Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Star Wars and the Modernism of 2001

In his book, Air Guitar, Dave Hickey argues that, "artistic practice changes because younger artists must willfully misinterpret the work of their masters.” The master that George Lucas was most interested in willfully misinterpreting was Stanley Kubrick.

After Lucas finished making his second film, American Graffiti in 1973, he intended to direct a film about the Vietnam War using a script written by his friend John Milius. Lucas described his original concept for the film as Dr. Strangelove in Vietnam. Dr. Strangelove was Kubrick’s caustic satire that lampooned American Cold Warrior’s nuclear bravado. It was Lucas says it was his favorite film.

But the Vietnam War was going so badly by this time it had become too hot politically to get any kind of film on the subject produced, much less a satire. And it wasn't just Lucas who was stymied, for the better part of a decade it no one produced any sort of film about the War (and they stopped making GI Joe dolls as well – that was a drag).

After trying repeatedly to get his film made he decided to shelve Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola would eventually find backing to get the film made, but by then Lucas was in preproduction on his new project and handed off the directing duties to his friend and mentor.

Lucas says he decided to take the ideas he had been developing for Apocalypse Now and use them as the basis for a space fantasy. Star Wars was Dr.Strangelove-in-Vietnam-in-outer-space. However when it came time to choose a film that would set the visual standard for his new project it would not be the black and white cinematography of Dr. Strangelove Lucas would choose, but rather the Modernist purity of Kubrick's 1968 science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When Stanley Kubrick made 2001 it was the most expensive science fiction film ever produced. Kubrick intended to bring a new standard of technical rigor to the genre. To accomplish that he surrounded himself with a highly skilled crew of studio professionals, as well as engineers and designers recruited from the aerospace industry.

The seedbed of 2001 was the 1964 New York Worlds Fair. It was there that Kubrick saw the documentary short To the Moon and Beyond and recruited some of the filmmakers responsible for its visual effects. Douglas Trumbull, who had worked on the short, would be hired as a Special Photographic Effects Supervisors for 2001 and is credited with developing the slit screen technology for the Stargate sequence.

Kubrick's co-author, Arthur C Clarke is most famous as a science fiction author, but he was a trained scientist. The "Clarke Belt," a ring of thousands of artificial satellites now circling the earth in geosynchronous orbit, is named for the author in recognition that a paper he wrote in 1945 predicted the use of these exact sorts of satellites for telecommunications. Clarke therefore was much more then your average scifi guy. He was a well-respected member of the scientific community, with strong connections inside NASA.

Clarke was able to get the anthropologist Louis R. Leakey to advise on the film. For those seeing the film for the first time now, the costumes for the proto-humans might look a little primitive, but at the time they were state of the art. And with Leakey’s help their behavior reflected the most up to date theories of human evolution: Man the Hunter (a theory that is equally out of date as the monkey suits).

Clark was also an acquaintance of Fred Ordway and Harry Lange as well, both of who would be hired as full time technical advisors on 2001. Ordway and Lange were refugees from the American space industry. In the past space craft in Hollywood films had always been designed and built by prop designers. Even the best of these designers, like Ray Harryhausen, were still just studio hacks with no knowledge of aerospace.

Ordway writes that in their roles as advisors, he and Lange met with General Electric's Missile and Space Vehicle Department (about propulsion systems), the Bell Telephone Laboratories (on deep space communications), the Whirlpool Corporation (on the subject of space borne food equipment), Honeywell, (about vehicular controls) and IBM (on the computer sequences).

Kubrick’s crew was famously professional. They were the best of the best, and they did in fact bring a new level of technical rigor not only to the genre of science fiction films but all genre of filmmaking. They were known at the time as “The Brain Trust.”

When it came time to make his science fiction film Lucas set out to hire as many people who had worked with Kubrick as he could. He hired so many Kubrick alumni that as a group they were referred to as "The Class of 2001." But even so, Lucas was still a young unknown director, and was not able to attract or afford the same caliber of professionals as Kubrick.

For instance when it was clear that he couldn’t get Douglas Trumbull (having directed his own scifi 1972 film, Silent Running, Trumbull was more interested in the director’s chair at the time), Lucas hired John Dykstra to be his effects supervisor instead. Dykstra was hired because he had worked with Trumbull on Silent Running, and Trumbull had worked on 2001.

But all the same, Lucas’s crew was young. They weren’t engineers, or studio hacks, they were film school geeks, like Lucas. And that was just fine, because while Kubrick’s film had been a complex abstract film about man, transcendence, the nature of God and being; and a film that arguably locates the very peak of American Modernist authority and influence, Lucas’s aim was never to reproduce Kubrick's film. He wanted to make a Flash Gorden like space fantasy.

Lucas’ first film the 1971 dystopian THX 1138 was based on a 1967 short Lucas had made in film school. THX 1138 was much closer in tone to the cool abstract Modernism of 2001 (its a really cool movie, but as serious as a heart attack). When Stanley Kubrick began work on 2001 he was inspired by the optimism of the '64 World's Fair, the can-do spirit of John F Kennedy's New Frontier, and the sexy jet-set world of 60s air travel and beautiful young unmarried (and there for sexually available) stewardesses.

The difference in agenda with Star Wars is accountable in history between the time he conceived his first dystopia and Kubrick, his Modernist masterpiece. A lot had happened in the intervening years. America had become a totally different place. And just as 2001 was a film that embodied its moment and place in history, Star Wars reflects the world as it was just ten years later.

Kubrick was not a thoughtless booster of US Cold War policies. He had shown that with Dr. Strangelove which did not paint Cold Warriors in the best of light. 2001 is complex, and riddled with subtle ambivalences, but it showed NASA at its finest. It was a positive symbol of the progress promised by American Modernists that borders on boosterism.

And while the mid-sixties America was shadowed by the assassination of JFK, in her book about the woman's movement, When Everything Changed, Gail Collins paints a picture of that era as still very optimistic. Colin's portrait of the growing civil rights movement and the first stirrings of Feminism—of the polite demands by mild mannered women in hats and gloves and the determined pacifism of African American students in suits—is of a moment of grim fortitude, but in many ways unmarred by any hint of pessimism or cynicism (at least for a time). For all its complexity Kubrick's film reflects that optimism, but none of those struggles.

Although women and blacks were challenging their authority, the Cold Warrior Modernists had managed to keep the sheen of father-knows-best throughout most of the decade. And what ever else he may have been Kubrick was a Modernist master widely heralded as a genius, his films as masterpieces.

How influential was Kubrick? Futura was his favorite font. Helvetica is the font that had been adopted for almost all of NASA’s documents and signage in the 1960s, but it was Futura that was chosen for the typeface on the plaque left by the first astronauts to walk on the moon. It is impossible for me to believe that the choice of Futura as the first font on the moon was accidental.

But on April 13th 1968, just days after the film premiered, the New Yorker Magazine published Penelope Gilliatt's review of 2001, in which she wrote:

"There are no Negroes in this vision of America's space program; conversation with Russian scientists is brittle with mannerly terror, and the Chinese can still be dealt with only by pretending they're not there."

Gilliatt had placed her finger on the cracks that had formed in the Modernist's pose of magisterial control.

2001 premiered April 2nd 1968, two months after the American military’s disastrous response to the Tet Offensive; one month after Walter Cronkite (who was recently described as “a reliable mouthpiece for the optimistic scenarios” of the US government) changed his position and broadcast an editorial predicting the war could only end in stalemate or “cosmic disaster; less then a month after the New York Times ram a piece entitled “The Second Feminist Wave” in which, Ti-Grace Atkinson compared marriage to slavery; and just 3 days after President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection - quietly ending the Great Society, and ushering in the reign of the Nixon Administration.

Two days after 2001 made its premier to an audience of Washington DC beltway insiders, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. The national mood that Kubrick had projected 33 years into the future had broken like a fever by the time Gilliatt wrote her review. In the first few weeks of 2001’s run riots broke out in over 110 American cities. In DC alone, 13 people were killed in clashes with police and over 6000 arrests were made.

By the time Lucas began work on Star Wars five years later the Kent State shootings in 1970 had further polarized and radicalized Americans. In 1973 the OPEC nations were challenging the US presumption of superpower with a successful oil embargo. That same year flight attendants won a court battle with the Airline industry to end the demeaning appearance rules that had shaped a toxic work environment for over a decade.

In her book Collins gives special attention to the story of these women, who were measured and weighed regularly; their appearances were carefully policed, as was their marital status. She explains that flight attendants were not allowed to get married - and could be fired if they chose to secretly marry and keep working. Airline Executives explicitly wanted beautiful and unattached young women to attract older married businessmen, prompting Rep. Martha Griffiths, the lone woman on a House Labor Subcommittee, to ask durring an open hearing on airline labor practices "What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?

In 1967 and 68 the House Committee on Un-American activities had been fearlessly ridiculed by the Yippies Abby Hoffman (arrested for wearing a shirt made from an American flag) and Jerry Rubin (curiously not arrested for wearing a North Vietnamese flag as a cape). While the Yippies left the Committee maimed, it took six more years for it to die. After 40 years of abusive investigations, HUAC officially put an end to it's shameful history in 1974.

So it was in these twilight hours of the Vietnam War; in aftermath of the release of the Pentagon Papers and in the growing shadow of the Watergate investigation that Lucas conceived and made his space fantasy. Is it any wonder that the Pro-NASA visual program of 2001 was willfully misinterpreted to create a fascist state bent on total control at any cost (even the destruction of a planet)? While John Fitzgerald Kennedy is rightfully associated with the visionary goal of landing a man on the moon, it was Richard Milhous Nixon who was in office when the goal was achieved.