I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey several times but only once on the big screen.
It was at Roger Ebert’s 3rd Annual Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign Illinois, fittingly enough in the year 2001. Projected in immaculate 70mm to a capacity crowd of film fans, 2001 was mesmerizing. But I thought a lot of audience members missed the point.
On the voyage to Jupiter, HAL 9000, the sentient computer goes a little crazy and kills most of the astronauts under his care. In an effort to save himself, the only surviving crew member, Dave, begins to remove HAL’s memory units. Over the sound of Dave breathing, we hear HAL pleading for his life. During this screening, it struck me that HAL is the most “human character” in the whole movie. Despite, being a computer, he’s the only one to express any real emotion. To me, it felt like a murder. But the people around me were laughing. In retrospect, I believe it was nervous laughter. They were uncomfortable with this cold blooded killing, but were unsure how to react.
In Michael Benson’s new book, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, he tells the complete story of how 2001 came to be. From Stanley Kubrick’s desire to make a “legitimate” science fiction movie and his first meetings with the author Arthur C. Clark, to the casting, filming, and editing, where we learn that Kubrick intended the “murder” scene to play exactly as I thought he did.
But Benson digs further into the film and its creators than that. He presents the crew and cast of 2001 as real people with extremely human foibles. By focusing on the characters behind 2001, he tells a compelling story rather than a dry making-of.
Arthur C. Clarke is presented as a broke writer, desperate for a windfall from Hollywood to solve the financial troubles caused by his romantic entanglements and his investment into a Sri Lankan James Bond parody film called Jamis Bandu. Dan Richter was a street mime who manged to get a job leading the films troupe of apemen despite his heroin addiction. Andrew Birkin was a movie-obsessed young man who served food during tea breaks and snuck onto other sets to watch nude scenes being filmed until he broke protocol by announcing he knew the perfect location in England to shoot desert scenes. The next day the film’s location scouts were fired and Birkin took over their jobs. Benson presents the costume designer Harry Lange as an ex-Nazi who had to be coerced into emptying his office of his prized possessions, models of the rockets used to bomb London during the Blitz.
But the star of the show is director Stanley Kubrick. According to his telling, Kubrick was a genius, but unfeeling towards his team. He tells of Kubrick’s penchant for working his cast to the point of breakdown and forcing continued shooting despite the fact that his astronaut actors were literally suffocating inside their space helmets. During the “Dawn of Man” scenes, when a leopard was brought on set, Kubrick directed from inside a protective cage while the rest of the crew was at risk of a mauling. Kubrick was seemingly unconcerned for schedules and deadlines and only worried about budgets when they involved paying his collaborators a fair amount. He’d be happiest if he could pay them nothing.
I’m a huge fan of Kubrick, especially 2001, but I was a little intimidated by Michael Benson’s book. I thought it might be boring and its 500 plus page count was daunting (don’t worry 20% of the book is composed of citations you’re unlikely to read.) But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Space Odyssey is filled with fascinating, behind-the-scenes stories and eccentric characters. I couldn’t put it down. And now I want to watch the movie again.