The Film Spectacle: An Inspection of Classical Film Theory through Marker’s La Jetée and Kubrick’s 2001

by Shaun Terry

In Hugo Münsterberg’s “Why We Go to the Movies,” he suggests that movies are important for being different from theater and that we should not judge them under the same set of criteria as we judge theater. Not only are movies significant for their pervasiveness and affordability—they accomplish things that theater never could: rapid changes of sets, certain kinds of optical illusions, and close-ups.

In “Creative Cinema,” Bela Balazs attempts to legitimate some of Münsterberg’s points and draws out some of his own points of film specificity. For Belasz, because what is on screen is a photograph, the image has to be constructed both mentally and physically. Also, it has to be orchestrated in order to achieve the desired outcome, which is often not reproduction but wholly unrealistic production of the imagined. The subjectivity of the camera provides a particular perspective that frames and shapes the image through the camera’s angles, distances, etc. Balasz points out that the camera presents many images that we put together to create a single, solid story. He says that visual continuity can help to give the impression that one shot leads to the next through events and camera angles. Continuity of sound helps (filtering and effects can help when moving from inside to outside, etc.). The close-up is unique and powerful, giving us new insights and greater clarity.

To Münsterberg’s and Balasz’s points, it is hard to imagine Chris Marker’s La Jetée as a theater production. In fact, each iteration would have to be significantly different from the other. In part, this has to do with the fact that La Jetée is primarily produced as a series of stills. We rapidly and fluidly pass between completely separate worlds: an airport, post-apocalyptic France, an underground society, (then-)contemporary France. While it would seem challenging to produce the effect of producing a visual world through a set of stills on stage, it would seem even more impossible to reproduce the effect that comes with the break in method: for a brief moment in the film, what appears to be another of the film’s stills is suddenly animated, the Woman (Hélène Chatelain) staring into the camera.

This brings us to another point. Münsterberg and Balasz both see the close-up as being significant in the distinction between theater and film. In La Jetée, part of what is so powerful about the animated scene is that it is so starkly different from the rest of the film, but another important aspect is how intimate the scene is. It is as though we have transgressed a very personal barrier: the Woman is sleeping, seemingly naked, when, suddenly, she comes alive and she is staring directly into our eyes. It is easy to imagine the spectator not only feeling surprised, but perhaps even uncomfortable. Is it the incoherence? The sudden visceral humanity of it? Is it a kind of unsuspecting guilt that creeps up on us?

Münsterberg was a psychologist. He points out that film has a unique ability to simulate the act of memory. Similarly, film allows the imagination to manifest itself in new, interesting ways that give unique value to film. In line with these observations, Münsterberg supposes that “The more psychology enters into the sphere of the moving pictures, the more they will be worthy of an independent place in the world of art.”

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey exemplifies this idea well. Kubrick begins by introducing us to a brutal landscape of proto-humans, and these early scenes in the film are hued with deep red tones, perhaps symbolizing something about humanity. Later in the film, the raw humanity that we witness in the “Dawn of Man” scenes seems completely voided by the United States men in space. But, HAL (Douglas Rain), the artificially intelligent computer that is helping the people on their mission to Jupiter, seems much more sensitive and human than the people who he is there to help.

At one point in the film, a TV program explains that Hal “can reproduce—though some experts prefer to use the word ‘mimic’—most of the activities of the human brain.” The dialogue here anthropomorphizes HAL and gives him power. HAL can reproduce (or perhaps even destroy) human essence in some way. HAL’s interview on the TV program reveals his humanistic interests, and he describes himself as “conscious.” The interviewer asks one of the astronauts whether HAL has genuine emotions, and the astronaut responds by saying that he’s unsure.

Throughout HAL’s scenes, what we might think of as his eye is signified by a red dot. Following HAL’s murder of most of the crew, Dave, played by Keir Dullea, proceeds to the room that holds HAL’s memory. The room’s walls are lit up by the color red. As Dave coolly kills HAL—by removing his memory—HAL repeats “I can feel it” and “I’m afraid” over and over, before, in a low, drugged-sounding voice, singing lyrics referring to the insanity of the song’s subject. The red representing HAL seems to reflect some humanity lost from the proto-humans in the beginning of the movie, although it is also interesting that the color red is, too, associated with deaths in the ends of each of these scenes.

Clearly, Kubrick is saying something about the psychologies of humans, albeit one presumes that Münsterberg certainly did not have in mind what Kubrick accomplished in this film. Still, what seems significant to the issue of medium specificity here is how Kubrick advanced the capabilities of film, as this film would provide a template for many of the aspects of many films to come, just as Marker’s La Jetée was later very influential on Terry Gilliams’ 12 Monkeys, a remarkable film in its own right. What all these films share in common is how they are able to push the boundaries of what film can accomplish as films, and completely separate from all other media.