Sunday, November 8, 2009

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

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Recently, I've seen this new Mercedes Benz commercial which advertises "top of the line" features to keep drivers safe. Such technologies include sensors to identify if a driver is losing focus and automated braking if obstructions occur. Mercedes makes it sound like a dream: a car with an insurance policy built right in. To those mindful of the technological shifts of the last decade it exemplifies the ongoing trend of willfully relinquishing personal control to automated technological processes. Take for example Microsoft's latest development:, billed as the “first ever decision engine.” Like the iPod Shuffle before them,, Mercedes Benz and a myriad of other developments have arisen that alleviate the burden of thoughtful cognition while simultaneously increasing the need for further production of supplemental equipment. In so many respects we, as an international community of industrialized (and furthermore, computerized) nations, are entering into a Digital Dark Age.

The Digital Dark Age is coming about as computer based technologies evolve at a faster and faster rate. We as a society experience a paradoxical helplessness because of this rapid growth. If we do not attempt to form a working knowledge of these technologies then we surrender, but if we attempt an understanding, it is likely that by the time we achieve it (if we achieve it) the technology has further evolved to another point of incomprehensibility. In Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's seventh film and the first in a string of six formidable films whose legacy would earn Kubrick his reputation as one of the “most accomplished, innovative and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema,” this concept of absurd dependence on occult technologies is catapulted into the structure of political satire as Kubrick anticipates our now-reality and prophesies our self-destructive end.

Kubrick did all this within the cultural framework of the mid 1960s, during which time a paradigmatic shift in cinema's priorities were taking place. A new batch of young independent producers and film makers, who desired to work outside the confines of the current strict Hollywood system, were coming of age in America. The ensuing movement, known as American New Wave or New Hollywood, would be inaugurated with Bonnie and Clyde and span well into the 1980s. However, Dr. Strangelove foreshadowed many of the themes that would become prevalent during this and later film movements. His use of Vera Lynn's soothing “We'll Meet Again” juxtaposed with stock footage of atomic explosions foresaw David Lynch's own unnerving use of digetic and visual juxtaposition. His deceptively economic cinematics coupled with Hollywood's resources had a distinct influence on directors such as Peter Bogdanovich. Most importantly, like the German Expressionism of the 20s, Italian Neorealism of the 50s and the rising French New Wave, Kubrick placed an emphasis on authenticity. This new realism, which at times manifested itself very graphically (Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets, Kubrick's own A Clockwork Orange), would be the movements biggest focal point. Kubrick makes Strangelove almost dizzyingly realistic, overloading his audiences with a blur of military jargon and a mass of technological terms which are never aptly defined. This is Kubrick's intent: to show the impossible vastness of machine-based information. As if the technology itself wasn't complicated enough the bureaucratic lexicon of the film's purported U.S. government further complicates matters. This is demonstrated by General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) explanation of the inevitability of Plan F (a coordinated strike on all Russian military targets) to the President (Peter Sellers) who stares at him blankly, clearly not understanding the complexities of a bill he signed into law.

This is essentially Kubrick's post-modern “comedy of errors” and simultaneous rejection of classic Hollywood tropes. He largely abandons the novelty of a single hero, adopting instead something closer to Eisenstein's group protagonist, which in itself is pointedly contradicted by Peter Sellers' tri-role in the film. Protagonist in this sense is a moot point as the “antagonist” is General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) the delusional and paranoid hyper patriot who orders the assault on the USSR in order to protect our “precious bodily fluids.” Brilliantly, Kubrick mirrors this patriotic insanity in his War Room proceedings, the ravings of Turgidson and, of course, the pronunciations of former Nazi scientist: Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Strangelove is essentially a symbolic device used to wage a strong condemnation against the United States' own hypocrisy in treating the Soviets with the same indignity and fear as they did for the Germans during WWII, exemplifying an utter lack of moral retention. Cinematically the doctor endures as one of the great highlights of the film, in particular the sequence in which he explains an elaborate plan (which involves a 100 year subterranean existence) that is essentially Hitler's manic belief in a chosen race. White House chiefs of staff sit around mesmerized by his promise that they will be safe and encouraged to copulate. The film's final line is perhaps Kubrick's most memorable: “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”

It is important to remember that Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy. Unlike almost all of the films that followed it (with the exception of Full Metal Jacket) Strangelove is funny and deeply affecting. Kubrick's sense of dark humor and commitment to intense socio-political satire would only grow more intense and profound as he progressed as a director. Dr. Strangelove represents Kubrick's jumping off point and conversely illuminates, in retrospect of course, that by 1964 he had already reached an impressive point of cinematic sophistication, but that he also had so much farther to go. As film historians have said of Griffith pre-The Birth of a Nation, had Kubrick only gone as far as Dr. Strangelove he would have still been considered a noteworthy and highly fascinating director. Luckily, Dr. Strangelove was not the end of the world after all but rather the tone setting beginning of it.

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