Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 22, August 2003

 

 

Richard I. Pope

 

In Kubrick's Crypt, a Derrida/Deleuze Monster;

or, An-Other Return to _2001_

 

 

A rosebud by any other name!

Here's what the artifact's been called:

 

Artifact

Metal prism

Pentalogue

Mies van der Rohe version of one-half

the Tablets of the Law

Black basalt column

Black steel door

Long cement board

Pillar

The block

Monolith

That damn-two-by-four

Teaching machine

Candy bar

Calling card

Transistor radio

Handball court wall

Cracker Jacks box

Vibrating Metallic bar

God [1]

 

It's like something out of Borges, something foreign to 'our' traditional ways of thinking. The monolith. The movie. And the experience of trying to verbalize either. In a common sense, each stands in for the other -- and cinema itself.

 

People had never seen anything like it. During the Los Angeles world premiere, Rock Hudson is said to have ran out of the theatre screaming: 'Can someone tell what the hell this movie is about?'. People, unaccustomed to so many long silences -- as has been well noted, there are only 40 minutes of dialogue in a movie 160 minutes long -- chattered throughout. Yet during the intermission, they were speechless. Packing some serious affective punch, _2001: A Space Odyssey_ (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) bode badly for New York critics with a deadline to meet. They called it 'somewhere between incredibly hypnotic and immensely boring', arguing that it left too many unresolved plot lines. [2] 'What the devil was the monolith about?', the chorus rang. They called it pompous, childish.

 

And yet it would be a child who had the most interesting speculations -- at least in Kubrick's eyes. At the age of fifteen, Margaret Stackhouse suggested that the monolith was *supposed* to be incomprehensible, that it is perhaps always invisibly present, that it is always out of reach (except at death), and yet that nothing is meaningful without its spirit. Kubrick called her speculations 'the most intelligent that I've read anywhere, and I am, of course, including all the reviews and articles that have appeared'. [3] This is as close as we are going to get to Kubrick's own thought on the 'meanings' of the film, given that he refuses to discuss his own interpretation (unlike co-writer Arthur C. Clarke, who insists on a limitative, and even techno-utopist, reading). Not that we would care to unearth Kubrick's intentions behind the film, of course; far more interesting, in fact, are how, in the inevitable desire to unearth these intentions, one falls upon a kind of void or abyss into which intentionality disappears, or at least mostly so. In its place we have style, cryptic in its operations.

 

On the origin of the cinematic odyssey Kubrick remarks: 'I do not remember when I got the idea to do the film. I became interested in extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe, and was convinced that the universe was *full* of intelligent life, and so it seemed time to make a film'. [4] But as to the confusion surrounding the film upon its release, and in particular many thinking Floyd had gone to the 'planet' Clavius he said: 'Why they think there's a planet Clavius I'll never know. But they hear him [Floyd] asked, 'Where are you going?', and he says, 'I'm going to Clavius'. With many people -- *boom* -- that one word registers in their heads and they don't look at fifteen shots of the moon; they don't see he's going to the Moon'. [5] At the same time he rhetorically asked: 'How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: 'The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover'. This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don't want this to happen to _2001_'. [6]

 

Leonardo doesn't need to write it: we already know Mona is hiding a secret; we are seduced, taken in by it. Just as Kubrick is by his extraterrestrials, his secret, his (or is it 'our'?) crypt.

 

It is well known to what extent Kubrick kept his project secret. Most of his actors performed their lines and left the set never having read the full script. One reason for such secrecy was the freedom it allowed Kubrick; without media reports of what he was up to, he could change the plot as he wanted. After all, he could never see the whole project clearly; he was too obsessed. He read and watched every science-fiction film or book his assistants came across, kept Clarke up late, and chattered everyone's ear off in coming up with ideas. One humorous anecdote involves him and Clarke, who, while collaborating one night, saw a UFO in the sky. Paranoid, Kubrick thought it to be the end of their project. If real aliens made themselves known, who would want to see _2001_? Luckily for him -- and us -- it turned out to be a weather balloon.

 

His obsession with the specter of alien life was total. Possessing just about as complete a knowledge of the fiction and the technology behind science and extraterrestrial life as anyone could, perhaps it in turn possessed him. Perhaps he did not make a film about aliens; maybe they made a film about him. In a not so friendly note, Norman Kagan suggests, 'many of [his] movies turn out to be secretly autobio portraits of a monarchical ego struggling for control of its universe'. [7] Yet perhaps the joy of such films are his losing his ego along the way -- nowhere more 'clearly', I think, than in _2001_. As an aside, it is interesting that after _2001_ Kubrick tried to make a film about ego-maniac Napoleon -- which he failed to even begin. So: the secret is that _2001_ was an autobiographical portrait. But what was the secret of this secrecy? What on earth, or in space, was he hiding? *It's in Mona's eyes; it's in the monolith's (in)difference.*

 

 

Crypt and Cut

 

In Jody Castricano's _Cryptomimesis_, a masterly exposition of the functioning of the crypt in the writings of Jacques Derrida, the abject is shown to be locked up, and kept safe, in the (non)place of the crypt: an internal exclusion. It is our secret, and one best kept if it is kept from ourselves, thereby *remaining* at work, with each of us unaware. Mourning requires a space that can be opened in the self wherein the dead other can be introjected -- yet this very spacing, if total, would annihilate the self. So the conditions of possibility of mourning are at the same time its impossibility, and as a result the dead are lodged, at least partly, in the non-space and non-place of the crypt, as secret. 'I' can only -- continually -- come to be if 'my' 'other' is locked away, incorporated into 'my' crypt.

 

Everyone, even while chasing the ghosts of others, writes (with) her or his own ghosts. Like _2001_, writing becomes hieroglyphic, rebus-like; perhaps Kubrick, searching the galaxy for alien-ghosts, was filming his own (and our) ghosts. The secret of (t)his secrecy? (T)his secret did not belong to him. It came -- it comes -- from the other.

 

Now the act of crypt-analysis is not restorative, seeking to uncover ghosts and make amends. It is rather productive. It dwells in the aporia, yet in this dwelling it is necessarily pushed forward. It hopes for a congregation of ghosts, an orgy of spirit. But before the orgy, let's see if we can wed crypt-analysis to film theory. Let's introduce Castricano/Derrida to Deleuze.

 

For Deleuze, as for Kubrick (and many others), what makes the cinema different from other art forms is the cut, the edit. In _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, Deleuze argues that what makes the time-image different from the earlier movement-image is the 'irrational cut'. [8] By this he means that whereas in classical cinema the sound-image and the visual-image are linked or folded over each other, in modern cinema the disjunct between the two is highlighted.

 

In classical cinema speech hides the cut, covering the event with words which serve as totalizing clues for the viewer to follow the narrative. In the time-image speech's supremacy over the image is reduced, so that the cut, when it comes, seems all the more novel, indeed irrational. The viewer is not told how it will develop; the factor of plot prediction is minimized. Since neither the sound-image nor the visual-image seek to extend themselves continuously through the film, both are allowed to enter a specific relation with each other. Both are framed in themselves, and the interstice between them replaces classical cinema's out-of-field. This interstice, this incommensurable relation that is nevertheless a perpetual relinkage -- again, an aporia -- is the irrational cut. To be more clear where Deleuze seems murky, there are *two* irrational cuts. One between the sound-image and visual-image, and one between shots. When both types of image change at the *same time* as a cut between shots, one reaches the most powerful form of time-image, and cinema. One classic example in _2001_, of course, is the tapir bone cutting to space.

 

Neither the sound nor the image tries to fold over the other; neither seeks to colonize the other or determine its meaning. Instead each is allowed to dance in its own space until it reaches its limit, the limit of each being the same 'common limit': they relate in their incommensurability. I'll follow Deleuze in calling this 'touch'. [9] When this common limit is the cut itself, you find the time-image which gives rise to a thought which lodges itself in the interstice, in the play of resemblances that comes before, during, and after language. Thought as becoming. In the classic example, humanity becomes: a leap of four million years, a leap of technology, the similitude of both.

 

The crypt is a non-place. The irrational cut is a non-place. And so is the monolith. Most importantly, one cannot move in the direction of either of the three without undergoing qualitative change as a result. Movement, traditionally understood as extensivity, as moving unchanged from one place to another, is here intensively transformed: movement opens onto, or is always already a part of, duration, and thus undergoes qualitative change. As mentioned, classical cinema seeks to pave over the cuts between the sound and visual images, and between shots; thus it avoids the crypt, the place of the other within. The time-image, on the other hand, makes the viewer anticipate the cuts, makes them find the incommensurable relations, makes them touch in touching them, through thought. Makes them -- *invites* them -- to accept, or at least engage, the other within: an ethical invitation.

 

 

Cut by Cut

 

To begin with, _2001_ calls attention to its form. For instance, the film divides itself into 3 sections via the titles 'Dawn of Man', 'Jupiter Mission', and 'Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite'. Yet there are really four segments, with one between the 'Dawn of Man' and 'Jupiter Mission', during the bone-to-space cut mentioned above. As Michel Chion has noted, the very omission of a title here serves to highlight the cut itself, its irrationality, and the thought on our part required to imaginatively link them. There are many other possible segmentations of the film -- the other most obvious being the Intermission, halfway into the film and halfway into the Jupiter Mission -- with all such 'schemes underscore[ing] what they cannot contain and name. All the precise details supplied in _2001_ create imprecision; all its plenitude creates voids, stimulating the play of rhymes, repetitions, parallels, echoes'. [10] Thinking it through, the viewer becomes immersed in duration and memory work, imaginatively piecing together humanity's development. For some it was and is too much -- think Rock Hudson. For others, feeling oppressed by the rigid segmentarities of classical narrative cinema, it is something like freedom in its showing the inability of language to contain its visuals. Certainly 'Dawn of Man' and 'Beyond the Infinite' are pompous titles (and in the latter case, pompously absurd). But what Kubrick is doing is explicating the pomposity *of language*, its relentless desire to fold the world into its little pocket. In Kubrick's world, there are many holes in the pocket.

 

Much has also been made of the banality of language in the film, language which seems incapable of adequately reacting to the beauty of the world around it. When Floyd gets to the space station, an employee asks: 'Did you have a pleasant flight?' Like a mantra, this sentence has become the quintessential example of such banality. Well what should she have asked? 'Isn't it great that we can fly through space, and isn't it beautiful? Makes you wonder how they made it through 1968, eh?' On the other hand, there is some truth to the 'banality' claim. But its truth lies elsewhere (at least in significant part) than the language of _2001_ itself. For instance, much has been made of Kubrick's anti-humanism, his coldness, his distance from his characters. There is some truth to this, at least from the classical Hollywood view point. That is, he is anti-humanistic relative to classical Hollywood: in _2001_ the only point-of-view shots are from HAL (and, to a certain extent, in the 'Beyond the Infinite' room shots with Bowman, which we will discuss shortly); nearly all the shot-reverse-shots are between HAL and Bowman (only once, without speech, between Poole and Bowman); and there are very few close-ups, again, besides those of HAL. The banality, then, lies less in the language itself than in the relationship between the language and the visuals: the fact that the former fails to convincingly fold over the latter. Banal because language doesn't control within the shot, and banal becasue it certainly doesn't pave over the whole of the film (it is only present for 40 minutes of 160 minutes). Maybe Kubrick is saying that our *current* everyday usage of language is pretty boring; we just don't see it as such because we're too busy using it. In _2001_, he is just -- (im)possibly -- *showing* us this.

 

I find Kubrick's disruption of the shot-reverse-shot system in the final scenes of the film particularly haunting. The first two-thirds of the film were objectively presented; the only point-of-view shots coming from HAL. It bordered on the documentary. By contrast, the latter third of the film are subjectively based on Bowman, the viewer practically merging with the character. For instance, at the end of Bowman's wild ride through the infinite -- where we see precisely what he sees -- the universe merges with his blinking eye, almost taking on the colour of flesh. Do the universe and his eye touch, in us touching him? Whatever the case, Kubrick does seem to be making explicit our subjectification with Bowman, our eyes merging with the extreme close-up of his eye.

 

This scene cuts to him looking out of his pod into a Louis XVI room. After a few shots of the room, and then another of his face, we look out of the pod from his point-of-view directly facing an older version of himself. Led as we are by classical cinema, we expect a shot from the point-of-view of the older version back to the pod and the original Bowman. But when it comes, the pod, and the original Bowman, are gone. In a way, we feel cheated. This process repeats twice more, until Bowman, now a death-bed ridden old man, looks as if he's looking to his previous self, and we (foolishly now) expect to see his younger version. Instead we get the monolith, which the old man feebly points to as if desiring to touch. After a few more establishing shots, we cut back to the bed where the old man was lying; he has become a glowing fetus. The camera moves into the black of the monolith until it takes up the whole screen, which then 'cuts' -- the term loses meaning here -- to space and the Star Child.

 

Given the fact that during the majority of the film we were excluded from identifying with any of the characters (one of the reasons for the 'banality of language', to recall above), and that the only identification came within the last twenty minutes, the effect of this repeated displacement is profoundly jarring. The character we just traveled through the infinite with, literally -- or rather, visually -- disappears. The one he becomes we then identify with, who in turn disappears. And on it goes, until 'we' -- the dying/dead old man -- become the Star fetus/Child and go through the monolith out into space. During those moments, when we look through the eyes of the younger version at the older version, are we in fact both? Is the older version looking at the younger version, or us, the spectators? That is, the sound of strange 'alien' voices is audible, though no aliens are shown. Is the older Floyd reacting to the voices of the aliens, that perhaps emanate from us, the spectators/younger Floyd? Whatever is going on here, it is certainly cryptic.

 

Mario Falsetto calls it a splitting of self. That if we went from the super-objective to the super-subjective, we are now in the realm of the subjective, if not individual. Singular, yet universal. All the places can and are exchanged, to infinity -- and beyond. Moreover, as Bowman wanders the room, contemplating his aging, the film is contemplating itself -- and all of cinema. What will happen next -- what will the next cut do to 'me', to 'us'? What will we become?

 

In the end, a Star Child. That is, we are -- first -- the Star fetus. Together we go through the monolith, the crypt, and (be)come out the other side. Here again is a meditation on cinema. Here, the crypt becomes the cut, 'literally'. Non-place meets non-place, black meets black. We, the Star fetus/Child, move together, while qualitatively changing, through the crypt (or are we already in it?), becoming the Star Child. Becoming pure energy, looking at the Earth, then looking directly at the viewers. We were the Star fetus, but not the Star Child -- or is one the other? Things have gotten cryptic again. Is this metaphysical transcendence, as is usually thought? Or is just a re-birth, akin to the experience of watching a film? Thou will flirt with the abject, the cut as crypt, and, if you're lucky, move right 'through' it, but if you do you'll never be the Same. You'll either: pick up a tapir bone and start bashing it against your water-hole rivals; take off to Jupiter; or go beyond the infinite.

 

It is certainly significant that no aliens are shown. Kubrick and his team poured over a multitude of designs, yet they could not find one convincing enough. Their stated intention was to find one. Money was not an issue. And yet they failed. Perhaps it was meant to be so; perhaps the aliens weren't meant to be represented. How to represent a crypt? Kubrick's crypt becomes the (meditation of the) film. One might say that the explosion of alien-sightings in that-thing-called-postmodernity is a result of abjection raised to the surface of everyday life, in that we have become outwardly obsessed by our secrets, the secrets of the others within.

 

Kubrick's _2001_, like most science fiction, problematizes humanity's relation with technology. And, like most science fiction, it is not so much about *the* future, whatever that could mean, as the future as seen from the present of the filmmaker's eyes and thoughts. The banality of the film's language is the banality of ours; the cold calculating nature of the characters is our coldness; their lack of surprise at their surroundings is our lack of surprise at ours. Like us, the film's characters are lost and have all but disappeared, surrendered to their crypts in an all-pervasive melancholy. This is the liberal condition of viewing technology as simple means, as tool, as detached from us so that we can be in full control. As seemingly exterior to us, however, the final truth is that our tools must be *out* of our control -- here is the ground from which narratives of transcendence and/or Apocalypse spring. HAL, the tool, goes mad. Is Kubrick suggesting we regain control of our tools, as a liberal might, or that we renegotiate our relation with technology, accepting our contamination by it, our co-dependence with it? Given the nature of the ending, there can be no conclusions here, though it should be noted that even after Bowman kills HAL, he still employs the technology of the pod -- goes for a ride with it -- beyond the infinite. There is no garden here, no Adam and Eve. Only a bunch of apes and a cryptic monolith (of technology) . . .

 

. . . Which Bowman, despite his overtaking of HAL, can never possess. On the contrary he is constantly displaced by the crypt and through it -- just as one could not possess the cut, which by its nature eludes understanding. One does not see the cut, any more than one sees the crypt. Yet everything is structured by and through it. The cut makes cinema cinema. The crypt makes humans human. They touch in the . . .

 

Artifact

Metal prism

Pentalogue

Mies van der Rohe version of one-half

the tablets of Law

Black basalt column

Black steel door

Long cement board

Pillar

The block

Monolith

That damn-two-by-four

Teaching machine

Candy bar

Calling card

Transistor radio

Handball court wall

Cracker Jacks box

Vibrating Metallic bar

God

 

. . . or whatever else you want to call it. I chose 'monolith', it being in the middle of the list; but I like 'candy bar', and even 'God', too. As for whether the final image is transcendence or becoming I leave open, as indeed I must. Who would dare to draw a box around such a film, such a monster? To simply immerse oneself in the questions is good enough. One never emerges unchanged, one becoming other, orgy of wonder. Like a child, thought through resemblance, in the interstice . . .

 

McGill University, Montreal, Canada

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Agel, _The Making of Kubrick's 2001_, p. 289.

 

2. Adler, in Agel, _The Making of Kubrick's 2001_, p. 208.

 

3. Kubrick, in Agel. _The Making of Kubrick's 2001_, p. 201

 

4. Ibid., p. 111

 

5. Ibid., p. 102

 

6. Ibid., p. 93

 

7. Kagen, _The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick_, p. 248

 

8. Deleuze, _Cinema 2_, p. 213.

 

9. Ibid., p. 278.

 

10. Chion, _Kubrick's Cinema Odyssey_, pp. 68-9

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Agel, Jerome, ed., _The Making of Kubrick's 2001_ (New York: Agel Publishing, 1970).

 

Castricano, Jody, _Cryptomimesis_ (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's Press, 2001).

 

Chion, Michel, _Kubrick's Cinema Odyssey_, trans. Claudia Gorbman. (London: British Film Institute, 2001).

 

Deleuze, Gilles, _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

 

Falsetto, Mario, _Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis_ (London: Praeger, 2001).

 

Kagan, Norman, _The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick_ (New York: Continuum, 2000).

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Richard I. Pope, 'In Kubrick's Crypt, a Derrida/Deleuze Monster; or, An-Other Return to _2001_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 22, August 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n22pope>.

 

 

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