Fifty years later, Michael Benson’s new book breaks down Kubrick’s biggest movie. But what’s left?
Michael Benson subtitles his behind-the-scenes account of 2001: “Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.” Anniversaries have become moments for sanctioned reflection, and this moment, in particular, has given many a reason to make pilgrimage again to the church of Kubrick and all his symmetrical lines. Benson, who used to make documentaries about struggling Eastern European artists but has spent much of the past few decades evangelizing space exploration, turns to the extended production schedule of Kubrick’s biggest movie to find meaning—and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Kubrick originally pitched the film to MGM to be completed and ready for release by the holiday season of 1966. Production would eventually stretch to four years, and Benson finds figments of genius throughout. But the strangest thing about 2001 was that it happened at all: Kubrick’s decision to turn to science fiction was canny—a raging fad in the lead up to the Moon landings, 2001’s extended production schedule also coincided with the first episode of Star Trek— but also enigmatic. The movie’s tone of intense, awe-driven sincerity appears nowhere else in any of his completed movies that followed and would be found, instead, in the even more profitable spectacles of his followers: Spielberg, Lucas, etc.
Benson also seems to find this hard to explain, turning instead to the relatively easier case of Arthur C. Clarke, a cultish sci-fi novelist whose interest in space exploration could be traced to his teenage membership in the British Interplanetary Society. Benson also shares a professional connection with Clarke, the novelist having penned an introduction to Benson’s “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes,” a collection of space photography published in 2003. While 2001 fits uncomfortably next to Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, both intensely ironic and self-consciously edgy pieces of wry social commentary, its plot is not very far from that of Childhood’s End, Clarke’s most popular novel (before his novel-length version of 2001 was published a few months after 2001 hit theaters) that also featured a utopic take on extraterrestrial intervention on Earth. Clarke would author no fewer than two sequels to 2001, one of which was adapted by Peter Hyams in a movie that Benson admits was “ultimately forgettable.” But Kubrick, on the other hand, would not return to space.
2001, the year, would come and go and we wouldn’t return either. It is now almost two decades later and there are still no cool spaceships. A small South African tycoon shoots small pieces of plastic into the sky but that’s about it. And yet space, the place of dreams (partially erected by Kubrick), goes on. We don’t go there but leave the task to fictional heroes who soar in their small canisters, tend gardens on Mars and righteously guard our galaxy. Clarke is a curious figure who achieved some level of cultish fame—the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy was a sincere riff on the theme of Houses of the Holy (coincidently, the cover of Presence would ironically riff on 2001)—but never seriously crossed over in the way that sci-fi scenesters like Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler would. Kubrick is the far more interesting character but remains inscrutable in Benson’s account.
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“I haven’t the faintest idea what film I’m going to make next,” Kubrick had written a friend in early 1964, and when Roger Caras, his publicist, put him in contact with Clarke, Kubrick spent the first few weeks of their partnership attempting to convince the novelist to pen an adaptation of “Shadow on the Sun,” a 1961 radio drama Kubrick caught on the BBC once. Aware, perhaps, that Kubrick had spent much of the past year disavowing the involvement of another novelist—Terry Southern, on the script for Dr. Strangelove—Clarke pushed Kubrick toward his own intellectual property. He finally convinced Polaris Productions, Kubrick’s production arm, to option six of Clarke’s short stories, which they intended to tie together into a cohesive space western. Kubrick set his eye on having the movie produced as a Cinerama production, with multiple projectors projecting onto multiple strips of the screen that were curved in a manner that anticipated today’s IMAX antechambers. The format had delivered considerable financial and aesthetic success in 1962 with How the West Was Won and, correspondingly, the earliest of 2001’s working titles was How the Solar System Was Won. This was abbreviated to How the Universe Was Won, and then simply Universe and then Tunnel to the Stars and, finally, Beyond the Stars, the title that was on the project’s first press release.
The Kubrick that one finds in this account is temperamental. Much of what Clarke writes, like the titles, is abandoned and forms a shadow narrative of what could have been. For the longest time, Kubrick intended to have actual aliens show up and had Clarke spend weeks writing exhausting descriptions. Later, Kubrick spends a week filming ground controllers “giving lengthy explanations about what type of malfunction HAL ‘may be guilty of.’ The footage is replaced by the movie’s most dramatic moment, when David Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood respectively), conspire against HAL and earn his paranoia , which allows the rest of the movie to happen. This is entirely the idea of Lockwood, who tells Kubrick that his script, at this point worked on for over a year, sucks. Kubrick is notorious as a control freak, but even the most memorable set pieces in 2001 feel formed outside of his hands. Even the decision to center his movie on a now-iconic black slab was made at the behest of an unnamed plastic salesman who told his lead production designer that it would be easiest to make something big in “the shape of a pack of cigarettes.” The original design of the object was completely clear, which Kubrick discarded for looking too “greenish.” The second was made in black because “then we won’t know what that is.” (emphasis Benson). The word “genius” appears some ten or twenty times affixed to Kubrick’s name but his inscrutability prevents Benson from articulating where and how its mark can be found in 2001.
I suspect Benson would say that is the point. The movie’s “willful ambiguity” followed in the footsteps of highly regarded ‘60s arthouse fare, like Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which were applauded for their lack of definitive readings, a pretentious sensibility Kubrick can be seen as taking to the masses. But what if there was nothing there? Reading 2001 into Kubrick’s own oeuvre, it, instead, provides a sort of genesis to the military fetishism that runs throughout his career. At the center of the movie’s premise is a fable, drawn out in the movie’s first third, that surmises civilization and violence are instinctively interconnected. This is largely a representation of pessimistic conclusions reached by post-war anthropologists like Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey—the latter’s book, African Genesis, is avidly passed back and forth between Kubrick and Clarke during their work together. (Benson even speculates that 2001’s ending was influenced by a drawing of “a fetus floating in a bubble-like amniotic sac” that appeared in African Genesis.) The conclusion reached by that era’s leading pop-scientific writers wasn’t radically new and was, in fact, already very filmic: Orson Welles had basically done said the same thing in his monologue as Harry Lime in The Third Man and it appealed to the West’s own self-aggrandizement of its history. The idea eventually fell out of favor because it is ridiculous.
In 2001, the idea that aliens have given us tools and this is why people kill each other is never ridiculous because the aliens are never seen, something first suggested to Kubrick and Clarke by Carl Sagan, and the means are ultimately justified by whatever the next level of human development is, something that only Americans can reach because of the military-technological superiority that 2001 pleasingly presents. 2001 becomes the highest grossing movie of 1967, with audiences fleeing daily footage of North Vietnam’s successful Tet Offence to see American machinery soaring to the stars.
Initial reactions were, legendarily, far more mixed. Benson chronicles them very briefly. “A radically experimental work of art, it had no narrative voice-overs and few cues to give audience understanding.” He blames an inferior and more tedious cut of the movie that originally plays before wide release, though he also quotes Jon Davison, who later produced Airplane and who wrote to the New York Times that MGM “cut what it couldn’t comprehend.” Benson chalks up the negative reaction to a collective error in judgment and cites Joseph Gelmis, a critic from Newsday, who wrote an extensive mea culpa on his previous opinion after the movie’s financial success became evident.
Pauline Kael never stopped disliking 2001 and infamously wrote in Harpers two years later that “Kubrick never really made his movie either but doesn’t seem to know it.” The hollowness of 2001 combined with its success has the effect of making any of the many of its infinite number of knock-offs somehow superior products. George Lucas managed to recycle most of its parts into his own hippie parable about another unseen power interested, instead, in universal peace. (Kubrick and Lucas also took much of their plotting from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.) The work of a critic is not to say if movies are good or not—that’s tedious and, ultimately, who cares? Rather, it is to apply meaning that can stand on its own. Ample and vivid anecdotes, craft talk, might tell you how to make your own 2001, and god knows who hasn’t? But Kubrick’s Space Odyssey remains a mystery.