Ten years apart, Hitchcock and Kubrick take us on remarkably similar audio-visual journeys. Should we make anything of it?
Let’s check out the sequences individually.
In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the title sequence is, of course, our first experience with the story. It starts with a very close, black-and-white shot of a woman’s face — she is expressionless, except for a brief shift in the eyes to each side. We are given no dialogue. Eventually the camera zeros in on her right eye. A red filter washes over this shot, then colorful and geometrically complex shapes come spiraling out from the woman’s pupil. Between these soulless, eerie graphics and Bernard Herrmann’s paranoid, twisting music, we are left with a deep sense of foreboding. This film is going to have troubled characters, and troubling storylines.
We come to what most people refer to as the “Star Gate” sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey not at the beginning of the film, but in the last 20 minutes — nevertheless, it is a kind of beginning point. We enter this final, wordless chapter via Bowman’s arrival at Jupiter after a harrowing near-death experience dealing with the HAL9000 computer.
Bowman takes an EVA pod and leaves his ship behind, approaching Jupiter’s orbit. From a black screen, a kaleidoscopic lightshow begins to spool out from a centerpoint. Warped, diaphanous neon graphics whiz by on all sides. It seems this is the vista that Bowman has from his cockpit, and that we are traveling forward through a cosmic tunnel that defies human understanding. And as the lightshow continues, Bowman appears determined, then awestruck, then overwhelmed, then entranced, then seizing, then semi-catatonic. The underscoring from Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” casts a disturbing yet almost holy pall over the sequence; the textless choir highlights the ineffable grandeur of the moment.
The similarities between these sequences are undeniable. The inscrutable faces, the uncomfortably close eyes. The trippy, swirling fields of multi-colored energy coming toward you. The subtext of anxiety, of forces greater than oneself.
Both of these iconic film moments are working toward a similar goal. Though the subject matter of their respective films are quite different, we come to these sequences at pivotal times when the film needs to communicate something beyond words. In Vertigo, we are grappling with obsession, self-actualization, sexual aggression, murder, the subconscious— and all that is unspeakable of one’s internal experience. In 2001, we are negotiating the external. With humanity’s humble place in the universe, with knowledge, with progress, with otherness, with spirituality. That threshold of speechlessness our species has so often felt about the mysteries of being.
Both sequences are embracing the limitations of perception and consciousness. By leaning into the strengths of their artistic format, Kubrick and Hitchcock communicate something much more evocative and deep than pat description. They give us common ground to stand on when reflecting on these unspeakable mysteries, and in the process remind us why film is such a powerful and important art form.
While the 1958 theatrical release of Vertigo did not enjoy the reception that so many of his other films had at that point, it became something of a cult classic among film cognoscenti, who in the years following were constantly on the lookout for privately circulating reels. It’s unclear whether Kubrick took part in that underground fervor for the film. In my research, I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that Kubrick was particularly influenced by Vertigo while developing the Star Gate sequence. In fact, Kubrick doesn’t appear to have made public comments on Hitchcock very much at all.
Nevertheless, the similarities are indeed striking. Could it be parallel evolution? Just the product of great film minds thinking alike? Or could there be more of a connection?