Saturday, January 22, 2011

Watching Dr. Strangelove (yet) again

"I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration,
Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion,
and the international Communist conspiracy
to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."
—Colonel Jack D. Ripper, Dr. Strangelove

I do so love this film—not only is it easily my favourite Kubrick film (a director whose genius I freely acknowledge while not necessarily loving much of his oeuvre), but it is a fixture in my top five favourite films, period. I've been rewatching it this afternoon and pulling screen captures in preparation for teaching it in my intro to film class this week, and just generally losing myself in it.

Whenever I watch it, my laughter at its hilarity is always slightly checked by an awareness of just how dark and bleak the humour is—or was. The first time I ever watched the film was for a class in my undergrad, in the early 90s. Hence, my familiarity with Dr. Strangelove began after the Cold War had ended, during a time when it appeared to many that the United States was permanently ascendant and American-style liberal democracy had proven itself the acme of societal evolution (see, Fukuyama, Francis: History, and the Ending Thereof). But even now, with those delusionally halcyon days of the new world order rather emphatically behind us, and amidst the hysterical rhetoric of the War on Terror, it is difficult to understand the nuclear paranoia of the Cold War in the 50s and 60s. It is hard to imagine the ever-present anxiety of the spectre of nuclear annihilation; my parents talk about air raid drills as a regular punctuation of their young lives, of being sent home from school early during the Cuban Missile Crisis praying with their families around the radio that they weren't about to be wiped out by thermonuclear bombs. I have at least a little inkling: I remember my father's sombre concern about Reagan's election in 1980 (I was eight at the time), expressed as "I'm afraid he won't be afraid of starting a war with the Russians." I came of age during the Cold War Redux, as we might call it, as Kissinger's détente gave way to Reagan's overheated rhetoric about "the evil empire," and films such as The Day After gave us starkly vivid images of the aftermath of a nuclear war. (I was not allowed by my parents to watch that movie—they did not want me or my brother to have to deal with the anxiety that inevitably came from such a brutal depiction of nuclear warfare—which was, not insignificantly, optimistic in its estimation of human survival).

Once (again, I think I was around eight years old), I quoted to my parents an interesting fact I'd read about the survival talents of spiders: that they would likely be one of the few species to survive nuclear war. To which my mother replied, "No, we'll survive!" I'm not sure what disturbed me more: the vehemence with which my cool factoid was quashed, or the tremor in my mother's voice as she did so. I think I can start charting my own nuclear anxieties from that moment. I remember too the sense of dread I experienced every time they moved the hands forward on the Doomsday Clock—seeing it as I did with the literal-mindedness of a child, believing that when it hit midnight, that was the end.

Even growing up with such anxieties, the nuclear paranoia that was the context for Dr. Strangelove remains hard to fully imagine today. And so it is similarly hard to wrap my head around the audacity of the film's humour. The novel on which it is based, Red Alert by Peter George, is a straightforward political thriller; and Stanley Kubrick's initial script drafts were not humourous or satirical, but essayed a serious and dramatic narrative. But he found that the tone of the story kept running up against the often absurd contradictions of nuclear logic, especially in the premises of mutually assured destruction. "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully," Kubrick said, "one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question." Hence his decision to make it a black comedy, which was one of those choices that should be enshrined in film history as a turning point into genius. For Dr. Strangelove could not have been the trenchant critique it was had it played it straight: the absurdly amoral discussions in the War Room, in particular General Buck Turgidson's suggestion that they go all in on Colonel Ripper's sneak attack, exactly echo the actual contingency plans of the Cold War.

My favourite line in this scene is Turgidson's caveat "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed!", which sums up so perfectly the desperately euphemistic logic of nuclear war: millions of lives instantly snuffed out, millions more suffering the inexorable agonizing death of radiation poisoning, and billions ultimately dying of privation and exposure, neatly divorced from brutal reality with such terms as "acceptable losses." Possibly one of the best discussions of this subject I've read is Martin Amis' essay "Thinkability," which prefaces his 1985 collection of short stories Einstein's Monsters. The euphemisms and clichés of the Pentagon's rhetoric about nuclear war all attempt to hide the basic, inescapable reality of nuclear war, which Amis characterizes as "everything becoming nothing, all at once."

What is less difficult to comprehend and understand today is the culture of conspiracy and paranoia that informs Colonel Ripper's decision to launch his pre-emptive attack. Though framed in the language of absurdity, the figuration fluoridation of drinking water as a Communist plot was not an uncommon meme in conspiracist circles. Some things never change: watching Glenn Beck today (or rather, watching the thirty seconds or so of him I can stand at a time), Colonel Ripper's delusions seem mild. I take comfort in the fact that Beck does not command a wing of B-52 bombers, but it is a sad statement of today's climate when the satirical language of Colonel Jack D. Ripper is mild in comparison to that of the highest-rated news channel in the U.S.

But I digress … I told my students the other day that when we study film, in addition to its aesthetic dimension, we're concerned both with what they can tell us about their historical moment and with what they still have to tell us about ours … and that, ultimately, it's the latter category that tends to most define those films that we return to over and over. Dr. Strangelove never gets tired for me. Hopefully my class feels similarly.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bad blogger me. Also, film class! And other stuff.

Hello everyone ... I have been a very bad blogger these past several weeks, and now I am back to repeat the cycle of Energetic Blogging Productionà Tapering Offà Long Silenceà Series Of Lackadaisical Apologies For Long Silenceà Renewed Burst Of Blogging Energy. Hopefully this is the sole Lackadaisical apology, to be followed by a new burst of energy.

No promises, considering this term is rather crazy. I have three courses, all of which are full, and one of which I'm essentially building from the ground up. But I am happy to say they are all extremely enjoyable to teach, and my cohort of students this term is rather amazing—they're all seemingly interested and engaged, and what's more, they laugh at my jokes. Which is good, because I'm so busy with course prep that I don't really have to chance to work up new material.

I'm particularly enjoying my intro to film class, "What is Film?" I was set to teach one of our mandatory surveys, "Major British Authors since 1800," but the department head circulated an email asking if someone would be willing to teach the film class.

I don't think I've ever answered an email so quickly. I don't think thirty seconds elapsed between hearing the new message beep and me firing off my reply. YES, I will teach introduction to film, especially if it means I can trade an English survey course for it. Not that I don't enjoy teaching the great swathe of literature since Blake, but come on ... a film course? In which I basically get to choose whatever films I want? Too ... much ... awesomeness ...

Of course, I ran into trouble in narrowing my list down to a maximum of twelve films ... so after finally paring it down to forty-three of my favourite movies, I looked at what I had and broke them up into twelve loose categories. I then posted that as a note in Facebook, tagged a bunch of film enthusiast friends, and asked people to vote for one from each category. Whatever won in each would be on the course.

Sometimes net democracy is your friend—not only for the fact that it took the onus of that final, agonizing decision off of me, but also for the amazing discussion and argument that unfolded in the comments.

Anyway, the final screening list is sort of like a who's-who of my favourite films. We're doing, in the order we're covering them in class, Rear Window, Alien, Dr. Strangelove, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Big Lebowski, Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, Blade Runner, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Moulin Rouge, 28 Days Later and Pontypool. Again: So. Much. Awesomeness. I am concerned that my lectures will devolve into little more than me geeking out a lot. So far we've done Rear Window and Alien ... and, yes, there have been some moments of total geeking out. But to be fair, that's happened among some of my students too (did I mention I have awesome students this term? And I'm not only saying so on the off-chance they read my blog).

I'm particularly concerned about what my lecture for Crouching Tiger will be like, considering that the sheer beauty of that film reduces me to a quivering pulp whenever I watch it. I expect I will show clips and stills and the content of my lecture will be along the lines of "I mean ... come on ... seriously ... isn't that just ... my God ... it's so ... fuck!" But serious. Please look me in the eye and tell me that film isn't gorgeously made and composed ...

OK. See? This is what I'm talking about! I even veer off into digressive geeking out during a blog post. Must. Keep. It. Together.

In other news, I had my second column in go live this past weekend. Regular readers of my blog will recognize some of the theme and substance, as it's about zombie films and The Walking Dead—but please go peruse it and leave your comments. And I will soon be a guest blogger on my friend Jen/Nikki's site as she continues The Great Buffy Rewatch, revisiting all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Apropos of which, I plan to finally conclude the Vampire Cage Matches—seeing as how her blog gets about a million times the readers as mine, hopefully I can pull in the masses to vote for who, in the end, is the most kickass vamp.

And in the meantime, I'll try not to be such a slagabed when it comes to blogging. Scout's honour.*

*I was never a scout.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Beyond words

Though I've apparently been on a bit of a vacation from this blog, I did idly consider writing various posts on pleasant topics over the Christmas holidays. Unfortunately, the impulse to not write was compounded by the general impulse to sit, eat, and drink by the fire. And since getting back to St. John's, class prep has kept me pretty insanely busy.

So it's unfortunate that I feel prompted to return to ye olde blog on a dark and disturbing subject. Since Representative Gabrielle Giffords and numerous others were shot this past Saturday by a deeply disturbed and mentally unbalanced young man in Arizona, the rhetoric and argument has saturated the blogosphere. Aside from the predictable back-and-forthing between rightwing and leftwing pundits, it has been heartening to see a significant amount of thoughtful, sober discussion.

That being said, I have attempted for the past three days or so to compose my own thoughts on the subject, and really failed entirely. And then, listening to President Obama's speech in Tucson, I just gave up—he said everything I would have wanted to say, and said it better. By several orders of magnitude. In the face of such a tragedy, he said, "We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others."