embrace of the serpent posterLast week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).

It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.

With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:

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As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.

The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.

ciro imdb

It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.

Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.

Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?

Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.


What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?

Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.

Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?

It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.


The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?

It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.

For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?

Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.

But it wasn’t a direct influence?

No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.


The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?

It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.

This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?

It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.

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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:

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Hans Morgenstern

Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

large_eraserhead_blu-ray_03With Halloween around the corner, the lists of top scariest movies have begun popping up again on the Internet. The usual suspects are there, of course. But some of us might want a little more than typical genre recommendations. As someone who has grown out of looking for thrills in monster movies and ghosts stories in cinema, allow me to present you with something a little different for the season, some of which will be screened on Halloween on 35mm in my town, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema by the Secret Celluloid Society, in a marathon night of screenings (see the line-up and get your tickets here). Check out their trailer for the evening below:

Many of the films below offer something more than cheap scares, gimmicks and gore. I’m talking about a sustained sense of eerie gloom. The problem with a lot of horror is that the films often fragment the story into these moments of thrills that feel cheap if the rest of the plot, story and performances fail to hold the mood together. To me, there’s nothing like sustained dread for creating an off-kilter atmosphere that will keep you hooked to a horror movie. I want a movie to tap into a deeper, primal sense of fear that feels truly otherworldly, the more irrational the better. There is nothing more disturbing than a film that tests logic, maintains mystery and heightens a sense of confronting the unknown. It’s all about the dark, and nothing is darker than that place in the mind that holds our fears.

My choice of some of the most successful movies of terror that sustain this sense of dread are presented in no particular order, as all achieve an atmosphere that never seems to let go. Following each entry you can find a link to the best format to find the film in via Amazon.com. If you click on those links and make a purchase, you help support this non-commercial blog.


Though full of startling moments, this debut film by the master of cinematic surrealism, David Lynch, creeps under your skin with its soundtrack and lighting. All sort of eerie things occur that do not necessarily seem startling, though they are quite unsettling. The main character’s sensuous neighbor lady comes out of the pitch black shadows, emerging from the depths like a creature conjured from the dark. “I’ve locked myself out of my apartment … and it’s so late,” she says in a soft, droll voice. The strange industrial/suburban setting, and those sounds by “the baby,” just build to play with how we react to sounds.

There’s a Criterion blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

But, if you are in Miami on Nov. 1, the best format to see it: 35mm. Buy your ticket here (Yes, it’s at 4:30 a.m.). Nayib Estefan (indeed, the son of Gloria), the founder of the Secret Celluloid Society, assures an amazing sonic experience with the 35 projection. “Take a dip in the analogue hot tub,” he messaged me via Facebook just yesterday.

The Ring

Just before finding success as the director of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, director Gore Verbinski took the job of remaking the cult Japanese horror film Ringu. It was about a cursed VHS tape that held an abstract short film featuring grisly, statling scenes. If you watched it, you would die a week later. I saw it alone, during its theatrical release with only a handful of people in the movie house, 13 years ago, and it was the last movie I saw that conjured up an irrational sense of dread I had not felt since childhood. The grinding, screeching atonal music of on the cursed short film still played in my head as I headed home that night. The bushes next to my stairwell never looked darker or held more mystery. What I like best about The Ring is its dreamlike logic. One moment the investigative reporter played by Naomi Watts is in the hustle of the newsroom, the next she is off to a cabin in the woods with trees glowing a surreal orange. Even the sets look staged an unreal, recalling the design of many of the early J-Horror movies like Hausu (1977) and Jigoku (1960).

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.


Speaking of Hausu, it’s another that was screened on 35mm by Secret Celluloid Society, earlier this month. I have seen some odd Japanese movies, but this stands as one of the strangest. It’s not so much frightening as it is surreal. The characters, all female, are stock archetypes to an almost clichéd extreme. There’s a karate expert and a chubby girl who is always eating something, for instance. They are part of a group of teenagers who head out for a stay at a friend’s mother’s mansion, only to meet a gruesome demise while — in a strange salacious quirk — they lose their tops, as they struggle for their lives. The lighting always seems to be twilight with an orange sky, and the effects, many of which are super-imposed animated images, are primitive but heighten the unreality of the movie to jarring effect. I’ve heard it described as a “Scooby Doo” cartoon as Japanese nightmare. The story is so out there, it’s no surprise it came from the mind of the director’s prepubescent daughter.

There’s a Criterion blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

The Shining

It’s a predictable choice but worth noting the cinematic power that has made The Shining a classic horror film. Stephen King, the author of original novel, famously griped about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, going as far as producing a two-part television remake. It hardly rose to the level of Kubrick’s masterpiece. The gliding tracking shots and inventive Steadicam use created a new way of capturing on-screen action. It felt alien and unsettling. Couple that with Wendy Carlos’ eerie but low-key score of creeping, high-pitched strings, sporadic rumbling timpani and terse xylophone hits, and The Shining becomes a masterpiece of sustained unease. Beyond music, sound is also important. The score also mingles with the sound of little Danny riding his big wheel in the Overlook Hotel’s hallways. The rhythm of the plastic wheels skipping from carpet to wood to carpet to wood mingle with the music, keeping the audience grounded and tense. The Shining stands as grand testament to the tools of cinema to create a mood that builds toward well-earned startling moments.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Ju-on and Ju-on 2, the shorter Y2K TV movies

Above you will find a short, creepy film in the Ju-on series by Takashi Shimizu called “In a Corner.” It was around this time that the Japanese director made the first in a long series of Ju-on (a.k.a The Grudge) films, which had its start on Japanese television with these two tightly connected films. It’s basically about the bad vibes left in the wake of domestic horror. It’s a classic haunted house story. However, what made Shimizu stand out was his non-linear storytelling, which relied on foreboding plot developments. For example, in one part, a pair of detectives stand in an attic, staring down at an unseen object hidden between the rafters. As they speak elliptically about the remains, one finally says something to the effect of, “If this is the jaw, where is the rest?” Cut to a scene at home where a woman is walking up some stairs calling out to someone in the house to no response. Then, a shadowy figure of a girl in her school uniform, with black hair draped over her face, appears behind her, slowly creeping up. Could that be “the rest” the detective asked about? We will have to wait for the reveal, when the woman finally turns around to let out a long scream.

Purchase the 2000 version of Ju-on here and the the 2000 version of Ju-on 2 here.

John Carpenter’s The Thing

Another movie that has a Halloween screening in Miami at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on 35mm (again, here’s the link): John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. It’s one of those rare remakes that actually improves upon the original. In Carpenter’s version, the creature from outer space is never given a cohesive form. Whether it is implicitly felt hiding in plain sight as one of a group of scientists on an Antarctic research station, or bursting forth from their bodies becoming an array of primal, startling and often dangerous parts: teeth, claws, tentacles and black eyes, The Thing always has a presence. Even as an amorphous mound of viscera, it has personality, thanks to a masterful group of artisans behind the monstrous special effects. In between harsh scenes of gruesome appearances from the sorry bodies of humans and even dogs, there is a haunting sense of paranoia. It’s an element that was so key to the ’80s brand of Cold War weary American culture, but it also infuses The Thing with a disquieting sense of dread.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

But, if you are in Miami on Oct. 31, the best format to see it: 35mm! Buy your ticket here.

The Exorcist

I have vivid memories of being a child entering a Radio Shack with my mom and younger brother in the late 1970s and seeing the images of Reagan (Linda Blair) levitating off the bed and twisting her head around on a tiny TV screen on the counter, near the cashier. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it despite the horror it was imprinting into my sensitive, innocent mind. I would finally see it at a more appropriate age, later in life. The mix of the mundane and the supernatural that constantly appear in the film always creeped me out. Even many years later, when I caught it after it was re-released in theaters as “the cut you’ve never seen” in the late 1990s, it still worked. Before any of the horror starts, the film brilliantly explores a sense of the foreboding horror that was to come, from the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” to that scene when Reagan’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) hears an unearthly sound in the attic and says it’s probably just rats.

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vamypre)

Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu, a remake of the German expressionist silent film classic, has to be my personal favorite version of the Dracula story, and I got to write about it in Reverse Shot for its “Great Pumpkins” series. Read it by jumping through the RS logo below (scroll down to the “sixth night” in this post that is a collaboration with many great writers on this site who have their own recommendations for terrific horror movies for the season):

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Best version to buy: The new Shout Factory Blu-Ray release with both English and German versions (no dubs; both shot simultaneously)

Bonus, as for the soundtrack, skip the soundtrack CD, and get Popol Vuh’s Tantirc Songs, which has the 16-plus minute version of “Brothers of Darkness – Sons of Light.”

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Speaking of the “Great Pumpkins” of Reverse Shot, it all rightly began with this essay by Michael Koresky on this little TV special, which has become an icon for Halloween. It goes to show Halloween is about more than frights of the supernatural or horror and violence. It’s also about the turning of the leaves and the deepening of the shadows. So what if “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is not scary? It still oozes Halloween atmosphere for many generations. For this writer, a child of the ’70s, before cable and VHS, it was an annual event to watch on TV, where the special interrupted regular programming to announce the start of the holidays. Even Miami felt cooler back then. Maybe we had fall back then? Who cares? Even if it’s all an illusion. It certainly always feels real with this short animated delight from the mind of Charles Scultz.

It’s a shame that much of the music was never released on CD, but at least there’s this. Listen for the flute parts, they’re amazingly dark for the instrument, including the closing iteration of the “Linus and Lucy.”

There’s a blu-ray for this one, purchase here.

Hans Morgenstern

Still image from Eraserhead courtesy of dvdbeaver.com.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


The story of The Beach Boys is so much more fascinating than most assume. The band behind such early 1960s hits as “Surfin’ Safari” and “I Get Around” were a family affair, made up of brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love and a friend named Al Jardine. Among them, though, was a musical genius: Brian Wilson. It was his vision in the studio — from the band’s signature harmonies to angular musical ideas to putting dogs barking on a record — that took the band from hit factory to more complex levels that would gain them critical acclaim and go on to influence many other artists for decades to come.

But the thing about Wilson is that he was also clinically crazy. From the physical and mental abuse suffered by the band members’ father/manager to the abuse of LSD, Wilson spiraled downward. He was also very sensitive and introverted. He had a fear of flying and preferred working in the studio to touring live. By the 1980s, after he legendarily retreated to bed for three years and some failed solo work, people wrote him off as helplessly crazy, not unlike Syd Barrett. But gradually questions arose about his personal psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy. Wilson’s brother Carl had to fight in court to free his brother from Landy’s obsessive care that took away the musician’s autonomy and even the rights to some of his music.

No one can point to one thing that broke this man down, but his musical highs were heavily balanced out by his personal lows. In a new biopic, Love & Mercy (Read our review: Love & Mercy harnesses the music & madness of Brian Wilson), director/producer Bill Pohlad finds a way to focus on both yet still make the music the most important element in Wilson’s life. It’s an amazing achievement by the producer of Wild (Wild features brutally honest and vulnerable performance by Witherspoon — a film Review), LM_01332FD.psd12 years a Slave (The Florida Film Critics Circle announce `12 Years a Slave’ big winner for 2013… and the picks by Indie Ethos) and a personal favorite, Tree of Life (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 10 – 1]). On May 15, after watching the film twice, I spoke with Pohlad via phone. I could have easily gone on a tangent to talk about these other amazing films, if we had had the time, but amazing in its own way, is his return to directing after almost 25 years. Few know his debut feature film released in 1990, starring José Ferrer and James Whitmore called Old Explorers, which is only available on VHS on the secondary market (Support the Independent Ethos, you can try to purchase direct through Amazon via this link). Like many, I haven’t seen it, so I cannot attest to its quality. But I can only imagine Pohlad has learned a lot as a producer because Love & Mercy stands as one of this writer’s favorite movies of 2015, so far.

I’ve already written one article from our interview in the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog. The piece mostly covers Pohlad’s acting choices (two actors play Wilson: John Cusack and  Paul Dano) and how he uses Wilson’s music in impressive sound collages based on actual music by Wilson and re-contextualized by Atticus Ross. You can read that article by jumping through the blog’s logo below:

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We spoke about other topics, but I couldn’t fit it all in the article, so here’s an abridged Q&A of material missing from that article, which is still no less interesting for those who plan to see this extraordinary film about a man, his madness and his music (my glowing review, which will focus on the presence and absence of music in the film’s narrative, is coming soon).

Hans Morgenstern: I want to talk about the creative way you declare the title of the film within the narrative. There’s this scene where Brian Wilson sits at the piano playing what turns out to be the melody for “Love and Mercy” for Melinda.

Bill Pohlad: Not everybody catches that. In fact, you’re the first one that actually mentions it.

I’m big on music. So I imagine you must be very attuned to music.

I’ve always been a big music fan. I find a lot of filmmakers are frustrated musicians and a lot of musicians are frustrated filmmakers, I think, once you talk to people. But I certainly fall into that category. I love music, and I wish that maybe I’d pursued that. I’ve always loved it and followed, and I think one of the attractions to this movie was trying to capture — like the Pet Sounds era and that kind thing — what’s inside the head of an incredible, creative musician.


You certainly capture that when representing what’s going on inside his head. You capture his music as well as his sickness. How did you decided on this manner to represent that?

Well, I think it comes from learning about Brian and talking to him and [his wife] Melinda [played by Elizabeth Banks] a little bit and trying to get a sense of what he actually experienced. As I got to know the story better, and I got to spend a little more time with him — both of them — you get a sense of what goes on in his head. He’s admitted, of course, and it’s very well known that he hears voices and things like that, but there’s also the musical element.

I think you do something great with the editing: you let the actors perform. A lot of times you see actors’ performances chopped up in the editing, but you had some longish takes.

Yeah, I believe in actors’ performances, and certainly the other directors that I worked with as a producer in some of the other films, that I admired have kind of allowed me to push more in that direction and have more confidence about that.

Speaking of some of the people you admire, there’s a sequence at the end of the movie [that we see in the trailer] in Brian’s bed that reminded me of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yeah. You don’t necessarily want to do those things blatantly. I was afraid, I’m going back and forth thinking that people would think that was a total rip-off. But to me because of the role that that bed played in Brian’s life … where that sequence at the end came from was the fact that we’re trying to create a film here that’s true and kind of authentic … When I first started talking to John Cusack about the role, he was like, ‘Well, you know, but at the end, isn’t there a time when Brian could, you know, like get up and leave and walk out … on Landy or something like that?’ As a filmmaker or a storyteller LM_04823.CR2you’re always looking for those ways to end the movie or something like that, but the problem is that never actually happened. Brian never did walk out. There wasn’t any dramatic storming away from Landy, so I wanted to find a way to end the film that was more true to what actually happened and true to life. Our lives just don’t go that way: clean and neat, so the idea of like having this period where you’re able to like see Brian struggling within himself, with who he is and where he’s been and coming from some kind of peace, that felt more authentic than trying to force some kind of ending, so that’s where that sequence came from. Then, when you’re visualizing it with the bed and all, yeah, someone can think of Kubrick and all that, but hopefully it’s organic to the movie as well.

Mike Love [played by Jake Abel] comes across a little, I would say acerbic in the film. Have you had any reaction from him about the movie?

I don’t know. We haven’t heard yet. The whole Mike Love thing is tricky in the sense that certainly he has a reputation, either fairly or unfairly, of being a tough guy or whatever, and not a particularly pleasant guy. I mean, the first thing I wanted to do is deal with that in the storytelling sense. I don’t like the idea of creating arch villains or one-dimensional guys, and Mike was a great example of that. I didn’t really want him to be seen in that way, as the bad guy. It’s too easy, and I wanted to relate to LOVEANDMERCY071431647756him and tried to. I hope it comes through a little bit. He’s just a guy. He’s a human being. He’s different than Brian. That doesn’t make him bad. You just know that Brian’s a creative genius, and we’re telling this story about this extraordinary, creative artist, but the guy next to him is just a regular guy. He’s got talents of his own, but he’s not that kind of guy. That does not make him bad. I wanted to portray it in that way, saying, Hey, maybe you can relate to this guy. He’s got a good gig going, and all of a sudden his cousin starts going off, and starts doing these really weird things. It’s like, ‘Hey, c’mon what are you doing?’ As opposed to making him like that bad guy, so hopefully there’s some balance there.

Hans Morgenstern

I’ll leave you with a featurette with more information by the actors and Pohlad:

Update Love & Mercy is coming the the Bill Cosford Cinema for a weekend run this Friday, July 31. Click here for the schedule.

Love & Mercy opens in limited release this Friday, June 5, across the nation. In our South Florida area, the venues are as follows:

  • Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Aventura Mall 24 Theatres and Regal South Beach 18
  • Keys: Tropic Cinema Key West  
  • Broward County:  Cinemark Paradise 24, The Classic Gateway Theatre
  • Boca/Palm Beach counties:  Living Room Theaters/Boca, Regal Shadowood 16/Boca, Cinemark Palace 20/Boca, Muvico Parisian 20, Movies of Delray 5,  Delray Marketplace 12, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14

For other theaters across the U.S., visit the film’s website and put in your zip code in the box in the upper left corner via this link. All images courtesy of Roadside Attractions, who also hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this interview.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


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.



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.


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


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


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).


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).


* 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).


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.)