Monday 21 September 2020

Stanley Kubrick: Thoughts On Narrative

2001: A Space Odyssey (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick insisted that a feature film can be constructed from six to eight ‘non-submersible units’. A non-submersible unit is a fundamental story sequence where all the non-essential elements have been stripped away. These units would be so robust and compelling that they would, by themselves, be able to keep the viewer interested. They would contain only what is necessary for the storyline. And when joined together they would form a greater narrative.

Kubrick’s ideas on cinematic narrative seem to have been formed at an early stage, as far back as 1960, where he summed up his approach: 
I think the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start, the start gets under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.
The way Kubrick reduced 2001: A Space Odyssey to its most important elements was indicative of his emerging method of telling stories. Over the years, Kubrick had adapted many books into films. By the time he came to conceive of 2001: A Space Odyssey he realised that all he needed – as he later told science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss – are six or eight ‘non-submersible units’: basic story points that cannot be reduced any further. When the story points are linked together they form a narrative that will contain a balanced mix of all the themes, images and characters.

On release in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey polarized critical and public opinion. Many of its admirers considered it a prophetic masterpiece while its detractors praised the special effects but found it confusing and disappointing as drama.

The final scenes in particular remained for many an enigmatic, purely emotional, non-verbal experience. Indeed, less than half the film had dialogue. It was a re-organization of the traditional dramatic structure. Process became more important than plot. As one critic put it: ‘It was a film not about space travel; it was space travel’. 

Kubrick retorted: ‘The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalize or analyze it.’ Notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey was Kubrick’s first experiment with restructuring the conventions of the three-act drama. It’s likely it started out to be something quite different. The book based on the original screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick is literal, more explicit. The film, in its early stages, had a narrator’s voice. It was cut gradually and then eliminated completely, by virtue of which 2001: A Space Odyssey evolved as a more visual experience.

By the time Stanley Kubrick began working with Brian Aldiss on A.I. Artificial Intelligence (eventually filmed by Stephen Spielberg) Kubrick had formulated his theory of storytelling. As Aldiss recalls, Kubrick told him:
To forget about the narrative, you don’t want narrative, just concentrate on various scenes. He then expounded his theory of non-submersible units… you can see it working out in particular in 2001 where there are these chunks of narrative. This I believe is one of the attractions of 2001 – not only the music, not only the extraordinary silences and the beauty of the photography, but the fact that they don’t quite fit together. This gives the film a sense of mystery, so the intelligent viewer has to construct their own narrative.
In an interview for the documentary Stanley and Us, Brian Aldiss expanded on Kubrick’s notion of constructing a film based around a succession of irreducible sequences:
I was always keen on the idea of narrative. My books always have a narrative. That is to say, cause and effect. That’s what I like. But Stanley was less interested in that and he said to me ‘now forget about the narrative’. He said ‘what you need to make a movie is six ‘non-submersible units’’. That was the phrase he used: ‘non-submersible units’. And he said when we’ve got those we’re away. And I did actually produce one [a script] that he loved and was really enthusiastic about. It was the one time in our working relationship when he was enthusiastic and he said to me ‘Brian, I have the impression that you have two styles of writing – one is brilliant and the other’s not so good’. But when you think about this philosophy of the ‘non-submersible unit’ you can see it in action most effectively, I think, in The Shining. You have an episode and then it’s linked to another by a blackboard that would just say ‘Thursday, Four PM’. You know something bad is going to happen on Thursday at Four PM. It heightens the suspense and so in that respect it’s a very good device. But when you examine 2001, you can see the non-submersible units and they don’t actually quite link up. For instance, the last mysterious episode is almost complete in itself. And then there’s the episode on the ship with HAL. These are the units. And it’s because they don’t link up that we find 2001 so interesting. There’s something that our intellects can’t quite resolve and that’s an attraction in a movie.

Thus 2001: A Space Odyssey can be understood as a break with traditional cinematic narrative, an attempt to remove itself from a conventional way of telling a cinematic story. It was a ‘new way of assimilating narrative’. 2001: A Space Odyssey was not an articulated plot but a ‘succession of vivid moments’. 

In the case of the narrative structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey one can distinguish four such sections or units: ‘The Dawn of Man’, an untitled second section, the third section called ‘Jupiter Mission – 18 months Later’, and finally ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’, with each section separated by a narrative ellipsis.

This visual approach to storytelling was later discussed by Stanley Kubrick in an interview with Playboy Magazine in which he elaborates on the intention behind the non-conventional narrative of 2001: A Space Odyssey:

PLAYBOY: Much of the controversy surrounding 2001 deals with the meaning of the metaphysical symbols that abound in the film – the polished black monoliths, the orbital conjunction of Earth, Moon and sun at each stage of the monoliths’ intervention in human destiny, the stunning final kaleidoscopic maelstrom of time and space that engulfs the surviving astronaut and sets the stage for his rebirth as a ‘star-child’ drifting toward Earth in a translucent placenta. One critic even called ‘2001’ ‘the first Nietzschean film,’ contending that its essential theme is Nietzsche’s concept of man’s evolution from ape to human to superman. What was the metaphysical message of ‘2001’?

KUBRICK: It’s not a message that I ever intend to convey in words. 2001 is a non-verbal experience; out of two hours and 19 minutes of film, there are only a little less than 40 minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to ‘explain’ a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level – but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point. I think that if 2001 succeeds at all, it is in reaching a wide spectrum of people who would not often give a thought to man’s destiny, his role in the cosmos and his relationship to higher forms of life. But even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001 would, if presented as abstractions, fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intellectual categories; experienced in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibers of one’s being.

PLAYBOY: Without laying out a philosophical road map for the viewer, can you tell us your own interpretation of the meaning of the film?

KUBRICK: No, for the reasons I’ve already given. How much would we appreciate La Gioconda   today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth’ – or ‘because she’s hiding a secret from her lover.’ It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a ‘reality’ other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.

PLAYBOY: Arthur Clarke has said of the film, ‘If anyone understands it on the first viewing, we’ve failed in our intention.’ Why should the viewer have to see a film twice to get its message?

KUBRICK: I don’t agree with that statement of Arthur’s, and I believe he made it facetiously. The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not – and should not – require further amplification. Just speaking generally, however, I would say that there are elements in any good film that would increase the viewer’s interest and appreciation on a second viewing; the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen. The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of the film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a visual work of art. We don’t believe that we should hear a great piece of music only once, or see a great painting once, or even read a great book just once. But the film has until recent years been exempted from the category of art – a situation I’m glad is finally changing.

PLAYBOY: Some prominent critics – including Renata Adler of ‘The New York Times’, John Simon of ‘The New Leader’, Judith Crist of ‘New York’ magazine and Andrew Sarris of  ‘The Village Voice’ – apparently felt that 2001 should be among those films still exempted from the category of art; all four castigated it as dull, pretentious and overlong. [KAEL: ’It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie’; ADLER: ’Incredibly boring’; SARRIS: ’A disaster’] How do you account for their hostility?

KUBRICK: The four critics you mention all work for New York publications. The reviews across America and around the world have been 95 percent enthusiastic. Some were more perceptive than others, of course, but even those who praised the film on relatively superficial grounds were able to get something of its message. New York was the only really hostile city. Perhaps there is a certain element of the lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that it finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema, But film critics, fortunately, rarely have any effect on the general public; houses everywhere are packed and the film is well on its way to becoming the greatest moneymaker in M-G-M’s history. Perhaps this sounds like a crass way to evaluate one’s work, but I think that, especially with a film that is so obviously different, record audience attendance means people are saying the right things to one another after they see it – and isn’t this really what it’s all about?

PLAYBOY: Speaking of what it’s all about – if you’ll allow us to return to the philosophical interpretation of ‘2001’ – would you agree with those critics who call it a profoundly religious film?

KUBRICK: I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001 but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe. Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia – less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe – can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities – and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.

– Extract from Eric Nordern: Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick, 1968.


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