Arron Sean McCormack
Postmodernity and 2001: A Space Odyssey
Arron Sean McCormack is a first year BA (Hons) Digital Film Production student at Ravensbourne. He recently collaborated with fellow students to create their first short film called Party Monster. Outside Ravensbourne he and a handful of peers are in the midst of creating their own mixed media company named Adeptech. Arron has also been working on solo projects, and he has written a screenplay entitled Carriage No 9, which is based on the Tibetan book of the dead and the state of Bardo. As well as his screenplay, he has been co-writing a short animated series called The Lonely Astronaut which deals with the banality of life, isolation, and Nihilism.
This research analyses the aesthetic and narrative construct of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey; a film that explores the development and evolution of humankind. I will be analysing this film in a postmodern context and will be giving examples of story telling and symbolic techniques used that can be defined as postmodern. The French philosopher and sociologist Jean-François Lyotard addresses postmodernity: ‘Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives’ (Lyotard, 1979); a meta narrative being a story or account that provides a sort of a guide or frame for people to live their lives and give meaning to their own experiences. Most religions can provide an appropriate example of a metanarrative. Postmodernism goes against the meta narrative and in turn focuses more on the individual, so the beliefs and experiences that were once set in stone may now be interpreted differently for each person.
The film 2001: A Space Odyssey uses the black monolith in various scenes; each time it appears we can see a huge shift in the advancement of humankind. Although we are never told this, we can assume it. Kubrick could have made it clear in the film who, exactly, left the monolith behind; he could have told us anything and we would have accepted it. However, the fact that he has not given us any information, other than that the monolith is artificial really forces us to think about the many different possibilities of its existence and arrival. Instead of providing a meta narrative by giving us footing or a foundation to solidify our beliefs of wherefrom this artefact came, the monolith makes us question the beliefs we may have held prior to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it may spark a new curiosity as to how humankind gained the ability to give itself the title of human, and thus acts as a complete opposite to a meta narrative.
2001: A Space Odyssey includes a mixture of primitive wildlife, which offers a serene natural setting. In the lengthy opening sequence the audience becomes comfortable with the natural imagery so that when this suddenly cuts to the scene in outer space, it jars us; intentionally, the opposing styles clash, emphasising the progression of humankind. Twentieth-century French philosopher Henri Bergson addresses movement, becomings and transitions in Creative Evolution:
The obscurity is cleared up, the contradiction vanishes, as soon as we place ourselves along the transition, in order to distinguish states in it by making cross cuts therein in thoughts. The reason is that there is more in the transition than the series of states, that is to say, the possible cuts–more in the movement than the series of position, that is to say, the possible stops.
(Henri Bergson, 1911, pp. 313-314)
This implies that the transitions between cuts can have significant meanings, as in this transition in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Between the first bone tool to spacecraft, we find missing information; the jump makes the audience focus on the missing elements Kubrick does not show onscreen. My initial reaction was not thinking about the bone tool, nor the spacecraft, but the things in between; the evolution of our own tools. In that fraction of a second, Kubrick makes us appreciate the ingenuity of humankind.
As postmodernity took full swing during the age of mass media, technology has surpassed our physical capabilities with the introduction of machines; from machines on building sites, to simple self checkout vendors, to extremes like the Mars Rover, and space exploration. Our tools are streamlining our productivity and production. However, this same workflow is being used in the way we are receiving information. Our media bodies have the chance to share with the public a variety of highbrow, mid, and lowbrow culture, however, as John Walker explains ‘the mass media are designed to reach the largest possible audiences’ (Walker 2001). He further argues that ‘success is measured in “quantitative” rather than “qualitative” terms. Would the majority of the British public spend their evenings watching ‘a Beethoven symphony, a documentary or a game show’? (Walker, 2001). These can be taken as examples of high-, mid- and lowbrow forms of transmissions of culture. Films also can be categorised into these three forms, or bands. That is, highbrow films tend to try and convey a message or theme through symbolism, editing techniques and mise-en-scène, whereas mid-brow may be considered the Oscar films – impressive films made to entertain with no obvious, deep or controversial theme underlying, and finally, lowbrow being the parodies, ‘stoner’ comedy films and similar. 2001: A Space Odyssey would be considered highbrow, verging on art house. It was criticised for its pacing, however, the pacing of this film was an important feature. Without the slow pacing, the symbolic elements of the film would not have been as effective: ‘…the appeal of this film diminishes with time as its almost comatose pacing threatens to alienate it from a modern audience’ (Haflidson 2017).
Perhaps the difference between highbrow and mid-brow, ‘Oscar worthy’ films lies in what French philosopher, critic and literary theorist Roland Barthes defined as the Studium and the Punctum. For Barthes, the Studium represents a general interest; a ‘sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds “all right.” To recognise the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions, to enter into harmony with [them]’ (Barthes 1988). The Studium may describe a key aspect for moviegoers of mid-brow, ‘Oscar worthy’ films. Here, the audience finds concrete answers to the plot. There are a few exceptions to the rule, such as the film Inception. However, whilst watching this film the audience is given confidence in what they are seeing, by being bombarded by over the top action sequences, and it is only the end of the film that leaves question marks. Barthes’ Punctum, on the other hand, may be the key ingredient in what can be defined as highbrow films. It is ‘that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ (Barthes, 1988). This can be seen in how in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the audience personally disregards the intentions of the author.
The influence 2001: A Space Odyssey has had on the science-fiction genre, and cinema as a whole, cannot be ignored. This is true for society as well; at the time the film was being made, humankind was ready to take its first successful trip to the moon, and thus the film is a reflection of its time. 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its HAL 9000, still remains contemporarily significant; think only of the introduction into our lives of software such as Siri and other personal smartphone assistants, Amazon Echo, and Google Home, which assist us and even control functions of our homes.
Barthes, R. (1988). Camera Lucida (1st ed.). New York: The Noonday Press.
BBC (2017) Films – review – 2001: A Space Odyssey, BBC. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/ 2000/09/18/2001_review.shtml (Accessed 06 March 2017)
Bergson, H. (1911). Creative Evolution (1st ed.) New York: Henry and Holt Company.
Gettell, O. (2017) ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’: Thrill ride scores near-flawless reviews’, LA Times [Online]
Available: http:// www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-mad-max-fury-road-movie-reviews-critics-20150514-story.html (Accessed 06 March 2017)
Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press.
Lyotard, J. (1979) The Postmodern Condition by Jean- Francois Lyotard, Georgetown University.
Available: http:// faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Lyotard-PostModernCondition1-5.html (Accessed: 18 February 2017)
Walker, J. (2001) Art in the Age of Mass Media (3rd ed.), London: Pluto
list of illustrations
Cover image: Juresko, Adam (2015) 2001: A Space Odyssey. Adam is an artist and designer, whose portfolio can be viewed here: https://www.behance.net/NOSUPERVISION
Fig. 1: Leonel, Jéssica (2017) 2001: A Space Odyssey Alternative Poster. Jéssica is a graphic designer, whose portfolio can be viewed here: www.behance.net/jeleonel
Fig. 2: Juresko, Adam (2015) 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fig. 3: Burns, Daniel (2015) 2001: A Space Odyssey poster. Daniel’s portfolio of work can be viewed here: https://www.artstation.com/deckard