Here’s the story behind “The Dawn of Man” sequence that opens Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, told by the alpha ape himself, Moonwatcher, a.k.a. mime/choreographer Richter.
The movie’s reputation for cinematic innovation precedes it, but it is nonetheless startling to learn of the effort that went into just the opening 18 minutes, where man-apes do battle and a bone is tossed into the future. Richter was a 28-year-old starving mime artist when he got the call from Kubrick to come suggest how the scene might be done, and he spent the next year working with Kubrick’s staff of inspired madmen to get it right. He uses a diary format—jumpy, fraught, present-tense—to capture that period, to explain the workings of mime (Kubrick very much wanted to avoid the man-in-a-monkey-suit look, turning to mime because often “actors can’t move. Dancers and stuntmen can’t act. Mimes can do both”), the conventions he developed to mimic ape movement, the difficulties and pleasures of leading a group of actors as the choreographer, the creative efforts of the make-up artists, and not least the effort of trying to keep it from Kubrick that he was a heroin addict working to detoxify, but nowhere near close. Both the diary form and the film industry proceed by repetition, but one could wish Richter had trimmed back the references to mimes’ preoccupation with movement, and there can be more detail than even a 2001 zealot wants: “Last week I was given a dressing room suite that has its own bathtub and sitting room. It’s really big with furniture and curtains on the windows.” Nor is Richter’s fawning over Kubrick appealing, however much a genius he was: “Stanley gathered us around him as he, like Merwin, conjured up this wonderful majestic film.”
Still, anyone with a shred of interest into the mechanics of 2001 will find the behind-the-scenes travails and breakthroughs worth the windy iterations. (Illustrated)