2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Mystery. That’s what this One Shot is about, shots that convey a mystery. Though I believe that mystery can be conveyed perfectly fine with film, it might not always be the logical first medium to create it with. As mystery is so closely linked to imagination, other, less ‘overtly designed media’ might be easier to use. A book triggers imagination almost automatically, as the words are meant to create a vision, that you yourself have to conjure, nothing is solidly designed for you, so your imagination runs wild.

Same with with paintings, or music for that matter. They tickle one particular sense, and then trigger to human mind to start creating, start imagining. And, as the basic rule of mystery dictates us; when things are only partly shown or partly communicated, the suggested space that is invisible creates mystery. As it is always said, ‘it’s what you don’t show that creates suspense and mystery’.

So, given the fact that film touches so many different senses at once, being an audio-visual narrativeexperience, it might risk filling itself up with too much details and information to effectively trigger imagination and thus convey mystery. And films fall into this trap easily. Monster-movies, for example, are famous in their failures of sustaining their mystery towards the end. The mystery of the unknown, which is often effectively used in the beginning of such films, is traded in for a suspense-focused show-it-all-style towards their end. How often have you heard a reviewer say ‘the movie imploded the moment we actually saw the monster’? ‘There’s something in the woods’ sounds so much more dangerous and mysterious than ‘an hairy monster with big teeth is in the woods’… 

in Jaws, the shark is suggested more than it is shown (here by use of the yellow barrels). An effective technique that increased the suspence.

in Jaws, the shark is suggested more than it is shown (here by use of the yellow barrels). An effective technique that increased the suspense.

Yet; it can work. Just look at the works of David Lynch (Mulholland Drive (2001), Twin Peaks (1991-1993) & Inland Empire (2007)) or the whole Film Noir movement. Playing with light and shadows, experimenting with music and soundscapes, and using dreamlike and vivid imagery they definitely conveyed mystery, be it a surreal type of mystery or a more grounded suspense type of mystery.

The 'Club Silencio' scene in Mulholland Drive is one of its most mysterious.

The ‘Club Silencio’ scene in Mulholland Drive is one of its most mysterious.

Partly it is in the way you choose to leave stuff out, to create empty space and darkness in your frame to leave something open to the viewer. But at the same time the great achievements in cinematic-mystery were hardly demonstrations of minimizing the tools. Especially David Lynch became famous for his experimental use of soundscapes to add to the visuals. So though there is a minimalism in style, this should not be confused with a minimalism in tools and techniques.

The TV-series Twin Peaks is a great example of both the successes and failures of the medium. For about 14 episodes we are teased with hints and theories about the killer of Laura Palmer, and the more hints we are given, the more mysterious it becomes. What is the role of the dwarf in the dream? Who is the giant with his ‘owls are not what they seem’? Why did Leland’s hair suddenly turn white? The whole show was a candy-store of delicious hints of mystery that glued the audience to the screen.

And then the murderer was revealed, the theory became a concrete reality, and everything was made logical (in a supernatural kind of way). It might not have destroyed the series (though it barely survived after the big reveal), but it diminished the carefully constructed atmosphere of mystery it so closely guarded for about 14 episodes.

Actually, there is a pattern visible in TV-series that hinge on mystery. They have great, legendary openings and slowly diminish in atmosphere and mystery the more they explain themselves. Two classic and famous examples are Twin Peaks’ immediate descendants, The X-Files (1993-2002) and Lost (2004-2010). Both created amazing mysteries around unexplainable phenomena and wild theories. And both imploded gradually when they started to explain away their mystery.

Which is a difficult problem, as a mystery always demands a resolution. A sole purpose of a questions is to evoke an answer. And it takes the most stubborn, most determined filmmakers to not give in to temptation and create the answers. David Lynch was probably stubborn and determined enough, but he didn’t have the power and influence to withhold the network from demanding a resolution to appease the hungry audience. Which is a story worth an entirely different blog of its own.

But he did understand the beauty and fragility of the mystery, as this quote illustrates, “I love mysteries. To fall into a mystery and its danger … everything becomes so intense in those moments. When most mysteries are solved, I feel tremendously let down. So I want things to feel solved up to a point, but there’s got to be a certain percentage left over to keep the dream going… …You understand it, but you don’t understand it, and it keeps that mystery alive. That’s the most beautiful thing.”

So this all leads to an honest question. Is it possible to evoke a sense of mystery with the audio-visual medium and stay loyal and submit to that mystery without trying to spoil it with an answer. To keep the mystery alive? 

As far as I’m concerned; I believe it can. Many of my favorite films succeed in exactly that goal. Twin Peaks kind of redeemed itself with its Lynch-directed season finale, but there are also examples of films that don’t even lose track halfway.

The finale of Twin Peaks upped the ante in bringing back the surreal suspense of the earlier episodes.

The finale of Twin Peaks upped the ante in bringing back the surreal suspense of the earlier episodes.

Films that deserve mention are Peter Weir’s Picknick at Hanging Rock (1976), the aforementioned Mulholland Drive, Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and also his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is the film I dedicate this One Shot to.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001

So yeah; to me the magic happens when a mystery is posed, it is dealt with, suggestions are given for a resolution, but no definitive answer is ever given. Fine. But how do you translate that idea to a single shot? What makes a shot mysterious? Can you also suggest a mystery in a single shot?

The awe-inspiring reveal of the mysterious monolith.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Yes, that is what happens for me as a viewer when I look at this shot. And I think that the magic lies in it’s suggestion of meaning. The shot in question is from the first appearance of the mysterious monolith that appears three times throughout the movie. Why it appears, and who placed it there is never directly answered, though clear theories can be named (so it’s basically the right way to handle a mystery).

What works, first of all, is the alien-like symmetrical, colorless and unnaturally straight form of the monolith. In the context of the desert rocks and apes it feels completely out of place. But the real mystery is ignited in this shot, which comes immediately after it’s wide-angle reveal.

As I said, the shot suggests meaning to me, and meaning comes across strongly in symmetry. I associate non-meaning or chaos with random shapes and composition. Just messy lines and forms suggest that no purpose was given to the design and/or composition and thus it feels meaningless. Whereas symmetry suggests conscience design, it suggests purpose, and thus meaning.

The appearance of the monolith was weird and captivating, but this shot focuses more on symmetry and thus suggests more meaning behind it. The shape itself is perfectly aligned within the frame, and then Kubrick frames the moon and sun in perfect alignment with the monolith. There is no accidental & natural reason why these planetary bodies would be aligned so perfectly with that alien shape. And yet, Kubrick only suggests a design behind it. we are never shown if there is an intelligent being behind this alignment of shapes. We can only imagine, or better said; we are allowed to only imagine!

So to summarize; mystery is conveyed by ‘suggested meaning’, especially if that meaning is suggested in a place where normally we wouldn’t find any meaning. I once again refer to the wonderful Picknick at Hanging Rock (1976) where meaning and design is suggested on natural rock-formations. It’s suggestion of meaning is so strong that simple rock-formations become ominous and almost scary in our mind, such is the power of our imagination.

The rock-formation becomes an ominous and threatening construction that suggests a mysterious intelligence.

The rock-formation becomes an ominous and threatening construction that suggests a mysterious intelligence.

Stanley Kubrick, like David Lynch, also knew to never fully solve the mystery. As he ends The Shining with a bizarre question-mark, so he ends 2001 with barely any focused narrative to guide us through the final half hour. This can be difficult to watch, and might leave an audience less-than-fulfilled, but I sincerely believe that ‘being less than fulfilled’ is the lesser evil in comparison to ‘being overly fulfilled’.

In this single One Shot Kubrick introduces us to a mystery of symmetry and design that feels as grand as any mystery you could think of, and he never resolves it. Which gives this shot its lasting power, making it literally one of the most mysterious shots I’ve seen in motion pictures.

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