I love this time of year because this is when Turner Classic Movies (TCM) does it 31 Days of Oscar as a prelude to the Oscars. It’s a veritable cornucopia of classic movies.
Honestly, I get so spoiled during this month that when TCM goes back to its regular programming schedule it takes a bit of an adjustment.
Saturday, TCM did a triple header of sci-fi movies: 2001, A Space Odyssey, 2010 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I have seen all three of those movies many times but they are also three movies I can pretty much watch again and again. My son came in while I was watching 2001. He’s never really seen it, except for clips here and there, but he happened to come in at the point in the movie where astronaut Dave Bowman, in orbit around Jupiter, has left his ship and is about to take the ultimate journey beyond the infinite.
He asked me some questions about what was going on. I did my best to answer them. 🙂
If you’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, warning, Will Robinson, it’s a definite head trip. And it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. On the surface it’s frustrating, boring in some spots and downright incomprehensible in others. And I love it! And it’s a movie, shall I say, that’s not afraid to take some major risks.
One of the biggest risks it takes is near the beginning. Kubrick structured 2001 into what you can see as either a prologue and three acts or a four act movie.
The first act, or prologue, is called “Dawn of Man.” That’s right. The movie literally starts at the beginning, millions of years in our past, when man is nothing more than an ape-like creature struggling to survive. A strange black monolith suddenly appears among the man-apes. Kubrick does not explain where the monolith came from or who left it there. But there it is. Black, rectangular and somewhat ominous.
However, as a result of the monolith’s enigmatic appearance, one of the man-apes, while scrounging for food, picks up a bone and discovers that he can use it as a tool. And more than just a tool. He uses it as a weapon to kill one of the members of an encroaching band of other man-apes.
Now, what happens next is one of those penultimate moments in movie-making history. As the man ape, having defeated his foe, triumphantly tosses the bone into the air, Kubrick cuts to an orbiting nuclear weapon.
Yep, we make a leap of millions of years from a prehistoric African savanna to the far reaches of outer space. We have, in an instant, traversed millions of years of human evolution and civilization. Why does Kubrick do this?
Because all that happened in between doesn’t matter. At least not in the context of the movie. All the terrible wars, scientific advancements, horrible tragedies, literary and artistic achievements, etc, etc, etc, that humanity has experienced is reduced to a single jump cut.
What happens next is what’s important. Not what came before. Man has traveled into space although he still makes war upon his neighbor. He has moved beyond the primitive struggle for survival on earth and out into the stars. The final frontier, so to speak.
And what does humanity find? You got it. Another monolith. Just like the one the primitive man-apes encountered millions of years ago. But this one is on the Moon. Where it had been deliberately buried. And why was it buried deliberately on the Moon?
Because it was a test. The aliens, or whoever it was, who put that first monolith on the Earth buried this one on the Moon as a signal to them that humans had evolved far enough to be able to travel into space. And when that monolith on the Moon is discovered, it sends out a signal directing humans to Jupiter.
Now, as a writer, what I find fascinating about that famous jump cut (or match cut, if you want to get technical) is that writers have to ask themselves constantly what should or should not be included in a piece of writing. Writing is about making choices. Do I show this about the heroine? Do I include that about the hero?
The part of human history that Kubrick left out in his cut has been the subject of countless books, movies, operas, paintings, etc. But in the context of the movie, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t important.
What was important was what was coming next. Humans had found that monolith on the Moon and everything that had happened prior to that event, although important as backstory, was not important for the story itself.
So, when I write, I tend to ask myself, does the reader need to know such and such, especially in the context of what I’m writing about? If not, I cut it.
Now, it’s possible that I may have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about why it is that my heroine can’t stand the smell of spaghetti. But if it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot or her character arc, I don’t include it.
It’s like an iceberg, the majority of which lies below the water line.
Writing is a lot like that. So much lies beneath the surface, whether it’s subtext or backstory. The trick is knowing what to put in and what to leave out.
In the movie 2001, Kubrick made a bold choice to encapsulate the whole of human history into a single cut. It blew people’s mind when the movie came out in 1968 and it’s still, after over 40 years, an incredible cinematic moment.