Saturday, April 12, 2008

2001: A Space Odyssey

In 1948, Arthur C Clarke wrote a short story called 'The Sentinel' for a BBC competition. It didn't win. Wasn't even placed. Two decades later, Stanley Kubrick used it as the basis for '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Which pretty much makes the BBC competition adjudicator the literary equivalent of the man who turned down the Beatles.

Kubrick was introduced to Clarke's work by Roger Caras, the publicist on 'Dr Strangelove'. Kubrick was impressed by his novel 'Childhood's End', but director Abraham Polonsky had optioned it and was trying to secure backing for a script he'd written. Instead, Kubrick bought the rights to half a dozen short stories, whittling down their themes and ideas until he was left with 'The Sentinel' as the starting point for his quasi-mystical sci-fi epic.

John Baxter's book 'Stanley Kubrick: A Biography', while evincing a disdainful attitude towards SF and placing Clarke at "the front rank of second rate science fiction writers" (case for the defence: Clarke's nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature), offers some intriguing insights into the gestation of Kubrick and Clarke's screenplay: Kubrick initially envisaged the film as a "mythological documentary" including interviews with scientists about the theory of interstellar travel and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Early drafts had the monolith projecting images and the Star Child detonating "a ring of atomic satellites orbiting the globe ... One representative of mankind ... would get the point and become the avatar of the new consciousness" ('Stanley Kubrick: A Biography', p. 209).

With a summary of the film running to more than 100 pages, and concerned that Clarke hadn't written for the screen before, Kubrick suggested Clarke tackle '2001' as a novel, from which their joint screenplay would then derive. That was in late 1964. Book and film didn't see light of day until mid-1968, with Clarke making endless revisions to his manuscript at Kubrick's behest, the director not approving the novel for publication until the film was virtually in cinemas and Clarke was heavily in debt.

Stanley Kubrick: not the easiest guy to work with.

Still, Clarke's fiction gained a new lease of life of courtesy of the film and he went on to write three more 'Odyssey' novels, with the second, '2010', also getting the big screen treatment (Peter Hyams' adaptation suffers from comparisons to its predecessor, but is considerably better than the general critical concensus would have it).

I watch '2001: A Space Odyssey' every couple of years or so; immerse myself in its soporific running time, soak up the leisurely sequences of space flight, beautifully played out to Herbert von Karajan's recording of Johann Strauss II's 'Blue Danube' waltz. Kubrick's talent for interweaving music and image is as effective here as it is in 'A Clockwork Orange': Richard Strauss's monumental 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', used three times, captures the film's aesthetic the way 'Ride of the Valkyries' does in 'Apocalypse Now'; Khachaturian's 'Gayane' suite emphasises the loneliness, the remoteness of deep space; and the mysterious aural conjurings of Gyorgy Ligeti hint at worlds beyond our own.

When he's not using music to take the film to whole new levels, Kubrick lets dialogue - what little of it there is - take a back seat to soundscapes either harsh (the screeching of the monkeys during the opening sequence) or repetitively pervasive (Dave Bowman [Keir Dullea]'s breathing hideously amplified in his space suit). Just as dialogue is dispensed with for the most part, Kubrick doesn't bother much with his cast. Dullea and Gary Lockwood are figuratively and thematically adrift as the film's real protagonist, the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Douglas Rain), gets his fifteen minutes of fame ... or rather, his hour of infamy.

The 'Daisy Daisy' scene, as HAL gets the manual over-ride treatment, is one of the great moments in film history ("I'm afraid, Dave ... my mind is going"); the journey through the stargate revolutionised visual effects; the final twenty minutes are elegaic, poetic, baffling and pretentious in roughly equal measures.

I watch '2001: A Space Odyssey' every couple of years or so and I'm still no closer to deciding whether it's a profound, cerebral, philosophical work of art, or a self-indulgent, egotistical, intellectually hollow con job.

Either way, it's bloody good movie.

(in memoriam Sir Arthur C Clarke CBE, 16 December 1917 - 19 March 2008)

No comments: