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The Kubrick Corner

The Kuleshov effect

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PART 1: More than meets the eye
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The Kuleshov effect
Kubrick as cold rationalist
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1962 Kubrick interview
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Kubrick's A.I. by Ian Watson
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"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

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. 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 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 that 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, 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.

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.

 

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This technique 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.

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 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.

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. 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. 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.

Of course 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.

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. 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?

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. 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.  

Kubrick 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.