Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What’s in a name? (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

There are times when I watch a movie that’s up for discussion by the 1001 Movies Blog Club, where I feel like the main thing I’ve accomplished is crossing off one more title on the impossibly long master list (which, incidentally, is about to get longer, as I actually use an unexpurgated version of the master list which includes every movie ever listed in every edition of the book, despite new movies being added and old movies being dropped each year. The master list is currently 1089 movies long, and the 2012 edition comes out next week, at which point I will go from having seen 16.3% of all the movies to 16.1%. So there’s that.) Which is not a roundabout way of saying that a movie is bad, but rather that some movies are very famous and very good, and I’ve been aware of them for years and even know most of their major talking points, and when I finally view the movie for myself I don’t necessarily glean any new information or find something resonant about it, I simply expand the circle of films I can legitimately claim to have under my belt by one. This can make it difficult to assemble a blog post, when I can’t find a hooky, unique perspective to bring to bear on the film in question. So forgive me if this all seems a stretch or goes astray (but when I woke up this morning coulda sworn it was Judgment Day awwww yeah seewhatIdidthere*).

So, Dr. Strangelove is undeniably a classic. I’m not really that into Kubrick (though admittedly I’m thin in my overall exposure there) nor am I a huge Peter Sellers fan (though that’s probably mainly a function of the Pink Panther movies doing absolutely nothing for me) but what can I say, sometimes an unlikely combination of elements generates greatness. Dr. Strangelove has been called an all-time great comedy, and it did in fact make me laugh. It’s been called the ultimate Cold War satire, and it does in fact score many points on its target. I think that accomplishment is all the more impressive for the subject matter; it’s a little easier to satirize things like professional sports or beauty pageant culture, because those things are ridiculous at face value. Mutually Assured Destruction is the most hellish and nightmarish concept we’ve managed to come up with as a race (so far!) and perhaps not something one would be naturally inclined to laugh at. Thus, I have to tip my hat for the audacity as well as the ultimate success in making nuclear apocalypse pretty hilarious. Though I suspect getting a young George C. Scott to mug like a maniac for the camera could go a long way toward making just about anything at least 50% more amusing.

Here’s an interesting aspect of watching movies the way that I often do, i.e. in 45 to 50 minute segments while commuting on the train. With a 90-ish minute movie like Dr. Strangelove, it ends up getting broken pretty neatly in half. So it became immediately apparent to me that the Dr. Strangelove character does not even appear on-screen until just after the midpoint of the film. My undying inner English major (who, it must be said, was known in his heyday to struggle mightily to come up with hooky, unique perspectives for papers the night before they were due) felt compelled to try to understand this. The movie could ostensibly have any title Kubrick cared to choose (despite being based on a novel called Red Alert), so why give the top billing to a character who shows up in the back half and doesn’t do or say as much as many of the other cast members? The Last Flight of Major Kong has a nice ring to it, I think.

The character of Dr. Strangelove was actually invented for the movie, which further underlines that he must have some essential significance to be the namesake of the whole film. I’m speculating wildly here (as I’m wont to do) but I think that it may very well have something to do with grappling with the question of how humanity could possibly have arrived at the nuclear détente in the first place. Because it is fundamentally absurd, not only that we devised the means to wipe out all life on earth many times over, but spent the vast amounts of money and manhours necessary to make those theoretical devisings into real, physical weapons arsenals. It’s not surprising that the morbid idea of megadeath-dealing bombs and extinction-level doomsday devices would occur to somebody (if not everybody, in the broadest terms) but for the vast majority of people that’s the kind of idea one backs away from rather than doggedly pursuing. Or not, as the character of Dr. Strangelove demonstrates. He’s the embodiment of scientific curiosity unrestrained by conscience or compassion, concerned only with whether or not something is feasible, and not whether or not testing the feasibility would cross a line that should remain inviolate. He is immune to “should”, devoid of compassion but consumed with passion for unlocking mysteries of the universe (a "strange love" indeed - oh yes, I went there). And it only takes a bare handful of men like that to set events in motion which could have consequences that might wipe out billions. They may seem minor and sidelined, but the danger is terrifyingly real.

Comedy, folks! Well, pitch black comedy at any rate. You can laugh or you can cry. Maybe both.

(* What I did there was quote the lyrics of 1999 by Prince, which is a paradoxically upbeat 80’s pop song about the end of the world, and hence thematically connected to Dr. Strangelove. Just in case you were wondering.)


  1. "Mutiny of Preverts" is the best fantasy football team name ever. Just sayin'.

  2. You're familiar with the backstory on the movie, right? Kubrick was going to make a drama about an accidental nuclear war, but the whole situation was so dark and so absurd that he felt he had no choice but to make it a comedy.