Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Kubrick

Thinkers of the unthinkable

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At the symposium that I attended over the weekend, the figure whose name seemed to come up the most was Herman Kahn, the futurologist and military strategist best known for his book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn died in 1983, but he still looms large over futures studies, and there was a period in which he was equally inescapable in the mainstream. As Louis Menand writes in a harshly critical piece in The New Yorker: “Herman Kahn was the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals, the men who, in the early years of the Cold War, made it their business to think about the unthinkable, and to design the game plan for nuclear war—how to prevent it, or, if it could not be prevented, how to win it, or, if it could not be won, how to survive it…The message of [his] book seemed to be that thermonuclear war will be terrible but we’ll get over it.” And it isn’t surprising that Kahn engaged in a dialogue throughout his life with science fiction. In her book The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi relates:

Early in life [Kahn] discovered science fiction, and he remained an avid reader throughout adulthood. While it nurtured in him a rich appreciation for plausible possibilities, [his collaborator Anthony] Wiener observed that Kahn was quite clear about the purposes to which he put his own scenarios. “Herman would say, ‘Don’t imagine that it’s an arbitrary choice as though you were writing science fiction, where every interesting idea is worth exploring.’ He would have insisted on that. The scenario must focus attention on a possibility that would be important if it occurred.” The heuristic or explanatory value of a scenario mattered more to him than its accuracy.

Yet Kahn’s thinking was inevitably informed by the genre. Ghamari-Tabrizi, who refers to nuclear strategy as an “intuitive science,” sees hints of “the scientist-sleuth pulp hero” in On Thermonuclear War, which is just another name for the competent man, and Kahn himself openly acknowledged the speculative thread in his work: “What you are doing today fundamentally is organizing a Utopian society. You are sitting down and deciding on paper how a society at war works.” On at least one occasion, he invoked psychohistory directly. In the revised edition of the book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn writes of one potential trigger for a nuclear war:

Here we turn from historical fact to science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels describe a galaxy where there is a planet of technicians who have developed a long-term plan for the survival of civilization. The plan is devised on the basis of a scientific calculation of history. But the plan is upset and the technicians are conquered by an interplanetary adventurer named the Mule. He appears from nowhere, a biological mutant with formidable personal abilities—an exception to the normal laws of history. By definition, such mutants rarely appear but they are not impossible. In a sense, we have already seen a “mule” in this century—Hitler—and another such “mutant” could conceivably come to power in the Soviet Union.

And it’s both frightening and revealing, I think, that Kahn—even as he was thinking about the unthinkable—doesn’t take the next obvious step, and observe that such a mutant could also emerge in the United States.

Asimov wouldn’t have been favorably inclined toward the notion of a “winnable” nuclear war, but Kahn did become friendly with a writer whose attitudes were more closely aligned with his own. In the second volume of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, William H. Patterson describes the first encounter between the two men:

By September 20, 1962, [the Heinleins] were in Las Vegas…[They] met Dr. Edward Teller, who had been so supportive of the Patrick Henry campaign, as well as one of Teller’s colleagues, Herman Kahn. Heinlein’s ears pricked up when he was introduced to this jolly, bearded fat man who looked, he said, more like a young priest than one of the sharpest minds in current political thinking…Kahn was a science fiction reader and most emphatically a Heinlein fan.

Three years later, Heinlein attended a seminar, “The Next Ten Years: Scenarios and Possibilities,” that Kahn held at the Hudson Institute in New York. Heinlein—who looked like Quixote to Kahn’s Sancho Panza—was flattered by the reception:

If I attend an ordinary cocktail party, perhaps two or three out of a large crowd will know who I am. If I go to a political meeting or a church or such, I may not be spotted at all…But at Hudson Institute, over two-thirds of the staff and over half of the students button-holed me. This causes me to have a high opinion of the group—its taste, IQ, patriotism, sex appeal, charm, etc. Writers are incurably conceited and pathologically unsure of themselves; they respond to stroking the way a cat does.

And it wasn’t just the “stroking” that Heinlein liked, of course. He admired Thinking About the Unthinkable and On Thermonuclear War, both of which would be interesting to read alongside Farnham’s Freehold, which was published just a few years later. Both Heinlein and Kahn thought about the future through stories, in a pursuit that carried a slightly disreputable air, as Kahn implied in his use of the word “scenario”:

As near as I can tell, the term scenario was first used in this sense in a group I worked with at the RAND Corporation. We deliberately choose the word to deglamorize the concept. In writing the scenarios for various situations, we kept saying “Remember, it’s only a scenario,” the kind of thing that is produced by Hollywood writers, both hacks and geniuses.

You could say much the same about science fiction. And perhaps it’s appropriate that Kahn’s most lasting cultural contribution came out of Hollywood. Along with Wernher von Braun, he was one of the two most likely models for the title character in Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn’s work—the two men met a number of times—and Kahn’s reaction to the film was that of a writer, not a scientist. As Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

The Doomsday Machine was Kahn’s idea. “Since Stanley lifted lines from On Thermonuclear War without change but out of context,” Khan told reporters, he thought he was entitled to royalties from the film. He pestered him several times about it, but Kubrick held firm. “It doesn’t work that way!” he snapped, and that was that.

The dawn of man

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

Almost from the moment that critics began to write about 2001, it became fashionable to observe that the best performance in the movie was by an actor playing a computer. In his review in Analog, for example, P. Schuyler Miller wrote:

The actors, except for the gentle voice of HAL, are thoroughly wooden and uninteresting, and I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t Kubrick’s subtle way of suggesting that the computer is really more “human” than they and fully justified in trying to get rid of them before they louse up an important mission. Someday we may know whether the theme of this part is a Clarke or a Kubrick contribution. I suspect it was the latter…perhaps just because Stanley Kubrick is said to like gadgets.

This criticism is often used to denigrate the other performances or the film’s supposed lack of humanity, but I prefer to take it as a tribute to the work of actor Douglas Rain, Kubrick and Clarke’s script, and the brilliant design of HAL himself. The fact that a computer is the character we remember best isn’t a flaw in the movie, but a testament to its skill and imagination. And as I’ve noted elsewhere, the acting is excellent—it’s just so understated and naturalistic that it seems vaguely incongruous in such spectacular settings. (Compare it to the performances in Destination Moon, for instance, and you see how good Keir Dullea and William Sylvester really are here.)

But I also think that the best performance in 2001 isn’t by Douglas Rain at all, but by Vivian Kubrick, in her short appearance on the phone as Heywood Floyd’s daughter. It’s a curious scene that breaks many of the rules of good storytelling—it doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s evidently designed to do nothing but show off a piece of hardware, and it peters out even as we watch it. The funniest line in the movie may be Floyd’s important message:

Listen, sweetheart, I want you to tell mommy something for me. Will you remember? Well, tell mommy that I telephoned. Okay? And that I’ll try to telephone tomorrow. Now will you tell her that?

But that’s oddly true to life as well. And when I watch the scene today, with a five-year-old daughter of my own, it seems to me that there’s no more realistic little girl in all of movies. (Kubrick shot the scene himself, asking the questions from offscreen, and there’s a revealing moment when the camera rises to stay with Vivian as she stands. This is sometimes singled out as a goof, although there’s no reason why a sufficiently sophisticated video phone wouldn’t be able to track her automatically.) It’s a scene that few other films would have even thought to include, and now that video chat is something that we all take for granted, we can see through the screen to the touchingly sweet girl on the other side. On some level, Kubrick simply wanted his daughter to be in the movie, and you can’t blame him.

At the time, 2001 was criticized as a soulless hunk of technology, but now it seems deeply human, at least compared to many of its imitators. Yesterday in the New York Times, Bruce Handy shared a story from Keir Dullea, who explained why he breaks the glass in the hotel room at the end, just before he comes face to face with himself as an old man:

Originally, Stanley’s concept for the scene was that I’d just be eating and hear something and get up. But I said, “Stanley, let me find some slightly different way that’s kind of an action where I’m reaching—let me knock the glass off, and then in mid-gesture, when I’m bending over to pick it up, let me hear the breathing from that bent-over position.” That’s all. And he says, “Oh, fine. That sounds good.” I just wanted to find a different way to play the scene than blankly hearing something. I just thought it was more interesting.

I love this anecdote, not just because it’s an example of an evocative moment that arose from an actor’s pragmatic considerations, but because it feels like an emblem of the production of the movie as a whole. 2001 remains the most technically ambitious movie of all time, but it was also a project in which countless issues were being figured out on the fly. Every solution was a response to a specific problem, and it covered a dizzying range of challenges—from the makeup for the apes to the air hostess walking upside down—that might have come from different movies entirely.

2001, in short, was made by hand—and it’s revealing that many viewers assume that computers had to be involved, when they didn’t figure in the process at all. (All of the “digital” readouts on the spacecraft, for instance, were individually animated, shot on separate reels of film, and projected onto those tiny screens on set, which staggers me even to think about it. And even after all these years, I still can’t get my head around the techniques behind the Star Gate sequence.) It reminds me, in fact, of another movie that happens to be celebrating an anniversary this year. As a recent video essay pointed out, if the visual effects in Jurassic Park have held up so well, it’s because most of them aren’t digital at all. The majority consist of a combination of practical effects, stop motion, animatronics, raptor costumes, and a healthy amount of misdirection, with computers used only when absolutely necessary. Each solution is targeted at the specific problems presented by a snippet of film that might last just for a few seconds, and it moves so freely from one trick to another that we rarely have a chance to see through it. It’s here, not in A.I., that Spielberg got closest to Kubrick, and it hints at something important about the movies that push the technical aspects of the medium. They’re often criticized for an absence of humanity, but in retrospect, they seem achingly human, if only because of the total engagement and attention that was required for every frame. Most of their successors lack the same imaginative intensity, which is a greater culprit than the use of digital tools themselves. Today, computers are used to create effects that are perfect, but immediately forgettable. And one of the wonderful ironies of 2001 is that it used nothing but practical effects to create a computer that no viewer can ever forget.

The cosmic order

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

On April 2, 1968, the world premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey was held at the Uptown Theater, a movie palace in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Two days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots throughout the country, including the nation’s capital. At first, this might seem like another reminder of how we unconsciously compartmentalize the past, filing events into separate categories, like the moon landing and the Manson killings, that actually unfolded in a confused present tense. Three years ago, the artist Edgar Arceneaux released an experimental film, A Time to Break Silence, that tried to go deeper, explaining in an interview:

Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and Dr. King were formulating their ideas about the duality of technology, which can be used as both a weapon and tool, during the same time period. As the psychic trauma of Dr. King’s death had the nation in a raw state of anger and uncertainty, a film chronicling the genealogy of humanity’s troubled future with technology is released in theaters.

More often, however, we tend to picture the political upheavals of the sixties as moving along a separate track from the decade’s scientific and technological achievements. In his book on the making of 2001, the journalist Piers Bizony writes of its visual effects team: “The optimism of Kubrick’s technologists seemed unquenchable. Perhaps, like their counterparts at Cape Kennedy, they were just too busy in their intense and closed-off little world to notice Vietnam, Martin Luther King, LSD, the counterculture?”

But that isn’t really true. John W. Campbell liked to remind his authors: “The future doesn’t happen one at a time.” And neither does the past or the present. We find, for instance, that King himself—who was a man who thought about everything—spoke and wrote repeatedly about the space program. At first, like many others, he saw it through the lens of national security, saying in a speech on February 2, 1959: “In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death though the stratosphere, nobody can win a war.” Yet it remained on his mind, and images of space began to appear more often in his public statements over the following year. A few months later, in a sermon titled “Unfulfilled Hopes,” he said:

We look out at the stars; we find ourselves saying that these stars shine from their cold and serene and passionless height, totally indifferent to the joys and sorrows of men. We begin to ask, is man a plaything of a callous nature, sometimes friendly and sometimes inimical? Is man thrown out as a sort of orphan in the terrifying immensities of space, with nobody to guide him on and nobody concerned about him? These are the questions we ask, and we ask them because there is an element of tragedy in life.

And King proclaimed in a commencement speech at Morehouse College in June: “Man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. He has been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and is now making preparations for a trip to the moon. These revolutionary changes have brought us into a space age. The world is now geographically one.”

King’s attitude toward space was defined by a familiar tension. On one hand, space travel is a testament to our accomplishments as a species; on the other, it diminishes our achievements by forcing us to confront the smallness of our place in the universe. On December 11, 1960, King emphasized this point in a sermon at the Unitarian Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania:

All of our new developments can banish God neither from the microcosmic compass of the atom nor from the vast unfathomable ranges of interstellar space, living in a universe in which we are forced to measure stellar distance by light years, confronted with the illimitable expanse of the universe in which stars are five hundred million billion miles from the Earth, which heavenly bodies travel at incredible speed and in which the ages of planets are reckoned in terms of billions of years. Modern man is forced to cry out with the solace of old: “When I behold the heavens, the work of thy hands, the moon, the stars, and all that thou hast created, what is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou remembereth him?”

In 1963, King made the comparison more explicit in his book The Strength to Love: “Let us notice, first, that God is able to sustain the vast scope of the physical universe. Here again, we are tempted to feel that man is the true master of the physical universe. Manmade jet planes compress into minutes distances that formerly required weeks of tortuous effort. Manmade spaceships carry cosmonauts through outer space at fantastic speeds. Is God not being replaced in the mastery of the cosmic order?” But after reminding us of the scale of the distances involved, King concludes: “We are forced to look beyond man and affirm anew that God is able.”

This seems very much in the spirit of 2001, which is both a hymn to technology and a meditation on human insignificance. For King, however, the contrast between the triumphs of engineering and the vulnerability of the individual wasn’t just an abstract notion, but a reflection of urgent practical decisions that had to be made here and now. Toward the end of his life, he framed it as a choice of priorities, as he did in a speech in 1967: “John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed national income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on Earth.” The following year, speaking to the Rabbinical Assembly in the Catskills, he was even more emphatic: “It must be made clear now that there are some programs that we can cut back on—the space program and certainly the war in Vietnam—and get on with this program of a war on poverty.” And on March 18, 1968, King said to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, whom he would visit again on the day before he died:

I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we are able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.” It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not, I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.”

How the solar system was won

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

When Stanley Kubrick hired Arthur C. Clarke to work on the project that became 2001: A Space Odyssey, they didn’t have a title, a plot, or even much in the way of a premise. In Kubrick’s introductory letter to the author, he had written only that his interest lay in “these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character”:

1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on earth in the near future.
3. A space probe with a landing and exploration of the moon and Mars.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that almost none of what Kubrick describes here ended up in the finished film. The existence of extraterrestrial life is the anthropic assumption on which the entire story rests; there’s no real attempt to sketch in the larger social context; and the discovery of the alien artifact—far from having any impact on society—remains a secret until the end to all but a few scientists. There’s already a thriving colony on the moon when the main action of the story really starts, and Heywood Floyd only turns up after the monolith has been found. All that remains of Kubrick’s original conception, in fact, is a vague feeling that he tried to convey early in their partnership, which Clarke remembered later as the desire to make “a movie about man’s relation to the universe—something which had never been attempted, still less achieved, in the history of motion pictures.”

In this respect, they undoubtedly succeeded, and a lot of it had to do with Kubrick’s choice of collaborator. Yesterday, I suggested that Kubrick settled on Clarke because he was more likely than the other obvious candidates to be available for the extended writing process that the director had in mind. (This was quite an assumption, since it meant that Clarke had to be away from his home in Ceylon for more than a year, but it turned out to be right.) Yet Clarke was also uniquely qualified to write about “man’s relation to the universe,” and in particular about aliens who were far in advance of the human race. As Isaac Asimov has memorably explained, this was a plot point that was rarely seen in Astounding, mostly because of John W. Campbell’s personal prejudices:

[Campbell] was a devout believer in the inequality of man and felt that the inequality could be detected by outer signs such as skin and hair coloring…In science fiction, this translated itself into the Campbellesque theory that earthmen (all of whom, in the ideal Campbell story, resembled, people of northwestern European extraction) were superior to all other intelligent races.

Clarke had broken through in Astounding after the war—his stories “Loophole” and “Rescue Party” appeared in 1946—but geographical distance and foreign rights issues had kept him from being shaped by Campbell to any real extent. As a result, he was free to indulge in such works as Childhood’s End, the ultimate story about superior aliens, which was inspired by Campbell’s novel The Mightiest Machine but ran its first installment in the British magazine New Worlds.

Clarke, in short, was unquestionably part of the main sequence of hard science fiction that Campbell had inaugurated, but he was also open to exploring enormous, borderline mystical questions that emphasized mankind’s insignificance. (At his best, in such stories as “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God,” he managed to combine clever twist endings with a shattering sense of scale in a way that no other writer has ever matched.) It was this unlikely combination of wit, technical rigor, and awareness of the infinite that made him ideally suited to Kubrick, and they promptly embarked on one of the most interesting collaborations in the history of the genre. As an example of a symbiotic organism, the only comparable example is Campbell and the young Asimov, except that Clarke and Kubrick were both mature artists at the peak of their talents. Fortunately for us, Clarke kept a journal, and he provided excerpts in two fascinating essays, “Christmas, Shepperton” and “Monoliths and Manuscripts,” which were published in the collection The Lost Worlds of 2001. The entries offer a glimpse of a process that ranged freely in all directions, with both men pursuing trains of thought as far as they would go before abandoning them for something better. As Clarke writes:

It was [Kubrick’s] suggestion that, before embarking on the drudgery of the script, we let our imaginations soar freely by developing the story in the form of a complete novel…After various false starts and twelve-hour talkathons, by early May 1964 Stanley agreed that [Clarke’s short story] “The Sentinel” would provide good story material. But our first concept—and it is hard now for me to focus on such an idea, though it would have been perfectly viable—involved working up to the discovery of an extraterrestrial artifact as the climax, not the beginning, of the story. Before that, we would have a series of incidents or adventures devoted to the exploration of the moon and planets…[for which] our private title (never of course intended for public use) was How the Solar System Was Won.

And while 2001 arguably made its greatest impact on audiences with its meticulous art direction and special effects, Kubrick’s approach to writing was equally obsessive. He spent a full year developing the story with Clarke before approaching the studio for financing, and although they soon realized that the premise of “The Sentinel” would work better as an inciting incident, rather than as the ending, the notion of “incidents or adventures” persisted in the finished script. The film basically consists of four loosely connected episodes, the most memorable of which—the story of HAL 9000—could be eliminated without fundamentally affecting the others. But if it feels like an organic whole, this is largely thanks to the decision to develop far more material than could ever fit into a novel, much less a movie. (Clarke’s diary entries are filled with ideas that were dropped or transformed in the final version: “The people we meet on the other star system are humans who were collected from earth a hundred thousand years ago, and hence are virtually identical to us.” “What if our E.T.s are stranded on earth and need the ape-men to help them?” And then there’s the startling line, which Clarke, who was discreetly gay, records without comment: “Stanley has invented the wild idea of slightly fag robots who create a Victorian environment to put our heroes at their ease.”) It verged on a private version of development hell, without any studio notes or interference, and it’s hard to imagine any other director who could have done it. 2001 started a revolution in visual effects, but its writing process was just as remarkable, and we still haven’t caught up to it yet. Even Clarke, whose life it changed, found Kubrick’s perfectionism hard to take, and he concluded: “In the long run, everything came out all right—exactly as Stanley had predicted. But I can think of easier ways of earning a living.”

When Clarke Met Kubrick

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

“I’m reading everything by everybody,” Stanley Kubrick said one day over lunch in New York. It was early 1964, and he was eating at Trader Vic’s with Roger A. Caras, a wildlife photographer and studio publicist who was working at the time for Columbia Pictures. Dr. Strangelove had just been released, and after making small talk about their favorite brand of telescope, Caras asked the director what he had in mind for his next project. Kubrick replied that he was thinking about “something on extraterrestrials,” but he didn’t have a writer yet, and in the meantime, he was consuming as much science fiction as humanly possible. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what he was reading, which is a frustrating omission in the career of a filmmaker whose archives have been the subject of so many exhaustive studies. In his biography of Kubrick, Vincent Lobrutto writes tantalizingly of this period: “Every day now boxes of science fiction and fact books were being delivered to his apartment. Kubrick was immersing himself in a subject he would soon know better than most experts. His capacity to grasp and disseminate information stunned many who worked with him.” Lobrutto notes that Kubrick took much the same approach a decade later on the project that became The Shining, holing up in his office with “stacks of horror books,” and the man with whom he would eventually collaborate on 2001 recalled of their first meeting: “[Kubrick] had already absorbed an immense amount of science fact and science fiction, and was in some danger of believing in flying saucers.” At their lunch that day at Trader Vic’s, however, Caras seemed to think that all of this work was unnecessary, and he told this to Kubrick in no uncertain terms: “Why waste your time? Why not just start with the best?”

Let’s pause the tape here for a moment to consider what other names Caras might plausibly have said. A year earlier, in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” Isaac Asimov provided what we can take as a fairly representative summary of the state of the genre:

Robert A. Heinlein is usually considered the leading light among good science fiction writers. Others with a fine grasp of science and a fascinatingly imaginative view of its future possibilities are Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, James Blish, Clifford D. Smiak, Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Walter Miller, A.J. Budrys…These are by no means all.

Even accounting for the writer and the time period, there are a few noticeable omissions—it’s surprising not to see Lester del Rey, for instance, and A.E. van Vogt, who might not have qualified as what Asimov saw as “good science fiction,” had been voted one of the top four writers in the field in a pair of polls a few years earlier. It’s also necessary to add Asimov himself, who at the time was arguably the science fiction writer best known to general readers. (In 1964, he would even be mentioned briefly in Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, which was the perfect intersection of the highbrow and the mainstream.) Arthur C. Clarke’s high ranking wasn’t just a matter of personal affection, either—he and Asimov later became good friends, but when the article was published, they had only met a handful of times. Clarke, in other words, was clearly a major figure. But it seems fair to say that anyone claiming to name “the best” science fiction writer in the field might very well have gone with Asimov or Heinlein instead.

Caras, of course, recommended Clarke, whom he had first met five years earlier at a weekend in Boston with Jacques Cousteau. Kubrick was under the impression that Clarke was a recluse, “a nut who lives in a tree in India someplace,” and after being reassured that he wasn’t, the director became excited: “Jesus, get in touch with him, will you?” Caras sent Clarke a telegram to ask about his availability, and when the author said that he was “frightfully interested,” Kubrick wrote him a fateful letter:

It’s a very interesting coincidence that our mutual friend Caras mentioned you in a conversation we were having about a Questar telescope. I had been a great admirer of your books for quite a time and had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial “really good” science-fiction movie…Roger tells me you are planning to come to New York this summer. Do you have an inflexible schedule? If not, would you consider coming sooner with a view to a meeting, the purpose of which would be to determine whether an idea might exist or arise which could sufficiently interest both of us enough to want to collaborate on a screenplay?

This account of the conversation differs slightly from Caras’s recollection—Kubrick doesn’t say that they were actively discussing potential writers for a film project, and he may have been flattering Clarke slightly with the statement that he had “always wanted” to talk about a movie with him. But it worked. Clarke wrote back to confirm his interest, and the two men finally met in New York on April 22, where the author did his best to talk Kubrick out of his newfound interest in flying saucers.

But why Clarke? At the time, Kubrick was living on the Upper East Side, which placed him within walking distance of many science fiction authors who were considerably closer than Ceylon, and it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if he had approached Heinlein or Asimov, both of whom would have been perfectly sensible choices. A decade earlier, Heinlein made a concerted effort to break into Hollywood with the screenplays for Destination Moon and Project Moon Base, and the year before, he had written an unproduced teleplay for a proposed television show called Century XXII. (Kubrick studied Destination Moon for its special effects, if not for its story, as we learn from the correspondence of none other than Roger Caras, who had gone to work for Kubrick’s production company.) Asimov, for his part, was more than willing to explore such projects—in years to come, he would meet to discuss movies with Woody Allen and Paul McCartney, and I’ve written elsewhere about his close encounter with Steven Spielberg. But if Kubrick went with Clarke instead, it wasn’t just because they had a friend in common. At that point, Clarke was a highly respected writer, but not yet a celebrity outside the genre, and the idea of a “Big Three” consisting of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein was still a decade away. His talent was undeniable, but he was also a more promising candidate for the kind of working relationship that the director had in mind, which Kubrick later estimated as “four hours a day, six days a week” for more than three years. I suspect that Kubrick recognized what might best be described as a structural inefficiency in the science fiction market. The time and talents of one of the most qualified writers imaginable happened to be undervalued and available at just the right moment. When the opportunity came, Kubrick seized it. And it turned out to be one hell of a bargain.

American Stories #6: The Shining

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

“Vanderbilts have stayed here, and Rockefellers, and Astors, and Du Ponts,” Stuart Ullmann, the manager of the Overlook Hotel, smugly informs Jack Torrance in the opening pages of Stephen King’s The Shining. “Four presidents have stayed in the Presidential Suite. Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon.” After Torrance replies that they shouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon, Ullmann adds, frowning, that the hotel was later purchased by a man named Horace Derwent, “millionaire inventor, pilot, film producer, and entrepreneur.” Just in case we don’t make the connection, here’s what Torrance, now the caretaker, thinks to himself about Derwent hundreds of pages later, while leafing through the scrapbook that he finds in the hotel’s basement:

[Derwent was] a balding man with eyes that pierced you even from an old newsprint photo. He was wearing rimless spectacles and a forties-style pencil mustache that did nothing at all to make him look like Errol Flynn. His face was that of an accountant. It was the eyes that made him look like someone or something else…[His movie studio] ground out sixty movies, fifty-five of which glided right into the face of the Hayes Office and spit on its large blue nose…During one of them an unnamed costume designer had jury-rigged a strapless bra for the heroine to appear in during the Grand Ball scene, where she revealed everything except possibly the birthmark just below the cleft of her buttocks. Derwent received credit for this invention as well, and his reputation—or notoriety—grew…Living in Chicago, seldom seen except for Derwent Enterprises board meetings…it was supposed by many that he was the richest man in the world.

There’s only one mogul who fits that description, and it isn’t William Randolph Hearst. By hitching his story to the myth of Howard Hughes, who died shortly before the novel’s publication but would have been alive during much of its conception and writing, King taps into an aspect of the American experience symbolized by his reclusive subject, the aviator, engineer, and movie producer who embodied all of his nation’s virtues and vices before succumbing gradually to madness. It’s no surprise that Hughes has fascinated directors as obsessive as Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty, Christopher Nolan—who shelved a Hughes biopic to focus instead on the similar figure of Batman—and even Orson Welles, whose last film, F for Fake, included an extended meditation on the Clifford Irving hoax. As for Stanley Kubrick, who once listed Hughes’s Hell’s Angels among his favorite movies, he could hardly have missed the implication. (If we see the Overlook’s mysterious owner at all in the movie, it’s in the company of the otherwise inexplicable man in the dog costume, who is identified in the novel as Derwent’s lover, while in the sequel Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read, King evidently associates him with the ghost who offers the toast to Wendy: “Great party, isn’t it?”) The film’s symbols have been analyzed to death, but they only externalize themes that are there in the novel, and although King was dissatisfied by the result, his attempt to treat this material more explicitly in the later miniseries only shows how right Kubrick was to use them instead as the building blocks of a visual language. The Overlook is a stage for reenacting the haunted history of its nation, much of which can only be expressed as a ghost story, and it isn’t finished yet. Looking at the pictures in the scrapbook from the hotel’s grand opening in 1945, Torrance thinks: “The war was over, or almost over. The future lay ahead, clean and shining.”

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2018 at 7:46 am

The act of killing

with one comment

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

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