Thoughts on Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’ And It’s Origins for Kubrick’s ‘2001’

September 9, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

Speaking of “Two Lovers“, the character played by the excellent Joaquin Phoenix has a poster of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in his bedroom. One presumes the poster is something left over from his childhood, and provides another hint of what kind of person Leonard Kraditor is, or was. Not everyone is attuned to the charms of Kubrick’s peculiar masterpiece.

Mike Gillis — who directs our films here at Roundtable Pictures — and I talked briefly about Kubrick just this weekend, and we were talking about “A Clockwork Orange“, and the general consensus was that “A Clockwork Orange” was either great or terrible. Who knows, really. I’ve seen the thing four or five times myself and I can’t quite figure it out. At the very least it’s fascinating.

It’s like any Kubrick film: you enter his universe and you’re at his mercy.

I was lucky that I got an introduction to Kubrick at an early age, when my father took my brother and me to “2001” when it opened at the old Cinerama Theater on Hope Street in Providence in 1968. I remember there were hippies in the lobby. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design were right down the street.

From the first frame to the last I was entranced, and still remember the experience of watching the film for the first time. Everything about it was simply fascinating — from the apes to the technology to the music to Captain Bowman’s hallucinogenic trip home through the energy fields — something in my house we used to call the “storm of colors.”

I used to think that’s what the filmmakers must have called it, but it seems like that term was ours alone. I like it. You remember: Bowman is in the pod after he has shut down HAL and he flies through space and his trip is both spiritual and spatial. The “slit screen” effect, as it was called, put laser-like fields of color at the top and bottom of the screen. When Kubrick cut to Bowman, sometimes his eyes changed color. We used to call that the “storm of colors.”

Arthur C. Clarke was Kubrick’s collaborator on this film, and I had never read the story on which the movie was based: a very short story called “The Sentinel” that was published in 1950.

I happened to have a paperback called “The Making of Kubrick’s 2001” — an anthology edited by Jerome Agel and published by Signet in 1970. The book is its own kind of trip — far out and spacey and probably already two years behind the times when it was published — but it contains a series of articles about the movie and interviews with the writers and also Kubrick that are interesting. We learn that the movie was originally called “Journey Beyond the Stars”, which sounds incredibly 1950s sci-fi conventional.

It also has a reprint of Clarke’s “The Sentinel”, which I had never read. The story begins like this: “The next time you see the full moon high in the south, look carefully at its right hand edge and let your eye travel upward along the curve of the disk. Round about two o’clock you will notice a small, dark oval: anyone with normal eyesight can find it quite easily. It is the great walled plain, one of the finest on the Moon, known as the Mare Crisium – the Sea of Crises.”

That’s a great beginning. What I found remarkable about this story is that Clarke adopts the tone of an enthusiastic, yet studied travel writer. The narrator is a geologist, but you utterly believe, from the first words on, that he has actually been to the moon — the narrator knew its contours and personality and faults and pleasures.

The Mare Crisium is where the narrator finds the sentinel of the title. He believes it is some kind of device left by a long-ago civilization to send out messages about what is happening on the earth. The sentinel is the precursor of the obelisk in “2001”, and it is about the only element of the story used in the film. In truth, Clarke’s sentinel looks or behaves nothing like the black slab found in the film.

What I think Kubrick took away from the story was how natural Clarke made space travel feel — and that is exactly what Kubrick and Clarke achieved in the film. When I was a kid in 1968 looking at that amazing film, it made space travel seem like the most natural thing in the world. Even though, at the time, no one had yet been to the moon.

Here is more from the story:

“I said just now that there was nothing exciting about lunar exploration, but of course that isn’t true. One could never grow tired of those incredible mountains, so much more rugged than the hills of the Earth. We never knew, as we rounded the capes and promontories of that vanished sea, what new splendors would be revealed to us. The whole southern curve of the Mare Crisium is a vast delta where a score of rivers once found their way into the ocean, fed perhaps by the torrential rains that must have lashed the mountains in the brief volcanic age when the Moon was young.”

This sounds like travel writing, but it was written almost 20 years before anyone had stepped foot on the surface of the moon.

In the story Carke casually mentions the remnants of exotic fauna found on the moon, and the dried up beds of old rivers and seas, but what drives the narrative is a seemingly innocuous, yet ominous, observation. The narrator is making the very English breakfast of eggs and sausage when he looks out the window of his “pressurized tractor”, as Clarke describes their vehicle. He mentions that on the moon there is “no loss of detail with distance” when you are looking at things. There is “none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth.”

The narrator continues, and this is the important part:

“I was turning away when my eye caught a metallic glitter high on the ridge of a great promontory thrusting out into the sea thirty miles to the west. It was a dimensionless point of light, as if a star had been clawed from the sky by one of those cruel peaks, and I imagined that some smooth rock surface was catching the sunlight and heliographing it straight into my eyes. Such things were not uncommon.”

But of course it was uncommon. He saw something glitter. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, declares he’s going to check out the promontory where he saw the reflection, and a fellow astronaut named Garnett volunteers to go with him.

The gravity-free atmosphere of the moon makes their climb up the 10,000 foot mountain relatively easy, but they are both convinced their trek will be fruitless. The Moon, then as now, has not produced revolutionary findings.

Except it was not a fragmented piece of sharp rock that produced the glitter. When he reaches the ridge where he saw the light, the narrator writes: “Probably no emotion at all filled my mind in those first few seconds. Then I felt a great lifting of my heart, and a strange, inexpressible joy. For I loved the Moon, and now I knew that the creeping moss of Aristarchus and Eratosthenes was not the only life she had brought forth in her youth. There had, after all, been a lunar civilization – and I was the first to find it. That I had come perhaps a hundred million years too late did not distress me: it was enough to have come at all.”

He loved the Moon, the narrator says, and one of the feelings that you get when you watch “2001” is that the filmmakers, if not necessarily the people in the film itself, love the Moon, and are in love with the idea of space travel and the possibility that it affords. The possibility of adventure and discovery is what drives the short story “The Sentinel”, and also “2001.” Both were created when such flights could propel the imagination.

As much as “A Clockwork Orange” — which was made three years after “2001” — is much more pessimistic than the Anthony Burgess novel, “2001” is much more hopeful than the end of Clarke’s short story. “The Sentinel” ends without much hope for Man, but is filled with the possibility that we can still be saved by some extraterrestial lifeforce.

Kubrick took the opposite view. Humankind, in the movie, is both destructor and savior. In that way Kubrick created one of his most hopeful stories. He is saying that no matter what damage we may have done, we may return, reborn, full of life, filled with hope.

In that way, Kubrick and Clarke together created a world that may be historically eight years in the past, but is defiantly hopeful for our future.

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