Fifty years later, few would dispute that “2001” is a masterpiece. But how, exactly, is a masterpiece created, especially one that relies on collaboration? Michael Benson’s new book, “Space Odyssey,” is a detailed and often thrilling account of one intense, unforgettable collaboration. It’s a tremendous explication of a tremendous film.
Benson, the author of five books about astronomy, approaches his topic from both human and scientific angles. He begins with the friendship between director Kubrick and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, which began in 1964 when jazz musician Artie Shaw recommended Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End” to Kubrick. From there, Benson builds his narrative one collaborator at a time. We learn about Hollywood deal-making, NASA’s scientific input, top-notch film photographers and animators, and who did and did not have a nervous breakdown during the four years it took Kubrick to complete his masterpiece.
Despite their friendship and Clarke’s intelligent suggestions throughout the project, once Kubrick had gathered his team of technical specialists and began the production process, the novelist’s input diminished. With only 40 minutes of dialogue in a 2 1/2- hour film — there was never a fixed script — the images would supplant the words.
Benson’s skill as a science journalist is evident when he describes how Kubrick and his staff made the film’s visuals truly visionary. Although the technical descriptions of certain procedures might tax readers who aren’t engineers, the cumulative effect of such information is breathtaking. All the work was done by hand, a reminder that “2001” was created back in the pre-digital era. For the moonscape scene, Kubrick insisted that 90 tons of sand be dyed gray. Some of the sets were “so brightly lit that the actors wore sunglasses between takes.”
Although the finished film may be futuristic, the making of that future was a day-by-day, hands-on, trial-and-error, sweat-off-the-forehead human collaboration. My favorite detail involves how the Star Gate scene was created. Famous for its psychedelic special effects, the scene originated in 1965 in an abandoned brassiere factory on New York’s Upper West Side. By pouring ink into tanks filled with paint thinner and then photographing the ink’s flow using high camera speeds, Kubrick captured “galactic tendrils streaming into cosmic space.” Although more sophisticated photographic enhancements to the Star Gate sequence were added in 1967, the paint thinner shots made the final cut. Facts such as these don’t diminish the wonder of the completed film, but have the opposite effect.
Benson tries to be fair to everyone involved in this project, but Kubrick was the sun around whom they all orbited. It’s Kubrick’s breath we hear when HAL, the spaceship’s malicious computer, is deprogrammed by astronaut Dave Bowman, played by Keir Dullea. What Benson calls the film’s “respiratory soundscape” creates “a subjective sense of shared humanity.” Kubrick literally breathes life into his film.
Some have regarded Kubrick as cold and distant, but Benson’s book convinces otherwise. Although solidly self-protective, Kubrick appears surprisingly democratic and optimistic, often giving assignments to nontechnical people because he’s curious about what they’ll come up with. For instance, he put a mime, Dan Richter, in charge of the ape men in the film’s “Dawn of Man” segment. Devising the ape costumes took more than two years, and lighting one scene required 1.5 million watts. “You start to die,” Richter recalls, referring to the working conditions inside the ape-men suits, yet he stayed on and was responsible for unforgettable footage.
After reading a bit of Benson’s book, I took a TV break: “2001” was on! While watching my 40-inch HD Samsung television, I was speechless. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Who knew that visionary thinking, attention to silence, a committed workforce, millions of light bulbs and an abandoned brassiere factory could create a masterpiece?
Stanley Kubrick knew, and thanks to Michael Benson, we now know, too.
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.
Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
By Michael Benson
Simon & Schuster. 497 pp. $30