2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Abuse of Military authority, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Full Metal Jacket, George C. Scott, Last Week Tonight, Lolita, merkin, Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear annihilation, Nuclear War, Peter Sellers, phallus worship, sex, Sexual Rhetoric, Stanley Kubrick, The Cold War, The Shining
You would never think a film about nuclear annihilation would actually be nothing but sexual tension and imagery, but Dr. Strangelove most certainly is. Technically the full title is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but for the sake of simplicity, and what is left of my own mental state, let’s keep it simply Dr. Strangelove for now.
I was aware of the film since, in my late teens, I went through what could only be referred to as a Kubrick-krush (get it, I replaced the “k” with a “c,” it’s a joke, get it…We never talk anymore). I think it was the fascination with Tarantino that originally did it for me. There were so many names entering into my consciousness that were an indication of genius: Scorsese, Allen, Coopola(Francis and Sophia), Spielberg, Hopper, and Fincher to name a few, but the name Kubrick was spoken with a kind of reverence I didn’t fully understand until I’d watched a few of his films. I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (the parts I watched while I wasn’t asleep were sublime), The Shining (which still gives me panic attacks), A Clockwork Orange (the first half hour kept me interested, I should probably re-watch it now), Full Metal Jacket (which remains my favorite), and Eyes Wide Shut (I was a teenage boy, nuff said). Now at some point I also watched Lolita and was fascinated by it, but that’s for another post. The point is I became aware of Kubrick and I was able to see why so many people praised his work. Simply put the man creates paintings and then films the human beings that interact within them. Visually his work was always distinct, and to this day I try in my own creative efforts to follow the approach of never making the same work twice (and I fail miserably I might add). I dove into Kubrick until I began to realize I would never be a director (this was about the same time I recognized I would never be a rock star either since I could not actually play the guitar or sing, I can sing now but I realize that’s immaterial for this discussion). Kubrick remains one of the most important film-makers in my mind because of his ability to play with narrative and form.
Looking at this then I have no idea why I avoided Dr. Strangelove like the plague. My best guess is that it was the Breaking Bad effect. I knew it was good, but I wanted to see if it would out survive the hype. One day when my wife and brother-in-law were out of the house, I hooked up my DVD port, watched it, I fell in love…and for some reason I decided to wait two months before actually reviewing it. I knew I had made the right decision not long after hearing this line:
President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.
If you’ve never seen the film, a General Jack D. Ripper sends out “Wing attack Plan R” to a squadron of planes in the areas surrounding the Russian border. The plan in effect is a first strike against the U.S.S.R. using nuclear missiles at tactical locations to prevent, or at least delay, retaliation on the Russian’s part. He then orders the entire base of high alert telling his men that Russian’s will invade the base dressed as American military. The reason for this decision, well it’s quite lovely in fact, why don’t I let you read it yourself:
General Jack D. Ripper: Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk… ice cream. Ice cream, Mandrake, children’s ice cream.
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: [very nervous] Lord, Jack.
General Jack D. Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: I… no, no. I don’t, Jack.
General Jack D. Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Uh, Jack, Jack, listen… tell me, tell me, Jack. When did you first… become… well, develop this theory?
General Jack D. Ripper: [somewhat embarassed] Well, I, uh… I… I… first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.
General Jack D. Ripper: Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I… I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.
General Jack D. Ripper: I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh… women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh… I do not avoid women, Mandrake.
General Jack D. Ripper: But I… I do deny them my essence.
Believe it or not this is not actually the speech that lets you realize that general Jack. D. Ripper is a goofy as a goose, that scene is far more chilling and a lot less funny when you recognize that threat of nuclear annihilation is far less likely to come in the form of a terrorist organization, it’s often from within. Observe:
Ripper, through an almost inconceivable chain of command and bureaucracy is able to set this plot into motion and then when the President, one President Merkin Muffley tries to stop it discovers he can’t because it’s against the code that’s allowed the code to exist in the first place. “Plan R” sets the wheels in motion for what is without a doubt the most watchable parody of government bullshit you will probably find in your life.
The reader may object to the setup of the film suggesting that it could easily be solved by simply calling the planes back. Well…
President Merkin Muffley: And why haven’t you radioed the plans countermanding the go-code?
General “Buck” Turgidson: Well, I’m afraid we’re unable to communicate with any of the aircraft.
President Merkin Muffley: Why?
General “Buck” Turgidson: As you may recall, sir, one of the provisions of Plan ‘R’ provides that once the go-code is received, the normal SSB Radios in the aircraft are switched into a special coded device which I believe is designated as CRM-114. Now, in order to prevent the enemy from issuing fake or confusing orders, CRM-114 is designed not to receive at all – unless the message is preceded by the correct three-letter recall code group prefix.
President Merkin Muffley: Then do you mean to tell me, General Turgidson, that you will be unable to recall the aircraft?
General “Buck” Turgidson: That’s about the size of it. However, we are plowing through every possible three-letter combination of the code. But since there are 17,000 permutations… it’s going to take us about two-and-a-half days to transmit them all.
President Merkin Muffley: How soon did you say our planes will be entering Russian radar cover?
General “Buck” Turgidson: About 18 minutes from now, sir.
But I told you this film is really about sex so I supposed I should stick to that theme before exploring the political implications. Immediately one is struck by the sexual subtext of the film since the beginning of the film is nothing but stock footage of plane’s refueling. My reader may object and ask, “What’s so sexual about plane’s refueling?” Well, yet again…
In case you missed it there was the shot of the plane’s phallic tube bobbing in and out of the other plane filling the plane with its “Fluids” which brings me right back to General Jack D. Ripper. Ignore the immediate internet lingo of Ripper giving communists giving the “D” and instead remember his concern for fluids. Throughout the film Kubrick creates a kind of sexual tension that exists between Americans and the Communist. Ripper is afraid of penetration and vulnerability because he believes it will weaken him as a man and more importantly as an American. There’s only one woman in the entirety of the film, she’s on screen for only a few moments, and as the picture to the left clearly demonstrates it’s not necessarily that of a, to quote my lovely-lady-wife, Headstrong independent wo-man. To be honest I don’t even remember her name, she contributes very little to the plot, or to her love interest General “Buck” Turgidson played by the brilliant George C. Scott. Speaking of his name I should probably mention plants. You see when plant cells are full of water they enter a state known as “Turgid” which is the ideal state because the plant is engorged with fluids. You’re beginning to see it now I trust, but looking past Turgidson’s name there is also the President, Merkin Muffley. Now normally Urban dictionary would do all the work for me but I have to assume my reader hasn’t seen the film or is NOT a seven year old boy with a working vocabulary. A “merkin” is a pubic wig, or a pair of underwear designed usually to demonstrate the appearance that the wearer has pubic hair. It’s often used by women in cinema when they have to film nude scene but don’t feel like showing off their vagina. As for “muffley” there is the term “muff” which is a euphemism for vagina, and, I kid you not I discovered this while researching for this essay, it is also a tube made of fur in which to warm the hands…let that sink in for a moment.
Well so what, my reader protests, so what is the film is really just a veiled metaphor for sex, why should I give a damn about this weird movie?
The reason you should care dear reader is because of this video.
In case you didn’t actually follow the link, and shame on you for not taking a few moments to improve your life with knowledge, the gist of it is across the United States there are at least 1000 nuclear warheads being contained and held, but not maintained. Along with this is the conflict that much of the technology required to actually launch these missiles is older than your grandfather and he owns a goddamn iPhone. The threat of nuclear annihilation is today an abstract concept, but barely twenty years ago it was a tangible reality. We taught children in schools how to prepare for a nuclear blast because the Communists were a real threat and they didn’t like us much. America for fifty years fought ideological and physical battles in order to stop the spread of Communism spawning a cultural reaction that still lingers. There’s a reason why the bad guys in Die Hard were East Germans rather than Middle Eastern terrorists. There’s a reason why Rocky 4 is so littered with pathos. Mankind had created the perfect means of erasing itself off the planet, and about the same time two factions discovered they really didn’t like each other.
This mutual distrust eventually merged into a kind of veiled sexual tension that culminates in Major T. J. “King” Kong riding a nuclear warhead, conveniently placed between his crotch all the way down upon his target before blowing up in a massive penis shaped, excuse me, mushroom shaped cloud of an orgasm, excuse me, explosion.
I won’t lie Dr. Strangelove is a weird fucking movie, but despite its oddity it is quite possibly one of the few successful slapstick satires of its kind. There’s the physical humor, but far more important are the one liners that are simply unforgettable:
Major T. J. “King” Kong: Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings.
Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.
This is only one out of the many small gems that pop out to the viewer if they’re clever enough to catch them, and even if they aren’t, the sheer absurdity of the characters as they try to prevent their own established system of Mutually Assured Destruction is sure to provide a few laughs. Dr. Strangelove is first and foremost a comedy, and that by itself works for a larger design. Kubrick’s film can be understood as a kind of catharsis, an emotional release of a buildup of repressed emotions. Most human beings already suffer from some form of existential panic, but in the Cold War American society, at least, suffered a regular understanding that they’re way of life could end at any time through absolute destruction or slow infiltration. Ripper’s “Fluid” theory is borderline bonkers, but it catches the repressed sexual tension that was in the minds of many in the 1950s. We were all terrified of being replaced by the communist, infiltrated, penetrated, and impregnated with his ideological “fluids” just as he was terrified of similar fate. That’s why, near the end, as the men in the War Room are huddled together trying to formulate some strategy to combat the “Doomsday machine,” there exists what is quite possibly the most disturbing moment of the whole film. Dr. Strangelove, played by the brilliant Peter Sellers who also plays President Merkin and Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, explains a plan to make a new society in abandoned mine shafts:
[Strangelove’s plan for post-nuclear war survival involves living underground with a 10:1 female-to-male ratio]
General “Buck” Turgidson: Doctor, you mentioned the ratio of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn’t that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?
Dr. Strangelove: Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.
Ambassador de Sadesky: I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.
I’ll end my review with this note: In the face of the denigration and annihilation of the species, the one thing that can unite humanity is male bullshit and their obsession with their own dicks.