Michael Benson’s SPACE ODYSSEY

This is not my usual methodical summary with comments, but rather a compilation of random bits that stood out, as I read this book, without taking notes.

  • I was struck again and again by how key plot points, or techniques of special effects, or composers whose music was used, were accidental discoveries or were decided serendipitously.
    • The idea of HAL reading lips was suggest by an associate producer, to solve a plot point.
    • The notion of knocking the wine glass onto the floor – an incident fraught with symbology – was an offhand suggestion by the actor.
    • The colorized landscapes (of Scotland, and Monument Valley) used a technique they came to call ‘Purple Hearts,’ an accidental discovery that film stock recorded in three basic colors could be recolored randomly in restoration.
    • At one point Kubrick all but buys out a local record shop, playing bits of hundreds of LPs for appropriate tracks; but Gyorgi Ligeti was heard by chance by his wife on the radio.
    • That the tiger’s eyes reflected light was an accidental effect of the front-projection technique used in the Dawn of Man scenes.
  • Similarly: work would proceed on one part of the film, even as the overall story was undetermined, and techniques for filming other parts were undetermined. (All the 2001 era scenes with actors were filmed first; then the Dawn of Man; finally the Star Gate effects.)
  • The dimensions of the interior sets (as described in production details) are not consistent with the exterior ship Discovery (judging its size by what we see of the pod bay deck from the outside). Why is the emergency entry hatch so deep? As with so many others, the interior of Discovery is bigger inside than outside. (No doubt there’s a technical term for this.)
  • Gossip:
    • William Sylvester couldn’t get through the long take of the lunar briefing room conference; he was a junkie, and was threatened with dismissal, before he got his act together. (Even so, Kubrick didn’t get the single long take he’d wanted.)
    • Kubrick took a dislike to Carl Sagan, introduced to him by Clarke. He found Sagan “supercilious” and “patronizing” [Benson’s words] and didn’t want to see him again. (Nevertheless, Sagan took credit for one of his suggestions about the film, in his book THE COSMIC CONNECTION, that the aliens not be shown, only implied.)
    • Dan Richter, a ballet dancer who played Moonwatcher, was also a junkie – but a legal junkie, under British laws at the time, under a doctor’s supervision to administer doses.
  • I have a much better understanding of the ‘front-projection’ and ‘slit-scan’ techniques than I’ve ever had, via diagrams on pages 270 and 343.
  • The ‘pace’ of the spacecraft scenes was dictated by the movements of the stars [which shouldn’t have been moving at all] – any faster, they would have blurred, or twinkled. And so the spacecraft, e.g. the Discovery, moved at the same pace, in slightly different directions.
  • Doug Trumball, one of the key special effects wizards, was drafted and pretended to be gay to avoid it. Benson mentions that this – that homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, and the US – was the reason Clarke had relocated to Ceylon (later known as Sri Lanka), where he lived most of his life
  • Other music Kubrick liked in early edits was Mahler’s 3rd,  Vaughn Williams’ 7th, and the scherzo of Mendelsohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream.
  • Famously, the celebrated film composer Alex North was hired to do an original score for 2001, even after Kubrick had committed himself to using Zarathustra, at least, for the opening; and North gamely composed fresh music that attempted to achieve the same effects. Ultimately, it was not used; Kubrick liked his classical tracks better, and preferred a sound design that left much of the film with no music at all. Pieces of North’s score, like everything else, are on YouTube. It’s not bad; but it’s too recognizably the Alex North music of scores for Spartacus and Cleopatra.
  • It’s impossible to know about the alternate history of the effect of that score having been used, as opposed to the classical tracks by Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss (the pieces by Khachaturian and Ligeti were far less well-known and so carried no cultural baggage). Benson captures the issue with “The Blue Danube” p358, that it “was then considered a kitschy, musty, nationalistic composition”. Elsewhere, back in Jerome Agel’s book THE MAKING OF KUBRICK’S 2001, I recall that a concern was that the piece would distract the audience with recollections of movies about Vienna.
  • Yet Benson confirms another recollection: that Kubrick, as perfectionist with the music as with anything else, “listened to about twenty-five recordings of ‘Blue Danube’ before choosing the one for Deutsche Grammophon by Herbert von Karajan, the world’s greatest conductor. It’s the kind of music that can sound terribly banal, but at its best, it’s still a magnificent thing.” P359
  • Indeed, I’ve always thought that this recording of Blue Danube is so much more precise and technical than any other I’ve ever heard. This was von Karajan’s esthetic, and it fit Kubrick’s esthetic exactly.
  • Benson spends a significant amount of time on Clarke, with the recurring theme that Clarke’s vision for the film – with introductory interviews by great scientists about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and with *narration* throughout the film about the state of the early man-apes, about what was going on with HAL, and so on – was gradually and eventually completely abandoned by Kubrick, who wanted a visual experience, not a verbal one. Clarke wrote endless drafts of that narration; some of this is in Clarke’s book THE LOST WORLDS OF 2001, published only a few years later in 1972. Clarke was shocked, “in tears,” by the previews of the final version he saw, without those intros and without the narration – but just as with the critics, he came around to realize what an achievement the film itself was. And Clarke’s novel version, following the release of the film by four months, ‘explained’ everything in the way he preferred. The film and the novel complement one another.
  • And there are descriptions of the harsh reactions of critics on the film’s premiere, and the walk-outs from the earliest showings, and the later revisions of opinions by critics. But the box office spoke, especially among younger viewers, as opposed to the elderly film critic crowd. 2001 was the highest box office performing film of its year. It didn’t do so well in the Oscars the following year – it was nominated in four categories, including best picture, but only won for special effects, which Kubrick had taken complete credit for.
  • Yet its assessment as a great film rose over the years, gradually, until 2001 is now ranked among the top 10, even the top 3, of various rankings of the greatest films of all time.
  • And I think a lesson here is that the classics are precisely those works that break new ground, that do new things regardless of the artistic or popular standards of the time, that upset people at first. And those works – like Melville’s Moby Dick, which is compared to 2001 on a couple grounds in this book – take a while to be recognized.
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