It is the eternal misfortune of the critic, or any person really, to look back upon their years of film viewing and come to the realization that they’ve changed. Critics merely have more tangible evidence to this case. It is especially unfortunate when one’s preferences change to the point where the funny bone is not on the laundry list of necessary boxes to check upon viewing a film. I kid, for we aren’t all heartless bastards or anything, but sometimes it can seem that way. This is why I try, sometimes against my better judgment, to keep things generally light around these parts of the internet. It is why I try to set my sights on something a little … more genial than my normal repertoire of parables of human decay that come in only two forms: grim and actively soul-destroying.
I don’t laugh a lot in movies, plain and simple. But, there’s a joyous flip-side as well! Each time I do cackle at a moving image, the moment is all the more prescient and grin-inducing for its rarity. And, since it is the Holiday season and all, I felt it time for a slight gift to myself, the gift of laughter. I’ve already reviewed a couple of my all-time favorite rib ticklers, such as Duck Soup and This is Spinal Tap. They are part of the precious few, and the following two films keep their company well. Fitting the spirit of the films, I’ll also keep things fast and loose, and try to keep the reviews from imploding on itself for getting too long in the tooth. Perhaps a few more will come as December comes to a close, if of course I maintain the Holiday cheer. But no promises.
Amusingly, I’ve already failed to keep my promise of promoting “genial” films, and it’s only choice #1. When I’m sick I always make a trip to the doctor, but you wouldn’t know this particular surgeon to bring joy from the bone dry tone and swirling sense of nihilist dread seeping through the frames and suffocating everything that walks within. For Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) doesn’t have a genial bone in its body. It’s a vicious, angry little nasty-minded bit of coal for your Christmas morning. Were you expecting anything else from the English language’s bleakest director, Stanley Kubrick? If he knew the meaning of the word “playful’, it was only in the context of attaching puppet strings to human flesh and moving them around like the devil’s playthings. They were his toys, and Dr. Strangelove is him on his Christmas morning with a smirk a mile wide.
Famously, Dr. Strangelove wasn’t supposed to be a comedy until well into production of the screenplay. Wanting to make a film about the most Kubrickian of subjects, man’s eternal damnation at the hands of man’s eternal idiocy, the human-hating director turned to his present day eternal damnation delivery mechanism du jour: the Cold War. Confronted with the deathly stone-faced Peter George novel “Red Alert”, he set about making a loose adaptation. Well into the script-writing process, the director found himself at an impasse; he couldn’t figure out how to adapt the book without cutting out all of the unintentionally silly stuff, and cutting out all of the silly stuff entailed cutting out most of the fundamental plot.
Ever the sardonic pest, Kubrick famously felt that the book’s straight face told all about the general idiocy and absurdism hiding within. He decided that the only way to truthfully tell the story of the Cold War was as a comedy and that he wanted it to be funny on its own terms. Since its terms were as sour-pussed and existentially melancholy as possible, Kubrick decided the same was in order for his film: he would make a stone-faced film about the Cold War, but it would be laugh-out-loud hilarious. A madman, yes? But Kubrick was the cinema’s most inspired madman, and this is his meanest gesture ever.
The end result is a film with the form of a stark, harrowing thriller and the tempo and pacing of a pitch-black comedy, betting all on its audio-visual irony and coming home big in the final analysis. For the look of Dr. Strangelove is planned out and etched in hard, committed lines. Black and white needed to be staple players, for the the harsh contrast lighting and shadow they permitted conveyed the ultra-grim seriousness necessary for the grave consequences of the story to hold up. The look of the film is the look of the military it depicts: clean, tactile, functional, stripped-barren, and dehumanizing. The War Room is undoubtedly the most famous set for the film, maybe one of the most famous movie sets ever, and it is all the more effective for its attention to brutalistic concrete Expressionism (which moves beyond reality to capture the essence of a military bureaucracy’s penchant for dehumanizing, clinical, squared-off spaces).
If the look of the film is stricken white like a ghost, the actual written material is aloof and puzzling in stunning contrast. The basic gestures have the luster of a doom-and-gloom thriller if ever there was one: two countries, the US and the Soviet Union, grapple with nuclear war and try desperately to avoid an imminent demise peppered onwards by faulty mishaps of the mostly human variety. Within, the narrative lurches forward in leaps and fits as characters are introduced, play off of each other, cope with tension and indifference, and find their own stupidity. It doesn’t so much have a narrative beyond this. More like a series of characters who bounce off of each other for the running length. Some of the dimmest bulbs include the lovingly named milquetoast President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), the prepared-for-business Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers), the idiosyncratic cartoon version of a German scientist so far over-cover he can’t be missed (also also Peter Sellers), the fear-mongering General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott), the largely insane and fear-mongering General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), and the good ol’ boy Major TJ “King” Kong (Slim Pickens).
Yet if everything about the basic structure and look of the film is angular and clean to match, the dialogue within is filled with achingly human pauses, flubbed lines, screw-ups, and human frailties laid out bare for all to see. Quoting in a comedy film review bears no pride, so the specifics will have to wait. But the ultra-serious nature with which the characters react to the absurdist scripts they’ve been fed is the film’s primary joy. Peter Sellers appears in three roles, each of them flustered and aloof to all end, and Kubrick makes damn sure we are aware that his pesky, meat-bag humans don’t all fit in the sleek, mechanical rooms they’ve been placed in. They cut through the frame, and the frame must try, like the military, to bat the characters down. It is Kubrick’s vision delivered as only a film can, through the contrast between physical image and sound over time.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good film is a film you can understand with the sound off. The statement is a formalist’s dream come true, a legend distilling the ethos of filmmaking into a ready-to-rumble bite-sized chunk. Kubrick clearly understood this, and he uses his understanding to have some fun at cinema’s expense. He has created a film that looks one way and sounds another, a work that for damn near 100% of its running length does not for one second give away visually that it is anything other than a dour, rigid military thriller. If cinema is his game, this is his checkmate. It is wholly and unapologetic-ally an example of Stanley Kubrick bringing all of his iciest, chilliest, most clinical friends to the party and letting off some steam. For any sane human, i.e. any human who ever thought Kubrick’s style would be wholly inappropriate to making a comedy, he found a way, and made one of his greatest films in doing so. The trick, as per usual with Kubrick, is on humanity.