"I've never achieved spectacular success with a film. My reputation has grown slowly. I suppose you
could say that I'm a successful filmmaker - in that a number of people speak well of me. But none of my films have received
unanimously positive reviews, and none have done blockbuster business." - Stanley Kubrick
The Art of Understatement
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. He then 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
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 that the starving man saw the open door and the prisoner
looked at soup, and there was no noticeable difference.
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, Kuleshov 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. The "Kuleshov effect," though, refers to the more probable experiment, the former.
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.
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.
is at work everywhere we look in Kubrick's films. Barry Lyndon, 2001, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining etc. But most strikingly
and most importantly, of course, the Kuleshov effect is in heavy use in the case of HAL himself. By all accounts, the HAL
computer 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.
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.
greatest performances begin when he decides to kill off the human crew. He watches the pod conference wordlessly, radiating
shock, menace, and determination. 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.
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. HAL is trying to scream,
but he doesn't know how. He's not programmed to do that.
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. Also, of course, as his cerebral functions are being deactivated,
HAL undergoes a regression--reliving, as it were, his childhood. 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. But 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.
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)
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
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.
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. In him, as in the computer,
we see much more depth of character than he ever actually shows us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. 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, to think and
to feel the emotion ourselves. This is why the Kuleshov effect can generate such a strong reaction; it's why Kubrick's
films are such powerful experiences. 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.
did not want his spectators to emotionally identify with the action before them. Instead, he sought to provoke rational
self-reflection and a critical view of what unveiled on screen. He believed that the experience of a climactic catharsis of
emotion left an audience complacent. And it is for this purpose, that Kubrick employed the use of techniques and distancing
effects that remind the spectator that his filmography is a representation of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting
the constructed nature of the narrative event, Kubrick hoped to communicate that the audience's reality was, in fact a construction
and, as such, was changeable.