Bowman and the space pod as if it were a kind of portal to a place beyond space and time (Clarke 243). The genius of Kubrick’s ambiguous set-up lies in the slipperiness of it. Bowman’s actions startle the viewer, adding to the shock of the lengthy Star Gate sequence, which would only be hampered by exposition. The special effects during the rest of the movie are all meant to dazzle and create an experience beyond words, reflective of Bowman’s unearthly experience. It involves the viewer on a visceral level, rather than if the director served up clear explanations as to what he or she is seeing.

Key to Kubrick’s harnessing the power of ambiguity, the director stays away from using language to explain what might be happening in the movie. 2001 has the rare characteristic of having very scarce dialogue, which contributes to the film’s vagueness. Clarke explains: “[B]ecause we were dealing with the mystery of the Universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they [the forces] could not be totally understandable” (Clarke 249).

5. Narrative has chronology

2001-stargate1

Bordwell states that fifth convention is almost taken for granted by the audience. “[T]hrough its history Hollywood cinema seeks to represent events in a temporally continuous fashion; moreover, narrative logic has generally worked to motivate this temporal continuity” (Bordwell 9). As already can be seen, it is impossible for 2001 to fit this convention because there is no clear character or group of characters that influences the film’s story from beginning to end.

If the fact that Kubrick focuses on three different characters, during three lengthy sections of the film does not already do enough to undermine this convention, the presence of the Stargate sequence blows this rule away. Kubrick called this voyage to Bowman’s destiny— depicted in a drawn-out sequence of lights and brilliant geometric and amorphous shapes, not to mention freeze frames, flash cuts and reversed images— “a journey through inner and outer space” (qtd. in Gelmis 91).

Actually, one of the most confounding moments of the film happens here. Kubrick once explained: “In a timeless state, [Bowman’s] life passes from middle age to senescence to death.  He is reborn … and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward of man’s evolutionary destiny” (qtd. in Gelmis 91).

The critics who disliked this film hated the long, ponderous Stargate sequence so much, they would have preferred to see it cut. Sarris and the Christian Science Monitor’s Louise Sweeney did not find any value in Bowman’s trip through space and time at the end of the movie. In addition, Kauffman joined Sweeney in sharing a preference for having the scenes with the ape-men excised. This leaves the tight chronology of the Discovery trip as the only section of the film that mattered in these critics’ eyes, hoping for relief in the classical Hollywood form.

Going somewhere beyond man’s perception of space and time, specifically during the Star Gate sequence, the narrative announces its dramatic move to go “beyond infinity.” As Robinson has observed:  “Since nothing beyond infinity can be rationally conceived, the title of Part III [‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’], a verbal paradox, itself signifies that Dave has embarked upon a venture too subtle for reason to comprehend” (163).

6. Unambiguous ending

conclusion

2001: A Space Odyssey is all about open-endedness. However, as Bordwell notes, in classical Hollywood film, “[t]he ending becomes the culmination of the spectator’s absorption, as all the causal gaps get filled” (Bordwell 18). With a film that conforms to classical Hollywood cinema, a viewer should feel confident that, by the film’s conclusion, he or she will understand how all of the film’s causes and effects lead up to the finale of its story. By contrast, the end of 2001 concludes with many gaps in the film’s plot left open, in effect leaving many questions in the viewer’s mind unanswered. This demands the viewer see beyond the visuals of the film. After all, Kubrick’s goal, as he has already stated, was to create an experience. In an interview with The New York Times’ William Kloman in April 1968, Kubrick explains, “Essentially the film is a mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level rather than in a specific literal explanation.”

Several critics who wrote negative reviews of the movie indeed had problems with how Kubrick ended his movie. “By the end three unreconciled plot lines—the slabs, Dullea’s aging, the period bedroom—are simply left there like a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology” (Adler 209). Adler specifically voiced her disappointment that the film did not attempt to conform to classical Hollywood cinema, saying the film could not work if it did not spell out its intentions: “This is a long step outside the convention, some extra scripts seem required, and the all-purpose answer, ‘relativity,’ does not really serve unless it can be verbalized” (209). I shiver at the thought of cinematic experience reduced to verbalizing all its intentions.

Sarris also complained about the vagueness of the finale, stating the film ended on an arrogant note of artiness: “The ending is a mishmash of psychedelic self-indulgence for the special effects people and an exercise in mystifying abstract fantasy in the open temple of High Art” (Sarris 45).

Like Kubrick, Clarke was quite aware of the contentious points the New York critics brought up against the film and offered many vocal counter points to their criticisms. “[T]he ending does not consist of random enigmas, some simple-minded critics to the contrary. (You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick’s. Nor is his necessarily the ‘right’ one—whatever that means.)” (Clarke 249).

The arrival of the Starchild ends Homosapiens and begins a race of something else… if one can even call it a race. But, in keeping with the filmmakers’ intent: who knows? Kubrick meant to leave you wondering with that jarring finale. Classical Hollywood films are constructed in such a manner that no questions are left unanswered; their stories and messages may seem clear-cut, but they are also limited in scope. Audiences are effectively force-fed a conclusion and an idea that has as much value as the popcorn and soda they consume while viewing it. Meaning is closed, shut down rather than encouraged by such movies. Films, like any art that hopes to stand the test of time— should mean something to the viewer personally. Kubrick wants to leave the audience with a feeling more so than a thought. As Kubrick once said, “The truth of a thing is in the feel of it, not the think of it” (qtd. in Gelmis 80).

2001-kubrick

Part 4 in this series of posts will examine the final and most complex rule of Hollywood film challenged by 2001: A Space Odyssey (as of he posting of this third part in the series, it stands at double the length of this post, but I hope to shrink it, and it might take more than a day).

Edit: here is the link to Part 4: 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 4 of 4

Meanwhile, do not forget…

In Miami, 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 opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Tuesday, Apr. 23 (see calendar) and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables will begin a run on Friday, Apr. 26 (see calendar).

Notes

* Bordwell here quotes from Barret C. Kiesling, Talking Pictures (Richmond, Virginia, Johnson Publishing Co., 1937).

**According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2001 won the Oscar® for Special Visual Effects that year. It was also nominated in three other categories: Art Direction, Directing and Screenwriting.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1985.

Clarke, Arthur C.  Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations. 1st ed.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1972.

— –.  2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Millennium Edition.  New York:  Roc, 2000.

Ebert, Roger.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  27 March 1997. Rogerebert.com.  6 Feb. 2006 <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970327/REVIEWS08/401010362&gt;.

Gelmis, Joseph.  “The Film Director as Superstar: Stanley Kubrick.”  1970.  Stanley Kubrick Interviews.  Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  80-104.

Kauffman, Stanley.  “Lost in the Stars.”  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  New Republic 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York: New American Library, 1970.  223-226.

Kloman, William.  “In 2001, Will Love Be a Seven Letter Word?”  New York Times On The Web 14 April 1968.  5 July 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/041468kubrick-2001.html>.

Robinson, William R.  “The Birth of Imaginative man in Part III of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.”  Seeing Beyond:  Movies, Visions, and Values.  Ed. Richard P. Sugg.  New York:  Golden String Press, 2001.  161-187.

Sarris, Andrew.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Village Voice 11 April, 1968:  45.

Schlesinger, Arthur Jr.  “2001: A Space Odyssey:  ‘a superb wreck’”  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Vogue June 1968:  76.

Sweeney, Louise.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Christian Science Monitor 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York:  New American Library, 1970.  227-229.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

3 obstacles are obscured

Chapter II:  The Decoy Characters and the Frivolity of Obstacles in 2001

Note: this is a continuation from yesterday’s post: 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

  1. Characters

Film theorist David Bordwell states, “Character-centered—i.e., personal or psychological—causality is the armature of the classical story” (13). In its entire narrative span, which, at the very least, covers millions of years (not to mention infinity), 2001 does not feature a single apparent, dominating character over the course of the whole film. Of course, the film’s timespan could not allow for one mortal character or group of characters to steer the story’s development from start to finish. By examining each of the film’s three sections, as introduced by title cards, one can observe both the absence of central characters and the presence of something else in their place.

One of the consistent complaints by dissenting critics was precisely about this. Andrew Sarris, writing for The Village Voice, called 2001 “a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of Stanley Kubrick’s inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view” (45). In his review for The New Republic, entitled “Lost in the Stars,” Stanley Kauffman states he would have preferred if Kubrick had disposed of all film that did not feature the astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea), in effect making Bowman the film’s main character (224).

Some critics made the stretch to make the Monolith the film’s main character. In her review, Adler referred to it as “the sentient slab” (207). But there’s something missing from the Monolith as the decision-maker in plot. This brings us to the second principle of classical Hollywood cinema, as Bordwell has noted: “… the character assumes a causal role because of his or her desires. Hollywood characters especially protagonists, are goal-oriented” (17).

  1. Characters Have Goals

2 charcters and goals

The inference Adler made to call the Monolith “the sentient slab” does not fit with Bordwell’s second rule of the classical Hollywood form. Kubrick presents the Monolith as a mysterious object of unknowable quality. In the last spoken lines of the film, Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) states: “Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert. Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.” After all what happens in the film to that point, we are still only left with mystery.

Kubrick has good reason not to explain the ambiguities of the monolith, much less reveal the alien beings behind it, as the black slab more correctly represents an idea or a presence rather than a real person or thing. Taking the unfolding events within the film into consideration, one might find it easy to consider the monolith a stand-in for divine intervention, as it plays a God-like role in the film. Kubrick himself even once admitted:  “I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God” (qtd. in Nordern 49).

Kubrick posits the potential existence of species comparable to man, but ahead of man in millions of years of evolution, already refined to such a degree that they might appear like gods to the young race of humans on Earth:  “Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans” (qtd. in Nordern 50). “They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation”

According to Kubrick, “Mere speculation on the possibility of [the alien beings’] existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without attempting to decipher their motives” (qtd. in Nordern 51). He wants the viewer of 2001 to experience this sentiment, based on the information provided by the images and sound on the movie screen. Keeping in mind the specifics of the second character-related convention key to classical Hollywood cinema, it becomes clear that the main character of 2001 cannot be the monolith precisely because Kubrick never gives away any sense of the monolith’s motivation. Rather, the viewer can only grasp a vague notion of something beyond the monolith. Kubrick purposefully creates a gap of interpretation, as the only thing the viewer knows for certain is that this object is mysterious, just like the unknowable drive of God.

  1. Obstacles

3 obstacles

In 2001, three particularly engaging characters stand out:  Moon-Watcher (the name given one ape man in Clarke’s novel), Dr. Floyd, and Dave Bowman. The first truly relatable character for the audience is Moon-Watcher (Daniel Richter). Based on the action surrounding this creature, one can deduce his most basic goals are the acquisition of food, water and safe shelter. Comparatively, Dr. Floyd’s goals seem less visceral, besides travelling to a space station, casual meetings with colleagues, a chat with his daughter on Earth, before it becomes apparent that he is on a trip to see a monolith that has been unearthed on the moon. As for Bowman, lengthy scenes of him jogging, eating and playing chess with the Discovery’s onboard computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) is later overshadowed with his life and death struggle with that same computer.

The only time a character overcomes an obstacle and does something that defies orders arrives when Bowman disconnects the Discovery’s onboard computer, as it begs for its continued existence. Otherwise, obstacles are interchangeable with routine that hold little drama for the people on the screen. But even when Bowman disconnects HAL, he maintains a cold, never swaying determined look, despite the computer even singing to him. Bordwell states, “The character assumes a causal role because of his or her desires. Hollywood characters especially protagonists, are goal-oriented. The hero desires something new to his/her situation, or the hero seeks to restore an original state of affairs” (Bordwell 16).

The conflict with HAL finally shows a character moving beyond a surprise obstacle. Still, for Bowman, any real effort on his part to achieve anything has ended by the start of the third and final section of the film, where he seems to simply exist until his death, when he is reborn as the Star Child. Here again the critics who opposed the film tuned out. Schlesinger dismissed this part of the movie when he writes, “At this point, 2001 dissolves into phantasmagoria” (76). In his review for Newsweek, Joseph Morgenstern (no relation) wondered if the monolith represented God or “Maybe it was a nephew of the New York Hilton” (100).

6endings

The notion that something beyond the main characters might be driving the story seemed to disappoint Kael. “‘2001’ is a celebration of a cop-out,” she writes in her review. “It says man is a tiny nothing on the stairway to a paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway” (150). With her comment, Kael responds to the idea that the force driving the characters in 2001 lies beyond them, rather than within. The tone of her writing sounds personal, which would be appropriate considering she wrote her movie reviews after her first and only viewing (“Film Critics Roundtable”). One might consider her reviews knee-jerk reactions, and Kubrick himself would give little credence to such an approach. “Very few critics work carefully, thoughtfully enough,” Kubrick once said. “To see a film once and write a review is an absurdity” (qtd. in Hofsess 106).

A presence involved in the grander scheme of things constantly overshadows these characters’ personal goals. In fact, one Kubrick scholar noted a common thread in his films includes characters that possess the antithesis of a goal-oriented drive. In his introduction to a new compilation of essays on 2001, Robert Kolker writes:  “[Kubrick’s characters] are never in control and not really characters at all, in the traditional movie sense.  Kubrick’s characters are ideas given human form, acting out their own processes of destruction” (6).

In what came very close to an overt description of 2001’s theme, Kubrick, speaking with the threat of nuclear war on his mind, once said:

“Man must strive to gain mastery over himself as well as over his machines … We are semi-civilized, capable of cooperation and affection, but needing some sort of transfiguration into a higher form of life. Since the means to obliterate life on Earth exists, it will take more than just careful planning and reasonable cooperation to avoid some eventual catastrophe. The problem exists, and the problem is essentially a moral and spiritual one” (qtd. in Nelson 104).  

This quote, with its concluding philosophical turn, sums up what Kubrick attempts to illustrate with 2001: A Space Odyssey. ActKubrick2001SetThe monolith plays a god-like role by intervening with man’s destiny. By making the monolith’s power mysterious and seemingly omnipotent, Kubrick alludes to a spiritual solution. What the audience takes away from the final, powerful scenes of the film is a metaphor:  Kubrick’s optimism that man’s spirituality and morality will transcend his violent ways. This leads to the question, are other men (or ape-men or computers imitating men) the true antagonists of the film or could human nature itself be the opposing force of the film? By flattening the central idea of character as fundamental to filmmaking, Kubrick points to new ways of understanding film, ways that have to do, in fact, with not only the pushing aside of character-driven plot, but the sublimation of narrative as well.

Part 3 in this series of posts will examine three more rules of Hollywood film that are challenging to place in the context of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also, don’t forget…

In Miami, 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).

Works Cited

Adler, Renata.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  New York Times 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York:  New American Library, 1970.  207-209.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson.  The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  New York:  Columbia UP, 1985.

“Film Critics Roundtable.”  Narr. Neal Conan.  Talk of the Nation.  Natl. Public Radio. WLRN, Miami.  9 Sept. 2002.

Hofsess, John.  “Mind’s Eye: A Clockwork Orange.”  1971.  Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  105-107.

Kael, Pauline.  Going Steady.  New York: Warner Books, 1979.

Kauffman, Stanley.  “Lost in the Stars.”  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  New Republic 1968.  The Making of Kubrick’s 2001.  Ed. Jerome Agel.  New York: New American Library, 1970.  223-226.

Kolker, Robert.  Introduction.  Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey:  New Essays. Ed. Robert Kolker.  New York:  Oxford UP, 2006.  3-12.

Morgenstern, Joseph.  Rev. of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Newsweek 15 April 1968:  97-100.

Nelson, Thomas Allen.  Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze.  New and expanded ed. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2000.

Nordern, Eric. “Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick.”  Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Phillips.  Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.  47-74.

Sarris, Andrew.  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Village Voice 11 April, 1968:  45.

Schlesinger, Arthur Jr.  “2001: A Space Odyssey:  ‘a superb wreck’”  Rev. of 2001:  A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  Vogue June 1968:  76.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

title card

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).

O Cinema co-director Kareem Tabsch (at left) with Hans Morgenstern at O Cinema on April 10, 2013 lead a discussion on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo by Ana Morgenstern.

O Cinema co-director Kareem Tabsch (at left) with Hans Morgenstern at O Cinema on April 10, 2013 lead a discussion on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photo by Ana Morgenstern.

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.

* * *

 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 shooting 2001

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Reveal something about my own approach to film criticism.
  3. How breaking the rules of Hollywood film can feel more fulfilling to a viewer looking for something more at the movies.
  4. 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:

  1. The film follows a particular character or group of characters from beginning to end
  2. The principal character or characters have a defined, primary goal or several goals.
  3. The main characters must overcome obstacles presented by antagonists to achieve their goals.
  4. Events that occur in the film have clear causes and effects and are unambiguous.
  5. 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.
  6. By the film’s conclusion, no questions are left unanswered that may have arisen in the plot.
  7. 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).

Works Cited

Bordwell, David.  2004.  David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema.  2 Nov. 2004. <http://www.davidbordwell.net/books.htm&gt;.

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&gt;.

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.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Mysteries of Lisbon offers a cinematic statement like no other film the 21st century has offered. The theatrical release is actually an abbreviated version (at four-and-a-half-hours!) of the six-hour European TV mini-series, based on a three-volume novel of the same title by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, which has never been translated into English. The fact that a film adaptation arrives in this lengthy, literary (at least in a cinematic sense) form by the late, prolific and intelligent director Raúl Ruiz, should be something to celebrate. In his “preface” to Mysteries of Lisbon from the film’s press book, Ruiz, a Chilean who directs the actors in the movie in Portuguese and French, offers dense insight into Branco’s approach to story-telling, revealing how well attuned he was to translate it to the cinema. About his own experience reading the books, he said, “[W]hen I try to summon the characters and the twists and turns of Mysteries in my memory … I am only able to find fragments of ghost stories that were never written.” In turn, Ruiz has left movie-goers with a similar sensation with this lengthy, meandering film.

Ruiz offers literate reasoning behind his decision to film not just a complex story, but a complex loom of stories, woven together by— if anything— circumstances. In his preface (not to mention the film itself) he goes on to damn the traditional Hollywood narrative, as defined by famed cinema academic David Bordwell, which dictates a movie must have a single protagonist (or group of protagonists) who must overcome a variety of obstacles to reach a single goal, causing conflicts meant to entertain the audience (see Armageddon, for instance). “When [producer] Paulo Branco asked me to direct Mysteries of Lisbon, I understood that I had in fact been waiting for this kind of offer for years … for an eternity…”

Unfolding over many years, before, after and around the turn of the 19th century, across countries as diverse as Portugal, France, Italy and Brazil, the film opens as a priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), decides to tell an orphan boy named João (João Arrais) about his origin. A slew of shifting characters emerge, from the boy’s mother (Maria João Bastos), a countess who later becomes a nun, to the assassin (Ricardo Pereira) turned wealthy businessman assigned to kill off the bastard child sent off to Dinis’ boarding school. Father Dinis undergoes several transformations, from the life he lead before becoming a priest as a gypsy to an enlightened man searching for spirituality beyond God, after leaving the priesthood. Hence, characters emerge within characters, but Ruiz never dwells on the transforming conflicts that births these “new” characters. The boy himself grows up to take on another name altogether when he appears later in the film as an adult (José Afonso Pimentel).

You could try to grasp for a common thread between these characters. One that jumps out of the proceedings is that these are stories of parents lost to give birth to lost children, and when the connections happen between the characters, not to mention their evolving and shifting identities, it is almost epiphenal. Again, in his notes, the director states, “the characters that form the social fabric of Mysteries of Lisbon go through three stages: birth, betrayal and redemption … But does this explain the jubilatory tingling triggered by the accumulation of stories that are in turn disparate, truncated, labyrinthine and baroque?” The film can indeed feel exhilarating to watch unfold, and it leaves this viewer wondering what other treasures were left on the cutting room floor in the 90 minutes of footage excised from the European mini-series version of this movie.

As the action unfolds, a recurring moody, melancholic orchestral theme often swells up. The music has a droning atmosphere about it and appears like those over-the-top musical stings do in the soap operas this film comes close to spoofing. It goes to show Ruiz’s wit when handling one of the most complex narratives ever committed to film while also adding a surreal mood to the scenes. Throughout, the film tests the audience’s attention, as there are no cinematic devices like title cards to reveal leaps in time and place (the sets in the film are simple but capture the eras of the 1800s and 1900s well, especially with the help of the dynamic costumes the actors don). The shifting characters are also so extreme as to involve name changes, leaving one to wonder if these are only the same actors playing other characters. In some ways, this might be accurate, but the best way to experience Mysteries of Lisbon, is not to over-intellectualize the events and enjoy the unrelenting journey that unfolds over an amazing marathon pace for a theatrical screening (there is a pause for an intermission). Keeping the pace brisk is a restless camera that constantly pans and swivels around the action, which is mostly dialogue, though there is some hitting and even a couple of duels to liven up the drama.

But, ultimately all these cinematic tools work to serve story, and the story of Mysteries offers something beyond anything I have ever seen in a movie theater. It is much more than a linear storyline. One might imagine it follows a path that can only be illustrated in a three-dimensional cone that begins as a dot and spirals wider into a curlicue with gaps while branches sprout off the curls and twirl off in their own twisting manner into a dark abyss. One of these little branches ripe with mystery appears when Father Dinis takes João out for a walk, early in the movie, as he begins to explain his origins. A little boy interrupts to ask João if he would like to come with him to see something. After Father Dinis nods his permission, the boy leads João to a nearby gallows. “It’s my father,” says the boy, pointing to one of three hanged men. Though it appears only briefly, this little boy’s shocking story offers a penetrating encapsulation of the extreme stories and mysteries that saturate this film. So many of these stories, no matter how brief or long, are swollen with implication and possibilities.

The movie’s layering of stories comes across almost dream-like, recalling a recent Hollywood movie that excited movie goers by diverting from the traditional form of blockbuster films, by meshing together layers of ever-shifting settings and even goals: Inception. Like Inception, when the finale in Mysteries of Lisbon arrives, the audience is left to wonder:  was all that happened really a sort of fever dream, brilliantly adding a layer of infinite possibilities to the proceedings with another surreal bow on top.

Mysteries of Lisbon tries its damnedest to illustrate the complexities of the world by never offering a concrete definition of character, who all still change in dynamic ways. No one can ever rely on anyone else, and things that seem as life-defining as a marriage are just a point in a single person’s existence. It was Orson Welles who said: “We are born alone … and die alone.” Not many films succeed in illustrating this reality, but Mysteries does so in spades.

Hans Morgenstern

Mysteries of Lisbon is unrated and opens today, Friday, Oct. 7, in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It will play for one week only. See the cinema’s website for screening times, which vary by day. If you live outside South Florida, the film’s official website lists screening dates across the US (you can also download the full press notes and see the film’s trailer).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)