Summer 2018

You Say You Want an Evolution

How Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke reinvented the sci-fi film

A. S. Hamrah


STANLEY KUBRICK’S 2001: A Space Odyssey was not a flop when it came out. It was a big hit and ended up the highest-grossing film of 1968. It was especially popular with acidheads and pot smokers, science geeks, budding filmmakers, and people under forty in general. The critics in New York, however, all hated it (except for Penelope Gilliatt in the New Yorker), and it had not done well in preview screenings with studio execs and celebrities, who found it boring and confusing. Those preview screenings and early reviews have become part of the film’s legend. People love to remember how the snobs got it wrong.

At one studio screening, attended by, among others, a woman who had worked for
D. W. Griffith in 1915, only a teenager in the projection booth had anything nice to say about 2001. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” he told Kubrick’s assistant editor. Kubrick got nervous anyway and ordered nineteen minutes of cuts to the film, which movie-theater projectionists had to make by hand to the 70-mm prints that had already been shipped. Maybe the cuts made the difference between the reception the film got from insiders and the one it received from paying audiences. After all, as the director Don Siegel put it, “If you shake a movie, ten minutes will fall out.”

1968 was a tough year for Hollywood, which was turning out overlong star-vehicle musicals (one was called Star!) and stodgy big-budget costume dramas. At the end of the year, the industry couldn’t decide whether to give a Best Actress Oscar to Barbra Streisand or Katharine Hepburn, so it gave the award to both, one for her performance in a mummified musical (Funny Girl), the other for a hammy turn in a period snooze-fest (The Lion in Winter).

These movies were not flops at the box office, but nor were they vital, new, or engaging to the kind of younger audiences the movies depend on. Color extravaganzas seemed dated even as color TV became the norm, so paradoxically it was black-and-white movies that stood out in 1968. An unholy trinity of crucial movies made in the US that year were not in color: Faces, John Cassavetes’s brutal takedown of middle-class values; In the Year of the Pig, Emile de Antonio’s Vietnam War exposé; and Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s gory portrait of a cannibalistic America. None had much to do with the Hollywood film industry. Each broke ground and changed cinematic forms, each investigated the present moment, and each had more to say about contemporary America than costume pictures set in Plantagenet England or New York at the time of the Ziegfeld Follies.

In other parts of the movie world, the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague shut down the Cannes Film Festival after the French minister of culture fired Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française, and shuttered his venue in response to protests. In Tokyo, Japanese cinephiles also protested. They nearly rioted when their favorite director, Seijun Suzuki, was unceremoniously dismissed by his studio, Nikkatsu, which had dumped his poorly reviewed masterpiece Branded to Kill and would not allow nontheatrical screenings. In New York, the black-and-white newsreels made during the protests at Columbia University showed that young people wanted to engage with cinema on their own terms. But what, exactly, did they want? The answer, it turned out, was a science-fiction movie that traced the progress of mankind from cave dweller to astronaut to “Star Child,” by way of a deadly computer, a trippy acid freak-out, and an intergalactic hotel room.

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Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, 70 mm, color, sound, 142 minutes. Keir Dullea (Dr. Dave Bowman). From the Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Taschen, 2015), © Dmitri Kessel/Getty Images/Turner Entertainment Co.

THE MACHINERY OF KUBRICK’S 2001 was set in motion a few years earlier, shortly after the debut of his black comedy of nuclear annihilation, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick’s people telegraphed Arthur C. Clarke, the British science-fiction novelist, in Ceylon, where he lived, saying that the director was interested in collaborating with him. Kubrick wanted to hire Clarke to cowrite what he called “the proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie,” something Kubrick thought Hollywood had yakked about but never managed.

Clarke responded right away: “Frightfully interested in working with enfant terrible.” On the spring night in 1964 that Clarke and Kubrick finalized their deal to work together, they looked toward the Manhattan skyline from Kubrick’s Upper East Side penthouse apartment and saw a UFO. They could not have asked for a better omen, but this one was too good to be true. The object, it turned out, was likely the Echo 2 satellite, a NASA communications spacecraft that had not been listed in the New York Times “Visible Satellites” table that day. (They checked.)

Clarke spent most of the year talking with the director and laboring on the as-yet-untitled script. Leaving the Chelsea Hotel each morning, he would breakfast at the Automat on Seventh Avenue then travel to the thirty-five-year-old enfant terrible’s apartment. In Kubrick’s study or on his patio overlooking Manhattan, the two men spent their days considering the nature of the universe, man’s place in the cosmos, and why aliens always look so dumb in movies. At night, Clarke would return to his room on the tenth floor of the Chelsea, often eating a dinner of liver paté on crackers with an Irish sailor who lived down the hall (“a questionable new interest of his”), then typing out the pre-novelization of Kubrick’s movie, slated to be published solely under Clarke’s name just after the film’s release. Sometimes he would sit in the hotel’s bar and have a drink with other residents of the Chelsea, among them William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. On Christmas Eve, Clarke handed Kubrick the first draft of the treatment for what would become 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick read it while Clarke waited, then pronounced his Merry Christmas to Clarke. They’d done it, he said. “We’ve extended the range of science fiction.”

BURROUGHS AND GINSBERG, A KIND OF mirror version of Clarke and Kubrick, make but a brief appearance in Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, Michael Benson’s expansive and thorough book on the production of 2001. They, like the Irish seaman, are part of a large, unexpected cast. The players here are not just actors, studio bigwigs, and crew. Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw hips Kubrick to Clarke’s novels. Scientist Carl Sagan, a pedant whom Kubrick does not take to at all (“Get rid of him. . . . Make any excuse. . . . I don’t want to see him again”), keeps turning up to annoy the director (Clarke announces that “for every expert there is an equal and opposite expert”). Jane Birkin’s brother, Andrew, works diligently for Kubrick even after he forces him to uproot and steal kokerboom trees from the Namib Desert for the “Dawn of Man” scenes. Kubrick told him to blame it on Twentieth Century Fox, not MGM, if he got caught.

Dan Richter, an American junkie and mime in London whom Kubrick hires to learn how to portray Australopithecus africanus on-screen, gets plenty of well-deserved attention and provides the book’s key image. It could be a key image of the late 1960s. One day at MGM’s studios in Borehamwood, England, where 2001 was mostly filmed, the budding special-effects genius Douglas Trumbull, a Californian, was jumping on a trampoline in a cowboy hat. At the pinnacle of each boing he could spy Richter in a grassy field teaching a teen dance troupe from a local TV show how to move like prehistoric hominids, a formation of British lads and lasses jumping, scratching, and ook-ooking together like apes.

Three and half years and $12 million later, Kubrick was still working on the film. His schedule for making 2001 was however long it took, his budget was however much it cost, and the film’s delivery date was when he decided it was done. His only worry was that NASA would get to the moon before the film came out, which is maybe one of the reasons the fable persists that Kubrick shot the first moon landing on a soundstage, faking it for the US government.

Kubrick’s approach put Clarke in a tough spot. He wouldn’t be paid until the film and the novel appeared, and he had his own set of out-of-control expenses worrying him. Back in Ceylon (it wasn’t called Sri Lanka until 1972), Clarke was producing a film himself, a low-budget Sinhalese version of a James Bond movie. The film’s director, Mike Wilson, although married to a Scottish-Sinhalese actress, was also Clarke’s lover. As Benson puts it, Clarke “had one foot planted in an escapist, derivative Third World popcorn feature and the other in the most sophisticated evocation of human origin and destiny Hollywood had ever attempted, with the latter funding the former.” Kubrick loaned him money to keep going as Clarke sent him script revisions for 2001. The Clarke-produced “Jamis Bandu” movie emerged, before 2001, under the title Sorungeth Soru.

An entire book, or at least a Vanity Fair article, could be written about Wilson. A photographer, a scuba diver, and a near-charlatan, he had interested, by the 1970s, both Satyajit Ray and a couple of Hollywood studios in making India’s first science-fiction epic. This doomed project, in retrospect, seems like the last move in an Oedipal struggle with Clarke. Later, Wilson renounced motion pictures and become a swami.

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Stanley Kubrick shooting the final scenes of his 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.From the Making of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Taschen, 2015), © Stanley Kubrick Archives/Taschen/Turner Entertainment Co.

TAPIRS ARE NOT NATIVE TO THE DESERTS of southwest Africa, where the first section of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes place, nor have they ever been. Even so, Kubrick decided the strange-snouted, pig-like mammals had an ancient look that would make them good prey. Kubrick himself filmed the bone tossed into the air after mankind makes its first kill. A straight cut, the least sophisticated thing in filmmaking, turns the bone into a spaceship orbiting the moon four million years later.

This production history of 2001 is alive with a strain of visceral weirdness. The murdered tapir is one that died in a stampede off the edge of the soundstage. Kubrick had it frozen for later use. For the “Star Child” sequence at the end of the film, Kubrick contacted the General Biological Supply House of Chicago to inquire about human embryos for sale. The firm wrote back that none were available, and that none would be. Instead, Kubrick hired the sculptor Liz Moore to make a fetus from scratch. While the camera crew was filming an eight-hour exposure of the sculpture, its eyes began to drip tears because the lights were so hot its head was melting. Douglas Rain, who voiced the HAL 9000 computer, recorded his dialogue sitting with his bare feet on a pillow.

The monolith, the film’s central image, was made to appear not crafted by humans but also not machined. Kubrick wanted it to leave “that open void that we feel when we try to imagine that which is unimaginable.” This object, which has become so ubiquitous in our culture that it still turns up in jokes on TV shows, was made from a massive chunk of black hardwood covered in coats of black paint until it gleamed with an impenetrable luster. It had to be handled with gloves so it wouldn’t collect fingerprints the camera would see.

The first monolith the art department made was a two-ton piece of clear plastic, two feet thick, the largest and most expensive piece of Plexiglas ever produced in England. Kubrick rejected it because it was too visible, looked too manufactured, and had a greenish industrial hue. The mysterious black monolith that replaced it, according to Benson, became “the most powerfully opaque object in film history” (at least until Keanu Reeves). The monolith’s spatially incongruous, optic-nerve-warping, two-dimensional-looking flatness, especially in the “Jupiter” and “Beyond the Infinite” hotel-room scenes, would probably not be allowed in the overly rounded sci-fi movies of today, which strive for 3-D. It is too simple and unique, and does not refer to anything else.

In funding 2001, MGM did not know it was paying for a think tank of artists who would spend over three years solving the problems of how to depict prehistory and space travel in non-risible ways. Stanley Kubrick, Benson reminds us, “didn’t do risible.” While trying to determine what aliens should look like, Kubrick finally decided not to show any. He and Clarke invented their artifact, the monolith, to cut extraterrestrials from the film, because all their other solutions looked comic, unbelievable, or nebulous. “We don’t want to watch a veil of gas,” Kubrick said. Benson has to make up a filmic category, “analog reality,” to explain the special effects in 2001, a movie in which everything was done in front of the camera, and which proved twenty-five years before the fact that computer-generated imagery did not need to exist.

The trippy “Star Gate” scenes were made using a 65-mm optical printer, shots of landscapes filmed from helicopters, and drips of paint in a tank filled with paint thinner. The Discovery spaceship was a fifty-five-foot miniature and HAL was a camera lens with a red light behind it. Kubrick’s pursuit of techniques to make sci-fi look new and non-phony paradoxically extended to watching every Toho Studios monster movie made in Japan, which is how he figured out how to use front-projection, a technique Toho had pioneered, for the “Dawn of Man” scenes. He was impressed, according to Benson, by Matango, a movie about an island of mushroom people.

BENSON’S BOOK IS FASCINATING, every page startles, and it’s a much-needed and comprehensive history of the making of 2001. Its last chapter, however, falls into the “making of” trap, in which an object under scrutiny has status conferred on it by a bunch of goofy rich men who came afterward. I don’t doubt that James Cameron, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg like 2001 or that it opened their eyes to the possibilities of narrative cinema. Their work, in turn, is tech-heavy and childish and, taken in the aggregate, boring—the things 2001 was accused of by its original critics, but more so and louder.

Clarke famously wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If that is true, then the subsequent influence of these 2001 acolytes on the movies has made magic look obvious and cheap—exactly what Kubrick and his collaborators worked so hard to avoid. Maybe that is a function of cinema’s place in a world where clean, cynical modernism and hallucinogenic psychedelia have been replaced by corporate spectacle and consumer manipulation. If so, those men helped push it in that direction. One scene in 2001 seems particularly alien and futuristic today: A flight attendant switches off a seat-back television in front of a passenger who has fallen asleep. Kubrick may have predicted the tablet computer and its glow, but he did not picture a world where the screens were never shut off.

Spielberg’s comments after Kubrick’s funeral are an example of this kind of eyes-wide-shut banality. “You know, this is extraordinary,” he explains to a film critic who attended the memorial at Kubrick’s estate. “In Beverly Hills, there would have been cops and bodyguards and velvet ropes and VIP enclosures. And here we are, eating supper in an English kitchen.” God knows whose Beverly Hills funeral Spielberg was imagining—his own?—but I wish I had never read that. The sentiment reminds us why, as Benson points out, no one has traveled outside Earth’s orbit since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Clarke mentioned to Kubrick that he thought 2001 would be “the last big space film that won’t be made on location.” As computer-generated neoliberal fantasy movies about escaping the planet continue to appear, I’m praying to the aliens for a better world, and a bigger cosmos.

A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1.

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