A Couple on Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove (1964) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Mar/120

A Couple on Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Analyzing Kubrick's films has been a bit of a challenge because I've of them.  There are a few I love, and we haven't gotten to most of them yet (except for Paths of Glory).  The few that I love have had so much written about them it feels strange to try and add something new because of the minds that came before me.

That said, as I chuck precedent out the window, Dr. Strangelove  is homoerotically charged in a way which puts future entries in a like-minded series (the little loved The Coven, or Can't Stop the Music) to shame.  Where else are you going to find a film where a sex-filled romp with a tidy little post-nymphet (to recall Kubrick's last film, Lolita) is bypassed to watch a bunch of middle-aged men sit around in a dimly lit room waiting for the apocalypse?  These are men who have long since abandoned the idea the world revolved with them and have instead grasped onto the idea that true salvation  lies with each other and women with "special skills".

If these special skills do not revolve around women who know their way around an anus, or the ability to call upon a man who does, then I'm terribly surprised.  The world of Dr. Strangelove involves men who are more interested in proving their "manliness" to each other instead of preserving the safety of the country.  The world is their proving ground, and instead of a standard issue penis each man has nuclear weapons at their arsenal rather than semen, like any normal man would.

A stretch?  Not in the slightest.  Don't forget this entire debacle of dark comedy started because General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) realizes he does not despise women, but does deny them his essence.  This is a very funny line, especially delivered in the context of gung-ho war films, but underlines the point I'm trying to make.  He's realized his own uselessness after the war and prefers to spend it in the comfort of other men instead of the embrace of a woman, wife, girlfriend, whatever it is which would allow him to affirm the heteronormative standard.

Another line you may draw to my conclusion is in the timeframe the film was produced.  To our modern eyes, or at least those who are cinematically inclined (which, in due honesty, usually involve progressive and liberal folks), we'll see this postwar film as a symbolic attempt at reassuming the male norm which was present before World War II.  All the men try to take back their normal positions of power but are completely blind to the realization that none of them are equipped to handle the global devestation of motherhood that allows them to be here to begin with.  Instead they remember their position of power before the war, completely oblivious to the realities of death after the fact.

Women are discounted in favor of men over the course of Dr. Strangelove, resulting in an unconscious desire to appeal to each other sexually.  This is reinforced throughout the opening scenes where you see one phallic object docking with another.  Again and again each penis collides with another until the mutual pissing match is so great it will take the global annihilation of the world to determine who was strongest.  Still, who cares if anyone is left to tally the votes if a lot of semen is left behind?

No one in possession of the semen, apparently.  Even when they're faced with total thermonuclear devastation, Strangelove (Peter Sellers) and the rest (George C. Scott, amongst others) focuses instead on what their seed could bring to the next generation.  A calm, womanly voice might silence the vast and pulsing male charge throughout, but no sound is present.  With minutes to spare, the men decide what should be done with the future, with no cooler heads around who would be aware of the time it takes to produce a new generation able to lead.

To bring things back to the common stance, Dr. Strangelove is brilliant.  The Americans and Russians are divided in such a way that no matter who is more "conservative" or "liberal" the lines between the two are blurred so much that violence-based threats might as well be seen as masochism.  Not a single performance steps out of its brilliant line, with top kudos going to Sterling Hayden for willing to soldier the male sex's dying normativity into the new age.  Then there's the style itself, confining the players to such a small stage, letting us see the havoc which would play out if millions realized their fate was in the hands of a few.

Yes, it's splendid, and a fine gateway into Kubrick.

So, love, after all my talk of penises and homoeroticism, what have  you got?

Well, sweetie, I never looked at Dr. Strangelove in such a phallocentric way, though I cannot completely deny your interpretation’s validity. Sterling Hayden enacted nuclear Armageddon because of an isolated (supposedly) case of impotency, which he attributed to an insidious communist plot dealing with water fluoridation (which was actually a very widespread fear during the 1950s) and said plot violating the American male’s “purity of essence” because said impotency must be because of the communists and not anything to do with being a middle-aged man, right?

Penises aside, I actually found some gynocentric humor in the movie. The president (one of three roles played by the ever talented Peter Sellers) is named Merkin Muffley. For those not aware of gynocentric trends, a merkin is, to put it delicately, a vaginal wig. Also, the word “muff’ is another word for vagina. What does this mean in the context of the movie? It means that the politician and president Merkin Muffley is, to, again, put it delicately, a wimp when it comes to dealing with foreign affairs.

Does that mean he is an ineffectual leader and character? Not at all. In fact, Kubrick intended for Merkin Muffley to be the “oasis of reason” in the movie amidst the gung-ho phallocentric war hawks with their turgid attention to war.

And, yes, the word “turgid” was intentional because not only is it another word to describe an erection, but it is also part of the last name of the most unabashed war hawks of the movie, General Turgidson, played by George C. Scott. He is one of many military war hawks in Dr. Strangelove (and happens to have a phallocentric name), but is portrayed by Kubrick to be one of the worst people to consult on matters of war because of their natural inclination towards violence clouds their judgment on the present situation, focusing more on closing the “mineshaft gap” rather than really focusing on the scarily possible grand scale of human death in terms of “10 to 20 million, tops.”

Granted, the military deals with losing odds like this every day, but it still sounds alien to a civilian. Perhaps Kubrick was trying to say that more “sensitive” methods to war would be more useful than mindless power-hungry and paranoid methods. Then again, I’ll leave that to our Full Metal Jacket discussion than talking about it here.

Now that the genital and gender discussion is out of the way, I will try to focus on something less…racy. Every actor from Sterling Hayden (who was my favorite) to Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Bull, and James Earl Jones (in his very first role) play their role with phenomenal aplomb that I cannot find any fault in their acting, and any faulting in the script is easily ignorable due to such top notch performances.

I have not seen every Kubrick movie in the canon, but I can say that Dr. Strangelove not only properly uses dark humor (much better than the failed attempt in Lolita), but does so with engaging characters in a situation that highlights the absurdity of military protocol without becoming too mired in the morality and the melodrama.

Dr. Strangelove is considered a classic and it fully deserves that title. I can say without a shred of hyperbole that this is one of my favorite films of all time (Kubrick or otherwise).

Given the way our work went this week, don't  be surprised if next week's analysis contains but one sentence.

"My God...it's filled with penises."

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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