“The Ultimate Trip” Returns: 2001 In 2008
I have a friendly disagreement with a journalist-screenwriter friend of mine, Mike Tunison. He thinks the movie that changed his view of life, the universe and everything, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, was Star Wars. For me, it was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (www.oscars.org) held a sold-out event April 25 to honor the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s remarkable adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” hosted by Tom Hanks. After the presentation in 70 millimeter, six-track sound, as it was originally shown, there was a panel discussion with actors Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, effects artist Bruce Logan and Daniel Richter, a mime who wound up playing the ape known as Moonwatcher and took nine months to choreograph the animal movements in the “Dawn of Man” sequence.
Hanks delivered a long but charming speech prior to the screening itself, introducing celebrities including former astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. “I believe Buzz is called Buzz,” Hanks explained deferentially, “because everyone talks about Buzz when he leaves the room.”
Hanks recalled his reading the Mad magazine piece entitled “201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy” before actually seeing the film for the first time at a domed theatre near the Oakland Coliseum. He marveled at the transition Kubrick created between an ape tossing a bone—newly invented as a weapon—into the air, and its transition into a spacecraft: “In the history of cinema, there has never been as great a time cut…or one that has cut out as much time.”
After the screening, culminating with the still visually transporting “star gate corridor” and the otherworldly music of Gyorgy Ligeti—perhaps leading to the film’s original promotional copy of “The Ultimate Trip”—Trumbull elucidated many of the technical aspects of making 2001. He reminded the Samuel Goldwyn theatre crowd that there were no computers used in the making of the film, that sixteen separate16-millimeter cameras were synched up to project data screens inside the depicted spacecraft.
There was no optical printing to be had, as George Lucas did during the production of Star Wars. So, when Kubrick wanted to project an ancient landscape for the apes in the beginning of the film, it involved a mindboggling use of 20,000 watt arc lamps, front projection onto a surface that was 50 percent mirrored with reflective beads and temperatures in the studio that reached 130 degrees. Richter recalled bulbs constantly exploded and had to be replaced, especially whenever a studio door was opened and a jetstream of air entered the space.
Lockwood tried to dispel the legend of Kubrick as a director who shot numerous takes, pushing actors to the brink, insisting that the only scene that required a lot of takes was when he and Dullea were inside a pod and had their lips read by soon-to-be renegade computer HAL-9000. He contended it was 35 takes. But forty years did not diminish the memory of Richter, who as Moonwatcher had to kill a fellow actor-ape named Richard Wood 42 times. Perhaps Edmund Kean was wrong when he said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Dullea wrung applause from the audience as he explained the harrowing method of shooting him re-entering the spaceship through an airlock without a helmet. It was done with rigging and a leap from two stories high. A former circus stagehand had to grab the rope at a certain point to prevent Dullea from breaking his neck.
These details of jerryrigging equipment, 40 years ago, makes even the cinematic effect of 2001 even more monumental. The detail, the use of music, the sense of wonder, mystery, spirituality and yes, ineffable loneliness that Kubrick created in his “Ultimate Trip” is what sets it apart from other science fiction films that had the benefit of more advanced technology.
For those who wish to learn more about the production, the Academy will have Trumbull return with others for “2001 in 2008,” on May 21, a program featuring more information on the making of the film, as well as previously unseen photos and unused footage of—with all due respect to Lucas and my friend Mike—the greatest space-related motion picture ever made.