This is part 2 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, starting with…
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
In this film, Stanley Kubrick commits the sin of making his protagonist Mandrake the only sane and intelligent person in the story and at the same time a stuttering and ineffectual twerp.
But that’s okay, you say. The film satirizes the Cold War. It takes aim at things like McCarthyism, the military-industrial complex, the arms race, and certain military gaming concepts such “Deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction”. You can’t expect such a film to play it straight like Fail-Safe, do you?
Fair enough. But to satirize well, you have to really nail what you’re satirizing. Further, if you’re going to conclude the film with the End of the World you sure as heck better satirize the things that most need satirizing. After all, the fate of the world lies in the balance.
Let’s look at the remainder of the characters:
The President of the United States Merkin Muffley: A man of no distinction whatsoever. So whom exactly are we satirizing here? FDR? Truman? Ike? Kennedy? When did we ever have a president who even remotely resembled such a cipher? This is not satire. It is a useless conceit, a running gag for those who like to gripe about authority.
Notice also the sophomoric sexual gags in the man’s name. Why? Why did Kubrick include such X-rated Dickensian naming conventions other than to be sophomoric? Was Kubrick telling us something about the American presidency? Did he really believe that presidents are all about the sex? The only person this could apply to of course is Kennedy. The man was ridiculously promiscuous. But compared to both his post-World War II predecessors, he was the softest on the Soviets and therefore least deserving of this kind of satire. Truman and Ike, on the other hand, toed a much harder line, and were, by and large, scandal free.
Compare this to Charlie Chaplin’s naming conventions in his spoof on Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator. Nazi Germany was called Tomania (as in ptomaine poisoning). Adolf Hitler was Adenoid Hynkel. Goebbels was dubbed Garbitsch. Benito Mussolini was christened Benzino Napaloni the dictator of the nation of Bacteria. So there are ways to be clever and funny with names without resorting to pornographic portmanteaus that would make Beavis and Butthead snicker. But Kubrick is not interested in that. He would rather taint the office of the President like an errant teen writing dirty words on a wall.
General Buck Turgidson: A war-mongering, philandering, gum-chewing, tummy-slapping buffoon who is as believable as his name is subtle. There were three major 20th Century American military leaders whom Kubrick may have been satirizing here: George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Curtis LeMay. All were brave and brilliant men, but of course Kubrick is not interested in any of that either. In Kubrick’s universe Turgidson isn’t brilliant at all, yet gets a seat in the War Room at Hour Zero. In reality, Patton never got close to such political power, LeMay could barely get a word in edgewise with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations during Vietnam, and MacArthur got fired by Truman for being too, well, war-mongering.
Another point: Kubrick portrays Turgidson as receiving a kind of pathological, autoerotic pleasure from his job, especially when contemplating the deaths of millions of Russians. Not only is this complete make-believe, but in order to find this funny, one would have to downplay or simply be unaware of some of the aggressive and unspeakably barbaric things the Soviet Union did to cause men like Patton, MacArthur, and LeMay to want to go after them in the first place.
Colonel “Bat” Guano: A soldier so stupid that he doesn’t realize that his last name means bat shit and goes with the nickname of “Bat”. Get it? He’s a soldier. And he stupid. Get it? And he’s also crazy, as in bat-shit crazy! Get it? Seriously, by having few if any intelligent soldiers in his film, Kubrick implies that all soldiers are as dumb as this guy. Nice.
Major T.J. “King” Kong: This Southern good ol’ boy famously mounts a nuclear warhead like a steer and rides it into oblivion waving a cowboy hat. It’s a brilliant, unforgettable image, no doubt. But what’s being satirized here? The fact that good ol’ boys tend to get a little wild and crazy every once in a while? A pretty small payoff for big big satire, don’t you think? Remember, we’re destroying the world here, so there’d better be a big point at the end of it. The only other point I can think of is that Kubrick is telling us that good ol’ boys are dumb and take their patriotism too seriously. Either way you cut it, it’s a nasty little dig at the American South.
Dr. Strangelove: A wheelchair-confined, certifiably insane former Nazi nuclear scientist who’s in charge of US weapons research. He is called into the War Room to explain the inner-workings of the Soviet “Doomsday Device”. This character is not in Red Alert (the novel on which the film was based), and so is the invention of Kubrick and the actor who plays him, Peter Sellers. Strangelove also famously suggests that after the Doomsday Device detonates, US government and military personnel should live in mineshafts with ten women for every man. And this, by the way he tells it, is a good thing.
Like Turgidson, Strangelove could care less about the tragedy playing out all around him. He keeps smiling and giggling and struggling with his errant right hand like a sociopath while the world is about to burn. So whom are we satirizing here? Who in the United States government or military even remotely resembled this lunatic? Wernher von Braun? Yes, he was a Nazi. I make no arguments on that account. But as a rocket scientist at NASA he never had the kind of power or influence that Strangelove wields. He also wasn’t insane. Edward Teller? Yes, Teller was a nuclear physicist (the father of the hydrogen bomb), an anti-Communist, and a hawk. He also had a prosthetic leg, which made him disabled like Strangelove. But Teller was also a Jew who hated Nazis as much as communists. To characterize him as a Nazi would be ridiculous.
One final point about Strangelove: with this character, Stanley Kubrick commits the unforgivable sin of implying that the United States, free society that it is, in waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union, one of the most murderous and oppressive regimes in history, is somehow morally on par with Nazis. An implication so childish, so offensive, so ignorant, and, frankly, so stupid does not even warrant rebuttal.
General Jack D. Ripper:Â The paranoid and suicidal officer of the phallic cigar who starts World War III under the delusionÂ that the commies have impurified his bodily fluids. They made him sexually dysfunctional and robbed him of his “essence”, you see. Based on Ripper’s anti-communist rants, Kubrick is clearly satirizing McCarthyism here. And this is fine. McCarthyism, like almost any other faddish “ism”, is fair game for satire. But when you blow up the world at the end of your film, you’d better satirize the things that most deserve satire. In other words, satire should be framed by what it satirizes, not the other way around. Here are some examples of other black comedies that actually follow this rule:
â€¢ Monty Python and the Holy Grail satirizes the King Arthur legends and blows up a rabbit. (Appropriate and funny)
â€¢ This is Spinal Tap satirizes heavy metal and blows up a couple drummers. (Appropriate and prettyÂ hilarious)
So far so good, right? But Dr. Strangelove satirizes the very rational American response to Soviet hegemony and in the end blows up the world. Am I the only one who sees how inappropriate this is?
I believe a spreadsheet might be most helpful to illustrate my point.
Here is what Stanley Kubrick wants us to believe:
So, like, you know, if there’s ever a nuclear war, it will be the Americans’ fault, of course. With such loathsome people as Ripper, Turgidson, and Strangelove in charge, how could it not be?
On the other hand, here is a more accurate scenario, given the premise of the film:
Kubrick thinks he’s satirizing the grey boxes in the middle, but by blowing up the world at the end of his film, he inadvertently satirizes everything in this spreadsheet. And for the satire to work, his audience can’t know or care about the big red boxes on the left. This shows how satire fails when it frames its object rather than the other way around. It introduces external elements it cannot control. And audiences familiar with these elements will react very differently than audiences who are not.
But why did Kubrick keep the big Cold War picture out of his big Cold War satire? If he wanted to make the biggest, most all-encompassing satire, why didn’t he take on the people who most deserved satire? Why didn’t he skewer the Soviets with his razor sharp wit? They had more blood on their hands. They had the bad intentions and the aggressive aspirations. They were the ones who were truly paranoid, belligerent, and psychopathicâ€”not the Americans. Further, Kubrick was from America. It was a free society like America’s that enabled him to make a living as an independent filmmakerâ€”something that would have been impossible in the Soviet Union. It would make sense that a first-rate filmmaker and intellect like Kubrick would decide to lampoon the Soviets, not the Americans. This is certainly something a humanist would do.
But not Kubrick. Sadly, not Kubrick. Instead he opts for the easier target while posing as some brave satirist who stands up against the entrenched conventions of his day. Dishonesty and cowardice, the double-whammy that sinks Dr. Strangelove.
And as for the negative effects of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick made it cool to blame America before blaming the Soviet Union, which was a truly despicable regime. Just what the world needed, a film that makes the Soviets look good in comparison to the Americans.
Originally, Kubrick wanted John Wayne to play the part of Major Kong. Wayne turned the offer down. Apparently, other actors weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to be in Dr. Strangelove either. When distributing the script to agents, one of them passed it off as “too pinko.”
Too pinko. Yeah.
Next up, 2001: A Space Odyssey