Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Space Odyssey, by Michael Benson

A couple of years ago, I praised a jaw-dropping exhibition of images of the Solar System which were on temporary display at the Natural History Museum. I said Otherworlds was, “brilliantly curated by Michael Benson,” so I eagerly anticipated his new book on the making of the film 2001 to mark its  50th anniversary.

Space Odyssey is excellent, detailing the minutiae of each stage in the creative process, from director Stanley Kubrick first making contact with writer Arthur C Clarke to the film’s premiere four years later, its immediate aftermath and the fates of these two men. It is fascinating, insightful and profound – just like the film.

It’s a thrill to follow, step by step, the development of iconic moments – who suggested what and when, and how Kubrick marshalled, encouraged and ran ragged the team around him. Most surprising is how late some of the decisions were made – even deep into cutting, the film almost had a narration and a specially composed score (rather than using pre-existing tracks). On p. 394, we’re told Kubrick even considered getting the Beatles to provide the music. Indeed, the film we know now and I have on Blu-ray is a cut-down, improved version of the one that premiered in New York in April 1968 to such a negative response – effectively, Kubrick was still revising the film after it was finished.

Several of the many, many people Benson interviewed refer to Kubrick as a genius, but the overall impression is of a brilliant, difficult and rather cowardly man. When a real leopard was filmed for the Dawn of Man sequence, Kubrick was the only member of the cast and crew to be inside a protective cage. Worse, we watch in horror as Kubrick insists that stunt performer Bill Weston do longer and longer takes in a spacesuit that Kubrick has also insisted have no holes to prevent the build up of CO2. Weston is rendered unconscious, as has been only too inevitable, and though he recovers Kubrick then avoids him.

There are other things: that Clarke was treated unfairly in contract negotiations, which led to him not getting royalties on the film, and suffered delays in getting the book version approved that didn’t help the delicate state of his finances; the special effects team done out of an Academy Award by Kubrick taking credit for their work.  And yet it’s difficult not to admire this difficult, selfish man for his dedication. His approach, his care, his achievement are remarkable.

I found a lot of it funny, such as when (p.91) Kubrick, unsure how to realise the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence, wrote to noted actor Robert Shaw about playing play the lead, unspeaking ape – because he felt Shaw already had simian features. No response is recorded.

Likewise, in the papers drawn up to greenlight the movie, there’s a list of contingency directors. David Lean seems an obvious choice (he hadn’t directed science-fiction before, but then neither had Kubrick), but others are more surprising:
“Try to imagine 2001 – A Space Odyssey directed by [Billy] Wilder, the man who made Some Like it Hot.”
Michael Benson, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece (2018), p. 90.
The same page also picks out a detail in the contract referring to jurisdictions – the rights to the movie covering not just different countries but extending into space.
“The boilerplate had coincided with the destination.”
Benson is an expert guide, though I kept wanting to add prepositions to his wry, dry US journalese. He also feels the need to explain the abbreviation “NB” (p. 66) and that “George the second” was “the eighteenth-century monarch” (p. 224). But then that’s me assuming these things are readily understood, and Benson’s perspective as an outsider gives him a telling insight into the British film industry of the time:
“The British class system was as quietly rigid and unquestioningly enforced at Borehamwood as elsewhere. Offspring of the lower classes were expected to aspire to union cards from the trades; they might become sparks (electricians), chippies (carpenters), plasterers, grips, drivers, and the like. Upper-class kids, on the other hand, could jostle for positions in management and leading creative positions: assistant directors, camera assistants, producers in training.”
Ibid., p. 225.
This is exemplified in the role of posh boy Andrew Birkin – brother of Jane – who starts out as the production’s tea boy and is soon in charge second-unit shooting in Scotland for the Star Gate sequence, taking command of the camera from operator Jack Atcheler, who found the low-flying aerial photography too perilous. (And not without reason; Birkin tells Benson that their helicopter pilot was killed on his next movie (p. 245).)

There are odd omissions, too: for all Benson details the relationship between Kubrick and young effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, there’s no mention of Silent Running (1972), mentioned recently by critic Mark Kermode in his series Secrets of Cinema:
“Trumbull said that he made the unashamedly sentimental Silent Running as a response to the inhuman sterility of 2001 – a film in which the most sympathetic character is a homicidal computer. In Silent Running, Trumbull set his hero [Freeman] alone in space with only three worker drones for company. The drones are robots who, during the course of the movie, come to exhibit strangely human characteristics, or perhaps to reflect the human characteristics which Freeman projects on to them.”
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema (BBC Four, 2018) 1.4: Science Fiction
And although Benson talks about the influence of 2001 on subsequent science-fiction films, there’s little on the wider cultural impact. I was struck by a small comment when referring to the success of Clarke’s novel of the film.
“His other work benefitted as well, with three new printings of Childhood’s End in 1969 alone.”
Benson, p. 435.
It’s in this context that Childhood’s End influenced David Bowie’s 1971 song “Oh! You Pretty Things”, which in turn part-inspired the TV series The Tomorrow People. There’s no mention, either, of the conspiracy theory spun out of the technical excellence of 2001’s visual effects: that Kubrick then helped to fake the Moon landings.

One thing Benson does mention is of great interest to something I’m writing at the moment. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) won an Academy Award for its cinematography, which included interior scenes,
“illuminated almost entirely by candlelight. The result was the first accurate representation of what eighteenth century interiors looked like before the advent of electricity, giving the film the remarkable aspect of a period oil painting come to life.”
Ibid., p. 438.
This, says Benson, was achieved through the use of fast Leiss lenses with extremely wide apertures, developed for the Apollo programme to photograph the far side of the Moon.

It’s this sort of connection that makes the book such an absorbing, astonishing read. But I think the detail that most lingers is a quotation from Clarke’s 1960 essay, “Rocket to the Renaissance”, in which he draws a parallel between space travel and something from history – not the Wild West or even Homer’s Odyssey, but life emerging out of the oceans.
“We seldom stop to think we’re still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because from birth to death we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.”
Ibid, p. 51.
See also: Me on the death and legacy of Arthur C Clarke

Doctor Who post script
I’m intrigued by the one reference in the book to Doctor Who. Benson tells us that in the autumn of 1965, in the weeks leading up to the start of filming on 30 December, the spacesuit backpacks, front manoeuvring controllers, button panels for the arms and the space helmets were produced either inhouse at the studios in Borehamwood,
“or by AGM, the London company also busy manufacturing ‘Daleks’: the cylindrical alien cyborgs seen in Doctor Who, the cult BBC-TV series.”
Ibid., p. 123.
Pre-production and the start of filming on 2001 overlapped with the recording of the 12-part The Daleks’ Master Plan on television. We know the team on 2001 contacted director Douglas Camfield a few days after the broadcast of episode 5, Counter Plot, on 11 December 1965 to find out how he’d achieved the space-travelling and molecular dissemination effects.

Yet I’d never heard of AGM, so checked with Dalek expert Gav Rymill. “Autumn of ‘65 would have been just before the enormous batch of props made for Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD,” says Gav. The Dalek props – for the TV series and the two films – were supplied by Shawcraft, but it’s possible AGM supplied some of the sets or other props used in both TV and films. We shall do more digging...

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