As it approaches its 52nd birthday, “2001: A Space Odyssey” remains one of the most inventive and enduring of all movies. But from the vantage point of 2020, it can be difficult to appreciate the sheer breadth of imagination involved in its making.
Enter “Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey,” a new exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, that runs through July 19. The show brings together original correspondence, sketches, storyboards, props, video clips and much more to illustrate how Kubrick, the film’s director, and Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction author who collaborated with him on the screenplay, set about bringing the future to the screen. The museum will show “2001” on 70 mm film monthly while the exhibit runs, and several sidebar movie series — the first, on movies that inspired “2001,” runs through Feb. 2 — will complement the showcase.
The exhibition, previously presented at the Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany, is technically an offshoot of the acclaimed traveling presentation that covered Kubrick’s entire career. It toured 19 cities beginning in 2004 but never made it to New York because there was no space big enough to house it, according to Kubrick’s daughter Katharina Kubrick at the press preview for the “2001” show this month. Those lucky enough to have caught the traveling show will recognize the same strengths (and perhaps a few of the same weaknesses).
“Envisioning 2001” shows Kubrick as a director in command of all aspects of filmmaking, and it suggests that he and Clarke were no small obsessives when it came to understanding their subject matter. One of the first items in the exhibit is a request form from 1964, with Clarke’s name and address, sent to the U.S. Air Force. He sought information on a sighting — which turned out to be a satellite — that he and Kubrick, then developing the story for the movie, had seen in the sky over New York.
The men’s range of influences included science, literature, engineering and even abstract art. The kaleidoscopic imagery and spinning colors in experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson’s 1961 short “Allures,” for instance — which was part of Kubrick’s ample pre-“2001” viewing list — play like an antecedent to the Star Gate sequence. Rocket scientist Wernher von Braun is shown in a 1955 episode of a Disney television series explaining the centrifugal design of a space station much like the approximately 30-ton set built for Kubrick’s movie. That set, which necessitated novel engineering and camera techniques, is seen in a model, drawings and a short documentary promoting the film’s release, in which a narrator speaks of the “requirements of Kubrick’s bizarre and incisive imagination.”
Kubrick’s team included scientist Frederick I. Ordway III and production designer Harry Lange, who had worked with NASA and who can be seen in a clip describing their jobs as ensuring the film’s scientific integrity. The exhibit shows off correspondence in which ideas are vetted for accuracy. Concept art from Graphic Films, an organization that made movies for NASA, shows designs so detailed they indicated an outer part of a spaceship should look “pre-stressed.” Even the cutting edge of the technology world wasn’t always good enough for Kubrick. In a letter, the director describes drawings from IBM for the design of a computer as “useless” and totally irrelevant to his needs.
The planning for “2001” anticipated an “electronic edition” of The New York Times; it doesn’t appear in the film, but here you can browse a list of headlines from the year 2001 that were considered (“LAST GRIZZLY BEAR DIES IN CINCINNATI ZOO: SPECIES NOW EXTINCT — TENTH THIS YEAR”). Other brands, like Hilton, wanted to be cited in the film, humorously advertising that their products would still be around at the dawn of the new millennium. Near the fake Times, you can read a memo that Kubrick sent a vice president of his production company: “I thought you’d be amused: Esquire preparing cover for newsstand showing John Kennedy, Jr. as new President of United States” in 2001. (The junior Kennedy died in a plane crash in July 1999 — coincidentally on the same day that Kubrick’s final, posthumously released film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” opened in theaters.)
A portion of what can be seen in “Envisioning 2001” falls under the category of simple memorabilia — look, it’s the actual spaceflight coveralls worn by Keir Dullea, the actor who played astronaut Dave Bowman — and the exhibit as a whole leans heavily on reproductions, even of letters. Using replicas is understandable from educational and preservationist standpoints, but it also strips the show of the magic of authenticity. That is not the original HAL 9000 exterior, for instance; it’s simply a good look-alike.
The exhibit is at its best not when simply showing off the Kubrick warehouse, but as it walks museumgoers through decision-making processes or groundbreaking approaches to technical problems. Diagrams explain the special photographic techniques that enabled the “Dawn of Man” segment to be filmed in a studio, instead of in Africa, or how Douglas Trumbull, the supervisor of special photographic effects, used a process called slit-scan photography to create the geometry and colors of the Star Gate sequence. One video monitor plays the film’s opening credits twice — first with the upbeat, Aaron Copland-esque score composed by Alex North that Kubrick rejected, then with Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which Kubrick had employed as temporary music and ended up becoming a part of one of the most famous openings in film history.
That “2001” was a revolutionary movie is not exactly news, but it is still hard to fathom filmmaking of this scale or level of creativity — let alone in a film that had its premiere 15 months before the moon landing. In light of such an artistic coup, the collection assembled at the museum can sometimes feel like a jumble.
But seeing “2001” broken down into these components is nevertheless instructive. The exhibit makes a great achievement in filmmaking look less like a cinematic UFO and more like, well, an achievement — the product of ingenuity, talent and tenacity. It illuminates the artistry of a moviemaker whose genius has often seemed inseparable from the mystique surrounding it.