The Soderbergh Variations: 2001, Recut
“Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid . . . This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Cèline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey comprises two markedly different cinematic styles. The first, established early in the film as our species rises from starvation to civilization, is dispassionate, anthropological—in a word, Kubrickian. The second, introduced later as man grapples with the realm of space, trades anthropology for visceral sensation: shaking cameras, freeze frames, close-ups of a blinking, dilated eye. As Richard Brody recently wrote, it’s “an experience” of space travel, not an “arm's length” record of it.
In a new cut of Kubrick's film, Steven Soderbergh pushes these two styles so close together that they're almost indistinguishable. Posted in January on his website—then removed a few weeks later “AT THE REQUEST OF WARNER BROS. AND THE STANLEY KUBRICK ESTATE”—2001.5 (as I’ve come to think of it) is 110 minutes long, over half an hour shorter than the original version commonly seen today.* Kubrick himself removed 20 minutes from his own film after its premiere (partly out of recognition that a second docking scene was repetitive). And in the past, Soderbergh has reinterpreted other directors' work with his remakes of Solaris and Ocean's Eleven. More recently, since his hiatus from feature filmmaking in 2012, he's posted three other recuts of existing films: Psycho (interspersed with scenes from Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake), Heaven's Gate (at about half its original length), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (black and white, set to the Social Network soundtrack).
A sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark
In spite of their inventiveness, none of these three recuts substantially differ from their originals in style or theme; in the case of Raiders, Soderbergh's stated purpose was to draw attention to the ingenuity of Spielberg’s editing and composition by downplaying the film’s most beloved elements, such as its John Williams score. He saved his most ambitious and original reediting project for 2001, despite, or perhaps as a consequence of, considering it “the most impressively imagined and sustained piece of visual art created in the 20th century.” To touch that sacred cow, he wrote on his website, “I'd better have a bigger idea than just trimming or re-scoring.” It's hard enough for a critic to write 2000 more words about one of the most closely scrutinized films of all time—and Soderbergh not only re-edits it but in turn reopens and reroutes the critical debate.
Much of the footage Soderbergh has removed comes from the long “Dawn of Man” prologue, the section I remember squirming through when I saw the film for the first time in middle school. He also leaves out most of Dr. Heywood Floyd’s layover on the space station, with its Olivier Mourgue furniture and witty references to American corporations. These edits to the first third of the film (which ends up amounting to about a quarter) make Kubrick a little friendlier for contemporary audiences not raised on title overtures and intermissions, but the changes also miss out on some of the subtleties of his themes, most evidently and importantly the contrast between prehistory and civilization. No Dr. Floyd layover means no chatter between Floyd and his friends, one of the only moments of actual extended dialogue in 2001. As Roger Ebert once noted, the significance of their conversation isn’t related to what they’re saying; Kubrick wants us to recognize the oddity of people talking as their prehistoric ancestors couldn’t. In the same vein, I was disappointed to find that Soderbergh had removed one of my favorite shots, in which the stewardess on Floyd’s Pan Am flight returns to her seat and resumes watching a judo match on TV—the suggestion being that Homo sapiens have stopped beating each other with bones and learned how to vent their aggression through art and entertainment.
A sequence from 2001.5
These kinds of complaints are inevitable, but Soderbergh rises above them with his bold reimagining of Kubrick’s work. The new center of gravity in 2001.5, uniting the visceral and the coldly Kubrickian, is HAL—the sentient computer whose fate is to be perfectly objective and yet hopelessly subjective (indeed, in the Discovery One section, Soderbergh preserves all of the computer's-eye-view shots, reminding me that HAL sees the world through the same wide-angle lens through which we view Alex’s depravity in A Clockwork Orange). In Kubrick’s original, HAL’s presence feels like a fascinating but nonessential step in man's journey from ape to star child. Watching the new cut, one gets the idea that this movie was about HAL all along. He's always watching, too—as Frank and Dave whisper to each other by the pod bay doors; as man discovers tools; as astronauts explore the moon; as Dave travels through the Stargate. In Soderbergh’s cut, the two most famous shots in 2001—the close-up on HAL’s red eye, and the alignment of celestial bodies above the black monolith in the Dawn of Man sequence—are now in consecutive sequence. At the end of the film, when the star child stares enigmatically at Earth, HAL stares enigmatically back, his presence as essential to man's evolution as that of the monolith itself.
Thematically, this reordering makes explicit what Kubrick strongly hinted at: the symmetry between the aliens' creation of humanity as we know it, and humanity's creation of artificial intelligence. Strictly in terms of plot, they provoke some intriguing questions. How much does HAL know about the monolith? Is his presence in Africa merely symbolic, or could he be struggling to grasp what takes place there at the same time that we are? Is he driven insane by his secret knowledge of the mission, or by the aliens themselves? These queries are impossible to answer, of course, as they were when 2001 was first released. Just as the strength of Kubrick's film was its ability to provoke unresolvable debate, Soderbergh's achievement is to inspire new questions and identify new points of emphasis without providing a single new answer. Largely for this reason, the connections he draws are occasionally literal, but never banal.
In scrambling Kubrick's carefully paced chronology, Soderbergh has made a film that sometimes feels like a big, cubist collage. The image of HAL's unblinking eye, cross-cut with Dave's rapid blinking, now serves as a frame for the entire story. Combined with a few shrewd edits in the first act, which bring out György Ligeti's reverberant, iterative choral music, it creates the sense of eternal recurrence, outside the conventional rules of time. It's almost as if the plot of the film is playing out as a flashback, or within the bounds of an individual consciousness, so that the vast open plains of Africa become a kind of mental prison. Here again, Soderbergh turns to the computer to embody the contradictions of his vision. HAL's mind was always uncannily close to that of a human being; critics often point out (accurately) that his pleas for his life are the most striking displays of emotion in 2001. Soderbergh pushes our temptation to humanize the artificial still further; one of the new questions 2001.5 raises is whether the mind in which the film might be playing out is HAL's or Dave's.
What remains unexplained is why, exactly, Soderbergh was reediting 2001, or why now. It’s easy to answer glibly: he’s had some extra time on his hands. But it’s also possible that his departure from the production of Moneyball (mere hours before shooting had been scheduled to begin) triggered his exasperation with the 21st-century studio system, about which he’s been plentifully vocal. Shuttling in and out of Hollywood, he’s directed on budgets high and low; Ocean's 13, released in 2007, cost approximately 85 times as much as The Girlfriend Experience, released in 2009. For most of his career, he’s actively avoided the auteur label; it’s been pointed out that many of his films are about people engaged in deception—pathological liars, con men, corporate double agents—but this point yields limited insight about his body of work. It’s appropriate, considering how hard it is to describe what constitutes a Steven Soderbergh film, that the director chooses not to credit his work as “A Steven Soderbergh film.” As he once put it, “People get tired of brands and they switch.”
The 2001 reedit is not without precedent for Soderbergh. His affinity for editing, recreational and otherwise, is well known, and his abilities have been actively sought out by other directors. Spike Jonze has called him “the smartest, fastest editor-filmmaker”; when Jonze asked him to trim down an early, 150-minute version of Her, Soderbergh responded with a 90-minute cut of the film in less than a day. (Other directors, like Paul Schrader during postproduction for The Canyons, haven’t taken up Soderbergh on his services.) Even his descriptions of his own feature films sound like exercises in pastiche: The Limey (99) was, in Soderbergh’s words, like Get Carter remade by Resnais. It’s possible, then, to view 2001.5 not as a career swerve but as quintessential Soderbergh—a risky technical experiment more suitable for the laptop than the theater.
As the mention of Resnais would suggest, non-linear editing has played a major role in building the tone of Soderbergh’s films: Solaris, with its protagonist’s uneasy memories of life on Earth; Out of Sight, which milks flashbacks for quick comedy; Traffic, featuring 120-odd scenes from D.C., Tijuana, and San Diego; and The Limey, which blends Terence Stamp’s flight to the States, his shower, his revenge, his return to London, and even his audio from the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow into one unstable version of the present. The sudden spatial or temporal cuts in these features tend to draw attention to themselves, but they’re frequently paired with soft voiceovers and cool jazz riffs (Cliff Martinez, David Holmes). In 2001.5, Soderbergh exploits an equivalent tension between the music and the editing rhythms: the sudden cuts to HAL may feel artificial and disorienting, but clever manipulation of the Ligeti score pushes us back in and makes us accept what we see.
Like Kubrick’s, Soderbergh’s films make free use of voiceovers and narration, but often their semantic contents are only vaguely related, starkly opposed, or deliberately irrelevant to the visuals with which they’re paired. In The Informant!, Soderbergh conducts his most devastating assault on voiceover clichés; in Solaris and The Limey, voiceovers resist guiding us reassuringly through the plot’s twists and turns. Kubrick returned to narration again and again throughout his career, from the early noir effort The Killing (which compensates for its scrambled chronology with Art Gilmore’s booming, omniscient voice) to the unfinished script that would become Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Yet for 2001 he rejected Douglas Rain’s voiceover recordings, and (for the first of only three times in his filmography) let the imagery speak for itself. Soderbergh, true to form, throws out two of the remnants of cohesive order in 2001: the chronological plot and the intertitles.
Kubrick missed out on the 21st century by less than nine months, but in Soderbergh’s eyes, his work only came to look its best within the last decade. “I’ve seen every conceivable kind of film print of 2001,” Soderbergh wrote on his website next to his new cut, “and I'm telling you, none of them look as good as a Blu-ray played on an pioneer elite plasma Kuro monitor. And while you’re cleaning up your spit take over that sentence, let me also say I believe SK would have embraced the current crop of digital cameras, because from a visual standpoint, he was obsessed with two things: absolute fidelity to reality-based light sources, and image stabilization.” Warner Brothers and the Kubrick Estate may have overestimated the threat Soderbergh posed to their intellectual property. Clearly he envisioned his recut as an advertisement for the original masterpiece as much as a free alternative to it, although judging by the dearth of copies of 2001.5 to be found on torrent sites or elsewhere on the web, most people took it as neither.
Whatever the case, Soderbergh’s re-cut also induces a tendency to reenvision Kubrick’s creative decisions in Soderbergh terms, even the sequences from the original that he preserves shot-for-shot: the Blue Danube docking waltz, the death of HAL, the shifting POV that accompanies Dave's accelerated aging. (Do those close-ups of HAL's eye echo the voyeuristic themes of Sex, Lies, and Videotape?) It would be fascinating to see other directors take after Soderbergh’s experiment—to see Wong Kar Wai’s cut of Imitation of Life, for instance, or David Fincher’s take on Rear Window.
* For the sake of brevity, I’m dispensing with Soderbergh’s title, The Return of W. de Rijk, which alludes to the man who vandalized Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in 1975.