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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1964)

7. Dr. Strangelove 
or: How I Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Throughout the sixties, the Cold War threatened to get hot several times. Tensions were running high. The nuclear arms race showed no sign of slowing down. Many feared that the world was teetering on the edge of complete destruction. Pop culture reflected these fears. Two separated novels, “Red Alert” and “Fail Safe,” both presented dramatic scenarios where a nuclear war breaks out. Stanley Kubrick read “Red Alert” and became interested in adapting it. As he worked on the screenplay, absurdities in the premise kept jumping out to him. Over time, the hyper grim thriller “Red Alert” developed into “Dr. Strangelove,” a comedy of previously unseen darkness. An absurdist satire about the all-too-plausible end of the world might seem like an unlikely premise but resulted in an immediate critical success. I'm far from alone in this opinion that “Dr. Strangelove” must be one of the best comedies ever made.

It's the height of the Cold War and someone has done the unthinkable. Jack D. Ripper, an American air force general, has come to believe that a Communist conspiracy is taking over the country. He concocts a plan to incite nuclear war. He sends the secret codes to a bomber flying near Russia. The pilots intend to deliver the apocalyptic payload. Deep beneath the Pentagon, the President and his top men hope to undo Ripper's plans before it results in mutually assured destruction. Once the Russia ambassador assures them the Soviets have a Doomsday Bomb – an apocalyptic nuke that will destroy the world and will be automatically triggered by an attack on Soviet land – it becomes a race against time. This, however, is easier said than done because everyone involved is very, very nervous.

“Paths of Glory” was so effective as an anti-war movie because it hinged about the inherent inhumanity of warfare. “Dr. Strangelove” is equally effective by pointing out the absurdity. The film zeroes in on how the Cold War was a massive, elaborate dick measuring contest between two superpowers. The film is rife with sexual symbolism. It begins with the phallic image of an airplane's fuel pump, continuing on to a mid-air coitus of plugs inserted into openings. Next, we meet a scantily clad woman and the unfulfilled sexual desires between her and her lover. Later, we learn that General Ripper instigated this war to protect his precious bodily fluids. That this insight came to him during an unfulfilling sexual act. The film concludes with Major Kong riding a phallic-shaped nuke down to an explosive detonation, screaming all the while. The last scene is men discussing the possibilities of repopulating the Earth. The names – Strangelove, Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper – drip with connotations. Pornographic magazines pop up in the movie's margins. Phallic imagery – guns, cigars, bombs, even bald heads – reoccur throughout. “Dr. Strangelove” makes the point that international war is tied up with sexual frustration. That the cause of all conflict is geopolitical blue balls.

“Dr. Strangelove's” satire also works so well by zeroing in on the smaller details in such a situation. Even as the planet hurdles towards complete annihilation, it's impossible for men to let go of petty rivalries. Turgidson and the Russian ambassador, famously, fight in the war room because Turgidson fears espionage. In the film's final moments, we discover he was right to be concerned. What benefit would photographs of the big board do after the world is destroyed? The planet isn't even devastated before Turgidson and other military officials start to go on about a mine shaft gap between America and Russia. This further feeds into the film's thesis that global actions like war are rooted in petty, humiliating, human foibles.

“Dr. Strangelove” also sees Stanley Kubrick perfecting his visual style. If anyone asked me what a Kubrick film looked like, I would point them towards this one. The director's calm but fluid camerawork takes dominance here. We frequently move between static shots of men talking, the film slowly moving into the spaces around them. Close-ups on faces make up much of the film. The notorious Kubrick Stare finally emerges, in the form of General Ripper's madly starring face, his cigar extending from his mouth, erect. Shadows are used extensively, the players often silhouetted across darkened backgrounds. The titular doctor often appears, partially shrouded in darkness. As controlled as “Dr. Strangelove's” visual palette is, Kubrick's background in documentaries also become apparent. The scenes of soldiers fighting around Ripper's office, before a billboard that ironically says “Peace is Our Business,” feel like real war-time newsreel, providing a gritty, on-the-ground feel. All these elements combine to make the ideal Kubrick presentation, which the director would continue to pursue throughout the rest of his career.

Scripting wise, “Dr. Strangelove” presented a tricky task. The film's narrative is split in three. Captain Mandrakes' attempt to communicate with General Ripper occupies one part of the run time while the conflict in the war room, where President Muffley and his aides attempt to decipher the situation, occupies another. Finally, the scenes set aboard the bomber plane, of the men flying a nuke into Soviet territory, ties the separate threads together. The editing in the film is excellent, cutting between these three scenarios in clean, precise ways. This manages to build tension, showing us one series of events influencing another across the globe. The script is beautifully balanced. The film's construction follows that elegant form.

Telephones feature prominently on many of “Dr. Strangelove's” movie posters. This is fitting, as large sections of the movie are devoted to tense phone calls. One of the film's greatest comedic moments happens when President Muffley calls up the Soviet Prime Minister. What follows is a masterclass in one-man comedy, as Peter Sellers hilariously plays a milquetoast politician attempting to explain to his drunk rival that nuclear war is imminent. The way Muffley attempts to soften the blow, or how childish his reactions are, further point to the absurdity within international conflicts. It's notable that, in a film filled with images of frustrated sexuality and orgasmic explosions, President Muffley comes off as totally impotent and asexual. He's a perfectly hilarious but utterly spineless politician.

Peter Sellers liked playing dress-up and assuming multiple identities. His characters' habit of role-playing was distracting in “Lolita.” In “Strangelove,” Sellers' multiple characters show different comedic strategies. President Muffley is a somewhat child-like buffoon, woefully unprepared for the responsibilities thrust upon him. Captain Mandrake is an increasingly nervous fellow, paired up with a succession of increasingly dryer straight men. Sellers' perfects the baffled reaction as a comedic device after listening to an utterly committed Sterling Hayden spout off insane nonsense about fluoridation and precious bodily fluids. After Hayden suddenly exits the film, Mandrake faces off against the hilariously literal “Bat” Guano, a soldier who is a little too by the book. Sellers' befuddled reaction to some obstruction is a highlight of the film, one of its most reliably hilarious antics.

Lastly, Dr. Strangelove represents the film as its most unabashedly silly. Everything about Strangelove is weird or goofy. His German accent is uproariously exaggerated. His name is funny, as is his original German moniker. The clenched, strangled way he croaks all his dialogue is off-kilter in the best way. By the end, Sellers goes for full-blown physical comedy. His failing attempts to control an arm with its own minds produced laughter even in the other cast members, who a sharp-eyed viewer can spot cracking up. Strangelove's not-so-secret Nazi tendencies is not only a comment on the former Nazi scientists who were employed in American science sectors but also a sly criticism of the fascism inherent in all government. Strangelove's final shouts of “Mein Fuhrer!” is the perfect comedic non-sequitur to conclude the film on. Each of Sellers' characters are delightful comedic creations.

Not all the laughs belong to Sellers' three-pronged performance. It's a well known anecdote that George C. Scott disliked his performance in the final film. Scott would perform scenes two ways: In a ridiculous way and a more serious way. Kubrick assuring him that the latter would be used but the director had no intention of keeping that promise. Regardless of what Scott thought, his performance as Buck Turgidson is one for the history books. The character blusters through all of his scenes, commending the strength of the air crew that will bring about the end of the world. This is Buck's usual reaction, a doubling down on macho bullshit no matter how severe the situation gets. Scott's physicality is commendable, the actor turning a simple stumble into a delightful full-body roll. It's a brilliant display of buffoonery from one of America's most craggy character actors.

In the third part of “Dr. Strangelove's” triptych narrative, you can most see its roots as a serious thriller. The sequences above the bomber plane are mostly played entirely straight. The men are going about their mission, determined to see things through. Kubrick's camera gently roams around the tight spaces of the plane, emphasizing the tension of the scenario. Normally, it would be a pretty intense sequence... Except for small things that push the scenes towards comedy. Such as Slim Pickens' deeply goofy performance. Rumor has it that Pickens thought he was making a drama but his acting is so wildly silly, a full-blown cartoon character introduced into a serious situation. Especially since the other members of the bomber team, including a very young James Earl Jones, play things entirely straight.

Pretty much every element of “Dr. Strangelove” is precisely constructed. The set design is legendary. The war room set – its circle of lines, round table, and big board – would go on to influence real world politics. The musical score, meanwhile, never lets on that the film is supposed to be a comedy.  Natural sound is utilized in many scenes. Laurie Johnson's soundtrack features a terse rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” during the scenes devoted to the air crew. Of course, mention must be made of the closing montage of nuclear annihilation set to Vera Lynn's “We'll Meet Again.” It's a hilariously poetic note to take things out on, the music providing an ironic contrast to the apocalyptic images.

You probably already know that “Fail Safe,” the rival nuclear apocalypse novel, also got made into a movie. By all accounts, it's a good film. However, I've never seen it. Truthfully, considering how many times I've watched “Dr. Strangelove,” how ingrained its gags and dialogue has become in my mind, I wonder if I'd even be able to take “Fail Safe” seriously. “Dr. Strangelove” has been one of my favorite films for years, as it still makes me laugh incredibly hard every time I watch it. Considering the grim films Kubrick would soon specialize in, it's interesting that he would also direct one of the funniest comedies of all time. [Grade: A+]

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