Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Seduced by Mrs Robinson by Beverly Gray

So here’s to you…

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The Graduate was released in 1967 and won an Oscar for its director, Mike Nichols. Beverly Gray was at the same stage of her life as the young hero of the movie, Benjamin Braddock – just leaving college and part of a generation that was seeking something different to the plans their parents had made for them. This book is partly about the making of the film, partly about the influence it has had on later culture, but mostly about the impact it had on Gray herself and her peers. Because of the type of book it is, it’s of course full of spoilers for the movie, and so will be this review.

I’m maybe a decade younger than Gray and The Graduate didn’t have the same impact on me when I first saw it, on TV probably in the late 70s (and quite probably with some bits cut, I’d imagine – British TV was like that back then). I liked it well enough and loved the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, but it didn’t speak to me about my life. I thought of it as an enjoyable rom-com – a bit racy, perhaps, but by the late ’70s, frankly, what wasn’t? So I was intrigued to see if Gray would deepen my appreciation for it.

Gray starts by discussing her own reaction to the film on its release, and how those reactions have changed somewhat as she has swapped the optimism of youth for the realism (or cynicism or pessimism, depending on how you look at it) of experience. The ending in particular – seen at the time as a hopeful rejection of their parents’ values – seems more ambiguous looking back. OK, so they’d run off – now what?

She then goes back in time a little to discuss the origin of the film and its production, She introduces us to the writer of the original book, Charles Webb, and tells us about his own life on which he drew somewhat for the plot (though his affair with his parents’ friend was purely wishful thinking). The book didn’t take off at first – reviews I’ve read of it suggest it’s not terribly well written. Gray says it was compared in style to The Catcher in the Rye and clearly was in the same vein of trying to capture that generational shift that happened in America during the ’60s. Although the film came out in ’67 at the height of Vietnam, the book places it closer to ’62, which is why Benjamin is not living in fear of being drafted. Despite its relative lack of success, it attracted the attention of an aspiring movie producer, Larry Turman, who managed to get Mike Nichols interested, and also persuaded backer Joe E Levine to put up the money.

Gray then takes us through the making of the film, though more from the perspective of the people than the technical side of it. We learn how the young Dustin Hoffman got the role, how Nichols got the performances out of his stars, whose leg it actually is in the rolling up the stocking scene. (Admit it – you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? Send me chocolate and I might tell you…)

Then she takes us through the film scene by scene, pointing out some of the techniques and effects Nichols used. I found this was the perfect stage to re-watch the movie. This is an interesting section, done well, getting a nice balance between detail and overall impression. It’s done from the perspective of the viewer rather than the film-makers, so she points out what has been done rather than how it was done. For example, she points out the use of mirrors, glass and reflections throughout the film, or tiny details like Ben being anti-smoking before his rebellion and then taking up smoking at round about the same time as he… ahem… takes up with Mrs Robinson. These are all the things I never notice, so I found this added a lot to my appreciation of how Nichols achieved his story-telling effects.

The final section tells us how the film impacted on the later careers of its stars, not always positively, and how it has been referenced in popular culture in the decades since its release. Some of this made my eyes glaze over a bit, partly because a lot of the references related to specifically American things, like ads, and partly because, not being an avid movie watcher, I hadn’t seen a lot of the films she mentioned. However it would work better for American cinema enthusiasts, I’m sure.

Gray writes lightly and conversationally, with a good deal of fairly waspish humour sprinkled over the pages, and the book is enjoyable to read. It doesn’t have the depth of a deeply researched production critique (like Citizen Kane, for instance), but that’s not its aim. The personal aspect of how it touched Gray and her generation adds interest, though occasionally she has a tendency to dismiss any interpretation of it that differs from her own. And of course it relates directly only to a small subset of that generation – well off, college educated, white – something Gray doesn’t really acknowledge, at least not explicitly.

I enjoyed the read and the re-watch it inspired, and I found, like Gray, that my advancing years had made that ending look a lot deeper than my young self had spotted. In fact, the final scene of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus feels much less victorious to me now. Gray explains how Nichols managed to catch the ambiguous expressions on the actors’ faces, almost by accident, and yet it gives the film a depth and poignancy it might not otherwise have had.

If like me you haven’t watched it in years, treat yourself to a movie night – it has more than stood the test of time. And if you’re a fan of the film, then I happily recommend the book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Algonquin Books.

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Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

Geeky, but in a good way…

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citizen kaneAs a casual and totally unknowledgeable movie watcher, I’ve never appreciated Citizen Kane as much as I feel I should. I’ve always been aware that the reason for this is that largely I watch films on a pretty superficial level, for the plot and acting, whereas often with these films that are designated as ‘great’ it’s as much for cinematography, innovative technique etc. So this looked like the perfect book to help me understand just what it is I’m missing about a film that is often cited as the greatest movie ever made.

In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He points out that there are a lot of myths around the film, many of them created by Welles himself for the fun of it. He proposes to debunk at least some of these myths (none of which I knew anyway) at the same time as getting to the truth behind the mythology. He recommends having the film set up ready to watch each scene as it’s discussed. I heartily agree with this advice – it added a lot to my understanding of the more technical side of the book to be able to see what Lebo was describing. I also watched the film all through to refresh my memory of it before I began reading, and that was useful too.

The "intimate" surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu
The “intimate” surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu

Lebo starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO. His notoriety following the famous War of the Worlds broadcast had made him hot property, with every studio wanting to sign him. RKO won the bidding war by offering him unprecedented artistic freedom to produce, write, direct and star in his own movies – all this when he was just 25. He was granted things previously unheard of, such as the right to determine the final cut. Hollywood was agog, and split between those who were pleased to see artistic control handed over in this way and those who resented the meteoric rise of this inexperienced and as yet untested young man. Lebo gives a good idea of how, at this time, Hollywood studios were throwing money at people they hoped would bring a good return.

Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it.

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated inot various languages, with 'real' stories even though they mostly can't be read except in stills...
Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

One of the bits I found most interesting was the creation of the script, over which there is apparently some debate about who should have had the major credit. By examining the various drafts, Lebo shows how the idea originated out of a kind of brainstorming between Welles and scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who then went on to produce a very lengthy and wordy script. Lebo then shows how Welles went about paring this down and down, partly for budgetary requirements, but mainly because he intended to use the camera to tell the story as much as the words. I found reading the original extracts and then watching the final version gave a real idea of how Welles’ directorial skills enabled him to keep the thing lean without losing the intrinsic essence of it.

Lebo also goes into huge detail on the cinematography of Gregg Toland, who was thrilled to be working for a director who wanted to try out new things. He made me aware of things my usual careless watching would never have let me notice, such as the, for then, unusual fact that the rooms have ceilings, or that many of the shots are filmed from unusually low angles, or that the focus is entirely different from many movies of that time by having everything in focus simultaneously.

How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor's paper at breakfast...
How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor’s paper at breakfast…

In similar vein, Lebo shows how budget restrictions led in part to the empty look of some of the sets, especially in the Thatcher archives scene and the Great Hall at Xanadu, giving the film a distinctive and unique look enhanced again by Welles choosing to put in echoes to emphasise and use rather than hide the vast bareness. And he contrasts that with the detail of, for example, the props in Susan’s various rooms all of which add to her character almost subliminally – the rather childish stencilling on the walls, the dolls on the bed and so on. These are just some examples – every aspect of the making of the film is covered in similar detail: music, special effects, editing, etc., etc.

In the final section, Lebo covers the controversy that nearly stopped the film from being released – the suggestion that it was based on the life of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, whose organisation and supporters did everything they could to have it suppressed and very nearly succeeded. To be honest, initially I thought this would be the bit of the book that intrigued me most, but actually I found all the production stuff much more interesting.

To create poor Susan's opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice. (Herrman's music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely...)
To create poor Susan’s opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice.
(Herrmann’s music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely…)

So the burning question is – did it all make me like the film more? Well, I waited a few days and then watched it again. And… I fear not! I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. But… nope! It still just doesn’t do it for me. Oh well, never mind! I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness. I think we all know which category I fall into…

One last word: “Rosebud!”

citizen kane snow
Such a sweet child too. Ah, where did it all go wrong…?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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Book 8
Book 7