2001: A Space Odyssey – Kubrick’s Vision


A Few Observations by Philip Powers

General Regard –

2012 Academics: #6 Ever – All-Films
2012 Directors: #2 Ever – All-Films
2002 Academics: #6 Ever – All-Films
2002 Directors: #12 – All-Films
2007 Entertainment Weekly Top 100: #26 – All-Films
2007 AFI Top 100: #15 Ever

Features on Top 10 Film Lists

Andrey Konchalovsky       (Runaway Train, Romance for Lovers [director] Andrei Rublev [co-writer])
Jonathan Glazer               (Birth, Sexy Beast [director])

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I watched this wonderful film for what was probably the sixth or seventh time. I thought about it for two weeks and then I started writing.

Just a day of writing and writing. 7 hours straight. Followed by another day of writing more. Followed by another day – another 8 or 9 hours – writing even more. Then refining it and trying to crystalize what I want to say.

Today (with many additions added subsequently) I realized the difference between a great film (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]) and an extraordinary film (A Clockwork Orange [1971]). And I wrote:

For some people, seeing a film on a big screen isn’t important. For some people, knowing what’s going to happen in a film they’re watching is important.

I think that’s probably the thinking of most people in the world, which is why more people watch movies on a television screen than in a theatre and why audience-polling shows that the audience likes to know from a trailer or advertisement what’s going to happen in a film – even how it ends.

Then there’s people who see one or two films a year in a cinema, or even ten or twelve. Then there are people who see fifty films a year in a cinema. With the latter group, we’re getting closer now to a core group of people who – on a weekly basis – think that the cinema is a better way to a see a film than on a television or on a computer screen.

Then there’s a subgroup of people who think, ‘Okay, it didn’t get good reviews, but if I’m ever going to see Transformers V (2017), Batman v Superman (2016), Battleship (2012) or Rampage (2018), it should be on a big screen.’

Then there are people who have owned or own a film like Lawrence of Arabia or Jurassic Park or Gone with the Wind on Beta or VHS, or Laser Disc or DVD or blu-ray or 4K, and when it’s revived for one night only, or one afternoon only – in a cinema – they say, ‘I’ve got to see it on the big screen again’, even though they paid 20, 30 or 40 dollars to actually own the film so they can see it whenever they want.

Then within that group there’s a subgroup of people who want to be overwhelmed by their movie-watching experience that they buy a screen and a projector and essentially build their own cinema in their home, because watching a movie on a 60-85cm (24”-34”) screen is unsatisfactory, or even, in 2017, watching a film on a 65” screen is unsatisfactory.

Then within that group is another subgroup of people who can watch movies, at home, projected onto a 110”/280cm screen, and still go to a cinema to see a revival of Terminator 2Lawrence of ArabiaEl CidSpartacusBen HurCasablancaThe Big Sleep on a really big screen.

I’m one of those people.

There’s a good argument, that a really well-made film, should be just as effective at home, on a small screen, as in a cinema. And it’s true for many films – up to a certain point.

There are also people that don’t find the advertisement breaks disruptive to the flow of a film, or mind missing five minutes when they walk out for a toilet break, or to get more popcorn, while the movie is still running.

I’m not one of those people.

And if 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was screening on a really big screen (like the Cremorne Orpheum in Sydney), and it was 200kms away, and I owned it on blu-ray and I had a 100-inch screen (280cms) – which I do – I would still pay $15/$20/$30 to see it again on a really big screen. That’s at least half the beauty of this majestic film.

Would it hold up on 42″ screen? I don’t know. Up until this particular viewing in my own home cinema, I’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey outside of a movie theatre – despite owning it on videotape, Laser Disc and blu-ray.

There are people who don’t like Mozart and do like Beethoven, or don’t like Billy Joel and do like U2. Whatever the mix – Picasso, Monet, Dali, Escher – people are very specific about what they like and what they want to see and hear.

If someone studied Shakespeare’s plays but never saw a performance of one – even a bad performance – or a cut down film adaptation – then I don’t think they’ve really studied Shakespeare.

Books and poems are written down and the intention is that they are read. Not all in one-sitting, necessarily, although poems mostly are, unless they’re extremely long like Paradise Lost.

Plays are written to be directed and interpreted and acted by actors and watched by an audience in one sitting (unless they’re Nicholas Nickleby) and, when there are no performance nearby – then and only then are they only to be just read. The ideal is that words and vision interact, and each and every performance is different in many discernible ways from another performance or production, even though the same words are recited.

Films are made to be seen in a theatre (and it used to be mostly, although television changed that). Originally without sound. And then latterly, heard. Films are after all just a series of photographs. If enough photographs are seen during the course of one second elapsing, it becomes a representation of movement. Recorded sound was invented in the 1880s. Motion pictures were also invented in the 1880s. The solution that allowed the marriage of the two came decades later. In fact, the motion picture industry was so visually oriented that when the first successful attempts were made to synchronize sound and vision, it was dismissed as a passing fad.

Films with sound:
Many people said, ‘It will never catch on’.

But it did, and thank God it did.

Before they’d even worked out how to synchronize sound and have it play while the movie played, someone realized that music added something to the images. Probably it found popularity because it replaced the absence of sound. In the era of silent films the only sound in the theaters were the members of the audience talking to each other – or themselves. Then a piano, and later an orchestra, was added, and performed live, in front of the audience, while the images flashed by.

Motion pictures became so popular that enormous theaters were built around the world, many with a capacity of seating over two-thousand people, like the Regent Theatre in Sydney, or the State Theatre in Melbourne (3,000 seats). The construction of these theatres in the 1920s cost in excess of 400,000 pounds. If entry cost a matter of pennies, then film was big business. So much so, that the major theatres with the larger screens didn’t have a pianist improvising music while the scenes unfolded as the sprockets wound around and around – they had orchestras; sometimes very large orchestra. Libraries of music to accompany certain types of scenes were developed. Music for love, sadness, excitement, tragedy, adventure and heroism was prepared for the orchestras. In some cases, existing classical music was tailored to specific films, to match the length of the scenes. In rarer cases, a composer wrote a score for the film, and the score and parts were sent around the world with the film, including reductions of the full symphonic score for smaller ensembles.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this people even experimented with having actors behind – literally behind – the screen in the theater, saying the dialogue between the characters on screen.

And Then Along Came Sound

When the problem of synchronizing music, sound effects and voice was solved, cinema had been popular for decades, drawing millions of patrons every week.

Films – motion pictures – movies – whatever you want to call them were as much a visual artform as a painting. And we’re not talking about movies in their infancy, we’re talking about when films were grown adults. Even in the 1950s some member of the audience had been watching film without sound for longer than they’d been watching films with dialogue, effects and music. Sound was an addition – much later – to support the power of the projected image. It enhanced the impact of the image or the stories that people started to tell.

Sound became more sophisticated. At a certain point it transitioned from mono-aural to stereophonic and then Dolby Stereo in the mid-1970s, and so on. And, can you believe it? The first major motion picture I worked on – even in 1984 – Annie’s Coming Out, was mixed and released in mono. The music was recorded in stereo but mixed with effects and dialogue in mono because the Dolby licence was so expensive.

And Then Along Came TV

The invention and subsequent popularity of television took the importance of the image away from cinema-film-motion picture-movies. And from then, it was all downhill.

The ratio of film was 4:3, and television was pretty similar. Theatre-owners and filmmakers watched audiences rapidly diminish, so they invented an anamorphic lense which enabled a 2.35:1 ratio, or they cropped the 4:3 frame to 1.85:1 and made it larger. Then in a last-ditch effort, MGM, possibly the most powerful studio throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, came up with the idea of strapping three cameras together, and screening the finished film with three sychronized projectors in specially prepared cinemas – on a slightly curved screen. They call it CINERAMA.

That is how important the image was in luring audiences out of their homes and into cinemas.

And Then Along Came Kubrick

Kubrick made a couple of low-budget features in the 1950s and lucked into replacing a major director on a film produced by one of the world’s most popular actors. The director he replaced was Anthony Mann. The actor was Kirk Douglas. The film was Spartacus (1960). The newcomer was Stanley Kubrick. [It’s all starting to sound a bit like my essay on The Godfather. Right man in the right position at the right time.]

Kubrick made Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955) The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957).  Not much attention was given to them although Paths of Glory did feature a major actor, Kirk Douglas, which led to Douglas selecting him to take over the directing reins on Spartacus.

Spartacus (Universal) launched him into the top level of film directors when it was a spectacular success, grossing around 30 million dollars. Then came Lolita (MGM) $9 million and Dr. Strangelove (Columbia) $9 million: decent returns.

Lolita and Dr.. Strangelove cost about $2 million each and returned handsomely. Spartacus, for which Kubrick possibly wasn’t give the credit hewas due, was the biggest moneymaker of 1960. By half has much again as the next best grossing film, Psycho.

Somehow, notwithstanding Kubrick moving to London, he got a budget from MGM to develop a science fiction film, and autonomy that was previously unheard of. He was able to distance himself from the people who pestered you every minute of the day about how much footage you were capturing and how good it was all looking by moving to London and making it far, far away from Hollywood.

There are miracles in filmmaking, largely due to the debilitating cost of assembling a crew and paying actors, that defy belief. I wrote about The Outsiders, and the unlikely events that allowed that film to be made. I wrote about The Godfather, and how a $1 million dollar film eventually got a $2.5 million budget, then a $6 million budget, and accumulated $134 million in the United States alone.

That’s nothing compared with what Kubrick achieved – artistically and conceptually – but not quite so well financially – with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which changed a million and one lives.

Stanley Kubrick made a film in 1968 which in 2017 is still under-appreciated if it isn’t seen on a big screen.

And Along Came Cinerama

MGM conceived of and made a big film called How the West Was Won (1962), shot by three synchronized 35mm cameras, and projected (by three projectors) onto a screen that wrapped around you to the extent that – in certain seats in the cinema – the edges of the screen were where your peripheral vision ended.

That’s a film that I will see any day of any year on a big screen. I like it. It’s got some really good moments. It’s unwieldy and probably an unholy mess in the eyes of critics looking at it now. But it is such a remarkable achievement of money and manpower that I am continually gobsmacked by it.

2001: A Space Odyssey is another film that requires the big screen.

Both films were created for a large screen, not a television set. Both films were tailored for Cinerama but only the first was shot with three cameras. An inventor called Robert Gottschalk created a new lens that enabled extremely wide-angled shooting, which, when combined with the anamorphic process used in Cinemascope films with a Super-Panavision lens, would fill the dimensions of the curved Cinerama screen. How the West Was Won was shot using the old process (three cameras), but the 1963 film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963), used the new process Ultra Panavision 70 (2.76:1), and made it possible for MGM to promote their upcoming film, “Journey Beyond the Stars”, directed by Stanley Kubrick, as their next Cinerama film (Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, Baxter, p.212), which ended up using the slightly smaller Super Panavision 70. Exhibitors, critics and audiences may not have understood that this diminished the quality of the film’s resolution to a noticeable degree but, if you think about it, three photographs by three separate cameras, stitched together, has a higher resolution than one camera, even when filmed on 70mm film.

Such was the success of these two films – How the West Was Won running in London for just under two and half years – and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World running for around three years at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles (my guess based on my memory of the sign at the theater when I saw a film there in December 1988) – that exhibitors wanted to know what was the next big thing?

The Big Screen

Here  – now – is the sentence that explains why I wrote the previous two thousand words.

Stanley Kubrick created a film to be seen in a ratio of 2.65:1. It was created to be shown on an enormous screen which only a few adapted and purpose-built cinemas could accommodate.  To be fully appreciated the viewer needs to be engulfed by the screen. The idea of screening a 2.35:1 film or a 2.65:1 film on a television set was virtually inconceivable. When films did make it onto television – that were shot in a widescreen format – they only showed approximately 55% of the projected image, or with 2001: A Space Odyssey, losing about 52 or 53%, and involved a revolting process called Pan and Scan.

The idea of 2001: A Space Odyssey turning up on television, or the ratio ever changing from 4:3 to 16:9 was not a consideration. Third generation exploitation of audiences buying and owning their own copies of a film, wasn’t conceivable either. It was thought that the life of a widescreen film (other than revivals – like the animated films of Walt Disney and Gone with the Wind [1939]) was only as long as it was projected on a screen in a theatre.

Stanley Kubrick created a film where the music which accompanies the images has not been written for the images. Although 35mm prints were made for projection in other cinemas eventually, the quality of the special effects, needed to be so perfectly realized, that on the biggest screen in the world, the images would be flawless. As for music, in the Cinerama process 5mm of the 70mm was devoted to the soundtrack and the sound as developed for the original Cinerama process, with 7 discrete channels of sound, was spectacular with five speakers behind the screen, and one on each side towards the back.

As Stanley Kubrick developed the parameters of the film he was making, and moved closer and closer to making a finished film, the ideas he had in February 1964 and the thoughts he was thinking after its premiere on April 4, 1968 – when he removed another 19 minutes from the film because of some of the criticism in the media and restlessness by audiences – were a world apart.

After living in the world of shooting and cutting 2001: A Space Odyssey since 29 December 1965 until its premiere in 1968, he had a developing vision of the thing the film was becoming – evolving into – more and more, as the special effects and scenes involving actors became concrete.

Kubrick didn’t set out to make a film in five discrete sections with famous classical music accompanying the visuals as if it was ballet, where music and images dominated everything else and the plot and the dialogue fell a distant third. He didn’t set out to make something confusing or unfathomable, which could be better understood only through repeated viewings and analysis.

Every one of the great scenes, the great moments, the lack of explanation, the use and choice of classical music, the final length of the film, came about through Kubrick reacting to the way the people and environment around him perceived him, his grand idea – and his film. The reactions and subsequent decisions he made based on MGM’s feedback, the halt to more filming because of the budget overruns, and those based on audience and critics responses, all filtered into that amazing mind. The reactions that came to him elicited a response, and those responses made the film the legendary piece of art that it is today. [John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick is a great place to find more detailed information.]

Really good directors make good decisions every few minutes and choose the best out of the feedback they receive. They hold their ground when they’re sure they’re right, and they concede ground when having to find a different, possibly cheaper, or more economical (meaning storytelling as much as budget) solution. Even Kubrick’s refusal to travel outside of London to film any of the scenes anywhere else in the world, which was originally the intention, resulted in the way The Dawn of Man looks. His mental issues about travel, particularly flying, meant he and his crew had to find solutions to the fact that were unable to film on location. The fact, for instance, that the leopard’s eyes reflect the light of the front-projection of the film slides, making it look unreal, and eerie – artificial – was a happy mistake, something he hadn’t anticipated, but he decided he liked it and chose to leave it that way rather than get his technicians to find a solution to the problem.

As he got closer and closer to having to present a final cut to MGM hierarchy, he decided to let some scenes run longer, and to remove other scenes. A lot of the things that Arthur C. Clarke had worked on, co-conceived, and written, over a period of three years, were removed in the final weeks of editing. Ideas that were core to the slender plot got excised and explanations and meaning was removed. If they’d stay it would have resulted in a less ambiguous plot but taken away so much of the inexplicable mystery of the film.

Kubrick pared back the human activity even further and took out the explanation for HAL’s breakdown and removed scenes explaining – developed through time-consuming groundbreaking research – the physics of the future. As he saw the special effects develop between 1965 and 1968, I’m sure he would have been blown away by how beautiful everything was. And as he saw the beauty of the space station and the Voyager ship, and the scene in the Louis XVI bedroom, I think he decided to celebrate the beauty with rich music (the space station), or by almost completely removing sound altogether (the bedroom).

As Kubrick got closer and closer to a finished film, meticulous research, and thousands of feet of film they’d exposed, was literally thrown away as the vision of what he could now see in his mind’s eye, of what the finished film might look like, came into focus. At the premiere, whatever he and the Heads of MGM had negotiated was on the screen. How he reacted to preview audiences and then, later, critics, and why he cut more out of his director’s cut, is a mystery. There must have been pressure on him by MGM as a result of the significant confusion and dislike the critics vented in the media.

How much he held his ground in the face of that criticism, and how much he knew to take on-board, is unknown. Whether the film was better with the other 19 minutes, or benefited from being leaner, no one can say. That he stood by his decision that the classical music he wanted to use would stay in the film, is a decision that made millions of dollars for the record companies and treated music in film in a way no one had done since the days of silent movies.

Kubrick realized his vision, no matter how much it had evolved over the years, and at the end of the day, history doesn’t record that the film was taken away from him. It doesn’t record that there were bitter fights about what he could keep in the film and what he had to let go. It doesn’t even record what the conversations were like when the MGM honchos tried to make sense of the film and asked him to explain it to them.

What we do know is that Kubrick had a lot of kudos from Spartacus, which made a lot of money in 1960. His next two films made money. He had a great deal of autonomy and worked on the film thousands of miles away from Hollywood. When the budget rose from $4.5 million to $6 million, and scared the pants off MGM when it went over the $10 million mark, it eventually made $21 million in the United States alone on its first release. It wasn’t as popular as Funny Girl but it was successful, keeping company with The Love BugThe Odd Couple, BullittRosemary’s Baby and Oliver!


In creating 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick made a film which for the majority of its running time is a film without words, which uses classical music sparingly but effectively, and pares back the use of sound effects to such an extent that the aural aspect of the film has more in common with an Ingmar Bergman film than it has with any Hollywood film that has a budget of several million dollars.

It tells a story, a lean one, but it ticks that box – which briefly takes over the film in the sequences with Frank, Dave and the HAL 9000, creating significant tension and humour – before reverting back to the journey that mankind began when they discovered intelligence and tools in the opening sequence, ending with the embryo of a new lifeform, overlooking the universe, following the death of the last human being the film shows us, Dave Bowman.

Like all good directors, Kubrick had to have an eye for talent. With Coppola, it was with actors in particular, as well as his faith in his own ability to write quality scripts. With Kubrick it was with technicians and crew. As I’ve discovered in reading about him, his research is voracious and his attention to detail, meticulous. He can command respect from his team while also infuriating others. No matter how true the bad stories are, there are stories that show that the ones he inspired outnumber the ones who resented him.

To illustrate the arc a director has to be able to traverse, and keep in view, and be able to rise above – becoming God, to an extent – there are three things in particular which I find interesting.

The Big Picture

Kubrick had a trainer work for a year with a leopard (for several seconds of the running time) to develop the act of the leopard attacking a man, safely, but convincing, which then became the attack on the ape.

Kubrick filmed a dead horse painted as a zebra, with a leopard sitting across it, and despite the stench, under the studio lights, made it look like it was in a desert.

Kubrick filmed and threw away months of special effects and entire – scripted and filmed – scenes, because he could SEE the film he wanted it to be when he had everything he wanted to film, assembled and screened. To spend $100,000 on this scene, or that scene, or even 10% or 20% of the entire budget, if it no longer fits within what the constantly developing vision is – I’m guessing don’t be precious or sentimental was his motto. Throw it away. Films are littered with the thrown away pieces of a writer’s favourite dialogue between characters, or a director’s greatest images. When an author writes a chapter in a book that no longer fits into the scheme of things, it’s easier to delete. When you spend tens of thousands or tens of millions to create that chapter or scene, and it no longer fits into the larger picture, I can only imagine how much harder it is to delete it.

The above article written by Philip Powers is protected by copyright and under Fair Use, 10% of it may be quoted or reproduced, if properly credited, in another work. It may not be reproduced in its entirety in any form without the written consent of the author. The author can be contacted at philiprwpowers@gmail.com. © 2017