Monday, May 24, 2010

The 25: Part 10: Dr. Strangelove

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

Kubrick is a director important to the development of any film goer.

More then his supposed coldness and clinical nature I think the thing that bothers people about Kubrick’s films is the fact that he makes art that seems to look back. You judge a Stanley Kubrick movie, but it judges you as well, and each time you square off you’re different, and the film reflects that. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Kubrick is one of the first filmmakers that hardcore cinephiles often come to on their journey. And its not just the fact that he’s well known in the mainstream as a true artist either. That rarest of things a famous intellectual.

His career seems almost purposefully the career of a gatekeeper. Fourteen films. No more no less. You can watch them in a weekend if you want to. Likewise, you would be hard pressed to find a more adult filmmaker then Kubrick, but there are really only four films that contain (explicit) content that could be called objectionable to a child (Clockwork, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut). And even with as parents as over protective as mine I had seen all those by the age of sixteen.

But Kubrick is there at the start of the dojo to test you. Can you engage a film? Can you be engaged by a film? Do you want to? Is a challenge what you want from your art? Or are you merely a passive observer?

By the end of your time with Kubrick you know.

As a result every Kubrick fan has the films that don’t work for them, for me it’d be the shrill dated Lolita, and the flat depressingly shallow (though stylistically fascinating) The Shining. As well as the films that do; The dreamlike achingly human Eyes Wide Shut, the brutally funny Full Metal Jacket, and 2001 A Space Odyessy, a film often cited as one of the greatest ever made that still underrates it. I’m sure that there are readers aghast at the way I dismissed Lolita and The Shining, the same way I feel when others dismiss Eyes and Full Metal. The point I’m trying to make is that unlike other filmmakers I don’t think there IS a wrong answer to what your favorite Kubrick movie is. They act, at least partially, not as art but psychologically. Moving Rorsarch blots that coax something out in the personality of whomever watches them and forces a reaction.

Still for all his work, and all his rewards there is something about Strangelove, that makes it remain the fundamental Kubrick for me.

In Strangelove, demands the biggest reaction of all. With the gall to present the extinction of our species as the over due punchline to weary joke. Presenting the Cold War as a nightmare mixture of saber rattling, sexual repression, and children playing with matches.

Dr. Strangelove is at its core, about what happens to madness when it becomes institutionalized. When the deaths of tens of millions of people, and indeed the planet, are not the found in the ravings of a demented Colin Clive, but discussed calmly and rationally by a series of army and government bureaucrats. Of course its funny anything this absurd has to be.

For all the talk about how hermetically sealed Kubrick’s films were, Strangelove is downright lively. Deftly juggling its large cast, three main courses of action, and always finding the time for that perfect line, or surface detail to frame it (“Of course I like saying hello Dimitri.”)

Of course much of this spontaneity has be credited to Strangelove’s deft comic cast. Particulary Sterling Hayden in his somewhere beyond deadpan performance as Jack D. Ripper, a man who has decided to start a nuclear holocaust in retaliation for what he believes is a communist plot to make him impotent (“I first became aware of it Mandrake during the physical act of love…”). Matched in Madness by George C. Scott, in what is perhaps his finest hour, as an uber hawk that makes Patton look like a dove and who just can’t wait to get things started. Then there is of course a never better Sellers, whose genius in all three parts, the civilized thoroughly mortified Colonel Mandrake, the in over his head president, and the demented titular doctor. Who ends up inadvertently turning an ecstatic, “Mein Fuehrer I Can WALK” Into the planets epithet.

Slim Pickens also deserves special mention. He tends to get slighted for his performance in this movie, thanks mostly to the never really substantiated rumor that Kubrick never told him he was in a comedy. I always thought this did a great disservice to Pickens (not to mention the ugly undercurrent of “hehe dumb hayseed” the anecdote contains) who proved himself time and time again a good actor and sly comic performer (“HORSES?!?! HORSES are expensive!”). He was more then capable of playing with the big boys, and I find it hard to hear his “Shoot a fella could have a good weekend in Vegas with that stuff.” Not to mention his final orgiastic ride, without believing he was in on the joke.

The film is filled with vast Kubrickian spaces. The war room with its model earth, ominous halo of light, and pinpoint eyes of the venal men taking us to our doom. The military base which uses a giant “Peace Is Our Profession” billboard. As the backdrop for some brutal American on American combat (maybe the only time in Kubrick’s career that he can be accused of being “On the nose.”) Like all of Kubrick’s great spaces they are familiar as they are alien. As mundane and meaningless as OPE POE.

Kubrick is so often derided as a perfectionist, that it is often forgotten how often he achieved perfection. His a oeuvre that does not merely reward repeat viewings, but demands them.


Unknown said...

Well said! DR. STRANGELOVE was my gateway drug into Kubrick's world and I've enjoyed the rest of his films since then. Like all of his films there is so much going on in STRANGELOVE that invites repeated viewings. I'm always amazed that as I get older, I discover something else, get some obscure reference that I didn't the last time I watched it.

Interestingly enough, it was the film that inspired Michael Mann to become a filmmaker. Not too shabby at all.

Bryce Wilson said...

Huh had no idea about Mann. Thanks for the info.

You see Strangelove crop up in a lot of filmmakers work, probably second only to Orange. One of my favorites is the grafitti on the bathroom door that Goodman and Forsythe clean up in, in Raising Arizona.

Unknown said...

I love that reference too. Not to mention how many times Kubrick is referenced in THE SIMPSONS!

Franco Macabro said...

So far, my least favorite was LOLITA, but this is not to say I didnt find it rewarding. Its a great film, just too restrained, considering its a KUBRICK film, and considering the subject matter.

I need to see Dr. Strangelove, I started watching it but didnt get a chance to finish it! I need to see this one and Barry Lyndon.

Another Kubrick reference is in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, where a gang of thugs dressed as the droogs from A Clockwork Orange attacks JB.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Franco: Lyndon's a tough one but I like it alot.

That's actually my favorite joke in The Tenacious D movie.

Anonymous said...

Politically moronic piece of crap. Not funny, not thoughtful, not entertaining. The Emperor has no clothes here.