20 March 2011

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

Tonight I watched this film and kept copious notes of pretty much every beat and scene for the entire film, as research for a project I'm working on. I wanted to pay close attention to the structure of it, and since I can't find a copy of the screenplay anywhere (and honestly, a "beat sheet" is more useful anyhow), I just went ahead and did the legwork myself. Looking at it as closely as that, it's interesting to note who's "crazy" and who's "sane. To twist an old writing adage, I think one of the best ways to make absurdity work in a comedy (or in any story, I imagine) is to have sane ("ordinary") people treat insane ("extraordinary") circumstances in totally reasonable ways, or have insane ("extraordinary") people react to sane ("ordinary") circumstances in insane or unreasonable ways.

Here, General Jack T. Ripper sets the whole thing off by reacting to, ostensibly, the real-life situation of an increasingly tense arms race and cold war (whether you call that "ordinary" or "extraordinary" circumstances probably depends on your political and philosophical views). He is insane -- the only one in the film depicted as actually, dangerously nutso, and not just goofy or quirky or hilariously ill-equipped for their position. Mandrake, by contrast, though a bit of a passive coward, is decidedly sane, perhaps (in that British-prim-and-proper way) too sane for his job, and he reacts to the insane situation sanely -- that is, he acknowledges that the situation is insane.

President Muffley, General Turgidson, and the absent Premier Kissoff, are all quirky and out of sorts with your expectations for their roles; all are sane but in their own ways seem to be handling the situation before them unreasonably, the way insane people might. Muffley and Kissoff are nervous nellies, concerned with oversensitive telephone etiquette (to be fair, we are told Kissoff is drunk; Muffley has no excuse and comes off more like a nervous chief accountant than a Head of State). Turgidson is an exaggeration on military men: practically a little boy with too many wonderful toys to play with, beamingly proud of them all and quick to forget the gravity of their intent. The titular Dr. Strangelove... well, he might be legitimately insane as well, it's difficult to say. At the very least he's a mad scientist a little too in touch with his god complex, and he definitely reacts to the situations with what I would have to call unreasonable reactions: like Buck Turgidson, he's proud of his evil toys; but like Jack Ripper his answers are cut-and-dry, brutal, beautifully extreme and megalomaniacal. And he is the end-all/be-all voice of reason for the President and his staff here; all questions filter through Strangelove, and nobody questions his wisdom (except when asking for more juicy details). In short, nobody in the War Room are technically "sane" in their reactions; although the broad strokes remain reasonable, the details from each of the key players are decidedly less so.

By contrast, nobody aboard the bomber in flight is shown as anything but perfectly rational: bold, brave, direct men of action who've been trained to do a task and carry it out right down to the letter. In fact, aside from some color commentary from Major "King" Kong, nobody aboard the bomber has any agency at any point in the story. Every choice and (meaningful) line of dialogue is a script laid out for them, a program running. They hit conditionals, conditions are met, the proper response is given, and so on. Even (especially) when things go wrong, all there is to do is go down the checklist and act accordingly. Primary and secondary targets are out of reach, there is no choice but to look up in the books what the closest potential target is and to move in that direction. Right down to Kong personally climbing into the bomb bay to get those doors open, and riding down one of the two hydrogen bombs -- Kong is the Major after all, and it's his duty above all else to protect his men and ensure the success of his mission. Wearing a cowboy hat and yahoo'ing like a, well, like a total yahoo -- that's all Kong, I admit; but the choice to do so was written before the Plan R order went out. Just look at Colonel Guano who shows up to arrest Mandrake, and how difficult it was for him to sidestep the strict and preordained sequence of commands, to allow a "prevert" like Mandrake to try to call the President. Soldiers here are cogs; this is shown with full respect of the job they do (at least for the bombardiers, who do their job well, bravely, and keep their spirits up), bur they're cogs all the same.

The danger isn't soldiers gone astray. The danger is soldiers too good at doing the tasks laid out for them, cogs too efficient in a program too automated. Of course it's well-known lore that Dr. Strangelove started life as a non-humorous, deadly serious thriller novel, and that Kubrick tried for a long time to adapt it in that tone before realizing it only worked when it was played for laughs -- it's too gruesome not to laugh at -- and that's why the film works. The events are all feasible, even when the characters and their beliefs, reactions, dialogue, and personalities are thoroughly and wonderfully less so. But the villain here isn't Ripper -- he's just the macguffin that sets things rolling. The villain here is a system set up to make a chilling, world-ending series of events deliberately and pointedly unstoppable. In fact, it's Ripper's madness, his obsession with with his Purity of Essence, that saves them all -- a sane general would not have picked a three-letter code that his XO could so easily figure out, nor would he doodle it all over the papers on his desk. And lest we think the film claims the U.S. were crazy and the Russians mere victims, remember that it's the Russians who'd devised the actual Doomsday Machine which upped the stakes from merely one messy nuclear war to the devastation of all life on the surface of the Earth. And then, oh, that end!

What keeps me coming back to this film, I think, are three things. First, the dialogue and humor: so deadpan, so outlandish, so wonderfully theatre of the absurd. Second, the audacity of the thing, a black comedy about the end of humanity not through some kind of hubris but just through paranoia and automation -- that the film ends with all those nuclear detonations, the end of civilization everywhere, and the song "We'll Meet Again" has obviously had an enormous impact on me (and this particular script). And third, the delicate balance of tone, where we watch those unreasonable and implausible characters react semi-reasonably and semi-plausibly to a situation so frighteningly plausible (despite a warning at the front assuring us this could never actually happen)... it's exciting to watch a filmmaker daring you to laugh at the things that terrify him (and all of us, especially then) the most, and also daring you to take serious a story that on the surface is a comical farce full of sex-puns and a kind of pent-up energy, like at any point the tension could snap and the whole thing will devolve into slapstick (true story: there was a filmed deleted scene in which the entire War Room gets into a massive pie fight). There's nothing more serious than good comedy, and I think Kubrick knows it. Off the top of my head, I believe this was his only comedy film? Unless you count A Clockwork Orange?

So yeah, this was writing research more explicitly than anything else I've watched lately, but it's still not very surprising I keep coming back to this film again and again.

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