Thursday, July 07, 2005

Film: Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

It’s sometimes awfully difficult to grasp ideas in films of Stanley Kubrick, and impossible to talk about them (which is, I suppose, why make movies about them instead of just telling them, eh?). I was intending to get the first peak at his work with his early, relatively simple film, “Lolita” (first film in which he had complete creative freedom). However, today I got an itch to re-watch the second film in which he had a complete creative freedom, “Dr. Strangelove” so I did it. And now I gotta write about it.

Now, it doesn’t need film knowledge to be aware of Stanley Kubrick. This director has been hailed as one of the greatest directors of all times, if not the greatest of all. He is well known for a slow tempo and long takes of most of his films, ultimately in “2001: A space odyssey”, a movie that, lasting over 2 hours, has no more that 50 minutes of dialogue. He was a dedicated perfectionist, repeating his takes for up to 70 times before he was finally satisfied with the result; An author who never returned to the same topic he’s already dealt with; An author who managed to raise a controversy with ever film he made; An author who became what he was with only 11 films in his career (not including two low-budget filming exercises at the very beginning).

His last film was in making 12 years. The one before, 7 years. Films previous to that also took 4 – 5 years to make. Which inevitably makes one think whether his films would really be so much worse if he wasn’t such perfectionist and if he made more of them.

And yet, Kubrick’s films are the ones that you can watch hundred times, every time discovering something new. Virtually every scene he made deserves to be singled out and researched and discussed (people actually do that often but in case of 99% of directors it’s the case of reading into things and giving too much credit).

Influential in the use of music in films, as not only a mean of creating atmosphere, but supporting the meaning of the scene: The most sophisticated example of this may be the use of Strauss’s “Also spoke Zarathustra” as the light-motive in “2001: A space odyssey”, invoking Nietzsche’s fictionalized philosophical work about the inevitable creating of homo superior – which just happens to be the main topic of “A space odyssey”.

Finally, a master of photography, in later phases of his work Kubrick was sometimes willing to sacrifice meaning of a film to a stunning photography in it (“Barry Lyndon”, whose stills were often based on paintings”). Yet, Kubrick never made a bad film. And with some of the best films of all times in his filmography, I would probably consider him my favourite director, if it wasn’t for some Russian guy who also happened to made a small number of films in his life. But that’s a different story.

Now, to be fair, some people find Kubrick’s slow tempo to be boring, his themes too pretentious and his meticulous filming process not worth the results. Those people often call us who like Kubrick’s work elitists. Of course, today, everyone calls everyone else an elitist. As soon as someone shows signs of different taste, you can call him elitist. Because, in theory, with the first public display of your personal preferences on anything, you are indirectly dividing people into those who agree with you (‘elite’) and those who disagree (‘non-elite’). Given that, I am not offended to be called elitist. If the reason is Kubrick’s films, then I am, in fact, proud of it.

Now, “Dr.Strangelove” was first intended to be a serious story about post-nuclear threat. But soon, Kubrick realized that the surreal premise lends itself better to a black comedy. Also, at first it was intended to be ended with a big pie-fight. This, farsic ending, was rejected in favour of ending where bombs blow up the entire earth.

You probably know the drill: during the Cold War, one loony USA general sends a fleet of bombers to attack Russia, hoping that it would urge USA to step into a real war, thus ending with “commie threat” once and for all. Russia, on the other hand, has a so called “doomsday device” installed, a weapon that will, was Russia attacked, automatically blow up the entire earth – weapon whose purpose is to scare off attackers rather than anything else. The whole film is based on attempts of president of USA (Piter Sellers) and the handful of his generals (among which general Turgidson, played by George C. Scott), Russian ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull), British attaché at the USA military basis (again Sellers), and everyone else, trying to recall bombers or to stop them any other way from triggering the Doomsday’s device.

Now the film’s aim is to frustrate you. Entire hour and a half, you’re watching vane attempts of actors of the story to recall the doom, and you see all atempts failing; You see fate playing with them, and you see a crew of one particular plane giving their best to complete the mission of bombing Russian bases, not knowing that their mission is a fake. We see planes being recalled; Then we are remembered that we’ve seen one plane having radio equipment blown up earlier; Then we see fuel leaking out on them; Then the captain decides to change target; Then the bomb gets jammed; Then the captain goes to the bomb compartment himself, unjams it and flies away riding on a bomb like a rodeo cowboy (which is also the most famous scene); This film is an emotional rollercoaster, we are rapidly being switched from fear to relief and then back; Even though we know the ending, power of Kubrick’s storytelling is such that we are still thrilled, and we still hope that somehow, the film would end different this time.

But it doesn’t, and it’s anticlimactic, it’s that antiwar (anti-cold-war) feeling of waste at it’s best; The ironical and tragically thing is, we see characters always being so close to saving the world, but never quite managing to reach it. And we have to laugh at that, so that we wouldn’t cry.

Apart from that, film doesn’t lend any easy laugh; For the first half an hour it is deadly serious (I remember my friends who, seeing it for the first time, asked “why is this a comedy”), which is just huffing up for what comes next; Hilarious moments include constant jabbing of Russian ambassador and General Turgidson (to which president says “You can’t fight in here, this is a war room”), president’s telephone conversation with Russian president (“One of our generals went and did a very silly thing. He... *deep sigh* ...attacked your country”... “Well, how do you think I feel about it?”), inspired monologues of both general Turgidson and his loony outlaw colleague general Ripper, Dr. Strangelove’s (Sellers, again) whole appearance, ambassador’s sneaking away and photographing USA’s maps moments before the earth was gonna blow... But each of those is a joke to which you can laugh or remain serious, depending on whether you realize the whole absurd of the film.

Now, although the story (other than an elaborate setup) seems simple, it is not, because it is happening on three different stages at the same time, and intersecting; One of them is being in president’s war room, with president, Dr. Strangelove, generals and ambassador struggling below the giant world mad. Lack of walls or perspective, with the room descending into dark rather than ending in the visible area, lends the room an air of surreal space, where earth wide decisions have been made; Second stage is in general Ripper’s office, where he baricaded in order to stop the army from reaching his command center and code for recalling airplanes. He’s unwillingly accompanied by willing Capt. Lionel Mandrake, British attaché who is the only person in this film who actually does something right. This stage is shot mostly from hand-held camera, mimicking battle scenes in war films, as troupes attack Ripper’s base – although Kubrick here uses a lot of low-angle cameras too, to underline Ripper’s lunacy; Third stage, inside the bomber fleeing to Russia, with it’s captain, Major “King” Kong, is shot in a claustrophobic atmosphere; The way pilots waste their time before being called to mission, reminds me of later “Dark Star”, a film mostly about spaceship pilots wasting their dull hours.

Peter Sellers, British comedian with unique dignity, also a great actor, worked with Kubrick earlier – more precisely he stole every scene he was in, in “Lolita”. He was one of rare actors who worked with Kubrick more than once (others were Sterling Hayden and Kirk Douglas, second one not by Kubrick’s choice) – like themes, Kubrick was never returning to actors either. Sellers was unique for one more thing: he was the only actor with whom Kubrick didn’t require endless repeating of the same shot and with whom Kubrick preferred lavish improvisation rather than precise, rehashed performance. In this film, Kubrick placed cameras all over the sets, trying to catch every possible angle of Sellers’ performances that could enrich the film. And Sellers has no less than three roles in this film, each different and each excellent: one is the title character, ex-Nazi scientist now working as weapon advisor for president of USA. This role is hysteric, farsic, with rough German accent and a hand that goes off on it’s own will (there’s an actual sickness that manifests that way – often referred to as “Dr. Strangelove syndrome”): he might’ve rejected Nazi but part of him never did; In one of closing sequences, his own hand tries to strangle him: symbolically, in the middle of the story about civilization that is destroying itself.

Second role is the one of president of USA, Merkin Muffley. Much calmer, president is the voice of reason; and this performance of a straight man gives itself shades when his voice trembles under the stress, like in scene where he tells the president of Russia bad news over the phone. Third role is of Captain Mandrake, and it is most similar to what we saw of Sellers in later films. Impressive: part where he talks about how he was being tortured by Japanese (“Strange thing, they make so good cameras”).

And even though we have these three inspired performances, Kubrick and Sellers let other characters shine as well: George C. Scott as general Buck Turgidson, brainless, “commie”-hating brute, willing to make motivational speeches every now and then: a general who seems to be sorry, after all, that USA isn’t in real war with Russia. His face glows when he explains that any good American pilot could break through the Russian defense, a moment before he remembers that it’s actually not a good thing.

What Turgidson thinks, his counterpart Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper does. He sends attack orders to planes and barricades in his office while soldiers are trying to break in to get to his deactivation code for the attack. He is at best when holding speeches about how “commies infiltrate our rows” and “pollute our bodily fluids” and other paranoid nutcase-talk that seems nonsensical today, but in 50ies was a part of everyday speak of right-wingers. Ripper is a genuine product of cold war propaganda. So is Turgidson, however, but without crossing that final line.

Yet another outstanding performance is Slim Picket as Major T.J. “King” Kong, honest as a simple American pilot with heavy Texas accent, with an overflowing dose of patriotism, but we still can’t blame him for trying to finish his mission at any price – even though we would like him not to. Piece of trivia is that Sellers was cast for this role too, but couldn’t develop a Texan accent, so Kubrick caster an actor he saw in a western instead – not telling him that the film was actually a comedy. He’s the one who rides on a rocket, in one of the most surreal scenes in cinema history.

Right after that, in their last moments, people in war room are discussing a possibility of preserving the life deep down below in mines. Ambassador Strangelove’s hand goes out of control, he stands up prom his chair screaming “Mein Fuhrer, I have a plan!”. It all ends with mushroom clouds spreading everywhere, covered with the old Vera Lynn song “We’ll meet again”, with a handful of suggestions that the long lends to an ending, specially related to the previous sequence. In any case, Kubrick suggests that the life isn’t over, but never tells whether it’s a good or bad thing. In worst case, it can mean more troubles like this one, and it seems to me, from the ironic tone, that it is what Kubrick meant.

What else is there to say? That the film was controversial? That U.S.A. rejected even it’s consideration as too far fetched. That today, just as back then, it seems fresh and topical. That the ending with the destruction of the entire world makes it a unique film in history.

And even though it’s best that he left out pie-fight scenes out, if those shooting were ever released, I’d watch them.


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