"Those who won't believe their eyes won't believe this film." Stanley Kubrick

Humanity Going to HAL:

The Art of Understatement in 2001

The plot of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is concerned with tremendously advanced extraterrestrials who take an active hand in human evolution. By these entities primeval apes are spurred onward to become human, and space-age humans, in the person of one astronaut, are nudged again into the beginning of the next stage. Stanley Kubrick is not overly interested in this plot, and neither am I. It is no accident that the most memorable images in the movie are those of HAL, the ship's computer, or that the portion of the film detailing the voyage to Jupiter is the longest. 2001 is much more concerned with examining the nature of intelligence and of humanity.

The HAL1 9000 computer, as many have remarked, seems the most human character in the film. Of course, only four people are given any depth of character in the entire 141-minute movie: HAL, his crewmates Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, and Dr. Heywood Floyd. Each of the three men is, in his way, highly reserved and unemotive. This is, no doubt, one of the reasons so many viewers are bored by the film--the characters seem flat. I'm willing to argue, though, that this owes neither to bad acting nor to a dull story, but to Kubrick's conscious and constant use of understatement, particularly a sort of perfect understatement known as the Kuleshov effect.

The Kuleshov effect takes its name from Lev Kuleshov, an influential filmmaker in the mid-twentieth century Soviet Union, who illustrated it. It's a little hard to pin down precisely what the nature of his experiment was. According to Ronald Levaco, Kuleshov shot a single long closeup of an actor named Mozhukhin, sitting still without expression. Then "Kuleshov intercut it with various shots the exact content of which he forgot in his later years..." but which, according to his associate Vsevolod Pudovkin, comprised a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin, and a child with a toy bear. The audience "marveled at the sensitivity of the actor's range." Kuleshov's own account, though, describes only two scenes: one in which a jailed man is shown an open cell door, and one in which a starving man is shown a bowl of soup. Kuleshov switched the shots, so the starving man saw the open door and the prisoner looked at soup, and there was no noticeable difference.

Whether the latter account is a product of Kuleshov's forgetfulness or not, the thrust of the experiment is the same. At that time in his career, he held very strong views on editing--the montage of a film, he felt, overrode all other aspects of filmmaking, making them irrelevant. He came to call his actors "models," indicating the lack of significance he attributed them. (In later years he changed his mind about this, as his account of the experiment reflects.) The "Kuleshov effect," though, refers to the more probable experiment, the former.

The essence of the Kuleshov effect is filling in the blanks, or connecting the dots. Mozhukhin isn't actually looking at anything; he probably doesn't even know what they'll make him look at, so he can't possibly be reacting to it. He expresses no emotion, so an audience cannot possibly see emotion on his face, but the audience does. The viewer is presented with a situation or environment along with the academic fact that someone is experiencing it. He cannot simply accept the actor's evident emotion, as none is given, so he decides what the appropriate response would be and assigns it to the actor.

Now here's the real magic of it. The viewer dosn't realize the reaction is in his own mind. he assumes the actor shows it, but he can't see just how, so it seems like an almost magical projection of feeling by a brilliant actor. The viewer admires the actor's subtlety, and at the same time is more strongly affected by the scene. The character seems stoic, which at once impresses the viewer and lends weight to the emotion he does seem to display. In addition, the viewer wonders if others in the audience have caught the undercurrent, patting himself on the back for being so insightful. Backward as it may seem, the emotion of the scene is heightened in several different ways precisely because it is not being expressed at all.

This technique is at work everywhere we look in A Space Odyssey. Most strikingly and most importantly, of course, the Kuleshov effect is in heavy use in the case of HAL himself. By all accounts, HAL displays a broader spectrum of emotions than any human being in the film. In him, Kubrick brings the Kuleshov effect to a kind of Zen perfection beyond the reach of Mozhukhin or any other actor; HAL has no face at all. His voice is flat and monotonous, just as it is programmed to be. His "eyes" are set in motionless panels that function only as reminders of his presence, not mirrors of his soul. He has absolutely no mechanism for emotional expression. None but one, that is--HAL is utterly reliant on the Kuleshov effect to make his feelings plain.

The fact that his range of expression seems so great is testimony to Kubrick's skill in using the effect. HAL shows pride in his record right from the beginning, accompanied by complete confidence in his own infallibility; several times he seems positively indulgent toward Frank, Dave and his interviewer; he shows curiosity enough to ask Dave about his sketches, and a lot of genuine affection for both astronauts. He quickly assumes a fussy, matronly persona, keeping an eye on his crewmates, people that he clearly considers his intellectual juniors.

HAL's arrogance has negative repercussions. Several times HAL shows impatience with a question asked him more than once. In the case of Poole's questioning the operational record of the 9000 series, the impatience is coupled with suspicion and even muted animosity. (A nice subtlety there; a computer who can't express emotion at all actually manages to give the impression of understatement.) His deference gives way to an uneasy defensiveness when they recieve word of his apparent error. It is a classic irony that HAL is sufficiently lulled by his own sense of infallibility to brush off the possibility of an error without consideration, a cardinal act of unprofessionalism.

HAL's greatest performances begin when he decides to kill off the human crew. He watches the pod conference wordlessly, radiating shock, menace, and determination. (I'll return to that scene.) The pod that Frank ventures outside in takes on HAL's identity when it begins to move independently, showing calculated malevolence. Meanwhile, HAL speaks in tones of innocence to Dave, and we are chilled by the smoothness of his lie. When Dave seeks to reenter the Discovery, HAL speaks coldly, spitefully, his voice oozing a sullen sense of betrayal.

HAL's final scene is his finest. As the icy Dr. Bowman marches through the ship on his way to disconnect the computer, HAL's bravado quickly washes away, to be replaced by a fearful, near-whining stream of pleas. HAL is afraid of death. This is a good candidate for the most powerful scene in 2001; HAL is trying to scream, but he doesn't know how. He's not programmed to do that.

The human reaction to trauma is said to be typified by four stages: shock, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. It could be argued that HAL's monologue here reflects that pattern, if loosely. Also, of course, as his cerebral functions are being deactivated, HAL undergoes a regression--reliving, as it were, his childhood.2 This is playing on one of the central themes of the movie--what is the nature of humanity? What do you call a computer that follows human psychological patterns? Clearly, you call it HAL, but that isn't the point. The point is, he's acting like a human, so we ascribe human emotions to him, even though he cannot and does not express them in the slightest bit beyond toneless verbiage.

HAL is not the only character who displays understatement. Poole and Bowman both deliver their lines rather lifelessly, and their faces show little feeling. It seems to be an almost universal consensus that these men are cold and robotic. For the record, though, I must disagree with this. People rarely make great displays of emotion when they know for sure nobody's looking. One of the major things Kubrick is concerned with in 2001 is speculation about space travel, and one of his conclusions is that things would be very quiet. A major theme of the film is this total isolation that space engenders, beyond anything we know on Earth. Frank's and Dave's reserved temperaments owe largely, I think, to the complete absence of anyone to perform for.

There are other reasons, as well--in Dave's case particularly, the character seems wary of HAL right from the beginning (even though he is also more affectionate toward him). Beginning when the astronauts discover that HAL may have erred, Bowman visibly downplays his reactions to allay HAL's suspicions. Each, in his way, seems a stoic character to begin with, but not unfeeling. As witness I call Kubrick himself, interviewed by Joseph Gelmis:

Some critics seemed to feel that because we were successful in making a voice, a camera lens, and a light come alive as a character this necessarily meant that the human characters failed dramatically. In fact, I believe that Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, the astronauts, reacted appropriately and realistically to their circumstances.(307)

I would also say that Kubrick is deliberately understating the astronauts' reactions, in keeping with the tone of the film. Dave, the more demonstrative of the two, shows mostly boredom, fear, determination, and thoughtfulness. In the act of "unplugging" HAL he shows mixed feelings, and through most of the end he displays open-mouthed shock, but his range doesn't extend much further.

The emotion that Dave implies, though, covers a broader range. He has a genuine fondness for HAL, and is always the one to consider HAL's point of view. He is caught in the grip of tremendous isolation. His loneliness is best shown by his sketches--his artistic urge, probably a response to the sterility of his environment, can be turned only toward images of the men in cold sleep, the most chillingly lifeless sights on the ship.

We know by these sketches that Dr. Bowman is a creative man, and by his long, thoughtful silences we are shown his thoroughness and intelligence. We know he is a "cool customer" by his self-control, even in peril of his life.3 In him, as in the computer, we see much more depth of character than he ever actually shows us.

The only true instance of the Kuleshov effect involving an astronaut on the Discovery, though, comes from Frank Poole. His character is less well-developed, but we can see he is more rough-hewn than his associate, a little more aloof, never speaking to HAL (or to Dave, really) except about business. Poole watches his parents' message with no expression at all, tinted goggles obscuring half his face. The scene makes us uncomfortable because it puts a sharp focus on the distance between parents and son; Frank doesn't bother to answer, because he knows they can't hear him. Frank isn't an easy character to sympathize with, but we feel bad for anybody who has to spend his birthday outside the asteroid belt. In his most sympathetic scene, his face is totally devoid of feeling.

The effect is at work in other ways in A Space Odyssey. We are made aware of the vast interplanetary distances, the ever-present theme of isolation, by the very length of time Kubrick spends showing us silence and stillness. Lazily, we watch the full length of the Discovery drift by. The pods move slowly through space, and the stretching minutes are emphasized by the sound of breathing or by simple silence. This recurrent motif, of just how very alone these men are, is brought home to us mainly by impartial silence. Kuleshov performed no experiments to this end, but the principle is the same: we garner from the film an emotion, a strong one, that the film does not actually show us.

Another vital case of this expanded Kuleshov effect is the instance of the obelisks themselves. Four of 2001's most affecting scenes are those in which these great black monoliths appear.

Consider the first visitation. We are shown a silent monolith, and a group of ape-men who evidently are strongly affected by it, and we see (as we will again) heavenly bodies in alignment with it. The obelisk itself, the ostensible cause of the occasion, just sits, and yet we know there is big medicine behind it.

This is a sort of reverse Kuleshov effect. Now we are shown the emotional reactions of the apes, of Dr. Floyd, of Bowman as he dies, and we must fill in the cause--we must interpret and imagine what the artifact must do that is so very moving. Why do they all seek to touch the stone? What makes them so hesitant in the attempt?

Here I must discuss the arguments against my case. To begin with, in the first monolith scene, we are given a tip miles off that something big is going on. The daybreak is accompanied by a choir of shivery voices, telling us in straightforward Hollywood fashion that magic is at hand. This sound swells throughout the scene, so the magical effect of the pillar is not without theatrical expression, even before Strauss' World Riddle theme makes sure we've noticed. The scene of Dave's death is more in keeping with the tone of the film; knowing, perhaps, that our capacity for disbelief was left behind at Jupiter, Kubrick simply lets the artifact stand quietly at the foot of the bed, and we understand.

The other primary objection is that HAL's voice--the contribution of Douglas Raine, a human actor--really isn't emotionless. Subtle changes in pitch and volume could clue us in, subconsciously, to HAL's feelings.

My original intent was to record everything HAL said and rearrange his words to prove their tonelessness. That proved beyond my resources, so I watched the film again, listening carefully to the computer's speech. I noticed two occasions where HAL's voice did in fact alter in pitch and pace to show emotion.

The first incidence takes place when HAL detects the impending machine failure. HAL says "Just a moment--just a moment-" and the pitch of his voice rises slightly, the tempo increases, expressing alarm directly. The second is his answer to Dave about the discrepancy between the two computers. HAL says this is "attributable to human error," and on the words "human error" his voice slows down and rises in pitch, emphasizing these words. I could find no other such incidences.

It is interesting that neither of these cases take place in any of HAL's most expressive scenes. HAL's voice was absolutely at its flattest throughout his last three scenes, even during his death scene, his most touching performance. I suspect that Kubrick and Raine were careless in letting these two incidences take place, and during the most important scenes they were more carefully controlling HAL's voice, keeping it toneless.

Of course, it could be said with some justification that it is not humanly possible for Raine, or any actor, to keep his voice truly deadpan the way a true computer would. Perhaps he is still speaking expressively on a subliminal level. HAL's voice, in this case, may be understated, but it does not use the Kuleshov effect.

Even if this is true, which I don't believe is the case, HAL still employs the Kuleshov effect in other scenes--those wherein he doesn't speak at all. As he watches the astronauts' conference in the pod, we have only a red light on a panel from which to read his emotions, but still we derive shock, anger, betrayal, and malevolence from the computer. (Analogous to this is Bowman's eye, filling the screen as he is swept from Jupiter to elsewhere. Whatever the poets may say, an eyeball by itself cannot express anything, even when Stanley Kubrick makes it glow in lurid colors, as he does here. Dave's eye simply reminds us that he's there, and we fill in his shock.)

A similar scene is HAL's passive murder of the three sleeping astronauts. We are horrified by his coldbloodedness, and his contempt for humanity is clear without even one of his eyes to look at.4 We know he is contemptuous and cruel, because in order to do what we see him doing he must be.

This is the true heart and soul of the Kuleshov effect. When we are shown no explicit emotion, we infer it--but in order to do that, we are forced to experience the circumstances, and feel the emotion ourselves. This is why the Kuleshov effect can generate such a strong reaction; it's why 2001 is such a powerful experience. We don't know HAL is frightened because he sounds frightened. We know he's frightened because Dave is coming to kill him. His blank voice forces us to experience his situation in his name and feel his own fear for him. We are one step closer to the action on screen, not reacting to the actors but reacting with the characters.



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