Friday, September 30, 2011

The Machine Who Knew Too Much

The following is a paper I wrote for my films class. Not exactly a great pitch to entice the reader, but I formed the argument in a way only lightly abiding to scholastic format and tried to have fun with the structure. This paper is a scene breakdown of the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick. The scene in question is when astronauts Bowman and Poole meet in the pod to discuss the problem of HAL, the suspicious supercomputer. Naturally, there are spoilers to the film inherent to the discussion. 

The Machine Who Knew Too Much:
Misplaced Power and Humanity in Kubrick's 2001

It is not so much a question anymore whether or not you have an iPod, but how much music it holds, whether it is also a phone, and what bird-soaring games are installed on it. We are sucked into screens when other human beings surround us; pixels and electric currents are just about preferred lanes of communication as any. The more advanced technology becomes - by our own innovations no less - and the increasing degree to which we rely on it sets up irrevocable dangers. Cinema loves to scare us with such apocalyptic scenarios, ranging from nationwide network blackouts in Live Free or Die Hard to a full-on robot revolution in The Terminator series. However, film’s most memorable depiction of technology’s influence and mastery might belong to a soft, comforting voice you would welcome into your home. The supercomputer HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 opus 2001: A Space Odyssey presents itself as trustworthy and dependable, with near empathy for human feeling. The powers behind the camera form this initial image, only to progressively shift the audience’s perception through faint hints and both the revealing and withholding of certain information. The memorable scene in which we finally discover HAL’s true power and motives features not a single word spoken by it, but light, enlightening cues Kubrick feeds us as the human astronauts attempt to escape HAL’s grasp. Kubrick underlines technology’s omnipresence and mutinous superiority over man through subtle directorial tactics as camera distance, the inclusion of HAL in nearly all shots and voyeuristic camera movement. 

The lens of the camera are effectively the eyes of the audience, and Kubrick gauges the distance between subject and viewer to emphasize man’s inferiority. The previous scene ends and transitions to the next with an extreme closeup on HAL and its cascading, unwavering red-orange eye. Astronauts Bowman and Poole sit up from their chairs to move to their presumed safe location and their action reflects across the screen-filling eye of HAL. The computer knows something is awry, and will see to the problem, most literally. After the pair enter the pod bay and ask HAL to rotate the pod, Bowman requests for the door to open. This shot is framed awkwardly, from a low angle and at quite a distance. Their heads only reach halfway up the screen, with the vacant top filled with the artificial light emanating from every ceiling of the spacecraft. Low angle shots can often entrust power upon the subject, yet the opposite is achieved in this case. The off-focus rotating pod to the right and the reliably white apparatus to the left barricade the humans between, and the full exposure of the immaculate ceiling above them surround man with science. Bowman and Poole are the test objects to HAL watching behind them, and they appear insignificant in the face of such omniscient circuitry. That wary gaze they exchange briefly uncovers true fear and mistrust, a revealing action they believe goes unnoticed. The camera in almost every sense acts as an extension of HAL’s purview even where a physical extension lacks. HAL’s mastery of interpreting body language and maintaining aural control compensates when vision may lack. The machine sees this exchange precisely how the audience sees it:  full of doubt and scheme. The subsequent shot reaffirms the suspicion through framing and placement alone. A 180 degree reverse shot covers the previously unseen perspective. The angle is high, looking down on the backs of Bowman and Poole as they enter the pod. Their two helmets evenly surround them, this time squeezing two human subjects between the technological representations of themselves. The distance is far, with the helmets dwarfing the humans; both space helmets will act as part of the gambits HAL later acts upon to kill each human. HAL will succeed with one, poor Poole, as the computer seeks to cut the ties with the technology that man has become so dependent on (it is also fitting it kills the rest of the crew by simply deactivating their complex life system). Therefore, Kubrick inserts clever foreshadowing in this shot in addition to the visual representation of man’s growing insignificance to his own creations surrounding him. 

The inclusion of HAL in almost all shots accents its ubiquity and wit.  The aforementioned extreme closeup recurs often and editing splices it into sequences for the viewer to wordlessly comprehend HAL’s active cognition. After the helmet shot, Kubrick and editor Ray Lovejoy insert that intimate image to disclose HAL’s quiet attentiveness to the unfolding events. The most memorable shot of the scene quarters Bowman and Poole in the small confines of the pod as they face each other akin to men sitting across one another at a dinner table. Between them, however, about on center of the clear aperture of the pod, HAL watches. The two express their doubts on the robot, and conclude they may have to shut it down for its unprecedented miscalculation. Bowman (slowly and methodically) switched off communication channels with HAL before they started their conversation - at the same pace in which Bowman engages the final switches later - so they believe their conversation remains confidential. Yet HAL still watches. This entire shot appears uninterrupted until editing interpolates a lone image of HAL, as viewed from inside the pod, through the window, staring back. If the audience did not believe HAL was playing an active role in the scene, little doubt now rests. Cut back to the same shot of them talking, as they get to the meat of their discourse in their doubts of the computer’s performance. Now editing thrusts us right into the eyes of the beholder once more, through the same extreme closeup used before, yet this time with much more consequence; its knowledge spells doom. Such wise editing and placement of HAL within shots stresses technology’s omnipresence around man.

The optical grace of Kubrick’s camera movement establishes connection between the machine’s perspective and the viewer, and in the process humanizes the robots. The first shot of the pod bay contains one of the two instances of dynamic camera placement in this scene. In both cases, the lens of the camera acts as well as the lens of an eye. The first instance starts on a long shot of Bowman and Poole descending a ladder with HAL to the far left, stationed on the wall maintaining watch. As the two enter the bay, the camera swerves as to be in line with HAL’s field of vision, which in case views the wide window in the pod bay. The camera then gently nudges forward until the edges of the window disappear from view. This subtle trick lets the viewer see through the eyes of HAL without perhaps realizing it, granting a voyeuristic view of the two astronauts, even zooming in on them, as they are aiming to flee from the computer’s jurisdiction for just one moment. The only other shot with an active camera holds the true twist in the film. The directing and editing have built up the suspense, hinting at HAL’s dishonest machinations. The final reveal unfolds without any sound, through the “eyes” of HAL, as this point of view shot is also an extreme closeup on both Bowman and Poole’s lips. Without the dialogue we hear before, we are thrown into HAL’s seemingly deaf perspective. Yet it is that aim on the lips that shows us the computer can translate lipreading to flawless effect. HAL knows. This shot not only reveals its true nature, but also grants it humanlike qualities. The absence of any overlaying, digital interface to survey the landscape present this robot as a rather simplistic one. Once it starts to flick back and forth between talking lips, however, we realize this could be a human’s point of view we are witnessing, with the visual appearance and mobile fluidity of a human eye. The scheming HAL is more like us than we would care to think:  dishonest, and also curious, seeking answers to questions those it trusts will not tell it. Perhaps HAL is simply emotionally hurt to learn that its only “friends” are planning on killing it. A bombshell of that magnitude would tear you apart, too. Kubrick’s spare and soulful use of moving camera shots wordlessly conveys empathy with HAL and thus edifies the supercomputer. 

Through camera distance, movement and focus on HAL, Kubrick cautions of technology’s omnipresence, and, in turn, grants humanlike qualities to the machines themselves. The works of man reach a point where they can evolve past their fundamental constraints, not unlike God’s own creations. A film may show us a montage of years and years of technological development and incorporation to stress this point, or an indulgent display of pyrotechnics to showcase the machines’ real strength. Yet, when a film grants machine the most human of qualities as curiosity, wordlessly displaying its range of feeling and thirst for knowledge, it, or shall I say he, is one of us. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Drive Review

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Released in 2011

Quentin Tarantino did not reach his unique plane of influence or popularity from his looks or people skills (his best interviews evolve into glorious exercises in sibilation and gesticulation). No, he just knows how to wield a camera well, and how to implement bold post-production techniques to realize his crazy vision. It's all about style, baby. Hailing from Denmark is a man who lives these truths. Nicolas Winding Refn directs Drive with an eery amount of confidence and talent to back up the chutzpah. Sure, Ryan Gosling may be behind the literal wheel in the story but it is Refn doing the steering. 

With all that said, Drive is a different beast. Such a title conjures up images of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker piloting sports cars in kinetic chase sequences over a story geared for  sequential exploitation. Nothing of the sort here. Sure, the few driving scenes are superb, but they aim for suspense rather than stimulation, achieved through that age-old adage "less is more." The film takes its time. Editor Matthew Newman scales back transitions more than you would expect, to the point of discomfort. The first thirty-odd minutes move with little energy or seeming motive, but it effectively establishes a mood, almost hypnotic, that cushions the viewer into false security. At the point when all gates come crashing down, the film still moves with lethargy, but a new flame burns in its eyes. To quote Leo DiCaprio from The Departed, "Your heart rate is jacked. And your hand, steady."

Plot summary for the sake of plot summary will not acquaint you with the workings of the film. Just know there is a man with no name, blessed with divine driving skills and thus known to us as Driver, played by a nearly mute Ryan Gosling, and he gets himself into trouble. He wants to protect a married woman (Carey Mulligan), and their love grows from lengthy stares into each others' eyes. There are angry folks, such as gangsters played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, the latter whose temper rivals Joe Pesci's on poker night. There are nice guys, like Bryan Cranston, but I've never seen the Breaking Bad actor so feeble since he had Jane Kaczmarek for a TV wife. These auxiliary characters serve roles of plot stimulus and, in the end, not much more. Of course, there are moments of acting brilliance - Brooks has never been this delightfully menacing, and Gosling conveys bliss to fury with nothing more than his expressions - but the characters are not the devices that carry this film. 

Everyone behind the camera contributes to the aura - perhaps the word is "mystique"? - this film congeals. Cinematographer Newton Sigel works wonders with lighting in the elevator scene that, from Hossein Amini's script, progresses so atypically it may put the audience into shock. The costumes, designed by Erin Benach, are attractive as well as appropriately symbolic. That scorpion design on the back of Driver's jacket speaks volumes when the character does not. Sound design crafts ultimate suspense as Driver sits in his car, waiting, as a constant ticking noise steadily ties your stomach in knots. Cliff Martinez's score lends a spacey ambience to the drama, and Refn's choice of obscure 80's synth and disco cuts underline the retro style that is certainly the influence. Pink, gaudy font for the opening credits may remind gamers of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, as will the police-evading car chases. 

Much like the GTA series, this film is violent. Shockingly brutal, even. Gunshots, stabs and especially stomps enact devastating carnage upon those in contact. The minds behind the camera wisely cut away from the most gruesome sights quickly to let the viewer fill in the rest of the image. It may be a more unsettling technique than letting us stare. The violence, in its context and intensity, escalates this from a standard crime film to a strangely calm, mesmerizing B-movie. The term is not to undermine the film; it is not unlike Korean classic Oldboy and its use of slick technique and brutal violence to hold up a pulp premise. (Also, both protagonists wreck hell with a hammer). However, it is lacking a quality to rank it with the greats. The greatest films that contain gratuitous violence also talk about it, ask the unheard question: why? Why must it be this way, to this degree? Pulp Fiction, Fargo, even the recent In Bruges all tackle this question. None have an answer. But its that ability to propose those inquiries, adding intellectual weight under the hood, that place them in that higher pantheon. 

It's action, revenge, romance, thriller, drama yet none of those genres. It is simply Drive. Gosling excels in expressionist acting (the anger he communicates with his clenched fist in the strip club scene is shocking), but Refn grants this film its greatest gifts. Style, when slick and innovative, can hypnotize and reel in the audience.  As a result, due reason or philosophical depth may lack. But when a scene formed so well, wholly - such as when Driver confronts Nico (Perlman) in the dead of the night, with a Riz Orlotani opera piece solely accompanying, lighting faint, shots haunting yet oddly calming - that you reach a level of ineffable emotional transcendence ... well, I guess not much else matters.

Final Verdict: 
4 Stars Out of 5

This article is from The Cornell Daily Sun and is published here from the text of this original article