I’ve had several discussions with students recently about the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular the end section of the film. In response to those discussions I’ve written an article on this that might go some way in helping understanding the most famous part of Kubrick’s masterpiece.
In an important series of articles in Cahiers du Cinema (1969), Jean Pierre Oudart proposed that Lacan’s notion of the subject suturing the lack opened up by enunciation with an imagined entirety, seemed to describe the circumstances of cinema spectating rather well. Oudart argued that when a shot appears on screen it is greeted with jubilation – invoking the mirror stage of Lacanian psychoanalysis – that is however short lived, for there is no imaginary without the symbolic. The initial experience of plenitude gives way to a sense of absence, an anxiety brought about by the realisation of space beyond the boundary of the frame. The image is no longer innocently there; it is there for someone.1 The question then arises, who is the missing spectator whose point of view this is?
What answers this question and annuls the anxiety are the formal systems of point of view and shot reverse-shot, allowing the spectator to identify the absent one as a character within the fiction. This sutures the rupture in the initial relation of image to spectator, and envelops cinematic discourse within the imaginary.
This essay will look at how the point of view and shot reverse-shot structures articulate narrative space in a 2001:A Space Odyssey, and how the spectator is bound into the chain of discourse when the normal suturing mechanisms are subjected to severe codic disruption. It will examine Branigan’s theories of point of view and subjectivity, as well as Heath’s writings on narrative space and suture and suggest that, to understand how these systems work in 2001, the concept of a content-free discussion of point of view and narrative construction has to be modified. The essay will approach these questions from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, draw on Lacan’s work on the origin of lack and the constitution of the subject, and examine how these ideas impact on the point of view figure in 2001.
The essay will first summarise Branigan’s work in Point of View in the Cinema (1984), and Heath’s discussion of point of view and suture in Questions of Cinema (1981), then examine Lacan’s theories regarding the construction of the subject and how the scopic drive and the experience of lack play a central role in the narrative structuring of 2001. The essay will argue that the suturing process, due to its reliance on the conventions of point of view and shot reverse-shot, is disrupted, leading to a spectatorial position that mirrors the sense of lack and unreality presented in the diegesis.2 The climax of the film sutures the front and end sections together to reveal the absent one as the point of view from which the narrative is authorised. 2001 then, can be seen as the quest of the subject to overcome lack by recovering the lost object of pre-symbolic union. The essay will propose that the lack of character subjectivity and the defamiliarisation of the point of view and shot reverse-shot conventions leads to one situating the look of the point of view figure in the concept of the ‘absent other’3 .
The category of point of view is one of the most important means of structuring narrative discourse, developing character subjectivity and establishing narrative space. The general mode of the point of view shot shows what is being looked at, and who is doing the looking. The rules of continuity, point of view, shot-reverse shot and editing, were developed to maintain an imaginary coherence, permitting the spectator’s belief in the integrity of the space, the logical sequence of time and the ‘reality’ of the fictive universe. The spectator’s fictive participation thus hinges on a perceived spatial coherence – fragmentary images are given a logical consistency because they are subordinated to a causal sequence of narrative events. Heath refers to this process as the “conversion of seen into scene,”4 in which vision itself is dramatised, staged as a narrated(and therefore meaningful) spectacle before the viewer.
The spectator’s ability to construct this space is based on the series of looks that are primarily negotiated through the shot-reverse shot and point of view structures – the central means by which the look is inscribed into the cinematic fiction. The look of the camera, the look of the spectator, and the intradiegetic look of each character within the film, combine in a complex system which shapes vision and meaning, defining the visible things of cinema. Cinema turns on this series of looks, writes Heath (1981), and the exchange of looks, most commonly seen in conversation situations, is described through the convention of the shot, reverse-shot structure. This implies an alternation of images between the seeing and the seen, the point of view shot anchoring the image in the vision and perspective of one or other characters. The spectator thus identifies with someone who is always off screen, an absent ‘Other’ whose main function is to signify a space to be occupied.
In Point of View in Cinema (1984) Branigan argues for the subjective ingredient in all point of view structures, including author, reader, character and narrator. “Subjectivity is the process of knowing a story – telling it and perceiving it.”5 The thrust of his argument is to locate the spectator as the fundamental organising agency, who through the various levels of narration, makes sense of the fictional world. Organisation is achieved through what he terms ‘levels of narration’. These levels have a hierarchical ordering that work to locate the spectator as the main organising agency of the text.
Point of view, then, governs the capacity of the spectator to form hypotheses regarding the intelligibility of any particular narrative level and thence, narration in general. Branigan sees point of view, and from that the production of subjectivity, as the most significant aspect of narrative structure. He states that – “There is a strange, almost circular relation here because a character in the story appears to be telling the story; that is narration and narrative are all bound up together in character subjectivity so that each appear to guarantee the others’ existence – and truth. Put another way, the text uses a series of spaces to represent character in order to represent through character those same spaces.”6
It is well known that the lack of a central character in 2001, indeed, the lack of any human point of identification whatsoever, led many critics to voice serious doubts about the film. Kubrick was accused of being deliberately ambiguous to hide the fact that the film was merely an excuse for special effects, that it had no story line, and no characters for the audience to identify with. Many criticisms were targeted at the portrayal of mankind as simply a bland, emotionless clay in the hands of a God-like alien force, feeling that the film lacked any humanity.
It might be argued that in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ section of the film the computer HAL 9000, is presented as the only feeling, thinking being in the film – “I can feel it, I can feel my mind going”. This is continually emphasised by means of point of view and shot reverse-shot editing. While the voice is, to a some degree, responsible for this focalisation, the continual point of view cutting and emphasis placed on the image of HAL’s glowing eye, denote a visual system traditionally used to describe character. This foregrounding of HAL as a narrative actant7 emphasises the importance of the point of view figure to classical cinema, demonstrating the way it constructs character out of the point of view and shot-reverse shot convention, and from the character constructs a narrator who appears to authorise the sequence of shots from within the textual system. HAL is portrayed as a supra-biological step for consciousness and intelligence that ultimately, is doomed to failure in much the same way as our subjective investment in his character is frustrated by his ‘death’. We are led into a regime of belief on both textual and contextual grounds through our understanding of the systems of classical cinema that, in the end, turns out to be misplaced.
How then is the narrative constructed when it has seemingly no defined or consistent character or point of view to construct it through and where the narrative appears to be constructed independent of the characters within the film? To locate the true structuring principle behind 2001 this essay will look beyond the constraints of Branigan’s work on point of view and approach it’s analysis from a less ‘content-free’ perspective. The fictional world of 2001 impacts directly onto the formal elements of the film, and these must be taken into account in any discussion of the analysis of its narrative. Stephen Heath’s work on suture provides the framework by which this analysis can move forward.
For Heath, suture specifies narrative’s concern with the constitution of the subject through division and lack. That is, the experience of lack and drive towards unity that characterise narrative, exactly figure the experience of the subject in language. Suture is an element in all discourse; for discourse to be intelligible suturing must occur. In film, discursive structures, especially point of view and shot reverse-shot, must be contained by suturing if they are to be coherent. Also, suturing must be continual, as each discursive structure opens up a gap or absence.
By taking the somewhat formalist arguments of Branigan regarding point of view and narrative, and re-reading them in psychoanalytic terms – especially Lacan’s – Heath presents a more coherent model of how the subject constructs, and is constructed by narrative. This model provides a clearer insight into the workings of point of view and suture in 2001, even though at first, its application appears somewhat problematic.
In 2001 these processes of textual and subjective construction seem to be disrupted, as the point of view and shot reverse-shot system are radically altered by the invasion of the diegesis upon the cinematic apparatus. This open and un-sutured structure of signification leads to an ambiguity of space and subjectivity. The identity of the point of view is not revealed to the spectator in the normal shot reverse-shot format, the absent one remains absent, lack is opened up and not sutured. This asks the question that if the normal process of suturing is disrupted, how is the narrative discourse made coherent, and where does this place the spectator? To answer this question this essay will first look at the fundamental psychoanalytic component of point of view – and hence of suture – that of the scopic drive.
The privileging of the role of point of view in narrative construction consequently puts the scopic drive at the forefront of this inquiry. The scopic drive – along with what Lacan termed the invocatory drive, the desire to hear – is heavily dependent on lack, not only in that it supports a hopeless search for the lost object, but also that it must maintain a necessary distance from it’s object.
Lacan (1978) argues that the child is born into lack, what he terms the manque a etre – the want to be; the ensuing life of the subject consists of a series of attempts to overcome this lack, an undertaking that is doomed to failure. Though the configuration and experience of lack may alter, the basic reality is constant. Throughout its life the subject will attempt to recapture the imagined entirety that it felt was present in it’s union with the mother. It is a search for that which will overcome the lack, the missing component Lacan terms l’objet petit a , and whose most obvious object is the breast. This stands as a representation of what is ultimately unrepresentable, in that the object that could overcome the lack is nonexistent – is always absent.
In 2001 this representation is achieved by the appearance of the monolith, the ‘mother’ of the star child and indeed of the whole human race – the strive to touch it and know it becomes the mythical struggle – the struggle for the reunification with the mother and the final overcoming of lack. What makes 2001 unusual is that this representation is solid – it exists; it is the object of desire. The appearance of the monolith drives the narrative process, posing the central enigma and activating the hermeneutic code. It can also be seen as a Lacanian mirror, in that it marks the separation of the hominids – infant humans – from the mother-Earth. The fact that the monolith initiates the narrative, as a catapulting of the human race into history – into language – further enhances this connection.
The monolith in fact becomes a focus for the questions,‘what is being looked at’ and ‘who is doing the looking’?; the questions that the point of view shot poses for the spectator, and which reverberate through all the sections of the film. Here the point of view figure operates in perfect unison with the hermeneutic code. The look of the Other, entering from outside the frame is represented in the form of the monolith – an extra-terrestrial scrutiny. 2001 then turns the point of view code – the camera as narrator – into an element of the diegesis. The external vision which seems to be shaping the destinies of the characters, and which is represented by the monolith, is not, for the spectator, satisfactorily integrated into the normal textual system. The code whereby the absent Other is integrated into the narrative space – the mechanism of suture – is distorted in order to emphasise this dislocated look, a transcendental vision that cannot be contained by the normal structuring systems of narrative and diegetic space.
2001 can then be described in terms of the alignment of two different aspects of the act of looking – the look of the hero – the human race -who attempts to know the world by seeing the world, and the look of the Other, the omnipresent scrutiny of the all seeing alien God. This interplay shapes the narrative patterns of 2001, the main sections all tend towards moments of vision, knowledge or insight, activated through the catalyst of the absent Other; Moonwatcher suddenly sees the pile of bones in front of him differently, and through a leap of imagination and intellect, visualises a use for an old bone as the first tool/weapon; Dr. Floyd discovers the buried monolith and realises that it is the first evidence of extra-terrestrial life; HAL achieves sentience, ironically through the onset of psychosis, due to his knowledge of the true goal of the Jupiter Mission – a knowledge that had to remain hidden; Dave Bowman looks at himself in the process of transcendence, finally emerging, floating above planet Earth, as the star-child, his knowledge of himself, and of the universe, equivalent to that of a God.
The relationship between scopophilia and epistemophilia finds an ideal description in psychoanalysis, and sums up their positioning in the narrative structuring of 2001 – the desire for knowledge as a transformed expression of the scopic drive. The use of point of view in 2001 highlights this convergence of scopic and epistemic, and does so through the repeated motif of the eye.
Kubrick attaches enormous importance to the ocular image; of Moonwatcher, Hal, and Dave, who plunges through the Star Gate, the image of the eye is highlighted as the site of the convergence of these two drives – as vision is the vehicle for the exploration and mastery of the world, and the lens through which the self is perceived and recognised. In the final scene of 2001 these merge as the subject realises the ultimate and original goal of the scopic and epistemic drives, and trains his gaze on himself in a series of bravura point of view shots where he looks at himself becoming himself transcended.
The astronaut becomes identified with the camera, both present and absent from the scene. Dave casts his view out of the pod towards a version of himself perhaps twenty years older. He sees himself looking at himself. The camera assumes a position identical to that of the character looking. As the object of the look returns the glance, the camera , following the shot reverse-shot convention, assumes his point of view. The agent of the original look however has disappeared, lost in the space/time between the two shots. The position from where we were looking is shown to be empty – we are not where we think we are. The paradox Lacan associates with the division of the self in the scopic order, and which is expressed in the phrase “I saw myself seeing myself”, is realised by the astronaut who sees himself occupying two positions simultaneously. In 2001 the subject is discovered to be the object of the quest. The scopic impulse returns to its point of origin, finding its ultimate object and terminal point in the self. Here, the overarching theme of 2001 destabilises the diegetic construction, to make what is a classic shot succession, become strange and unsettling. The suturing mechanism is interrupted, making the assumption of the production of a subjective camera, and hence of a discreet spectatorial position, open to question.
The point of view code here, works to increase the sense of spatial and temporal aberration, portrayed in the fictional world of the narrative. The shot succession that usually establishes the point of view figure undergoes a radical transformation. However, the text retains a classic homogeneity of form and diegesis, as the disruption of the point of view structure, although extreme, works to express the alien nature of the astronauts situation. In Thierry Kuntzel’s words – “The excess is a natural excess; the signifier is never uselessly squandered; its dispersion always mimics a diegetic dispersion.”8
This final scene leaves the film open to many interpretations. The Star-Child represents, in the portrayal of a transcendent state, and the complete absence of speech, a movement beyond the symbolic, beyond language, to a state as yet un-theorised. However, the image of the cosmic fetus also suggests a return to a pre-symbolic unity, as the Odyssey, the quest for l’objet petit a , reaches a euphoric conclusion. While the nature of the text defies any concrete rationale of its meaning, this essay would suggest that the latter interpretation most closely mirrors the spectators positioning within the text. We are returned to a space that we recognise as home, and the camera, as if to emphasise this return to conventional space, performs a 180 degree pan from the image of the Earth to the close-up of the star-child hovering above it; the convention of the shot reverse-shot is reinstated – performed as a camera movement. For the spectator, the absent one is revealed, no longer missing.
In conclusion, 2001 hinges ultimately on the allegorising of lack – of the loss of unity between the quest for knowledge and the retention of humanity. It achieves this through the disruption of the cinematic conventions whereby subjectivity and character identification are achieved – the apparatus of point of view and suture.
The question that Raymond Bellour asks in reference to the system of the classical film, “How does the end reply to the beginning?”9 provides the framework by which the image is promoted, and the narrative structured. The absence of language is the key – both sections portraying ape/man at a juncture on an evolutionary road: the apes in a pre-verbal existence, in Lacanian terms, a stage that is pre-symbolic; while the astronaut is at a moment of exit from language, a shedding of the skin of linguistic dependency, a symbolic transcendence. This demoting of the spoken word, promotes the camera as the formative narrative agent. The point of view figure, while being virtually nonexistent as a means of character development and subjectivity, is highlighted through the severe codic disruption that it undergoes.
From a structural perspective, all this seems to position 2001 well outside the mainstream of Hollywood cinema, yet the fact that Bellour’s paradigm works equally well in this film, shows just why 2001 persistently maintains it’s interpretive ambiguity. The normal suturing processes and point of view codes of classical cinema, that constantly construct and reconstruct space to maintain the internal coherence of the fictional world, are severely distorted in 2001, and could easily lead to it being interpreted as an avant-garde text. Yet by moving away from a purely ‘content-free’ discussion of the narrative, and towards an analysis that combines the formal and contextual elements of the film, this essay has shown how – as in classical cinema – these elements position the spectator in such a way as to elucidate the thematic content of the film.
That content is an Odyssey centred around the terms of lack. The apes exist in a state of pre-symbolic union with the mother Earth. The discovery of the bone/weapon/tool marks the split or division from the idealised union with the mother-Earth, mirroring the split of child from mother and the emergence of lack, a split which catapults man into language, into a digital wilderness. The middle sections highlight this division and lack through the psychological development of the character of HAL, and the de-humanised portrayal of an automaton-like human race. The final section then returns man to a euphoric state that is a transcendent consciousness, reborn as the star-child, into a state of cosmic homogeneity that marks a return of the lost object – a negation of lack.
In this final scene it might seem as if the suturing mechanism that binds the subject-spectator into the chain of discourse becomes ‘unstitched’. The off-screen space that is normally made coherent by the shot reverse-shot system, is ruptured by the impossibility of the subject’s positioning within the text; as De Lauretis states, “We see the image we do not see the gaze; one can look at her looking but one cannot look at oneself looking”.10 The system of looks that bind the viewer into relations of meaning and desire, could be seen as somewhat problematic, when the point of view and shot reverse-shot system that enables them is so dislocated. However, the homogeneity of formal and thematic elements highlights the completely alien nature of the fictional world, and successfully sutures the spectator into the complex signifying system. Dave Bowman not only looks at himself looking at himself, but that look is returned to us as spectators, as we are positioned as the subject of our own look. Here the suture finally occurs, as the front and end sections of the film are joined, the disequilibrium resolved as the Star Child is revealed as the absent one, now visible, and the space once again made ‘real’.
Point of view then, and the suturing mechanism that it supports, reveal us ultimately to be the object of our own look – our own search and desire. The collision of the scopic and epistemic drives finally find their nodal point of condensation in this look. The Odyssey becomes a search for knowledge of the world, and through that ultimately of oneself. It is also a search for that euphoric state of union represented in the image of the monolith. The spectator becomes part of the Other, part of the absent space, the unidentified point of view that was previously so elusive, now no longer missing. It underlines the constant suturing process of division and lack that is the basis of narrative cinema, and that, in the birth of the Star Child and the transcendence of the self, are resolved into a state of cosmic unity.
1. LAPSLEY. R and WESTLAKE. M; Film Theory: an Introduction. 1988, Manchester University Press. p87
2. On it’s release, 2001 was heralded as the last word in ‘realistic’ depictions of space and space travel. This ontological reading of the fictional world of 2001 places a heavy emphasis on the image – naturally enough since there is less than forty minutes of dialogue in the whole film, and what there is, presents little narrative illumination. However, the absence of language is the key to what this essay describes as the ‘unreality’ of the diegesis. Lacan’s rereading of Saussure suggests that the world of words creates the world of things. The demotion of the speech act in 2001 denies this linguistic basis. The spectator is subjectively excluded from the fictional world, having no ontological relation to the image – the distant past and the uncertain future – and no character with whom to identify. The abandonment of generic codes heightens this. Dave Bowman reacts in a completely automaton like manner to the murder of his fellow astronaut, Frank Poole. The character shows no emotion whatsoever – no anger, grief or sadness. He does not speak. Without the realm of language whereby the spectator can ‘create the world of things’, the production of verisimilitude is limited. Coupled with scenes that are outside normal experience – space travel, pre-history – the diegesis presents an un-natural, un-real world to the spectator.
3. For Lacan, the concept of the Other is the unconscious site of speech, discourse, signification and desire. Eagleton (1983) states; “…The Other is that which, like language, is always anterior to us and will always escape us, that which brought us into being in the first place”. This can be related to the absent other of the theorists of suture. In 2001, the spectator is never clearly aware of whose point of view is being stated. The idea of the point of view being located in the concept of the Other, mirrors the enunciative source that is always present as an invisible discursive agency in every cinematic construction. In 2001, this omnipotent, invisible agent becomes part of the diegesis – the alien civilisation whose hand controls and shapes the destinies of the human race.
4. HEATH. S; Questions of Cinema. 1981 Macmillan Press Ltd. p37
5. BRANIGAN. E; Point of View in Cinema. 1984 Mouton Publishers. p1
6. Op.cit. p177
7. Greimas (1971 – ‘Narrative Grammar – Units and Levels’. Modern Language Notes, number 86.) developed a paradigmatic structure of characters – he called them Actants – that were classified not by who they are but by what they do – similar to Propp in some ways. This matrix of six actants were then coupled into binary oppositions:-
Subject/Object – Helper/Opponent – Donor/Receiver
They participate in three main semantic axes which are – Communication, Desire or Quest, and Ordeal or Struggle.
2001 could be an interesting test of this model due to its lack of a central human character. HAL is presented as the only truly defined character, and as such, works as an important counterpoint, or perhaps binary opposition, to the de-humanised portrayal of the human characters.
8. KUNTZEL. T; ‘The Film Work 2’. Camera Obscura, number 5, 1980. p49
9. BELLOUR. R; ‘Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion’. Camera Obscura, number 3/4, 1979.
10. De LAURETIS. T; Alice Doesn’t. 1984 Macmillan Press Ltd. p142
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