An excerpt by Michael Benson
My own lifelong engagement with 2001 started in the spring of 1968 at the age of six. My mom, a confirmed Clarke fan, took me to an afternoon matinee within weeks of the film’s premiere. Whether it was in Washington (where we then lived) or New York (as I remember it) is unclear. While I was already excited by the jump into space as then best represented by the Apollo program—which had already launched two of its towering Saturn V Moon rockets on unmanned test flights—it was no preparation for my first exposure to such a powerfully ambiguous, visually stunning work.
At six, of course, your receptors are about as open as they’ll ever be, and I consider myself fortunate to have seen the film at that age. The Dawn of Man prelude was both riveting and disturbing, and the mysterious appearance of the monolith, accompanied by the unholy keening of Gy.rgy Ligeti’s Requiem, reverberated in my childish imagination with almost overpowering overtones of mystery, wonderment, and horror. The ecstatic discovery by the lead man-ape that a heavy bone could be used as a weapon, which Kubrick conveyed with a wordless cinematic assurance, needed no explanation and didn’t even require conscious understanding. It spoke in its own language; as with much of the rest of the film, the authority and power of the images themselves didn’t necessitate literal comprehension.
The lunar, spaceflight, and space-walk scenes were mesmerizing. The effects of zero gravity on the human body were conveyed with utterly convincing realism. Bowman’s methodical lobotomization of HAL couldn’t have been more disturbing and frighteningly strange. And the film’s abstract “Star Gate” sequence, which led to Bowman’s multistage transformation into an elderly man, seen on his deathbed in a phantasmagorical hotel room—and then finally his transformation into that ethereal floating fetus—was spellbinding.
Much of it was also incomprehensible, however, and afterward, I trailed my mom across the pavement of whichever city it may have been, exhausted by a surfeit of wonderment and squinting in the dazzling late-afternoon sunlight. “But what did it mean?” I wailed. “I don’t know!” she replied, to her great credit. Mom was always honest with me—and is to this day.
Much later, I grew to understand that 2001’s power over me then and thereafter came about at least partially due to personal circumstances. As the child of foreign service parents, I had already lived in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, as well as Hamburg, West Germany—two Countries that no longer exist. Although an American by birth, my world was the world, and my nascent identity was global by default. What I’m getting at is that I believe that even at the age of six, I grasped, in a preconscious, precocious kind of way, that we live in a complex world surrounded by multiple contradictory cultures, perspectives, and ways of being. Unfortunately, an unwanted side effect of changing countries so regularly can be a sense of not belonging to any one place—the so‑called third-culture syndrome of the expat kid.
It would risk both cliché and oversimplification to suggest that 2001: A Space Odyssey helped me be at home in the world. But there’s no doubt that as with any major work of art that has a decisive impact on a person, it did so for a very good reason. As the years passed, I saw the film again many times, and it always struck me as an extraordinarily prescient account of the human situation in a mystifyingly grand, seemingly indifferent cosmos. The visual magnificence and uncompromising artistic integrity of Kubrick’s and Clarke’s achievement made the accuracy of its individual details beside the point. In the decades since the film’s release, paleoanthropologists have largely discredited its depiction of the transition from vegetarian man-apes to carnivorous killers, which was based on the work of paleontologist Raymond Dart. And, at least to date, we don’t have credible evidence of even microbial life beyond Earth, let alone superpowered extraterrestrial interlopers with an uncanny interest in our evolutionary progress. (Of course, the surest sign that intelligent life exists out there may well be that it hasn’t come here—as Clarke used to joke.)
And, unfortunately, 2001’s vision of the Moon and planets being colonized by human beings simply hasn’t come true—or, at least, not nearly in the way its authors had envisioned. The film was made when NASA’s budget was at its peak, so their extrapolation is understandable. (Clarke even predicted to Kubrick, “This is the last big space film that won’t be made on location.”) In fact, no human being has ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the return of the last Apollo crew from the Taurus-Littrow valley on the Moon in 1972, just four years after the film’s release. Since then, true space exploration has been conducted exclusively by automated spacecraft. But even if we consider HAL’s attempts to kill off Discovery’s crew and continue on to Jupiter without pesky human interference as predictive of these circumstances (and it’s a valid interpretation), the film’s deviations from literal accuracy are beside the point. Like Joyce—like Homer himself—2001’s authors were crafting a story. As a fiction, it created its own reality and demands to be viewed within that frame.
In any case, Kubrick’s and Clarke’s portrayal of twenty-first-century humanity suspended within an evolutionary trajectory spanning millions of years, and their placement of that story within a universe potentially filled with ancient civilizations—not to mention their depiction of human beings as desensitized parts of the machinery they’ve created, and their evocation of an artificial intelligence brought into being through human genius, yet driven through human error into conflict with its makers—it all had, and still has, a perspicacious, even ominous ring of truth to it. Ask not for whom the monolith tolls.
I never met Stanley Kubrick, though I’ve had the privilege of spending many entertaining hours in discussion with his widow, Christiane, at their impressive estate and manor in Childwickbury, a hamlet north of London. I did get to know Arthur Clarke during the last decade of his life, and visited him three times in Sri Lanka, the last with my family in tow. When I first met him, in the year 2001, no less, he was already confined to a wheelchair due to a progressive neurological ailment called post-polio syndrome, but I found him to be an alert, cheerful, wickedly humorous presence, always up for an in‑depth discussion and gratifyingly willing to mobilize a small motorcade and show me around the southern part of the island. We discussed 2001: A Space Odyssey at some length, and though most of what he had to say he’d already published in one form or another, he would occasionally come up with an unexpected glint of insight that has proven valuable in the writing of this book. It was Clarke, for example, who told me about Kubrick’s instant antipathy to his friend Carl Sagan—something I might not have known otherwise.
At one of our first meetings, I had the temerity to ask who had written perhaps 2001’s most powerful scene: the one where Dave Bowman, having forcibly gained reentry to his ship, proceeds to HAL’s Brain Room and deprograms the computer. “Who do you think wrote it? I did!” he boomed in mock indignation. While I accepted his statement, the reason I asked—and I told him this—was that the sequence has a chilly intensity that I recognized as more Kubrickian than Clarkean. In fact, as with any good collaboration, the truth lies somewhere in between. While Clarke appears to have conceived of the scene up to a point—or at least put forward the Cartesian proposition that an artificial intelligence is alive and therefore can be hurt—Kubrick did, in fact, write it, as he did most of 2001’s dialogue. Of which there isn’t much: the film has less than 40 minutes of spoken words in its 142 minutes of running time. You could say that in this case, Kubrick handled the lyrics and Clarke the tune—something the latter wasn’t particularly prepared to adjudicate more than three decades later to a whippersnapper such as myself, understandably enough.
Of course, this presents a paradox. Clarke was the writer and Kubrick the filmmaker, so one might be excused for assuming that what words there are in 2001 must have chattered from his portable typewriter at some point between 1964 and 1968. Not so. Almost every scene was rewritten multiple times by the director during live action production, which—if we exempt the wordless Dawn of Man sequence—extended for just over six months, from late December 1965 to mid-July 1966. (The prehistoric prelude was shot in the summer of 1967.) And throughout the film’s production, but in particular during editing, Kubrick’s instinct was to remove as much verbal explication as possible in favor of purely visual and sonic cues. Much to the consternation of his collaborator, this included Clarke’s voice-over narrations, which were originally intended to frame the story.
Kubrick thereby lifted away what would have been a superstructure of overtly stated truths. He did so without necessarily losing them altogether; they were now implicit rather than explicit. The result was a masterwork of oblique, visceral, and intuited meanings. 2001’s conscious deployment of a mythological structure, its insistence on first-person experiential cinema, and the inherent opacity of its “true” messages permitted every viewer to project his or her own understandings on it. It’s an important reason for the film’s enduring power and relevance.
Finally, 2001: A Space Odyssey is about our situation as creatures conscious of our own mortality, aware of inherent limitations to our imaginations and intellectual capacities, and yet perpetually striving for more exalted states and higher planes of being. And that’s where it best reveals itself as a profoundly collaborative work. While obviously Kubrick’s film, it’s Clarke’s as well, and represents a grand synthesis of themes the writer had been working on for decades. These include the rebirth of the species into a transcendent new form. While it took Kubrick’s brilliance to recognize it and make it so, it’s no accident that the single most optimistic vision in his entire body of work—2001’s Star Child—was Clarke’s idea. The alliance between these two gifted, idiosyncratic men during the four years it took to bring 2001: A Space Odyssey to the screen required great patience and sensitivity on both sides. It was the most consequential collaboration in either of their lives.
Excerpted from Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson. Copyright 2018 by Michael Benson. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster. Images and video used are the choices of EatDrinkFilms as those in the book did not have clearance for us to publish here.
Michael Benson works at the intersection of art and science. An artist, writer, and filmmaker, he’s a Fellow of the NY Institute of the Humanities and a past Visiting Scholar at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Bits and Atoms. In addition to Space Odyssey he has written numerous books including Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, a finalist for the Science and Technology award at the 2015 Los Angeles Times “Festival of Books.”
In the last decade Benson staged a series of increasingly large-scale shows of planetary landscape photography in the US and internationally. Benson takes raw data from planetary science archives and processes it, editing, compositing, and then “tiling” individual spacecraft frames, producing seamless large-format digital C prints of landscapes currently beyond direct human experience. His new show Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System, featuring an original new hour-long ambient composition by Brian Eno titled Deep Space, opened in the Jerwood Gallery of the Natural History Museum in London on January 22nd, 2016. It then moved on to Vienna’s Natural History Museum for four months, and opened March 4th, 2017 at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia. His photographic work is represented in the UK by Flowers Gallery. His largest show to date was a 7-room, 150-print retrospective staged at the Smithsonian Institution from 2010-2011 titled Beyond.
He’s also an award-winning filmmaker, with work that straddles the line between fiction and documentary film practice. In More Places Forever, Predictions of Fire and other films, staged studio scenes and even animated sequences alternate with straight documentary material.
Watch More Places Forever Space Shuttle- Arthur C. Clarke – Venus Transit Sequence
More clips at Michael’s website under “Films.”
In 2008-10, Benson worked with director Terrence Malick to help produce space and cosmology sequences for Malick’s film Tree of Life, which drew in part from Benson’s book and exhibition projects. As a writer Benson has contributed feature articles to many magazines, frequently accompanied by his own photography. These have included The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, and Rolling Stone. He’s a regular contributor to The New York Times, and has also written for The Washington Post and other newspapers, including many Op-Ed pieces. Benson’s 2003 article for The New Yorker on NASA’s mission to Jupiter, “What Galileo Saw,” was anthologized in several places, including The Best of Best American Science Writing (HarperCollins, April 2010). Benson will use a scanning electron microscope at CUNY’s Advanced Science Research Facility to focus on natural design at sub-millimeter scales for a project titled Nanocosmos.
To see examples of his work visit Michael-Benson.com.
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More about the book from Publisher Simon & Schuster:
In April of 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in the United States. Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, Michael Benson provides the definitive account of how the movie came to be made in SPACE ODYSSEY: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its original release. Despite the success of Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick wasn’t yet recognized as a truly top-tier filmmaker, and 2001 was radically innovative, with little dialogue and no strong central character. Although some leading critics slammed the film as incomprehensible and self-indulgent, the public lined up to see it. 2001 ended up the highest-grossing film of 1968. Its resounding commercial success launched the genre of big-budget science fiction spectaculars. Such directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron have all acknowledged its profound influence.
Filmmaker, artist, and writer Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. Benson interviewed Clarke at length before his death in 2008, visiting him in Sri Lanka three times. He also spoke at length with Kubrick’s widow, Christiane; with visual effects supervisor Doug Trumbull; with Dan Richter, who played 2001’s leading man-ape, “Moonwatcher”; and many others to create the definitive account of the making of the film from those who lived it.
Here are just a few of the interesting facts that emerge:
- Before NASA’s Mariner 4 passed Mars, a worried Kubrick attempted to take out an insurance policy in case the discovery of extraterrestrial life ruined the plot. He ultimately decided to “take his chances with the universe,” as Clarke put it.
- In collaboration with Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke drafted a novel to be used as the basis for a shooting script for the film. But because Kubrick ran far behind schedule, and because many plot elements of the film weren’t conceived until late in the production, the publication of Clarke’s novelization – and therefore his payment – was repeatedly delayed, causing an exasperated Clarke to threaten a lawsuit.
- Some of the film’s most iconic features were decided during production. The black monolith started off translucent, but didn’t meet with Kubrick’s approval; HAL discovered the astronauts’ plot against him by reading their lips thanks to an offhand suggestion by the film’s associate producer; and the ape-man was played by American mime Dan Richter only after numerous costumes (produced by the brilliant makeup pioneer Stuart Freeborn, of later Star Wars fame) and professional actors were rejected as unconvincing.
- Some of the sets were so novel that they caused unintentional hazards. Forced to spin 360° in the film’s giant centrifuge set, ranks of powerful film lights overheated and exploded, and crew members had to wear hard hats at all times. On one occasion visiting artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky was nearly killed by a pipe wrench left behind by a crewman, which fell from the turning centrifuge, narrowly missing him.
- Stanley Kubrick and lead actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood were all afraid of flying, with each travelling to the UK, where 2001 was shot, by boat for filming. As Benson writes, “The most convincing film about space exploration ever made would be captained and crewed by ”
- Dangling 30 feet above a hard concrete studio floor for the film’s spacewalk sequences, stuntman Bill Weston had only ten minutes of compressed air in his hermetically sealed space suit, forcing him to develop a series of signals to the crew – including a crucifix pose – when he was about to pass out from carbon dioxide poisoning. When he did in fact pass out after Kubrick insisted on proceeding with a shot, a furious Weston set off to teach the director a lesson – but Kubrick had fled the studio, not to return for three days.
- Dan Richter was a “legal addict” under a British government program during his entire participation in the movie, working under a doctor’s supervision and injecting a prescribed speedball blend of pharmaceutical grade heroin and cocaine seven times each day. When that didn’t do the trick and he felt groggy, he always had some state supplied methamphetamine (crystal meth) on hand.
- Finding a location for the ape-man sequence proved elusive despite a suggestion made by the tea boy, Andrew Birkin – the brother of actress Jane Birkin – who Kubrick gave permission to scout locations, one of many examples of the director’s openness to ideas from anyone. Birkin ultimately scouted locations in South West Africa, where at Kubrick’s direction he illegally cut down dozens of protected Kokerboom trees for transport deep into the Namib Desert so that stills could be taken for the film’s “Dawn of Man” prelude sequence.
- Actor Douglas Rain recorded HAL’s lines in only two days after filming had wrapped without seeing any footage or a finished script. During this time, Kubrick had him sing, hum, or speak “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built For Two),” the song HAL sings before he expires, fifty one times.
- The reaction to the April 3rd New York premiere was so negative that Clarke left at intermission in tears. 241 audience members walked out, and film critics almost unanimously issued seething reviews, but young people flocked to see the film and its fortunes quickly reversed. Despite the cinematic success and fan base, 2001 did not crack the British Film Institute’s top ten list until 1992.
Featuring many previously unseen photographs (including Polaroid shots from the set, many taken by Kubrick himself), this colorful nonfiction narrative is packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents. SPACE ODYSSEY provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status. Michael Benson’s definitive account is “essential” reading (Kirkus).
“A HAL of a good story.” – Sloane Crosley, Vanity Fair