Monday 17 June 2019

Kubism, Part 7:
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To
Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

We're roughly half way through our nursery school-level investigation of the films of Stanley Kubrick, and it's been a bumpy ride so far. We've seen the good (The Killing, Paths Of Glory, Lolita), the bad (Fear And Desire, Spartacus, oh God The Seafarers) and the middling (Killer's Kiss), and so it seems appropriate that this time round we're faced with The Kube's most divisive film. Which is to say that there's a dividing line between most of the world, who love it, and me. It is a cause of some personal concern, but even after multiple viewings I have yet to learn to stop worrying and love Dr. Strangelove; for me it is not quite the bomb.
Troubled by an early '60s political landscape that boasted such anxiety-inducing events as the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, increasing tensions in Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, the Bay Of Pigs and everything else from that verse of We Didn't Start The Fire, Stanley Kubrick decided to make a nuclear war drama based on the thriller novel Red Alert. Finding everything about the situation inherently ridiculous, he transformed the book's serious tone into a comedy that would define cinematic satire for a generation and successfully piss off every stars-and-stripes-waving believer in the might of the US military who saw it. Using his beloved war genre as a stick to poke the hornets' nest of political hubris, Kubrick predicted every fatal decision made in the world's war rooms for the next half-century and beyond, and he did it on his own terms and in his own, inimitable style. But Kubrick's style is inimitable because it's so damn hard to pin down, and in my worthless and unsolicited opinion, even he struggled to nail the tone this time.

With the mandatory Kubrickian introductory voiceover (and my equally compulsory mention of it) out of the way, Dr. Strangelove launches its attack on conservative morality with its opening titles. Airborne sexy time between large phallic objects is graphically depicted, as long tubes penetrate openings and release essential fluids in order to ensure continued survival: strange love indeed. I mean it's just some planes refuelling mid-air, but read into it what you like you dirty old perv. This kind of innuendo runs the length of the film like a thick dorsal vein, and film scholars point to it as an example of Kubrick's sophisticated humour. Fair enough. If you ask me it's just a bunch of knob jokes that don't bear any relation to the plot; at least North By Northwest's hilariously crass train-fucking-a-tunnel visual gag came at the climax of a film that was vaguely sexy.
Things get going with the trademark efficiency of early Kubrick, as Sterling Hayden's paranoid loon Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper of Burpelson Air Force Base (you be the judge as to the comedy value of names in this film) authorises a wave of nuclear attacks on Russian targets because he thinks Commies are sabotaging his spunk. Trying to talk sense into Ripper is Peter Sellers' RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a genuinely excellent take on stereotypical British reserve whose stiff upper lip is adorned with the most splendid moustache in the Kubrick canon.

In the skies above Russia, one of Ripper's nuke-laden B-52 bombers - piloted by an apparent Texan hayseed whose patois is amusing in and of itself but otherwise of little narrative value - receives the order to unleash nuclear hell. Its crew (including a young Darth Vader who looks nothing like Hayden Christensen) go about the business of prepping armageddon and reading Playboy, but serve no other useful function until their final moments.

And then there's the third of Dr. Strangelove's trio of locations to which Kubrick experimentally limits his story. The War Room at the Pentagon is a glorious Ken Adam creation built to house the best and worst of the film's scenes, which scuffle with each other for supremacy despite the strict No Fighting In The War Room rule. An orgy of geometry, the War Room is impossible to view as anything other than a lair of lunatics once you've seen Adam's similar work on the crackpots' cribs of the Bond films. Of course that only retrospectively enhances the madness that takes place within the confines of Kubrick's film, as President Merkin Muffley (lol) argues with General Buck Turgidson (haha) and tries to placate Russian premier Dimitri Kissoff (good one) over the impending accidental annihilation of the human race.
It's here that the highlights of Dr. Strangelove - Muffley's excruciatingly polite phone calls to his Soviet counterpart - are beautifully executed. Sellers is on gold standard form as the Pres, awkwardly explaining the actions of his unhinged military leaders while literally and figuratively isolated in a pool of light from that ironic halo of illumination slung above the table. We never hear Kissoff's replies, leaving Sellers to carry the scene by himself with effortless comedy genius. Which makes it all the more disappointing when the third of his characters in the film emerges from a gloomy corner: the titular Dr. S, a grating creation who seems to have fallen out of a bad Monty Python sketch and landed badly enough to render himself comedically disabled.

Kubrick famously (and rightly) excised a prologue featuring bewildered aliens and an epilogue showcasing a titanic custard pie fight from his movie because they didn't belong, and it's a shame he didn't punt Strangelove in the same direction. Turning up nearly an hour into the film and occupying just two scenes and under nine minutes of screen time, the character isn't around long enough to enhance the story but is nevertheless overbearing enough to knock the whole project off-axis from subtle satire to eye-rolling slapstick. It's the most obvious symptom of the film's mixed comedic tone, which on the one hand brings us subtle visual gags like Turgidson's "World Targets In Megadeaths" manual, then on the other forces upon us a soldier called Colonel Bat Guano (my sides!) shooting a Coke machine and getting sprayed in the face in painfully punchline-reinforcing close-up.
But it's not just the comedy that doesn't hit its intended target for me; I just can't engage with Dr. Strangelove on any level beyond admiration of Ken Adam's sets and two-thirds of Peter Seller's work. The film seems to limp from scene to scene without much plot, until it just stops - quite mercifully, frankly - in the middle of one of the bad doctor's teeth-itching routines. None of the characters are developed any further than the point at which we meet them, and there's nothing of any complexity under any of their skins. I appreciate Strangelove's themes and I admire the satire, but I genuinely think I would get more enjoyment watching a documentary in which Donald Trump has to phone Vladimir Putin to apologise for not having nuked the whole of North America yet. That's the trouble with satire: once the absurdity of reality overtakes it, it's essentially toothless.

Of course it's still Stanley Kubrick and therefore still of some contextual value. The Kube's powerful but flawed, incompetent men are everywhere, and the destructive power of macho vanity reaches its spectacular apotheosis between the legs of a ten-gallon-hat-waving, yee-hawing cowboy as he finally achieves wargasm. While men are shown to be dangerous idiots though, women are still being sidelined altogether, despite Lolita successfully wrapping every man she encountered round her little finger. Like Paths Of GloryDr. Strangelove manages just one female character, and she's a secretary lounging around in a bikini waiting to be fucked because she's got nothing else to do.

Perhaps the most interesting concept within Dr. Strangelove is the advent of mechanisation and automation in Kubrick's cinema. The trust placed by mankind in the technology he's developed proves tragically misplaced when it experiences the most simplistic failure, and the implications of that would form the basis of his next and arguably greatest film. That human/mechanical dichotomy would also surface in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the long-gestating project he eventually handed over to Steven Spielberg, who took it down a considerably more emotional route than Kubrick might have done. Keen-eyed audiences will also note that neither 2001 nor A.I. feature Peter Sellers shouting in an OTT German accent, so I suppose we should thank Dr. Strangelove for helping Stanley Kubrick get that out of his system.
Join me again soon(ish) for 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film set so far in the future that none of us will ever be qualified to remark on its accuracy.

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