Why “that one cut” is so celebrated (and rightfully so)
Despite being widespread and constant, debates on the greatest film of all time are kind of arbitrary and ultimately pointless pursuits. However, if someone were to claim in one of those discussions that “Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the best film ever made”, they’d be hard-pressed to find a disputer. There’s seemingly unending reasons for the film’s acclaim. It could be down to it’s beauty: how grand it feels due to the balletic score and stunningly symmetrical visuals. It could be because of that ending which will either be like nothing you’ve ever seen or better than everything that has copied it since. It could be the fact that it uses the same sets that Kubrick faked the moon landings with. Probably more than any other reason is that it’s reputation is self-fulfilling. In other words, 2001′ is famous because it’s 2001‘.
But amidst these reasons and debates and talked about almost as much as the film’s loopy ending is a simple edit. The cut between the last shot of the prologue to the film and the first shot of the rest of it has been documented, posted and praised to no end. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch below:
(And yes, you better believe that the most influential science-fiction movie of all time opens with 15 minutes of men in monkey suits screeching and bouncing around.)
So, it’s admittedly pretty disappointing. The huge leap in time and setting is cool, of course, but this doesn’t seem to cover the absolute magnitude of praise that is thrown at these ten seconds. For that matter, a first glance doesn’t cover how one single edit can even be held in such high regard.
Well, buckle up and prepare to be filled with a little bit of cinema education whilst you discover how for yourself.
One of the core principles of editing in film is what is known as the “Kuleshov effect”. It’s a whole thing, but it is arguably what separates cinema from all other art forms. It basically rests upon the psychological processes that occur when we see one image follow another in a movie. When you watch films you aren’t aware of the fact that, in reality, you are the one doing most of the work. For example, if I handed you a picture of a boy looking directly into a camera and then the next day handed you a picture of a guitar shop, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to connect the two. But if I projected the image of the boy before immediately projecting the image of the shop, you would then subconsciously associate one with the other. They’re the same images but because they have been played next to each other, you form a connection in your mind. (You can click here to see Hitchcock explain this in a far better, snappier and more classy way if you want.)
This principle is why film can feel transcendent; why film that is interpretive is often more widely acclaimed; and why, for example, if the aforementioned boy had said “Gosh, I want a guitar so badly”, it would be considered bad writing. It is because masters like Kubrick understand that cinema exists primarily in the mind, rather than on the screen and since what your mind can imagine is endless, the best experiences will come from what he can suggest and evoke, rather than tell.
With all this considered, let’s return to that cut, start with a surface level understanding and continue to delve deeper to work out what Kubrick is suggesting: because here is where the genius lies. Firstly, we see immediately that we have switched time and place away from the crazy, prehistoric monkeys and to the vast expanses of space. This is obvious and, on paper, serves all that an edit between scenes has to. However, we can also see that this is a match-cut: the two images are recognisably similar and we can draw significance from this and assume that they are connected in more ways than one.
So, not only do we now understand that the bone and the space-ship are linked, but also that the previous monkey madness wasn’t just a bit of fun before the main course: it is imperative to understanding the rest of the film. Sure, we’ve jumped from the dawn of man to the space-age, but we’re still on the same page here: it’s still the same story.
Match-cuts are cool but they’re certainly not uncommon (just ask Edgar Wright or John Travolta). What makes this one special is it’s profound ability to let the audience recall the context of the previous minutes and ascribe it to the cut. We know that the bone and the ship are linked. But how? Taking into account the past two minutes, we also know that the bone had been used by apes as a weapon. There has been obvious technological advancements between the two images and so we can wonder why Kubrick is drawing such parallels between a bone wielded by a dumb ape and a futuristic satellite. What is he trying to say about humanity’s advancements in general?
If you’ve seen the film you’ll also know that before the monkey on monkey clubbing, the apes experienced a revelation on how to use the bone as a tool only after the iconic Monolith ominously appeared before them.
When we experience the match-cut, we take all that we have learnt about the bone and attribute it to the satellite. We remember that the Monolith is imperative to the bone being used as a tool and, with that in mind, we also begin to form a mental relationship between the Monolith and the satellite. Furthermore, we begin to form our initial thoughts on what the film is trying to say about intelligence, consciousness and evolution and how the Monolith will seemingly affect these themes and the rest of the film. And based upon your interpretation of the ending, you’re probably on to something there.
Of course, none of this is actually in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In reality, you’ve watched 20 minutes of screaming monkeys, followed by two short clips. The only thing Kubrick has done is make sure the two images are similar and splice them next to each other on the film reel. Everything else was down to you. In a split second you’ve subconsciously applied all the information you’ve learnt from the beginning of the film and deduced how this affects the relationship between an image of a bone and an image of a satellite.
All of this from two separate, singular shots, placed temporally beside one another.
And that is why those 10 seconds are so heralded. They encompass the very fundamental essence of what makes a film a film. Image, time, consciousness: cinema.
Written by Caleb Carter