Twisted from the Sprue is my little corner of the internet. This site started as a simple web presence for the Three Rivers IPMS model club - as in middle-aged guys who never quite out-grew gluing together miniature cars and planes (and not a club of really good looking people who have their pictures taken for underwear ads and the like). The club now has a real web-site, and this blog is a place for me to post stuff I find interesting or just want to ramble on about.

Its reassuring to know you're not the only guy with an obsession for trivia - if you happen across something interesting here, or have a question or something to contribute, please leave a comment or drop me an email at dnschmtz@gmail.com


Thursday, January 24, 2019

50 Years Beyond the Infinite - Kubrick's Space Odyssey

Back in September I saw the 4K (digital) re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the Carnegie Science Center's big screen (yeah, if you' look at the dates that was about 4 months ago - now you know how long it can take me to write these). The digital version was released at roughly the same time as a new 70mm film print produced under the supervision of Christopher Nolan, and there is a lot of discussion as to whether the digital "print" was made from the new Nolan print or the original negative and how accurate the colors in the digital version are - it seems that the two are unrelated and the 4K version has received good reviews for image quality and for its accuracy in reproducing the original theater images. It certainly looked really good to my untrained eye. The 4K print is now available on Blu-ray disk for a very reasonable (about $20) street price.

Well worn 1968 paperback copy of 2001 - bought at a used book sale for $1.

: this article contains spoilers about the movie and book 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you've managed to never see the movie or read the book or hear them discussed in the last 50 years, you're probably not going to, but don't complain to me if I ruin the surprise...

When 2001 first hit the theaters in the spring of 1968 I was all of 7 years old and relied on Mom and Dad to take me to the movies. The year before Dad had taken me to see Fantastic Voyage - where a submarine and crew are miniaturized and injected into some VIP's body to remove a blood clot from his brain - and I remember being a little scared (the anti-bodies attacking Raquel Welch had me freaking out) and pretty confused about whether that story was "real" or not. The word of mouth that 2001 was a "drug movie" made my going a lost cause.  Of course the studio didn't care if people showed up stoned to see the movie as long as they paid for a ticket - they added the tag line "The Ultimate Trip" to the movie posters to encourage them!
A bit of history: in the 1960s there were a lot fewer theater screens - many theaters had just one screen, and there were far fewer actual film prints made than screens. New movies would run in the big city "first run" theaters for several weeks, and really popular movies could play in the same theater for months; eventually the films would shift to smaller 2nd and 3rd run theaters. On every trip through the projector the film picked up dust and scratches, so by the time a blockbuster movie made it to the small town theaters it looked like that clip of the Zapruder film the History Channel pulls out every November. Its hard to imagine, but in small town America you could hear about some big new movie - and see the commercials on TV - and then either wait 6 months or drive 100 miles to see it.
A few years later I had chewed through the sci-fi shelf in the kid's section of my home town library and moved on to prowling the adult fiction shelves. I found a copy of  Clarke's 2001 novel, complete with several pages of glossy black and white photos taken from the movie. I checked it out along with some Tom Swift Jrs I had already read as camouflage just in case my parent's censorship might extend to print, and I was careful to pull the book out only when they weren't around. The book was a bit of a challenge for a 12 year old, but its not a long book and Clarke's writing style was straightforward; I easily finished it in the 2 weeks before I had to return it.

I can remember being confused by the first section of the book following the "man-ape" Moonwatcher and wondering how the story was ever going to make it to the spaceship stuff in just a few hundred pages, and by the end I remember being somewhat let down: by then I had read a lot of science fiction and 2001 just didn't  seem all that earth shaking in comparison to the library's "John Winstonand Robert Heinlein juveniles I had cut my literary teeth on.

I finally saw the film around 1980 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse - a small theater owned by Point Park College where their drama department put on plays. The Playhouse helped keep the doors open by showing cult classics and artsy foreign films with subtitles to the college crowd. Their print was well worn and the projection equipment was tired, but seeing 2001 has always been an experience - and seeing it with 300 other slightly drunk engineering students was certainly that!  Since then I've seen 2001 on late night cable channels and an early blu-ray version on my 50 inch plasma TV, but I had never seen a high quality print on a really big screen with a crowd of people.

I guess its true that "you can't go home again" - I enjoyed seeing the new digital "film" for the imagery - it really is spectacular - but it wasn't the experience that it was the first time (it probably didn't help that I wasn't a starry eyed 20 year old this time around). The special effects that were ground breaking in 1968 and still pretty amazing in 1980 just aren't as mind blowing after 3 decades of CGI, and that lack of wow-factor made the film's pacing seem even slower.

A few days after seeing the movie I pulled out my dog-eared 2001 paperback for my first re-read in a long time. Even having seen the film and read the book multiple times, the two tend to run together in my mind. The back-to-back comparison was enlightening: while the two share a basic outline they have very different view points so that they are almost different stories. Being the 50th anniversary, there are lots of articles, and a new book - Space Odyssey by Michael Benson with inside-info from the people who actually worked on the film, and they help explain how the two diverged so much. I think I've pieced the history together reasonably well.

Kubrick famously proposed the project to Clarke in a letter in early 1964. At the time Kubrick's movie Dr. Strangelove was a huge success; Kubrick was a whiz-kid at the top of his game and had the reputation to allow him to make any movie he wanted. Clarke, while a big name in the science-fiction world, had not yet had a truly big book and hadn't published a science-fiction novel since A Fall of Moondust in 1961 (Clarke had contracted polio in 1962, which lead to partial paralysis and no doubt put a crimp in his writing). Clarke was also somewhat broke: he was living in Sri Lanka, supporting his partner's low-budget film making projects and going through a complicated divorce settlement; let's just say he was motivated by Kubrick's idea.

Clarke had an engineering and science background, and his writing leaned heavily toward the "hard science" end of the sci-fi spectrum - his stories were all built on solid scientific and mathematical ideas. In the early 1960s science fiction was shifting towards more high-concept stories that focused on the social impact of technology and appealed to a broader audience. Robert Heinlein had published the controversial and new-agey best-seller Stranger In a Strange Land in 1962 - which was decidedly not "hard sci-fi".  I don't think Clarke was envious of Heinlein, but its easy to imagine him wanting to explore this new direction that the genre was moving in.

Clarke would cobble together two of his short stories (Encounter at Dawn and The Sentinel) into the beginning of a story, then he and Kubrick would collaborate for most of 1964 to flesh that beginning into a feature-length story. There seems to have been a general agreement between them to use the theme of Clarke's novel Childhood's End - about mankind advancing to a higher level of civilization - but also agreeing that the story itself would not work as a film.

Clarke - who seems to have done most of the typewriter pounding - had no experience writing screenplays and so wrote the story in the form of a novel, to be translated into a screenplay once it was finished.  For months Clarke and Kubrick spent much of their time together, doing background research and discussing possible story lines.  The first draft, still missing an ending, was finished in December of 1964 and used as the basis for a movie deal with MGM.

Clarke was never an equal partner in the collaboration. Kubrick was experienced in making films and had very good lawyers, while Clarke was naive and naturally trusting. Unlike the more usual scenario where a movie was made from a successful book, the two were writing a story in the form of a book that was first and foremost a movie. Clarke was hired on as a salaried writer, with no percentage in the film. Clarke would negotiate a 60% share of the book he and Kubrick had decided to release, but Kubrick would retain final approval of the book.

And so a few days after turning in what Clarke thought was the final draft of the book, in keeping with his agreement with Kubrick he was officially terminated. Kubrick quickly realized that as filming began the story would likely require revisions, and there was still the issue of an ending - so Clarke was quickly hired back - but it demonstrates that while Kubrick was by all accounts a nice guy all of his thinking and decision making centered on a shrewd responsibility to the film he was making. Another example: to handle all the special-effects in 2001 Kubrick would hire several bright up-and-comers - including future effects wizard Douglass Trumbull. Kubrick would give them lots of freedom and resources - and when they delivered amazing results he continued to pay them the entry level wages they had signed on for. Kubrick honored his deals, but he always put the film first and expected the people he hired to look out for themselves and honor their commitments.

Filming of 2001 would start a few months into 1965 in a giant studio MGM had built in England (lower taxes than Hollywood). Through most of that first year there would be continual rework of the story to match the limitations of the special effects and what looked good on the screen. The mysterious "monolith" would start as a 10 foot tall transparent pyramid as described in Clarke's short story The Sentinel but it couldn't be cast as a solid piece of Lucite and so morphed into an (expensive) transparent rectangular slab - but that didn't photograph well - so it changed again into the featureless black slab we've all come to know and love.

To make the imagery more believable Kubrick would work with big companies to use their ideas for future technology - and more importantly their logos, like the big PanAm globe on the space shuttle.  Kubrick would probably be surprised that 50 years later those logos make his film look dated, as many of the companies are either gone or no longer technology leaders.

IBM was a big supporter - until the story changed and the ship's computer killed off most of the crew! If you look hard there are still a few IBM logos (check the corner of the iPad-like tablets that Frank and Dave use on the ship) but nowhere on the HAL 9000 camera panels around the ship or on the racks of hardware Dave visits to pull Hal's plug. That suggests the character of the ship's computer went through a lot of changes in 1965 - in some ways becoming the central character of the story!
Interesting aside: in late 1965 Robert Heinlein would publish the novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, that featured a character who was a sentient super computer, who helps the lunar colonists fight a revolutionary war with Earth. The computer - named Mycroft Holmes, or Mike - could speak directly with his human friends and a had a distinct and colorful personality; it was a fairly innovative idea for the time. Did Mike influence HAL, or vice versa? Heinlein and Clarke knew each other socially, and may have discussed the idea previously. Heinlein's story clearly came first, and Clarke and Kubrick were reading lots of sci-fi for inspiration. Or were both influenced by Asimov's robot stories, and the near simultaneous stories were just coincidence? I haven't been able to find even circumstantial evidence either way - if you know please share!
And most importantly the story's ending proved to be elusive. The 1964 "final" draft had taken Dave Bowman into the "Star Gate", but neither Clarke or Kubrick had a satisfying idea for what was on the other side. One idea was that Dave would just walk off "into the sunset" with an alien, much like the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but creating a believable alien effect was the sticking point - the film was already behind schedule and over budget - and that ambiguous ending was not especially satisfying. The "Star Child" ending was Clarke's idea - an ending Kubrick didn't really like - but it had the advantage that the aliens were never actually seen.

It seems that Kubrick tried to recruit several other British science fiction writers to help with the ending, but they would decline out of respect for Clarke. Filming the astronauts excavation on the Moon and the astronauts on their way to Jupiter would take up most of 1965 and part of 1966, and the whole time the ending was in flux. Clarke's "Star Child" ending followed a sort of logic - that is spelled out in heavy handed prose in the book - but it seemed too upbeat for Kubrick. With no good or workable alternative, Kubrick would plow ahead with the "Star Child" ending, but filmed lots of different scenes and lines knowing he could spin the ending in different ways in the final editing.

With the filming on the big sets used for the surface of the Moon and the Discovery interiors finished, the focus moved to special effects and the African desert scenes. While these were a small part of the overall film, they were technically challenging in their own way. Creating a believable tribe of man-apes was nearly as hard as building the big rotating space-craft interior: on top of the challenge of creating costumes and masks that looked right, they needed to find and train actors who could move like apes (human legs are just too long to look truly ape-like so the actors had to develop movements that hid their incorrect proportions). Kubrick had a major aversion to air travel, so the African scenes were filmed on a stage in England - but crew members were sent to South Africa to photograph authentic background shots to be added to the scenes with a new front-projection process.

The space scenes were a combination of models filmed with motion controlled cameras, and stuntmen in spacesuits hanging from wires. A lot of work went into lighting and camera work to make sure that the effects shots had the same colors and general "look" as the interior scenes.

Creating these scenes was slow and tedious work: the model photography had to be done frame-by-frame with long exposures, people couldn't wear the airtight space helmets very long before they blacked out from CO2 buildup! More importantly these scenes had little dialogue and were in well established parts of the story, so there was little reason for Clarke to stick around the studios; he went back to Sri Lanka to try to rescue a film project his partner had sunk lots of Clarke's money into and then abandoned.

Clarke was desperate to make a 2001 book deal to generate much needed income. He and Kubrick had agreed to this in theory, but Kubrick quickly realized releasing the book before the movie might hurt at the box-office; he would simply delay approving the various re-writes needed to bring the book into synch with the film. Being on the opposite side of the world would limit Clarke to sending increasingly angry telegrams, which had little impact on the film-maker. When the book was eventually published - hitting store shelves just after the movie's premier - many of the updates had never been made as Clarke plowed ahead to avoid additional reviews by Kubrick, leading to the many detail discrepancies between book and film.

Kubrick would make more controversial decisions as he began assembling the final movie from the mountain of 65mm film he had shot. Clarke had long expected the film to have voice-over narration to explain the sudden transitions between the man-ape, lunar-surface, Discovery and Star-Gate segments. This was natural given Clarke's writing background: since books must describe action in words they are often written from a god's-eye-view, describing not only all the action but the thoughts inside the character's heads. Movies of course are a much more visual form of story telling, and movie-makers have come to see narration as a crutch for when the director wasn't clever enough to tell the story through imagery. Kubrick kept pushing Clarke for less narration, and Clarke had dutifully pared the text down in multiple edits, even during his time away.

During the final edit Kubrick would not only decide to drop the narration - he would also cut much of the dialogue - especially the little bits of expository dialogue that most every film uses to provide background - leaving nothing but the most inane exchanges. It was one of those artistic decisions that might have worked with a western or spy story where the audience knew what to expect, but in a movie as unique as 2001 it made for an indecipherable plot; Kubrick turned his film into an ink-blot test where everyone found something different.

A side effect of the minimalist dialogue was the importance of background music - what the movie people call the score. At the time major motion pictures would have a composer create an original orchestral score - allowing the music to match the length and feel of particular scenes. When Kubrick started watching the spacecraft effect sequences he added some classical music to fill the quiet - and he liked it. In 1966 the Beatles had been famous for all of 2 years; rock-and-roll was still considered a bit of a fad. Kubrick's generation had grown up with classical music, and backed up by a 100 piece orchestra the classical pieces would blow your hair back - it fit perfectly with the grand feel Kubrick wanted for his film. Kubrick would go for industrial strength German pieces from Richard and Johann Strauss, and a few more modern pieces by Ligetti - written in a style that could set your nerves on end.

When Clarke saw the completed film at a big premier event in April of 1968 he reportedly walked out at the intermission holding back tears. Many critics gave the film bad reviews, one famously describing it as "somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring".  Kubrick had watched the audience at the premier to see where they became bored and fidgety; he went back to the cutting room and surgically cut 20 minutes from the film. Most would agree it helped. Amazingly several prints had already been shipped to big theaters around the country - the projectionists at those theaters would (hopefully) reproduce Kubrick's edits from written instructions!

Of course in the end the effects would carry the film: lots of people showed up just to see the space scenes and the psychedelic star-gate sequence and left the theater with no clue what the movie was about, and they told their friends how strange it was and of course their friends had to see for themselves. Teenagers would declare it amazing - at least a little to defy their parent's sensibilities. Newspaper critics who had panned the movie would print retractions a few weeks later - saying they were wrong and it really was an amazingly good movie all along.

Lots of movie goers trying to figure out what the movie was about would buy Clarke's book: the paperback would hit store shelves in July in time for summer reading. All of Clarke's work on the movie narration did not go for naught, as much of that prose is in the book, and it is arguably some of his best writing. Even though the book didn't exactly match the movie it at least gave the movie goer some good clues. And it made Clarke a lot of money - at least by science-fiction writer standards - and it cemented Clarke as a "big name" once again.

Clarke would write several more novels, including 3 sequels to 2001 - although none would be as famous (or in my opinion, as good). The first 2001 sequel - 2010: Odyssey Two - would be made into a movie in 1984 by Peter Hyams: 2010 was a fairly conventional film and it did OK at the box office, but by 1984 America was knee deep in big-budget sci-fi movies and it took more than well done special effects to pack 'em into the multiplex (the multi-screen theater was another game changer - in 1984 movie goers had far more choices about what to see than two decades earlier).

Kubrick of course would go on to make several more big-name big-budget movies, and he would continue to frustrate authors; Kubrick could completely change a story just by changing the way the actors spoke their lines or how the scenes looked on screen, and he often did exactly that. Both Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Stephen King (The Shining) would have fairly public arguments with Kubrick over the movies he made from their books. Kubrick simply cared more about making the film he wanted than being faithful to a book he had bought the rights to.

Kubrick's ability to change a story was obvious when I compared 2001 the film and book back-to-back: Clarke's story is undeniably positive, while Kubrick's is a cautionary tale about man's arrogant embrace of technology (the folks that look for symbolism in films can give you a list of the parallels Kubrick makes to the Frankenstein story). I've always thought that Kubrick ruined Clarke's story by making his movie so hard to understand, but the reality is that the collaboration made Clarke's book better, simply by forcing him to think and rethink the story and polish the text more than he ever would have - compared to his other books I think 2001 is some of his best writing. A director like Stephen Spielberg or James Cameron could make a 2001 that audiences liked but that no one remembered or talked about a year later, let alone 50 years on.

What Kubrick did was lay the foundation for modern science fiction films. MGM's experience with 2001 would make the movie industry skittish to fund another sci-fi block buster, but over time they would forget the pain and remember the box-office success. Moreover, Kubrick had done the hard work figuring out the effects technology; others would build on his work. A few years later Universal Pictures would take a chance on the movie Silent Running, with a young Doug Trumbull - a veteran of 2001 - directing. The movie was a little preachy and Universal didn't do a great job of promoting it - it wasn't a big success - but the film would cost a little more than a million dollars, a tenth of what Kubrick had spent on 2001.

But sitting there in the movie theaters watching Bowman go through the Star-Gate in 1968 were a new generation of film makers: James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and George Lucas to name a few. Lucas would make a lot of money for Universal with his first movie - American Graffiti - a low budget kids-in-cars nostalgia film that cost about $750,000 and sold 140 million dollars worth of tickets! That was the kind of success that gave Lucas a little bit of Kubrick-style clout: 20th Century Fox would give him 11 million dollars to make an old fashioned space opera with ground breaking effects called Star Wars.

The 1970s had been a gloomy time for America: we had given up in Vietnam, forced a corrupt president from office, NASA stopped sending missions to the moon, there were oil shortages and unprecedented inflation and budget decifits,  and Japan was building better cars and TVs. The country needed a fun movie and Star Wars delivered - it would hit theaters in the summer of 1977 and go on to gross over $750 million in its first release

Overnight movies with space themes were hot: Paramount would finally make a Star Trek movie, Fox would take a chance on Alien, Disney would try for a piece of the pie with Black Hole, and every space film that was even a little successful would get a sequel or six. Science fiction had gone mainstream, and the basic space exploration stories spilled over into other sci-fi themes: the 1980s would bring The Terminator, The Thing, Back to the Future, ET, Blade Runner, The Last Star Fighter, Predator, and of course numerous Star Wars and Star Trek sequels.

Not a bad legacy for a story Arthur Clarke had pieced together from ideas kicking around the corners of his brain!

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