Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018. 497 pp., illus. Hardcover: $30.00.

Understanding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
Edited by James Fenwick. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 268 pp. Hardcover: $93.00.

Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual by Nathan Abrams. Newark: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 328 pp., illus. Hardcover: $34.95.

Reviewed by Tony Pipolo

Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2018, an occasion marked by many screenings of a new 70mm print of the film. I saw it for the umpteenth time at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, the blue-cushioned walls and futuristic curtain of which were actually modeled on the film’s set design and Star Gate sequence. Not surprisingly, the anniversary has spawned new books on Kubrick, the prize of the lot being Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey, the most meticulously detailed chronicle of the film’s production anyone has written. The book goes from the film’s initial conception to each stage of its execution, and finally to its initially disastrous but eventually enthusiastic reception.

As the titles of his previous books (Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, and Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle) would suggest, Benson is less interested in nailing the “ultimate meaning” of Kubrick’s film than in its brilliant intermeshing of art and science. Yet his book, far from dry and technical, exudes the fervor and dedication of one, who, like many of us, was so shaken by their first encounter with Kubrick’s film that it has haunted them ever since. It’s no wonder, then, that this exhaustively researched tale, warts and all, is fired with a true passion that enlivens every account of those who contributed to the film and whose lives were equally touched, if not transformed, by their contact with its legendary creator.

One of the many iconic images in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece.

No small part of the book’s fascination is Benson’s artful interlacing of the paradox at the heart of the production. “Complicating everything was the endlessly mutable story- line. Despite the gargantuan nature of the undertaking—the giant, complex sets, the big budgets, the risk MGM was taking, the fact that a major studio complex with thousands of employees was almost entirely devoted to realizing his vision—Kubrick was winging it. The project was all in his head.” Indeed, perhaps the biggest contradiction about 2001 is that it may be the most expensive and incredible piece of craftsmanship and scientific precision to be applied to a motion picture narrative whose aim and meaning remain deliberately unclear.  

Far from “winging it,” Benson’s painstaking aim to cover everything ferrets out the anxiety and perfectionism, which Kubrick’s vision aroused in everyone around him. Brain-picking as many individuals as possible, the author gets people to reveal themselves as well as what they did, thereby encompassing not only more than fine monographs like Christopher Frayling’s 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film, about the film’s art director, but also creating a gallery of portraits that testify to the blood and guts that lay behind every frame of this pristinely crafted work of film art. No story—from the big guns to the smaller fry—is deemed unworthy, from a cliff-hanging account of stuntman Bill Weston’s near fatality, to “certified film geek” Andrew Birkin’s whirlwind search for a terrain—in the U.K., no less—that could serve for the Dawn of Man sequence. When he succeeds, Kubrick asks his crew how they could spend thousands of pounds and six months scouring Britain and “come up with nothing” while this “tea boy” with a Polaroid and twenty pounds “found us a desert.” It is with such tales that Benson renders Kubrick’s absence as palpable as everyone else’s presence.

Kubrick’s formidable talents were not lost on anyone, which is why top-notch artists put up with his temperament and often-unreasonable demands. Director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth considered him an absolute genius; and his assistant John Alcott said, “If [Kubrick] were not a director, he would probably be the greatest lighting cameraman in the world.” We learn that key decisions and ideas concerning formal and technical questions often came not from Kubrick or Clarke, but from actors or the production team. Presumably, it was Gary Lockwood who suggested that a better way to establish HAL’s paranoia was to place the two astronauts in a pod where they could converse unheard. As to how HAL would then learn of their plan to disconnect him, it was associate producer Victor Lyndon, who quipped, “as though it was the most obvious thing…‘He could just read your lips.’”

While this openness to the brainstorms of others was one of Kubrick’s strengths, Benson suggests it didn’t always go smoothly. When visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull challenged Kubrick on an aspect of story logic, the latter erupted: “Get the fuck out of my office and pay attention to your own goddam business. I’m the director of this movie.” Though such outbursts were often followed by a script revision that reflected the transgressor’s advice, Kubrick was not around for Benson to corroborate the exchange—to, in fact, invoke the director’s own reliable guideline: “trust but verify.” This reader winced, for example, at the implication that the man who had already made The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1963), and Lolita (1964) was unfamiliar with the names Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, and Jean Arp until assistant director Tony Frewin clued him in.   

Fifty years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains a cinematic landmark.

Without Kubrick to interview, it’s understandable that the book yields more about Arthur C. Clarke than previous studies, tracing his many exchanges with Kubrick and their differing perspectives as these evolved over many years—arguably setting the record straight. It is largely in this context that we get a fuller picture of the film’s shifting concepts, some extending even up to its release in 1968. It may surprise some people that having the “alien” of a sci-fi film not be from outer space but a homegrown product of American science and corporate greed was not always the plan. In the first draft of the script, HAL’s precursor was Socrates, “no more intelligent than a bright monkey,” and later the computer was named Athena, after “the goddess who’d helped Odysseus out of many a scrape.” Such things reflect both the immensity of the project Kubrick and Clarke envisioned, as well as the director’s stubborn refusal to reduce it to a neatly packaged core idea. Benson’s book reiterates—but with greater, more exhaustively documented force than earlier studies—that it always was and still is the case that Kubrick—against all odds, against Clarke’s wishes, and against studio officials anxious about their investment—preferred ambiguity over clarity.

A lovely anecdote, straight out of The Twilight Zone, captures Clarke’s and Kubrick’s common obsession with the possibility of life in outer space while pinpointing their distinct sensibilities: Clarke recalls that just as he and Kubrick agreed to work together, shaking hands as they stood on the patio of a building in Midtown Manhattan, a brilliant light suddenly ascended the sky to a zenith point and then stopped. While Kubrick quickly ran to get one of his cameras, Clarke, never having seen satellites behave in such a way, was genuinely shaken: “This is altogether too much of a coincidence. They are out to stop us from making this movie.”

Aside from its daunting scholarship, technical virtues, and engaging firsthand reports, Benson’s book, unexpectedly, even poignantly, bears the trace of a great loss, that of Kubrick himself, which is felt throughout. I am convinced that this lies behind the intensity, the thoroughness, and the unconscious aim of Benson’s tome. It is what makes it not just the best-documented book on the making of 2001—in itself an act emulating Kubrick’s unparalleled commitment to exhaustive research—but a psychologically driven effort to get inside the mind and heart of a fellow traveler one would love to have known…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 2