My ridiculously staged photo got me thinking about Dr. Strangelove. Which, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of you, is easily one of my…wow—what?—“favorite” movies? Mm. No. That sounds too weak.
Dr. Strangelove is one of the few films that’s inside my bones.
Still, I have to wonder whether either Kubrick or Southern or the amazing cast and crew of this film ever really realized just how durable this movie would turn out to be. I mean, think about it.
The film turns 47 next month. The Cold War’s been over for 20 years. But, at least for me, this still feels like one of the most inventive, weird, layered, and contemporary artifacts of the post-war era.
Every scene still crackles.
Weird part is, I clearly remember thinking that same thing back in 1987, when I was 21, in my second year of college, and unexpectedly finding myself falling in love with a black-and-white, 20-something year-old movie that was ostensibly about nuclear war and impotence.
But, for me, it felt like something more profound. It felt like Kubrick had trepanned through my skull, dissected (what passed for) my sense of humor, made Strangelove, and then announced: “Nice start, kid. But, maybe this is more where you’d wanna be headed.”
And, man. Did I ever wanna be headed there. I wanted to be funny LIKE THAT. Which, obviously, I am not. But, still. I honor and adore the far superior target I’ve chosen. And, I’m sticking with it.
So. The film. Bravura performances all-around. Gorgeous photography. A lysergically manicured screenplay by Kubrick and Terry Southern.
And, the biggie? The thing I absolutely didn’t put my finger on in 1987?
Like only Mr. Kubrick could do it: the silences.
All over the place. Short pauses, long beats, and seemingly interminable moments of awkwardness, where the real stuff starts to ooze out around the feet of these mad characters—who are often stuck there with half an understanding of what’s happening, nothing to say, and everything to wonder about.
As just one example, think of the scene where Buck’s secretary takes the call that Gen. Ripper has just launched, “Wing Attack, Plan R.”
For a film of the time, the scene has so much breathing room. No non-diegetic music to stimulate the pacing, no intercutting for the appearance of motion, and no compulsion to propel the action forward at the expense of some terrific exposition and characterization.
Just a classically-Kubricky, mostly static, medium shot of two people in a room. The scene’s intimate—but, we observers stay at arm’s length.
Apart from Jim Jarmusch or maybe Wes Anderson, I can’t think of another mainstream director of our era who’s this comfortable with just letting the camera run.
So, on one level, Dr. Strangelove is kind of about lots of things.
It’s kind of about The Cold War, and it’s kind of about the incompetence of institutions, and it’s kind of about self-absorption, and, yeah, it’s absolutely kind of about paranoia.
But, the more times I watch this emotional palimpsest—and the more bits that get scratched off—the more it begins to reveal an insanely detailed illustration of one of the most excruciating of human foibles: the extent to which none of us really knows how to get along with everyone else.
We try. Sometimes. We cobble together ideas, and we experiment. We alternate between good cop and bad cop. We struggle to understand other people’s motivations. We kiss then kick then kiss then kick innumerable adjacent asses.
And—oh, yes—we definitely know we’re always playing it off legit. We make it all look easy, because we are good at this.
So, Strangelove’s wonderful and torturous silences are where you’re forced to confront that ineffable and annoying reality—even if you don’t tell anyone else.
For me, the cringe-inducing echoes pinballing off the walls of the war room made the same inappropriate noise as the thoughts that were bouncing around in that thick skull of mine back in 1987—through which same skull, you’ll recall, Mr. Kubrick had been kind enough to unknowingly trepan.
Really look at it. It’s Python. It’s Seinfeld. It’s David Brent. And, it’s everything I love about funny.
The nut? When we try to route around how poorly we understand and communicate with each other—whether that’s through armaments, formality, didacticism, inertia, grain alcohol, pretending to be nice, or rushing to close the dreaded Mineshaft Gap—we end up making everything way way worse.
But, also? Along the way, we’re constantly, unintentionally revealing not simply how little we understand about the impossibilities of the actual problem—we’re also demonstrating over and over again that we think the world can’t tell we’re totally not pulling it off.
For me? Watching that happen is really funny. Really, painfully funny.
Edit @ 2010-12-23_09-34-12 - [ADDED] To serve as another example, I’ve added a video of the scene with Buck and his secretary—preceded by a handful of new paragraphs describing and discussing same.
Also. Anybody know where I can get a pair of those exact slingbacks Buck’s secretary is wearing? I need to get them overnighted to my wife. Now. Because…uh…something something Christmas present. Wow, wow.↩