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Dr.Strangelove-Or how i started to love Stanley Kubrick

February 18, 2010


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How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo [Leonardo Da Vinci] had written at the bottom of the canvas, ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover’? This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don`t want this to happen to 2001.-  Stanley  Kubrick

Stanley  Kubrick  is  one of  those  directors, who  strongly  believe  in  the  cinema  being a  visual medium, and  let the  audience  interpret  it.   Not for  Kubrick, the  method of  spoon  feeding  the audience,  at  every  moment, and  every scene,  making it  way too  obvious.   When i  first  saw 2001: A  Space Odyssey, while  the  opening sequence   was brilliant, especially the  shot  of the apes  throwing  the bone  and  that  cutting into  a spaceship, to the strains  of  Thus Spake  Zarathustra, the  rest of  the  movie  was  a  blur to me.  Yes  it  was visually brilliant, but  i  was  not really  in the  right  frame  of  mind  to  understand  the  complexities.   Subsequent  viewings  later  on,  and  then  me  understanding about  cinema  being a  visual  medium,  and  what  Kubrick  essentially  intended.  Throw the  images  at the  audience and  let  them  figure  it  out.  Its  like a  piece  of  stone,  can  mean  different  things to  a philosopher and a  shepherd, yet both  are  right  in their  own  way.   Kubrick’s  movies  are  essentially  open  ended, layered,  and  deciphering  them  can be  frustrating at  the best of  times.   It is  not  that  Kubrick  can’t  make  a  movie  with a  straight  forward  conventional  narrative,  he  did  it  with  Spartacus and   the  first  of  his  celebrated  anti  war trilogy-  Paths  of  Glory, which  showcased  the  hollow  and  exploitative  nature  of  the  military  set up,  as  the  French officers  cover up  their  own  strategic  failures  and  blunders  by  choosing  to  make  scapegoats  of  3  subordinate  soldiers.

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From  the  trenches  of  Europe  during  WW1,  Kubrick’s  next  movie  in  his  anti  war  trilogy,  was  a  searing  black comedy  satire  of  the  Cold  War  military  establishment.  It   is  quite  an  irony though  that  the  character  immortalized  through  this  movie,  was  not  a part of  the  original  novel  Red  Alert,  on  which  the  movie  was  based.  It  was  Kubrick  and  screenplay writer  Terry Southern,  who  created  the memorable  character  of  Dr. Strangelove,  just  for  the  movie  alone.   Futurist  Herman Kahn,   mathematician  John Von Neumann,  rocket  scientist  Werner  Von Braun and  the  father  of  the  Hydrogen  Bomb,  Dr. Edward  Teller,  were  the  inspirations  for  one of  cinema’s  most  iconic  screen  villains.  Neummann of  course one of  my  idols being  a  die  hard  techie,  and  both  Werner  Von  Braun  ,  Edward  Teller get  my  respect  for  being  some of  the  most  brilliant  scientists  of  the time.    Dr. Strangelove  came  at  a  time,  when  the  Cold  War  was  it’s   highest  intensity level,  Bay  of  Pigs had  bought  the  US  and  USSR  close  to  confrontation  point,   the  nuclear  arms  race  was  hotting up  with  Cuba  being  the  pawn in the  chess piece out  here,  and  Castro  merrily  mocking the  US,  and  then  in 1963  JFK  was  assassinated,  leading  to  a wide  range  of  conspiracy  theories   ranging from the  FBI  to the Mafia  to the KGB,  which  to date  has  not been  really  resolved.    In  a  strange  way  the  60′s  was  a  time of  irony, while the US  and  the  USSR  continued  their  Tu Tu  Main Main,  threatening to go to  war, but  fortunately never did, on the other  side,  flower power,  counter  culture,  pacifist , anti  nuclear  movements   were  breaking out.
Stanley  Kubrick’s primary  motivation though  was  satirizing  the  MAD( Mutual  Assured  Destruction) policy, that  in a way  actually  prevented  the  US  and  USSR  from  indulging  in a full  scale  armed  conflict.   As  Kubrick  himself  explained  later

My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.

The  reason  for  Herman Kahn being one  of  the  influences  behind  the  character  of  Dr. Strangelove was  due  to the fact  that  Kahn   was  one   of  the persons  who formulated  the entire  idea  of  MAD.  He  came  out with  the doomsday  scenario  of  no  winners  in a  nuke  war.
The  satirical  anti  nuclear  message  is  conveyed  in the  very  opening  shot,  the  camera  tracking a  cloud  cover from the top,  no  music,  just  the  sound  of  the  air  whizzing  around,  some  peaks  of  the Rockies  sticking out. No  human beings  around,  and  the  narrator’s  VO  about  a secret  Doomsday  machine  being  constructed    in  one of  the Arctic  wastelands.
What they were building, or why it should be located in such a remote and desolate place, no one could say.
The cloud  formation metaphorically  conveying  the idea of the  mushroom cloud  after  a nuke  explosion,  and  the  fact  that  humans  are  virtually  eliminated  during  a  nuke  exploration.  Here  i  feel  Kubrick  was  straight away  using the  visual  leit motif  to  drive  home  the  point  of   desolation  and  devastation  that  usually  accompanies  a nuclear  war.  The  opening  credits  flash  across  the  screen, in the  form  of   scrawled, hand drawn letters,  across  the  image  of  a  B 52  Nuclear  bomber  being refueled  in the  air.   While  many  critics,  have  drawn  out  sexual  references in the  scene,  to  me  they  come  much  later  in the  movie.   I feel  the  sexual  love thingy  was maybe  because  of  the  romantic  Try  a Little  Tenderness soundtrack  that  plays  somewhere  in the  background.
The  B 52  bomber  now  alights on the  Burpelson  Air  Field,  where  we come  across  the  command  room.  The irony  is  shown  with a  sign  reading  “PEACE  IS  OUR PROFESSION” and  then  the  shot  of  machines  spewing out endless  sheets  of  paper,  whose  contents  we know  nothing  about.   And  that  is  when  we  come  across  the  first  set  of  characters,   Grp.  Captain  Lionel  Mandrake (  the  first  of  the  3 roles  Peter  Sellers plays) and  his neurotic  supervisor  SAC( Strategic  Air Command)  General  Jack. D. Ripper(  Sterling  Hayden). Mandrake  is  the  satire  of  the  archetypal  stiff,  upper lipped,  honorable  British  army officer,  a  satire  on  Alec  Guiness  character    in  Bridge  on the  River  Kwai.    Ripper  is  the  neurotic, paranoid   supervisor, who  is  living  under the  constant  fear   of a  Russian  sneak  attack,  and  has a  Plan R in  place to deal with  it.  Honestly  though  when the  motivations  of  Plan R  are  revealed  much  later  in  the  movie,  the  entire  futility  of  it  all is  underscored.   The  sparse  looking  Air  Force base room  is   one  of  the  3   settings  in  which  the  narration  keeps  switching  back  and forth.
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The  black  and white  camera  work,  the  sparse  setting,  the  claustrophobia  inducing  nature  of  the  settings,  all  in  a way   de glamorizing  the  war.  What  Kubrick  is  essentially  doing  here  is  to  strip  away all  the  glory, mysterious  romance  associated  with  the  military,  and  show  case it  as  is,  a  drab, dull,  bureaucratic  place,  filled with  boredom and  meaninglessness  most of  the  time.   The  fact  is  underscored  by  the  second  setting  of  the  movie,  the  interior  of  a  B 52  bomber,  one  of  the  many  deployed  by  the  US  Govt,  which is  around  2 hrs  from Russia.  The  paranoia  of  the  Govt  however  does  not  seem to be shared  by the  rather  bored  crew  sitting in the  bomber, the  commander  Maj  T.J. “King”  Kong,   a  dim witted,   brutish looking  Texan  who  is  more  interested in the Playboy  magazine  than anything  else.   One of  the  crew members   Radio  Lt   Godie  Goldberg, is munching sandwiches,  while  another  just  shuffles  some cards along.   This  is  one  of  the  best  scenes  in the  movie.   King  Kong  receives  the  Plan  R  orders,  and  he  initially  feels  its  just  another  joke by  his bored  crew  members.    And then   Kong   shifts  from  his  bored demeanor,  satirizing  the  style  of   heroes  in  Hollywood  war  movies,    as  it  pokes  fun  at  one  of  the  most  used  cliches  in  Hollywood  war  movies,  the  hero  giving  the  patriotic  speech to his  men,  before  the war.
Now look, boys. I ain’t much of a hand at makin’ speeches. But I got a pretty fair idea that somethin’ doggoned important’s going on back there. And I got a fair idea of the kind of personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin’. Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beins if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat. But I want you to remember one thing – the folks back home is a countin’ on ya, and by golly, we ain’t about to let ‘em down. Tell ya somethin’ else – this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions an’ personal citations when this thing’s over with. That goes for every last one of ya, regardless of your race, color, or your creed. Now, let’s get this thing on the hump. We got some flyin’ to do.
As  King  Kong  delivers  his  “inspirational  speech”,  the  camera  now  immediately  cuts  to the  hotel suite of  Gen  “Buck”  Turgidson( George  C Scott), the  hawkish,  pleasure loving  general,  having a  jaunt  with  his  pretty, brunette  secretary   Ms. Scott( Tracy  Reed),  also  doubling  up  as  his  mistress.    Turgidson  gets  the call  about  Plan R,  and that’s  where  you  get  to  hear on the  movie’s  many  sexual  innuendoes.

I know how it is, baby. Tell you what you do. You just start your countdown, and old Bucky’ll be back here before you can say…Blast Off!
Again  the  traditional  Hollywood  cliche  of  the  hero  addressing  his  men,  alerting  them  is  satirized here,  as  Buck   creates  the  military  state  like  environment  among  his  people.
Your commie has no regard for human life, not even his own. And for this reason, men, I want to impress upon you the need for extreme watchfulness. The enemy may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may even come in the uniform of our own troops. But however he comes, we must stop him. We must not allow him to gain entrance to this base.
Basically  Buck  is  sort  of  adopting a  3 rules of  extreme  paranoia,  Trust no one, anything approaching  close  to be fired  upon,  and  finally  shoot  first, ask later.   Typical  of  the  Cold  War  paranoia,  when  reasoning and logic  were given the go by,  it  was  more  like  “You  not with us, you  are  against  us”. Things  have  not  changed  much, considering  what George  Bush  had done,  but  that’s  a discussion for another  day.
Mandrake is  the lone  sensible  voice  in  the  madness  prevailing  around,   he  is  convinced that the  whole  thing is  a set  up,  as  evident  from  the  standard  civilian  stuff  being  played  on the  radio.  As also  his  superior  Ripper’s  attitude  of  not  “questioning orders”, which  indeed  convinces  him  that “we don’t want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, do we?”. Jack. D. Ripper  is  as  much of  a psychotic   as  his more  famous  namesake.  He  is  crazed,  seeing  enemies  everywhere,  delusional,  i  guess  this  was  pretty  much  satirizing  John  Wayne’s  Gung ho war hero  persona.
I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
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And  that  is  where  the  movie  jumps  to the  main  setting of  the  movie, the  President’s  War  Room.   Excellent  camera  work  here,  panning  from the top,  the  lights  illuminating  the  President  and also Commander in Chief,  Merkin Muffey( Peter  Sellers  again), poring  over  the Big  Board,  a huge  display,  strategic  map  that  shows  the  positions  of  the  bombers,  with  his  advisers  huddled around  it.  Again  pretty much  satirizing  most of  the  standard  Cold  War   conspiracy thriller  movies,  as  also  some of  the 007  flicks.    But  the  important  issue  comes  out  right  here,  the  fact  is  the  unilateral  decision  taken by  Buck  and Ripper  about  Plan  R  is  now  threatening to turn  out  into a  full fledged  nuclear  conflict,  that  would  actually  wipe  out  half  of  the  nation.  As  stated,  there  are no  winners  in a nuclear  war.    Bringing  us  to  one  of  the  best  scenes  ever,  the  President  now  realizing  that  a  massive  fuck up  has  occured,  something  which  could  potentially  devastate  the  entire  nation.   Buck  realizing  he  has been  caught  pants  down,   trying  to  convince  the  President  that  they  would  ultimately  benefit.  The  President  however   is  convinced  that  Ripper  is  clearly psychotic,  questioning the  efficiency of  the tests,  Buck  trying  to  counter him.  Ripper  does  not  really care  what the  Prez thinks,  he  lives  in  his  own  delusional  world.  When  finally   Buck  finds  that  the  President  is  not  amused  with  his  strategy, he  falls  back  on rhetoric.

Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth…Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments. One, where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed.

Or  what  you  call the “greater common good”  or  collateral  damage  stuff.    What  happens  next,  has  to be watched on the  screen,  as  the  narration  keeps  switching  between the  3  major  points- the bomber,  the  air force base and the  War room.
Dr. Strangelove  was  what  made  me  a die  hard  Kubrick  fan.  The  satire  is  brilliant,  witty  and  hits  straight at  the  gut. Be  it  the  sexual  innuendoes  in  the  names( King  Kong,  Buck, Jack D Ripper,  Mandrake) or the  take  offs  on real life  Cold  War persona,  the  Russian president  is   called  Dmitri  Kissof,  the  biting  satire  in  the dialogues, the  exagerated  mannerisms  of  the  characters,  the  writing  is  of  the  highest  quality.    Each  and every  character is  brilliantly  etched  out,  not  just  Peter  Seller’s   3  roles,  but  even  those  of  Buck,  Ripper,  King Kong.  Watch  out  for  the  scene,   where  the  US  President  has a  direct  hot line  call with the  Russian  Premier,   George Scott’s  expressions  as  he  watches  him  trying  to  placate  his  Soviet counterpart,  just  brilliant.  In  fact  the   conversation on the  hot  line  between Prez  Merkin Muffey and  the  Russian  Premier,  pretty  much echoes the  way  our  India  Pakistan  leaders  discuss  issues.    And  yes  the  last  15  minutes of  the film,  is  unadulterated  chaos.   This is  one of  the  best  cult  movies  ever,  to be  watched  and  enjoyed,  for  it’s  ironic take  on the  Cold  War  MAD theory, and  of  course for  Peter  Sellers.
One Comment
  1. Peter Sellers is great as always; George C Scott's "no fighting in the War Room" performance is magic, but it must be said that Slim Pickens playing Maj. Kong virtually steals the show.Dr. Strangelove is a terrific film & (along with films such as Blazing Saddles) can be watched time and time again with no loss of enjoyment – in fact you get more out of them each time.Wonderful… and great analysis, btw.

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