Beyond the Infinite: Part One

2001: A Space Odyssey

by Leah Hendriks Volume 6, Issue 9 / September 2002 29 minutes (7133 words)

Every time I watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) I am struck by the way in which these films declare themselves as pure cinema, presenting themselves as examples of work that explore the meaning and potential of cinema, and how cinema as a medium relates with our perception of it. In this respect, Kubrick’s films share an affinity with experimental films by artists such as Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren, Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger. Kubrick has no doubt been influenced by the work of these experimental filmmakers. This influence is evident in his like-minded interest in experimenting with the technical, aesthetic, and conceptual possibilities of the cinematic medium in order to explore what makes cinema unique, and how that uniqueness is reflected in the way in which we respond to it.

While Kubrick does use established codes and conventions of the narrative cinema to which most of us have become accustomed, he also pushes beyond these codes and conventions as he searches for innovative and imaginative ways to explore his subjects. By playing with the boundaries between narrative and non-narrative cinema, Kubrick manages to call attention to what it is about cinema that is purely cinematic, and in so doing challenges the perceived limits of his chosen medium, pushing it toward a fuller realization of its potential. One of his favorite strategies is the use of metaphor, a strategy that he uses in ways that often transcend the linguistic. If one pays close attention to the formal structure of these films, their many layers of meaning reveal themselves, meaning that transcends verbal language or narrative progression. The deeper one probes into Kubrick’s formal strategies and the intricate weavings that operate between different levels of film form, the clearer it becomes that Kubrick is using cinema to make metaphorical connections between the medium and the way that human beings understand their world. By enticing us to probe his world of cinematic exploration through his use of metaphor, Kubrick invites a deeper level of engagement than the average narrative film is capable of. It is this level of engagement that I would now like to explore by looking at the strategies Kubrick shares with his predecessors in the avant-garde.

In both 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick seeks to explore inner states of being, human consciousness, and the transcendental evolution of this consciousness through specifically cinematic means. In so doing, he searches for new dimensions of cinematic language through which we can tap into some of the mysteries of human life and the universe. Film scholar Mario Falsetto encapsulates this point when he says, “2001 argues that a different form of communication may be needed, both by the human species as it moves to exhaustion and by the medium of film as it endeavors to create a nonliteral, metaphoric level of meaning.”2 This seeking lies at the heart of many experimental films that have emerged both before and after Kubrick began making films. This paper will be an exploration of the ways in which cinema can provide innovative means to explore and challenge the current state of human consciousness through transcendent experiences that take us beyond conventional ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Through an analysis of the affinity Kubrick shares with experimental filmmakers and their interest in exploring the relationships between the cinematic medium and human consciousness, I will illustrate how Kubrick uses cinema to delve deeply into what it means to be human and to challenge our current state of being.

Although Kubrick’s interest in experimenting with the medium is evident throughout his entire oeuvre, I think an analysis of the Star-Gate sequence of 2001 is a good place to start. The Star-Gate sequence is one of the most visually stunning sequences of 2001. I believe that it is also one of the most stylistically and conceptually innovative and imaginative sequences in the history of narrative cinema. It confounds spectator expectations of cinematic time and space, narrative structure, and notions of character subjectivity and point of view. In so doing it radically challenges the codes and conventions of narrative cinema and opens the creative and conceptual possibilities of the medium in ways that have yet to be fully explored.

This sequence represents Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) interstellar journey from one level of consciousness to another, and ultimately represents his journey through the inner reaches of his being and the outer reaches of time and space toward the realization of a new phase of human existence. The Star-Gate sequence can therefore be interpreted as Bowman’s spiritual journey through cosmic consciousness, where individual consciousness merges with the universal on a path that leads toward enlightenment. In Bowman’s case his spiritual journey culminates in his re-birth as the Star-Child. The Star-Gate sequence creates meaning on numerous levels that ultimately converge to produce a cinematic experience that I would define as meditative or transcendental. In my definition, transcendental cinema is a form of cinema that engages with the human mind and human perceptual systems in ways that liberate the mind and senses from the perceptual and conceptual structures we normally impose upon our experience of being in the world. For instance, the meditative formal quality of transcendental cinema helps to release our minds and perceptual systems from our tendency to perceive time and space as continuous. This type of cinema does not rely on conventional notions of narrative continuity in which the narrative trajectory moves along a linear temporal grid or a sense of space that relies on seamless homogeneity for its coherence. Transcendental cinema extends the medium into alternate forms of human perceptual and conceptual experience that break free from the binds of temporal and spatial continuity.

P. Adams Sitney uses the term transcendental to describe the films of experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, whom he describes as a transcendentalist. [3] The Star-Gate sequence bears a striking similarity to Belson’s cinematic work, both in terms of the visual aesthetic as well as the underlying philosophy. Belson was originally a painter whose early work is closely aligned with the geometrical abstraction of artists such as Harry Smith, John and James Whitney, and Wassily Kandinsky. While painting in this mode, his work eventually shifted away from rigidly defined lines, shapes, and forms of the early geometrical abstraction in favor of a softer, more poetic atmospheric abstraction characteristic of Kandinsky’s later paintings. [4] This connection is relevant to the present discussion in the sense that Kandinsky sought to create abstract works of art that are charged with intense spiritual meaning, an intention that informs Belson’s films and Kubrick’s abstract Star-Gate sequence.

Belson’s early films evolved out of his exercises in painting and create the impression of an abstract canvas that continuously shifts, melts, and unfolds within the space of the frame. In the early 1950s his work shows what Sitney describes as a “gradual movement toward meditative imagery and rhythms,” but these works remain impersonal in the sense that they are “objects of meditation” and do not represent a complete merging of the artist’s consciousness with the act of meditation. [5] It was not until the mid-60s, after Belson had taken a temporary hiatus from his artistic pursuits to study Hatha Yoga, that he was able to fuse his personal meditation practices with the process of filmmaking to create films that are in themselves meditative journeys and transcendental experiences. Belson refers to the films he made between 1964 and 1972 as his “personal films.”6 These films are transcendental in that they seek to transcend time and space to produce the sense of an “all-consuming present” where subject unites with object, past and future dissolve into present, and the consciousness of the individual merges with the consciousness of the cosmos and divine powers. [7]

Although evident throughout his entire body of work, circular forms are charged with a special significance in his personal films, and appear in a variety of formations. These circular forms call to mind the mandala (magic circle), a symbol that represents the universe and harmony between all its elements. The mandala is a circular symbol that usually contains a variety of geometrical forms, simple and complicated patterns, and recognizable figures and objects within its circumference. Such symbols are shared by many different religions and belief systems and arise as patterns within myriad facets of human life, culture, nature, and the cosmos.

Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung uses the word mandala to refer to the nucleus of the human psyche, the essence of which remains a mystery to our conscious minds. [8] According to Jungian dream psychology, if the circular mandala appears in visions or dreams it represents the dreamer’s search for harmony, unity, and completeness. [9] In Tibetan Buddhism the mandala represents an imaginary palace that functions as a vehicle of meditation. The palace itself is represented by the circular parameters of the mandala and the symbols contained within it signify knowledge and wisdom that are meant to assist the meditative journey. [10] When used in meditation, the mandala represents cosmic union between the human Self and the universe, or between human consciousness and cosmic consciousness.

The symbol of the circle, such as the mandala, has special significance to human beings and appears in myriad forms that have arisen in diverse geographical regions throughout the entire span of human civilization. This symbol appears in primitive cave drawings, spiritual ceremonies and rituals, modern religion, ecclesiastical imagery, dreams, myths, architecture, astronomy, art, science, mathematics and, perhaps the ultimate window into the mysteries of life and the universe, fractal geometry and chaos theory. In Man and his Symbols, [11] Jung’s interpretation of the symbol of the circle and its significance to human beings holds that the circle or sphere is a “symbol of the Self. It expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature.”12 According to this interpretation, the symbol of the circle, in all its manifestations, “always points to the single most vital aspect of life – its ultimate wholeness.”13

An interesting link between Kandinsky, Belson, and Kubrick arises when one considers the connection between geometrical abstraction and fractal geometry. Fractal geometry creates visual patterns that bear an uncanny resemblance to some of Kandinsky’s paintings, Belson’s films, and Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence. Since fractal geometry seeks to unravel some of the most fundamental mysteries of the universe, it is interesting to consider how and why similar patterns are manifest in works of art that also explore these mysteries. Carl G. Jung’s psychological investigations into the human mind and Ronald Siegal’s studies of hallucinations in human subjects are also directly relevant to an analysis of fractal geometry and imagery that appears in these works of art.

The visual images created through fractal geometry share an uncanny resemblance to mandalas and visual art, as well as to myriad other aspects of life and the universe. Fractal geometry was discovered and the word coined by Dr. Benoit B. Mandelbrot during the 1960s and 1970s when he was working as a researcher for IBM. [14] Through the principles of geometry Dr. Mandelbrot came up with the formula Z= z2 + c, dubbed the Mandelbrot set. When graphed, this formula creates a visual pattern with infinite resolution that he termed fractal imagery.

As we will see, Dr. Mandelbrot’s discovery is the latest and perhaps most astounding support to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. When examining fractals in relation to Jung’s theory, additional meanings surface from the work of artists such as Kandinsky, Belson, and Kubrick. Jung suggests that all humans have common inherited archetypal and symbolic patterns of emotional and mental behavior. According to this theory these archetypes and symbols are primordial and universal and form a background of awareness that all humans share. Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious relates directly to fractal geometry in the sense that the patterns created through fractal geometry are remarkably similar to patterns that occur on innumerable levels of the natural world as well as in cultural art and artifacts. This suggests that these levels of the natural world and the universe share a similar underlying structure that manifests itself in particular forms, colours, and patterns.

The connection between fractal imagery and patterns that arise in nature and culture reinforces the fact that scientific theories are often preceded by “intuitive, semi-mythological, archetypal ideas.”15 It is interesting to note that Jung felt that mathematics held the key to unlocking the mysteries of human consciousness and the cosmos. Jung was particularly interested in our primary mathematical axiomatia or “primary mathematical intuitions,” such as “the ideas of an infinite series of numbers in arithmetic, or of a continuum in geometry, etc.”16 Jung would have been ecstatic to learn of the discovery of fractal geometry, a branch of mathematics that fulfills his idea of an infinite continuum in geometry that creates patterns of infinite precision and infinite complexity that unfold forever.

In the realm of art, fractal imagery can be detected in patterns of “scaling, self-similarity, and randomness,” and by the overall sense of “simultaneity of order and disorder in the images.”17 All of these qualities are manifest in Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, Jordan Belson’s films, and Stanley Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence. (For another analysis of fractal theory and cinema, Fractal Images of Memory in Mother and Son.) What do these connections mean? The appearance of fractal imagery in art can be interpreted as our attempt to seek out our selves in the universe in order to become one with it. This oneness is the union between inner psyche and outer fact: our psychological and physical spheres. When one achieves this sense of union or oneness through meditation one reaches a state of transcendence. Belson’s films and Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence help to illustrate the connection between fractal imagery, meditation, and transcendent experiences.

In addition to their shared reference to circular forms, Belson’s work is similar to Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence in its numerous fractal-like visual allusions to the cosmos and surrealistic landscapes. For instance, like the Star-Gate sequence, Re-Entry is filled with allusions to colourful cosmic gases, nebulas, stars and star clusters, planets, planetary orbits, solar prominences, solar flares, surreal abstractions of water, waterfalls, mountains, land, and sky, and allusions to the human eye. Through the process of making films Belson sought to achieve a sense of oneness and transcendence that he funneled through the meditative vehicle of the mandala, a symbol that bears a striking resemblance to images created through fractal geometry. Likewise, Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence represents one man’s journey through the cosmic consciousness toward a state of transcendence and enlightenment, and does so through forms, colours, and patterns that are remarkably similar to fractal imagery.

In Light Moving in Time, William C. Wees enriches his analysis of avant-garde visual aesthetics by turning to Ronald Siegel’s studies of visual hallucinations. I believe that Siegel’s work can also be viewed in light of fractal imagery and its connection to the work I am analyzing in this paper. Siegel divides the experience of hallucinations into two stages and codifies the imagery into “eight forms (‘random, line, curve, web, lattice, tunnel, spiral, and kaleidoscope’), eight colours (‘black, violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and white’), and eight patterns of movement (‘aimless, vertical, horizontal, oblique, explosive, concentric, rotational, and pulsating’).”18 The first stage of hallucinations consists of geometrical patterns that are fairly simple in their form and structure. The second stage consists of more complex geometrical patterns as well as recognizable symbols and archetypes that sometimes form “full-scale scenes.”19

Mandalas consist of imagery that corresponds to Siegel’s description of the first and second stages of hallucinations and incorporates many of the same forms, colours, and patterns. In Wees’s words, “in their most elaborate forms, mandalas combine (first-stage) geometric patterns with (second-stage) iconic imagery.”20 Wees goes on to suggest that “one might argue that despite the mandala’s specific significance within particular cultural and religious practices, its visual origins are universal: they are to be found in hallucinations anyone might experience.”21 This hypothesis helps to support my argument that works of visual art such as abstract paintings and films share a profound and meaningful connection with mandalas and fractal imagery, and that each of these forms is in some way linked with our interior visual experience. I would further extend this argument to suggest that our interior visual experience is directly linked with some of the innermost workings of life and the universe, and that cultural art and artifacts that tap into these images hold keys to unlocking some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos. Although these similarities could be interpreted as coincidental, I think they are far too powerful and telling to be mere coincidence. But then what is coincidence? Are there ever any coincidences? I think these similarities point to primordial and universal connections that exist between our selves, our cultural art and artifacts, and the universe.

Belson has made reference to the hallucinatory quality of his films and he associates this form of imagery with interior vision that corresponds to the inward spiritual journey the mind can achieve through meditation. In Belson’s words, “the hallucinatory aspect of imagery is certainly inherent in my work and in the ideas relevant to my work.”22 In a program note that accompanies Meditation (1971), Beslon states, “by diving deep through your spiritual eye you will see into the fourth dimension, aglow with the wonders of the inner world. It is hard to get there, but how beautiful it is! (Yoganda).”23 In the same program note he goes on to describe some of the visual imagery he has experienced in meditation: “I saw a shining ocean, endless, living, blissful. From all sides luminous waves, with a roaring sound, rushed toward me, engulfed and drowned me; I lost all awareness of outward things (Ramakrishna).”24 Kubrick’s Star-Gate shares this type of imagery as well as the underlying idea of an inward spiritual journey Bowman experiences as he hurtles through the cosmos.

The significance of fractal imagery, geometrical patterns, and the symbol of the circle to human beings should not be underestimated and it is no coincidence that these forms appear in many works of modern art and the avant-garde, especially abstract works. In the case of 2001 the symbol of the circle extends beyond the abstract Star-Gate sequence and is an important recurring motif that appears throughout the film. Artistic representation of the kinds of imagery found in hallucinations, fractal geometry, or transcendental mind states can be interpreted as unconscious manifestations of knowledge that is stored deep within the collective unconscious and the psychological and molecular structure of human beings. When this knowledge is unconsciously tapped and represented through cultural art, artifacts, and rituals, it would seem to be a function of our intuitive faculties rather than a deliberate intention that we arrive at by means of the intellect alone.

In Yogic philosophy intuition transcends intellect as the highest state of human consciousness. According to Yogic philosophy there are seven planes of knowledge and four sources of knowledge. The seven planes of knowledge are inspiration, revelation, insight, intuition, ecstasy, divine sight, and Paramanda. The four sources of knowledge are instinct, reason, intuition, and super-intuition or Brahma-Jnana. In general, human beings function primarily on the levels of instinct and reason while their faculty of intuition remains undeveloped or underdeveloped. The intellect can take us to a point in the quest for knowledge and self-actualization, but it has limits. Intuition transcends reason or intellect but does not contradict it; intuitive knowledge picks up where the intellect leaves off and transcends these limits.25

According to Swami Sivananda, “intuition is direct perception of truth (Pratyaksha) or immediate knowledge through Samadhi.”26 Sivananda explains that the meditator reaches Samadhi “when the mind is completely absorbed in one object of meditation. In Samadhi there is neither Dyhyana nor Dyhyata (neither meditation nor meditator). The meditator and meditated, the thinker and the thought, the worshiper and the worshipped become one or identical. The Triputi (triad) vanishes. The mind loses its own consciousness and becomes identical with the object of meditation.”27 This description of Samadhi helps

to form an understanding of Belson’s work, as this is the state he seeks to achieve through the process of making films, especially the films he made between 1964 and 1972, of which Samadhi is a part. It also helps to form an understanding of the Star-Gate sequence in 2001 since, like Belson’s films, this sequence also represents a transcendent experience where the consciousness of a human being merges with the cosmos.

As a Westerner and serious student of Yoga, I believe that the value and power of intuitive knowledge is generally underestimated or entirely ignored by people who live in Western cultures. I believe that the fine arts, such as cinema, provide means to tap into our intuitive channels and play a vital role in our quest for knowledge about life and the universe. I am especially interested in works of cinema that experiment with the medium in innovative and imaginative ways that expand the mind and excite the senses. I believe that cinema is one of the means through which we can tap into and find expression for the innermost mysteries of our being as well as the mysteries of the cosmos. Cinema mimics the human visual and aural systems through which we gain access to external stimuli that we then process in our cognitive faculty, and as such it is an excellent medium through which to explore and expand the limits of our minds and perceptual systems. On this note, before moving into an analysis of 2001, it is interesting to make reference to comments Belson and Brakhage have made independently with regards to the ways in which technologies of cinematic representation function as an extension of the human mind and senses.

Both Belson and Brakhage have discussed their belief that cinematic technologies function as an extension of human psychology and physiology.28 Quotes from both directors are instructive and will help to illustrate their respective beliefs on this subject. To quote Belson, “I’ve always considered image-producing equipment as extensions of the mind…. The mind has produced these images and has made the equipment to produce them physically. In a way it’s a projection of what’s going on inside, phenomena thrown out by the consciousness, which we are then able to look at.”29 Brakhage expresses a similar belief when he says:

Over the years, I have come to believe that every machine people invent is nothing more than an extension of their innards. The base rhythm of film – 24 frames per second – is sort of centered in its pulse to our brain waves. If you start a film at 8 frames per second and with a variable speed motor slowly raise it to 32 you put the audience in the first stage of hypnosis. So the natural pulse of film is a corollary to the brain’s reception of everyday ordinary vision. Then film grain approximates the first stage of hypnagogic vision, which occurs at a pulse within the range of film’s possibilities of projection. Also, during editing, film comes close to the way you remember. And finally, if you cut fast enough, you can reflect within 24 frames per second the saccadic movements of the eyes, which people aren’t ordinarily aware of, but which are an intrinsic part of seeing.30

Although both filmmakers are interested in the ways in which cinema can be used to represent both psychological and physiological phenomena, their distinct approaches are indicated by, to quote Wees, “Belson’s preference for geometrical, symbolic, and archetypal forms that are seen in their purest state by the mind’s eye” whereas “Brakhage is more inclined to discover them in the cluttered and informal imagery of the everyday world.”31 Like these two filmmakers, Kubrick’s films reflect a profound interest in exploring cinema as an extension of both our minds and our senses.

We have seen that, of all the myriad shapes and forms that make up our collective unconscious, the circle is the most prominent. To begin my discussion of 2001, I will focus on the presence of circles as they relate to Kubrick’s interest in exploring cinema as an extension of human perception. The importance of circles in the exploration of cinematic form and human consciousness can be clearly seen in 2001. In this film the symbol of the circle appears in myriad forms, such as the circular forms of the planets and planetary orbits, the space station, spaceships and internal components of spaceships, the portals that connect different parts of the ship, the centrifuge, and the HAL 9000 computer’s large red eye. The space pod that carries Bowman through the Star-Gate is a particularly significant circular form in that this pod is the vehicle that transports him on his transcendent journey through the cosmos. The symbol of the circle is also present in the abstract images of the Star-Gate sequence as well as in the close-ups of Bowman’s eye. Additionally, the final sequence of Bowman in the isolation room is shot with a wide-angle lens that distorts the image by rounding it slightly on the left and right edges of the frame, thereby alluding to a circular or spherical form.

Kubrick’s Circles

Belson’s Circles

In 2001 all of the various circular and spherical forms are important and contribute to the overall aesthetic and meanings of the film, but I think the use of circles in the Star-Gate sequence merits special attention. The Star-Gate sequence represents one of the most fully developed examples of the synthesis between film form and content that I have seen in narrative cinema. This sequence unites Kubrick’s interest in experimenting with the formal qualities of cinema with his interest in experimenting with the conceptual possibilities of the medium. The dominant motif in this sequence is a human eye. The eye represents the most important theme of this sequence: vision. Above all else, the Star-Gate sequence is about vision, and in this film vision can be divided into two categories that operate along the lines of formal as well as conceptual concerns. These two categories can be loosely termed open-eye vision and closed-eye vision. The eye motif connects these two categories of vision as well as acting as the principal bridge between the Star-Gate’s formal and conceptual concerns. The eye motif also acts as a bridge in the transition between the Star-Gate and the isolation room.

The Star-Gate sequence alternates between close-ups of Bowman’s face behind a spherical space mask, images of the multicoloured lights, shapes, and forms that represent Bowman’s journey through the cosmos, and extreme close-ups of Bowman’s eye. The effect of his eye and the emphasis on vision is heightened by the surreal array of colours that alter the pigmentation of his cornea, iris, and pupil. The eye motif is extremely significant for several reasons.

The eye represents the theme of vision and for the spectator this sequence is first and foremost an open-eye visual experience. On a purely primal, sensorial level, this sequence is a spectacular show of visual special effects. When this film was released in 1968 the general movie-going public had likely never experienced this type of visual show in the cinema and the pure sensory spectacle and delight of the Star-Gate sequence must have been an event in itself. The importance of visual spectacle in the original screenings of this film is underscored by Kubrick’s insistence that the film be presented in 70mm Cinerama.32

The open-eye visual spectacle of this sequence is augmented by allusions to closed-eye visual experience. The spectator might not be consciously aware of the importance of closed-eye vision in this sequence, but I believe that the pure visual spectacle and conceptual intensity of this sequence is achieved through a dynamic interplay between the cinematic representation of open-eye and closed-eye vision. This sequence is a representation of Bowman’s physiological and psychological experiences as he merges with and journeys through the cosmos, and this experience finds expression in a synthesis of open-eye and closed-eye vision. Moreover, the extreme close-ups of the eye are circular forms (circles within circles: pupil, iris, cornea, eye lids, etc.) and as such the eye motif alludes to the symbolic meaning of circles in relation to meditation and transcendence. To this end, the circular shape of the eye is directly linked to the themes of meditation and transcendence that guide this sequence.

Kubrick’s Iris

Belson’s Iris

In Western cultures we are most conscious of our normal everyday open-eye vision, but our visual experience extends far beyond this type of vision and includes a wide variety of visual experiences that operate through the same physiological channels but function in different ways. In his films experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage explores numerous forms of human visual experience and uses cinematic techniques to achieve these ends. Brakhage believes that all human inventions are extensions of our minds and bodies and that cinema has particular resonance with our visual apparatus. Brakhage describes visual experience as complex and multi-faceted and he believes that cinema can tap into and express both open-eye and closed-eye vision. In his words, “seeing includes open-eye, peripheral, and hypnagogic vision, along with moving visual thinking, dream vision, and memory feedback – in short, whatever affects the eyes, the brain, and the nervous system. I believe that all these have a right to be called seeing since they enable us to inherit the spectrum of our optic and nervous system.”33

Hypnagogic vision is a form of closed-eye vision that Brakhage describes as optic feedback. Hypnagogic vision arises when the nervous system projects our visual memories into the optic nerve endings. It happens every time we close our eyes, although we are not always consciously aware of the dazzling light shows it produces. Gently rubbing the eyes and alternately looking toward light and dark areas intensifies these hypnagogic light shows. Brakhage describes hypnagogic imagery as “a field of grainy, shifting, multi-colored sands that gradually assume various shapes.”34 Hypnagogic vision produces a complex array of forms, colours, and patterns of movement, but each person experiences hypnagogic vision differently according to their particular physiology and visual memories. Moving visual thinking is a visual process that occurs deep in our brain synapses and consists of a series of abstract images that represent cellular activity. Brakhage describes this type of vision as “a vast visual song of the cells expressing their internal life.”35 Peripheral vision is open-eye vision that we are not normally consciously aware of but whose visual information is processed by the optic nerves and brain and manifests itself in our dreams. Finally, memory feedback is visual information stored in our brains that playback as highly edited clips of visual memory.36

As humans, we are born with the capacity for myriad forms of open-eye and closed-eye visual experiences. As children we are instinctually aware of different forms of closed-eye vision and do not judge one form of visual experience as more “real” than another. As we grow up, however, we become increasingly structured according to the societies and environments in which we live. These structures include the ways in which we understand, use, and develop our senses. When it comes to vision, Western cultures privilege open-eye vision and dream vision over all other forms of visual experience. This bias is environmental to a certain degree, but it is also socially determined. As children we are much more consciously aware of different ways of seeing, both open-eye and closed-eye, and much less biased: all forms of vision are equally real and equally exciting. But as we grow up we start to value and develop certain forms of vision over others. A personal anecdote will help to illustrate this point and will also reinforce the intrinsic connection that I believe exists between Kubrick and Brakhage.

I recently watched the Star-Gate sequence with my two young cousins and perhaps 15 seconds into the sequence my seven year old cousin exclaimed, “that looks just like what I see when I close my eyes!” This child spontaneously responded to the Star-Gate sequence by immediately associating the visual experience of Kubrick’s film with a natural form of closed-eye vision: hypnogagic vision. It is important to note that an older child or adult would likely respond to this sequence by comparing it with something they had experienced with open-eye vision, such as fireworks, lightning, or video game imagery. Of course, when we give it some thought or when it is pointed out to us we too will make the same association with hypnagogic vision. Although we are less conscious of it or less apt to consider this form of vision as “visual experience,” we still retain this physiological visual capacity and it still plays an important, if unnoticed, part of our lives.

It is interesting to note that Brakhage feels a close affinity with abstract expressionists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline, as well as experimental filmmaker Harry Smith. Brakhage sees similarities between his work, particularly his hand-painted films, and the abstract work of these artists. He explains that he does not know if these artists were consciously working toward representing interior visual experience such as hypnagogic vision or moving visual thinking, but he believes that these artists were either consciously or unconsciously influenced by interior vision. Brakhage’s observation reinforces my argument that art is one means by which we can intuitively tap into some of the inner workings of our beings and express some of the mysteries hidden within the molecular and cellular levels of our minds and bodies. This observation also helps to support Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious as well as the profound connection that I believe exists between our art, our selves, and the universe. [insert the following photos around here

Hypnogogic Visions: Kubrick, Belson, and Brakhage

Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence shares a formal affinity with Brakhage’s abstract films and seems to have been influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by interior vision. This sequence is a perfect example of the experimental use of cinema to tap into and express some of the mysteries embedded within our beings through visual images that represent both open-eye and closed-eye vision. Moreover, the similarities between the work of filmmakers such as Kubrick, Belson, Brakhage, Smith, and John and James Whitney suggests a profound connection between the process of making films and the intuitive processes that allow us to access and express some of the inner workings of our selves and the universe.

Since the Star-Gate sequence is a representation of Bowman’s psychological and physiological experiences and transformation, vision in this sequence is also relevant in terms of spectator identification with this character. Up until this point in the film spectators are kept at a distance from the characters through limited access to the character’s interior world. Kubrick achieves this sense of distance largely by means of performance, cinematography, and editing strategies: the performances are monotone and expressionless, the camera often favors non-human objects over humans (i.e. long and lingering shots of spaceships, planets, and stars), and there is sparse use of point-of-view editing.

In his book Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, [37] Mario Falsetto provides a close analysis of the issue of subjectivity and point-of-view in 2001. He explains that the first half of the film moves along an objective trajectory that shifts in the middle of the film to become a subjective trajectory that continues until the end of the film. This subjective trajectory culminates in the Star-Gate sequence and the isolation room. The sense of character subjectivity slowly mounts throughout the second half of the film, but in the final two sequences the film radically shifts into what Falsetto describes as a “full-blown subjectivity… in which Bowman’s consciousness becomes the film’s center.”38 This radical shift to full-blown subjectivity that occurs in the final two sequences of the film is crucial to the development of the film’s narrative and functions to identify the spectator with Bowman’s interior transformation. As he journeys through the cosmos he experiences a transcendence of the self that ultimately leads to his rebirth as the Star-Child.

In this sequence the eye motif helps to identify the spectator with Bowman’s full-blown subjectivity as he hurtles through the cosmos. This sequence is a representation of Bowman’s open-eye visual experience of the lights and colours he sees as he hurtles through space as well as a representation of his closed-eye interior visual experience as he journeys deep within his own psyche and as his psyche journeys through the cosmic consciousness. The visual structure of this sequence conveys different levels of human visual perception and hallucinogenic experience that bear striking similarity to Belson’s experimental films. The idea of interior vision and alternate ways of seeing that Kubrick explores in this sequence is also reminiscent of experimental films by Brakhage, especially his hand-painted films in which he explores interior vision. These similarities are not incidental and reinforce the close affinity Kubrick shares with other experimental filmmakers, and the connections between these filmmakers reinforces the potential to tap into and find expression for some of the mysteries of life and the universe through cinematic means.

The experimentation with open-eye and closed-eye vision and point-of-view in the Star-Gate sequence is also an experiment with cinematic time and space. In this sequence the film releases itself from the binds of continuous time and space through cinematography and editing strategies, with a particular emphasis on visual abstraction through special effects and point-of-view editing. This sequence has had enormous influence on subsequent filmmaking, and is one of the most radical experiments with cinematic time and space that I have seen in narrative cinema. The film launches unexpectedly into this high energy sequence and provides no clear indication as to the spatial or temporal coordinates of the Star-Gate, the type of space this is, how much time Bowman’s Star-Gate journey takes, or if temporality even exists within this dimension.

Aside from the Star-Gate sequence the most extreme example of spatial and temporal experimentation in 2001 is the final sequence of Bowman in the isolation room. This sequence immediately follows the Star-Gate sequence and the sense of spatial and temporal disorientation conveyed in the Star-Gate sequence is intended to carry directly over into this sequence. Structurally, these two sequences are radically different and use distinct cinematography and editing strategies, but thematically the two sequences are in perfect alignment. Both sequences are about transcendence and the concept of perceiving oneself in a space beyond oneself in the process of transformation. In this sense both sequences relate to the self-recognition aspect of fractal geometry, where we humans recognize imprints of our selves and our universe in patterns of fractal imagery, and can gain insights into life and the cosmos as a result. The concept of seeing oneself in spaces beyond oneself in order to become one with the universe (or the mandala) and achieve a state of transcendence ties in with the principles of Yogic philosophy. It also ties in with Brakhage and the idea that one can evolve through the process of making and watching films by recognizing one’s own perceptual processes in cinema.

To make the transition from the Star-Gate sequence to the sequence of Bowman in the isolation room the camera holds on an extreme close-up of Bowman’s eye. In this extended shot the eye moves through a surreal array of colours until it settles on an image of his ordinary blue iris with its black pupil and white eyeball. The changing colour tones echo the multicoloured lights and surreal landscapes of the Star-Gate and the shift to Bowman’s ordinary eye colour marks the point of transition between these two sequences. The transition between these two sequences carries the theme of vision directly over from one sequence into the other. This is an important point in terms of form and content because vision is the means by which Bowman makes the journey through the Star-Gate sequence and into the depths of his own psyche. The sense of vision is also crucial to experiencing cinematic imagery. The film itself, especially these final two sequences, is an experiment in how cinema can represent different forms of vision and the ways in which we respond visually to these images.

In closing this section, I will highlight yet another interesting connection between 2001 and Belson’s films: the Star-Gate sequence and the Star-Child character of 2001 are reminiscent of Olaf Stapleton’s science fiction novel Star Maker, a novel that directly inspired Belson’s work. The central protagonist of this novel is named the Star-Maker. In the novel, the Star-Maker experiences a transcendent cosmic journey that is similar to Bowman’s journey in the film. In Sitney’s words, this novel “is an odyssey that proceeds from mildly Swiftean visions of life on planets similar to Earth to an apocalyptic revelation of the hierarchical consciousness of stars, galaxies, and the very cosmos.”39 Sitney goes on to suggest that in his films Belson has synthesized the “psycho-theological” themes of Star Maker with elements of Buddhist cosmology and the “Yogic diagram of the interior chakras.”40 Bowman experiences a similar psycho-theological transcendental experience as the Star Maker and the Star-Gate sequence shares a similar formal aesthetic to Belson’s films. As I argue throughout this paper, these types of connections are not incidental and illustrate the close affinity, either intentional or coincidental, that Kubrick shares with experimental filmmakers such as Belson, on the level of both form and content.


1. William C. Wees. Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992) 123.

2. Mario Falsetto. Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis (New and Expanded Second Edition) (London: Praeger, 2001) 118.

3. P. Adams Sitney. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978 (Second Edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979): 262.

4. Sitney 262.

5. Sitney 263.

6. Sitney 264.

7. Sitney 262.

8. Carl G. Jung, ed. Man and his Symbols (New York: Anchor Books, 1964) 213.

9. Jung, ed. 213-217; 240-249.


11. Carl G. Jung, ed. Man and his Symbols (New York: Anchor Books, 1964)

12. Jung, ed. 240.

13. Jung, ed. 240.

14. John Briggs, Fractals: The Pattern of Chaos (New York: Touchstone, 1992) 22.

15. Jung, ed. 306-307.

16. Jung, ed. 309.

17. Briggs 166.

18. Wees 127.

19. Ibid. 127.

20. Ibid. 129.

21. Ibid. 129.

22. Ibid. 130.

23. Ibid. 131.

24. Ibid.133

25. Swami Sivananda, Mind: It’s Mysteries and Control (Himalayas, India: Divine Life Society, 1997) 18-20.

26. Sivananda 20.

27. Sivananda 256.

28. Wees 131; "Brakhage at 60: An Interview with Brakhage"

29. Belson as quoted in Wees 131.

30. "Brakhage at 60: An Interview with Brakhage"

31. Wees 135-136.

32. Falsetto 45.

33. "Brakhage at 60: An Interview with Brakhage"

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Mario Falsetto, Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis (New and Expanded Second Edition) (London: Praeger, 2001).

38. Falsetto 109.

39. Sitney 265.

40. Sitney 265.

Beyond the Infinite: Part 2

Volume 6, Issue 9 / September 2002 Essays   avant-garde   experimental   kenneth anger   maya deren   people_brakhage   stan brakhage   stanley kubrick