ILLUSTRATION BY JOE WILSON FOR THE FOLIO SOCIETY EDITION OF 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ©
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“Close to tears, he left at the intermission”: how Stanley Kubrick upset Arthur C Clarke

The clash of wills behind 2001: a Space Odyssey reminds me that scientific education, not mystery, was always closest to my friend’s heart.

People were frequently surprised to learn that Arthur Clarke and I were good friends. He is considered the doyen of optimistic, technical, Space Age speculative writers, believing our species’ salvation to lie entirely in scientific discovery and engineering invention, his fiction full of detailed explication, sometimes virtually indistinguishable from fact. I am usually portrayed as the iconoclast of the SF “New Wave”, rejecting physics for psychology and favouring social themes over space stories, tending to examine the downside of technology. Yet actually we shared similar ideals. Much of our early work anticipated advances in astrophysics while dealing with the psychic future of mankind.

Many years after our first meeting I gave a party where I introduced Arthur to William Burroughs, the Beat author of Naked Lunch. No one expected them to have a lot in common, but they spent the next few hours together, sipping orange juice, occasionally asking for the music to be turned down because it was spoiling their conversation.

Born two days (and 22 years) apart, we met when I was 15, shortly before he went to live permanently in Sri Lanka. He was humorous, encouraging, egalitarian and generous, as interested in exploring the sea as examining outer space. We would generally meet whenever he was in England, usually at the Globe pub in Hatton Garden, where would-be writers could chat casually with established authors such as John Wyndham, John Christopher and C S Lewis; the SF fraternity had moved to the Globe from the White Horse in Fetter Lane in the mid-1950s. Arthur had already written his light-hearted Tales from the White Hart (1957) in affectionate memory of the Fetter Lane pub. Before the war he and some fellow SF writers had shared a flat in Gray’s Inn Road. His flatmates already called him “Ego” because of his total absorption in the subjects that interested him. He cheerfully accepted the nickname.

Born and raised in Somerset, Arthur came to London in the late 1930s to work as a pensions auditor for the Board of Education, but space travel was already his chief enthusiasm. An active member of the British Interplanetary Society, he grew up reading all the SF he could find, most of it in US pulp magazines, though H G Wells and Olaf Stapledon (the author of the epic Last and First Men) remained his chief influences. He contributed frequently to the pre-war SF fanzines, co-editing Novae Terrae (“new worlds”) in its original form. One flatmate and fellow editor, William F Temple, described him as highly strung and given to “sudden, violent expressions of mirth”.

After working on radar in the RAF during the war, Arthur received a first-class degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College London, and sold a few speculative articles, including one to Wireless World that proposed communications satellites in space. His first sales of professional fiction were to Astounding (later Analog), at that time the most prestigious American SF magazine, specialising in speculation based on hard science, with a strong emphasis on space travel. His later work – including his novella Against the Fall of Night, which became his first novel, The City and the Stars (1956) – appeared in rather more garish pulps such as Startling Stories. His fiction quickly brought him popularity with readers and in less than a decade he became known, with Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, as one of hard SF’s “Big Three”.

“Hard SF” is distinct from the kind written by Orwell, Dick or Ballard, which specialises in social and psychological speculation. Arthur’s work was distinguished from that of his peers by an almost mystical lyricism and a faith in a future where mankind would rid itself, through science, of its primitive and brutal characteristics. (Unlike Heinlein, with whom he eventually fell out over the American author’s support for Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plans, he had little interest in military space fiction.)

 

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At first his factual books, such as The Exploration of Space (1951), were more successful than his fiction. He was soon able to support himself by his writing, becoming a leading expert on rocketry and space travel, ready whenever the media needed a piece about space exploration. He even advised the creators of the running story “Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future”, which appeared in my favourite comic, the Eagle, and whose images prefigured those of 2001: a Space Odyssey.

He developed a keen interest in scuba diving; it was one of his chief reasons for moving to Sri Lanka in 1956 not long after the breakdown of his first and only marriage, which had lasted just a few months. He returned to England often, always staying with his brother Fred, his sister-in-law Babs and his mother, Nora, in suburban London. Occasionally he came with a diving partner, Mike Wilson, and brought film of their expeditions with him. He was extremely proud of his underwater discoveries, which included the lost Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee, an important historical site.

Some time after his arrival in Sri Lanka Arthur developed a profound friendship with the diver Leslie Ekanayake, whose family adopted him. He dedicated his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, to Leslie, describing him as the “only perfect friend of a lifetime, in whom were uniquely combined Loyalty, Intelligence and Compassion”. In 1977 he suffered a terrible emotional blow when Leslie was killed in a motorbike crash just before his 30th birthday. Arthur continued to live with the Ekanayake family until he died. He was buried next to Leslie. The family and his many friends in Sri Lanka describe Arthur as a gentleman of great generosity and spirituality, even though he was anti-religious and placed mankind’s salvation entirely in its own hands.

There is indeed a quality of spiritual idealism in most of Arthur’s major work, including 2001 as well as much of his non-fiction, an element largely lacking from the writing of his science-fiction peers. In most respects he was perhaps the most complex SF writer of his generation: his scientific training combined with a highly logical mind that was passionately committed to humanity and the natural world. Yet his pride in his achievements was obvious and he continued to earn his nickname.

In the mid-1970s my friend Angus Wilson visited him in Colombo. When he returned home Angus asked me if (like him) Arthur was gay. A keen SF reader, he shared a similar investment in humanity but had been somewhat overwhelmed by Arthur’s “tour” of his house: framed endorsements, pictures taken with presidents and princes, awards on display. Arthur struck him as competitive and “perhaps the most egocentric person I ever met”. Did I think Arthur was afraid that he, Angus, was trying to upstage him in some way? I assured him that Arthur was probably just showing off.

Arthur developed polio in the 1980s, making travel increasingly difficult. Shortly before he was due to be knighted in Colombo by the Prince of Wales in 1998, the Sunday Mirror published disgusting and unfounded gossip about him. I wrote to him to give him my moral support. He thanked me graciously. I should not worry, however, he said. The story was merely an attempt to embarrass his friend Prince Charles. He assured me that another friend, Rupert Murdoch, was looking after the matter. The story was soon retracted with apologies.

 

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There are several published accounts of how the 1968 film 2001: a Space ­Odyssey came into being. I understood from Arthur that he was somewhat frustrated by the erratic schedule of its director, Stanley Kubrick. Consequently, the novel, which they were supposed to write before the film appeared, came out after the initial release date. But in the main he seemed happy with the collaboration, even up to the time that rough cuts were being shown. He was, I know, afraid that what with Kubrick’s inability to settle down and collaborate on the novel, with the result that the book was due to come out after the cinematic release, it might look like a novelisation of the film rather than an ­original work.

Based primarily on his short story “The Sentinel”, together with other published fact and fiction, the film was very much a joint effort, although Arthur was overly modest about his contribution. For his part, Kubrick seemed unable to come up with an ending that suited him. When I visited the set, the film was already about two years behind schedule and well over budget. I saw several alternative finale scenes constructed that were later abandoned. In one version, the monolith turned out to be some kind of alien spaceship. I also knew something that I don’t think Arthur ever did: Kubrick was at some point dissatisfied with the collaboration, approaching other writers (including J G Ballard and myself) to work on the film. He knew neither Ballard nor me personally. We refused for several reasons. I felt it would be disloyal to accept.

I guessed the problem was a difference in personality. Arthur was a scientific educator. Explanations were his forte. He was uncomfortable with most forms of ambiguity. Kubrick, on the other hand, was an intuitive director, inclined to leave interpretation to the audience. These differences were barely acknowledged. Neither did Kubrick tell Arthur of his concerns regarding the final version. Where, thanks to Arthur, the film was heavy with voice-over explication and clarifications of scenes, Kubrick wanted the story to be told almost entirely visually.

Without consulting or confronting his co-creator, Kubrick cut a huge amount of Arthur’s voice-over explanation during the final edit. This decision probably contributed significantly to the film’s success but Arthur was unprepared for it. When he addressed MGM executives at a dinner in his honour before the premiere, he spoke warmly of Kubrick, declaring that there had been no serious disagreements between them in all the years they had worked together, but he had yet to see the final cut.

My own guess at the time was that Kubrick wasn’t at ease with any proposed resolution but had nothing better to offer in place of his co-writer’s “Star Child” ending. We know now that the long final sequence, offered without explanation, was probably what helped turn the film into the success it became, but the rather unresponsive expressions on the faces of the MGM executives whom Arthur had addressed in his speech showed that they were by no means convinced they had a winner.

What had impressed me on my visit to the set was the dedicated enthusiasm of the Nasa advisers, who had offices at the studios. You could walk into a room and find a fully equipped spacesuit hanging behind the door. There were star-charts and diagrams on the walls; exploded drawings, models, mock-ups and pictures of spaceships and equipment. I saw Roy Carnon’s paintings of Jupiter and large sketches of scenes that would soon become every filmgoer’s idea of what the future in space would look like. The main set was dominated by a huge, fully working centrifuge, built at vast cost by Vickers-Armstrongs, the British engineering firm. Every technician I met talked about the project with such commitment that I was soon infected by the conviction that we really were preparing an expedition to Jupiter. Computer-generated imagery did not yet exist, and so a great deal had to be built or painted close to full size.

With almost no interest in space exploration, I nonetheless found myself excited by the atmosphere. Yet I did wonder if all the “authenticity” I saw around me might not be overwhelming. Could Kubrick’s singular imagination flourish in this atmosphere? Was that why it was taking so long to complete 2001 and the film was so heavily over budget? I had a slightly uncomfortable feeling that the considerable investment in establishing the reality of interplanetary space travel might produce a film more documentary than fiction.

As it turned out, Arthur did not get to see the completed film until the US private premiere. He was shocked by the transformation. Almost every element of explanation had been removed. Reams of voice-over narration had been cut. Far from being a pseudo-documentary, the film was now elusive, ambiguous and thoroughly unclear.

Close to tears, he left at the intermission, having watched an 11-minute sequence in which an astronaut did nothing but jog around the centrifuge in a scene intended to show the boredom of space travel. This scene was considerably cut in the version put out on general release.

 

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If Arthur was disappointed by Kubrick’s decision to cut his dialogue and narrative to the bone, he was eventually reconciled by being able to put everything left out of the film into the novel, meaning that each man was able to produce his own preferred version. The success of the film ensured that the book became a bestseller, as audiences sought answers to questions raised by Kubrick’s version, and Arthur soon got over his disappointment, going on to write three bestselling sequels to his novel, only one of which has been filmed so far.

Inspiring governments to invest in space exploration and schoolboys to become astronauts, 2001 convinced the general public that science fiction could be taken seriously. Until Star Wars sent the genre back to an ­essentially juvenile form, the movie led to a greater understanding of the valuable creative possibilities of all kinds of science fiction. There would not be a more influential film until Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with its sober moral resonances. It also proved to Hollywood that good, big-budget SF movies could be money-spinners and garner critical respect at the same time. Without 2001 it is unlikely the genre would have progressed to its current state.

I have one other memory of that visit to the 2001 set. After being given a tour of the studio by the MGM publicist, I was led towards Kubrick’s office just as the director entered the main building. I prepared to meet the man who had contacted me a year or so earlier. I had many questions. Perhaps he would confirm some of my guesses.

Kubrick’s eyes went straight to me and did not leave me as he spoke brusquely to the publicist.

“Get these people off the set,” he said.

We were never face to face again.

“2001: a Space Odyssey” by Arthur C Clarke, introduced by Michael Moorcock, is published by the Folio Society (£29.95)

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

Claire Denis. Credit: SARAH LEE/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA LTD
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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge