Monday, February 18, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.7: Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 99 (A)

Despite the controversy (or, indeed, because of it), Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita was a smash hit at the box office. For his next film, Kubrick moved on to a subject that had become an obsession for the young filmmaker: nuclear war. Terrified at the possibility of annihilation at the push of a button, Kubrick read up on nuclear physics and procedures before deciding to adapt Peter George’s potboiler Red Alert. Kubrick, George, and Kubrick’s production partner James B. Harris spent some time trying to adapt the novel as a straightforward thriller, but Kubrick felt that the whole idea of nuclear war had an inherent absurdity to it. As Harris left the partnership to pursue a directing career of his own, Kubrick came to a new conclusion: this should be a comedy.

What happened next is the stuff of legend: Kubrick hired counterculture writer Terry Southern to co-write a satirical, darkly funny movie about nuclear war, brought back his Lolita collaborator Peter Sellers, and went on to make the single most influential and important satirical film of all time. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was another hit, and it garnered Kubrick his first trio of Oscar nominations for producing, directing, and co-writing the film (as well as a Best Actor nomination for Sellers). More importantly, though, it established Kubrick’s signature style more than any of his previous films, marking Kubrick’s transition from talented young filmmaker to one of the greatest directors who ever lived.

General Jack T. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has stumbled upon the single most insidious communist plot: fluoridation of water, which will then “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”. Of course Ripper has actually gone insane, and in his bout of insanity he orders the Strategic Air Command to go past their fail-safe points and bomb the Soviet Union, which will effectively start World War III. Ripper’s aide, RAF officer Capt. Mandrake (Sellers), begs Ripper for the recall code, to no avail, as Maj. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) and other bombers race towards their targets, oblivious to Ripper’s madness.

At the same time, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) calls his staff to try to stop the bombing, but he’s having a tricky time. The fanatical anti-communist Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is convinced that the president should just go all-out and bomb Russia all over so they can’t retaliate. President Muffley brings in Russian Ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull) to try to smooth the situation over, but Sadesky brings a new terror when he informs the president that any nuclear attack on Russia will trigger the Doomsday Machine, which will set off enough nukes to end the human race. Muffley’s advisor Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again), meanwhile, tries to stop Armageddon by coming up with an alternate survival plan.

Part of Kubrick’s genius comes from his brilliant casting choices. Sellers is almost certainly one of the greatest comic actors who ever lived, and the studio’s insistence that he play multiple roles (much as his character Quilty had in Lolita) works to Kubrick’s advantage. It’s an inspired nod both to the great black comedy classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (which similarly cast Alec Guinness in multiple roles) and, with Sellers’ mad scientist Strangelove, Fritz Lang’s own tale of technology gone mad Metropolis, whose equally mad Rotwang Strangelove resembles. More importantly, it takes perfect advantage of Sellers’ chameleonic gifts. The actor is perfect as both the comically polite Mandrake and the hilariously mild-mannered Muffley, the two straight men and voices of reasons amidst all the chaos. He’s equally strong as Strangelove, the most bizarre and inspired creation in an already terrific cast of characters.

Sellers’ performances aren’t the only great ones in Dr. Strangelove, however. He’s matched by the always terrific Sterling Hayden, whose breakdown is hilarious precisely because the perpetually tough-as-nails Hayden plays the role as if he were in the most serious of dramas, glowering and rambling to a horrified Capt. Mandrake about communist plots to mess with American sexual fluids. Pickens, meanwhile, really did think he was in a straightforward drama, and his larger-than-life Texan never feels self-aware.

Perhaps the funniest performance in the whole cast, however, comes from Scott as Turgidson, a sex-obsessed, rabidly anti-communist general who’s just as crazy as Gen. Ripper in his own way. Scott apparently wanted to play Turgidson a bit more naturalistically, and Kubrick had to convince him that his over-the-top, unhinged takes were just warm-up exercises rather than what was going in the final film. It’s another case of Kubrick manipulating an actor in order to reshape his performance in the editing room. Scott was reportedly furious, but he shouldn’t have been. It’s debatably his best performance. I certainly don’t cherish any moment of Scott’s career more than the image of him flapping his arms like wings to illustrate the effectiveness of American bomber pilots, answering Muffley’s worried question of whether the pilot has a chance to get past Russian forces and start nuclear annihilation with “HAS HE GOT A CHANCE? HELL YES!...oh…”

But while the film is filled with great performances and guiding by Southern and Kubrick’s pitch-perfect script, it would no doubt be little more than an unhinged bout of lunacy without Kubrick’s deft formalism bringing it to life. Kubrick combines the organized chaos of the Marx Bros. with the pitch-black comedy of Ealing and late-period Chaplin, and the realism of Max Ophuls with the German Expressionist and Expressionist-influenced formalism of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles.

It’s more than just a mixture of great influences, though: here is the first case of the true, fully-formed Kubrick Style that has influenced generations of filmmakers. The film keeps the sense of forward momentum that Kubrick brought to The Killing and Paths of Glory: Dr. Strangelove is beautifully paced, and Kubrick cuts between the scenes at the bomber, the war room, and the military base with aplomb. Kubrick also still knows how to perfectly frame every shot, whether he’s shooting an exasperated-looking Mandrake reacting to Ripper’s insanity; Ripper glowering I the shadows like a madman; Muffley anchored by a group of unhelpful advisors, trying desperately to stop the end of the world; or just the entire table at the war room, framed like a giant poker game over the fate of the world.

Kubrick also keeps the irreverence he brought with Lolita. It’s been said that each Kubrick film responds to the last, and here it’s a case of Kubrick taking the previous film’s irreverent look at personal destruction and blowing it up to universal destruction. This irreverence begins immediately with a disingenuous claim that the Air Force takes safeguards to prevent this sort of thing from happening and that none of the characters are based on any real people (in fact, Turgidson and Ripper both resemble the fanatical Gen. Curtis LeMay so closely it’s frightening). As if the subtitle of How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb weren’t enough to show the world how ridiculous the whole situation is, the opening credits of the film take place over the highly suggestive shot of one plane refueling another to an orchestral version of Otis Redding’s classic “Try a Little Tenderness”. It’s both connotative of how overtly phallic much of military technology is and deeply ironic in how decidedly not tender the actions of the military men are in the film. As Martin Scorsese said in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, “we knew immediately that anything could happen in this movie”.

What’s most important, however, is how Kubrick also brings something new: a hypnotic, meditative rhythm and slight detachment that provokes a strong sense of unease in the viewer. As Kubrick shrouds Ripper in the shadows and cuts to a variety of strange angles, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right even before Mandrake realizes that Ripper has gone utterly insane. Even more indicative of this is Mandrake’s confrontation with Ripper: Kubrick shoots from behind Ripper’s desk, slightly off-center, as Mandrake tries to convince Ripper that the Russians are not attacking and that the bombers must be recalled. Kubrick takes his time, showing Mandrake dutifully, respectfully informing Ripper of the situation as Ripper slowly locks the office door and Mandrake realizes the gravity of the situation. It’s a polarized look at good and evil- the face of reason and the face of madness butting heads as reason is slowly backed into a corner. Kubrick also brings that to his photography of the war room, cutting between various angles of President Muffley, Gen. Turgidson, and the whole war room, capturing unconventional agnles as a way to keep the audience on edge. That edge also carries over the bomber pilot scenes, which play as almost nightmare comedy as the bombers slowly edge toward annihilation. 

What’s almost as impressive is Kubrick’s sense of perfectionism. True, Kubrick had shown his perfectionist nature in earlier films, but it truly comes through in Ken Adam’s glorious production design here. The Air Force base is so perfectly detailed that it could easily pass for the real thing. The bomber plane practically did pass for the real thing, right down to the CRM-114 machine that the bombers received coded messages from: Adam’s design was so accurate that he and Kubrick were nearly investigated by the FBI. Kubrick’s decision to zoom in on the technology whenever the pilots use it is a brilliant one: it communicates not only the sense of detail, but the idea that these tiny switches and buttons hold the fate of the whole world. Best of all is the gorgeous War Room set: darkly lit, with a giant map (or, excuse me, “the Big Board”) on the wall and a giant table in the center. Legend has it that Kubrick insisted the table be covered in a green felt similar to poker tables even though the film was to be shot in black-and-white. It was worth it: the idea is perfectly communicated.

Of course, Dr. Strangelove is a comedy, and a wickedly funny one at that. Credit goes to Southern and the cast for their contributions, the film wouldn’t work without the touch of a master ironist at the helm. Some of the biggest laughs in the film come from characters’ blasé reactions or understatements in the face of terror:

Gen. Ripper: “It looks like we’re in a shooting war.”
Capt. Mandrake: “Oh hell.”

Gen. Turgidson: “I hate to judge before all the facts are in, but it looks like Gen. Ripper may have exceeded his authority.”

President Muffley, on the phone with Russian Premier Kissoff: “One of our generals…well, he went a little funny in the head, and he went and did a silly thing…”

Other great bits come from characters hilariously missing the point of grave situations, from soldiers about to shoot on their own troops (“Gee, those trucks sure look like the real thing”) to Turgidson not getting the gravity of the Doomsday Machine (“gee, I wish we had one of those…”) to Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), who stumbles upon Mandrake and proves almost impossibly unhelpful in saving the day:

Capt. Mandrake, who doesn’t have enough change to make an all-important call to the president: “Colonel, I want you to shoot the lock off that Coca-Cola machine.”
Col. Guano: “That’s private property!”

Still, some of the best gags simply come from the outsized mayhem of the situation, from Maj. Kong, who opens a safe only to pull out a ten-gallon cowboy hat (“I reckon this is it!”), to Mandrake, who listens in on Ripper’s dead serious warnings about commies only to find a jazzy tune playing on a civilian broadcast station, proving that the Russians haven’t invaded after all. Of course, if it’s outsized actions one wants, one could simply watch scenes of ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, explaining away his plans of preserving the human race through eugenics while his hand uncontrollably goes into a Nazi salute. Or how about the unforgettable image of Slim Pickens riding a nuclear missile like a bucking bronco, screaming “YEEHAW!” all the way to the end of the world.

More fun is still to be had at Kubrick’s use of military men who start wars over obsessions with sex.  General Ripper is frequently shown giving the famous Kubrick glare while holding a big cigar- the ultimate phallic symbol- between his lips, or while holding a gun- the other great phallic symbol. It’s no coincidence: Ripper’s whole theory is about communists messing with the purity of American bodily fluids, and he hilariously relates his theory to Mandrake, who’s mortified to learn that the whole thing started because of Ripper’s own bout with impotence (there’s a fun theory- war mongers are the way they are because they can’t get it up). He’s hardly the only sex-obsessed lunatic of the bunch- Turgidson spends much of his time fooling around with his secretary, using nuclear terms to describe sex (“You get your countdown started, and old Bucky will be back before you can say blastoff!”). Then there’s Dr. Strangelove’s plan of repopulating the human race by giving ten women to each man, with the woman selected for their sexually stimulating nature (it must be said that Turgidson approves), or Maj. Kong riding a phallic symbol of war to its nuclear orgasm. And then there’s the characters names, most of which make some reference to sexuality: Jack T. Ripper is named after a famous murderer of prostitutes, Muffley and Mandrake are both references to female genetalia, Sadesky to Marquis de Sade, Turgidson to a swollen member, and Strangelove…well, that one speaks for itself. One noted exception, of course, comes with “deviated prevert” fearing Col. Bat Guano, which simply, and appropriately, stands for “batshit”.

Previous Kubrick films had dealt with the dark side of technology (most notably Paths of Glory with its harrowing depiction of World War I), but Dr. Strangelove is the first Kubrick film that takes a good, hard look at the subject. There’s a classic three-way conflict at the film’s center (Americans vs. General Ripper and his bombers vs. Russians), and much of the problem comes from man’s own inhuman technology. There’s a meticulous nature to both the nuclear program and its strategy (not to mention the absurdly detailed survival kit given to the bombers), but everything goes wrong when one lunatic comes unhinged and decides to take action. The rest of the film is a slow-burning look at total destruction, with both the American plans and the Russian Doomsday Machine working exactly as they’re supposed to but with one key element going terribly wrong.

Much of the problem comes from the characters entrapment: Mandrake can’t communicate to the bombers or the president, Muffley can’t get to the bombers or get through to the people around him, and the bombers are completely out of reach from everyone. And even as things start to go right for Mandrake, Muffley and company, they can’t quite count on one bomber getting past everything and completing its mission…and therefore ending humanity as we know it. Kubrick was a meticulous planner by nature, and yet he recognizes the human propensity for error and how it throws everything that goes right completely off.

It doesn’t help that much of the violence is exacerbated by a gigantic pissing contest between nations. From the beginning, the mad Gen. Turgidson refuses to extend any sort of camaraderie to the Russians even though their fate hangs in balance together. When it’s clear that the Russians could easily counterattack with their own nuclear weapons, Turgidson recommends to the president that he kill up to 20 million more Russians to keep the American people alive (I loved a detail I had never noticed before: Turgidson’s binder reads “World Targets in Megadeaths”). When the president allows Sadesky in the war room, an exasperated Turgidson complains that Sadesky will see the big board, never mind that it hardly matters at the moment. Turgidson and Sadesky fight, prompting the famous “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!” as Muffley tries to keep some semblance of order to everything.

It’s no use. Kubrick is, despite several claims to the contrary, a humanist. He’s too afraid of the possibility of the end of the world for it to be otherwise. But his humanism is very tough-minded, and he recognizes that madness and dehumanization are a central part of humanity (when asked what surprised him most about humanity, Kubrick wryly answered, “That we’re still here”). The people in charge are either lunatics or are decent men overpowered by lunatics. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction acts as a perfect deterrent to humanity wiping each other out…unless a central factor like a Doomsday Machine is kept a secret. One side dehumanizes the other as degenerate atheists, the other as capitalist stooges. It captures the madness of the times, but it doesn’t feel too far removed from the madness of today- to this day, we’re still a button-push away from total destruction, and some of the people in charge, either in government or in the military, are a step away from insanity.

As much of humanity meets its end, the two sides can’t stop fighting (“we cannot allow a mineshaft gap!”), and Strangelove’s plan to save humanity is horrifying and dehumanizing in its own way (“...animals can be bred and SLAUGHTERED…computer can calculate who to keep…we’ll be led by leadership and tradition!”), taking on overtly fascist tones even before Strangelove breaks out into Nazi salutes and “Mein fuhrer, I can walk!”. There’s little to do but laugh at the insanity of it all, especially as Kubrick finishes the film with a happy Vera Lynn song playing over shots of nuclear annihilation. “We’ll meet again/don’t know where/don’t know when/but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”

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  1. Hayden was magnificent as Ripper in the film and all his scenes with Seller's Captain Mandrake are priceless. The casual banter between them as the dire crisis situation continues to escalate is indicative of the comedic tone Kubrick hoped to capture. Thank you for this incisive analysis of one of Kubrick's best films.

  2. I really like you post good blog,Thanks for your sharing.