Two nights ago, when I was writing a blog about my favorite albums of 2014, I happened to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. I realized it was a glaring omission in my film education and decided to correct it. It was every bit as astounding as I had heard it was throughout the years. Every single shot seemed perfectly orchestrated. It was pregnant with ideas. However, there is so much written about the film that I don’t feel like I can comment on it too deeply having only seen it one time. I do just want to add that I can’t understand why special effects of 1968 look much better than many of the special effects in modern cinema.
However, although I was not high at that present time, my mind was operating like it was, pulling two different things together that had nothing to do with each other. If you go to my blog where I picked songs from my favorite albums of the year, you will hear the Morrissey song I’m Not a Man.
That song begins with about a minute and a half of eerie white noise. While this space of sound makes complete sense, at least to me, in the context of the record, I understand how when hearing the track by itself it could seem a bit strange.
While watching 2001: A Space Odyssey I was taken by how the very first thing that takes place is a few minutes of eerie ambient music while the screen is entirely black. This happens before you even see the studio logo. At first I was thinking my TV wasn’t working as it seemed to go on longer than it should. Once I realized what was happening I thought about how disorienting this must have been at concert volume in a real theater.
However, concerning the movie, I feel like this did two different things: First, it creates a sense of the uncanny in a viewer before the film even begins. This is a feeling, that uncanniness, that keeps rearing its head throughout the film, brought to a head in the final section. It also cleared out my mind and got my attention so that when the first real image did appear, it was incredibly powerful. By taking away something that we are expecting the imagination begins to fill in what isn’t there. It sets a mood so that what comes after it is even more visceral than what follows would be on its own.
I think the same thing is achieved with the eerie noise at the beginning of I’m Not a Man. It creates a degree of suspense as you wait for the song to begin. You expect something epic to arrive, and although the song does eventually get there, the tinkling keyboard and sweet melody that begins it comes as a surprise. The craft of the melody and chord progression, while having a power of their own, seem even more powerful when compared to the absence of form that comes before it. I once read that, although Morrissey’s lyrics are very intelligent, that he doesn’t care if people think so long as they feel something and that he is perfectly fine if they feel uncomfortable. The song is about how the macho male that society so often celebrates is actually one of the things that has caused so much pain and destruction in the world. This is a topic that is sure to make some uncomfortable, and the beginning noise highlights that emotion while also contrasting the melody that follows. Because the piece of music is not any one thing emotionally when the intro and the proper song are combined, it creates complex feelings in the listener. This is the difference between something that is art and something that is mere pop music, even if the melody of the proper song itself is as catchy and singable as any true pop song.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how space (Not to be confused with the kind of space in the title of the film!) and emptiness are as an important a part of art as anything else. This movie and song show how by withholding something one can create suspense and complexity.