December 14, 2016

Reimagining “Dr. Strangelove”: Twitter Storms and Doomsday in Post-Election America

We’re just in time for a 100th birthday toast to Jack D. Ripper, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget Bat Guano. In real life, the clinically paranoid general who precipitates the nuclear apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove was played by Sterling Hayden and the paranoid colonel with a thing about “preversion” was done to a dead-eyed turn by Keenan Wynn. Both actors entered the world in 1916 and left it in 1986, and while both had 40-year-long Hollywood careers, their place in cinema history will be forever linked with Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy masterpiece and its we’re-just-kidding-folks subtitle, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As for George C. Scott (1927-1999), who was unforgettable as Gen. Buck Turgidson, and Peter Sellers (1925-1980), whose chameleon comic genius infused Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, president Merkin Muffley, and the title character, both Scott and Sellers had roles (i.e. General Patton, Inspector Clouseau) that transcended their association with Strangelove

Imagining Trump

Then there’s writer Terry Southern (1924-1995), whose mastery of the satire of outrage carries a film that is as much his triumph as Kubrick’s. More to the point at this perilous moment in American history, if anyone could have imagined a Donald Trump, it’s the man who gave us Jack D. Ripper, Dr. Strangelove, and in his own novel The Magic Christian, the unhinged billionaire Guy “Making It Hot for Mankind” Grand. Southern’s madcap oeuvre is rife with semblances and foreshadowings of the reality TV beast slouching toward Washington to be born. Think of the wonders Southern and Sellers could have done with a Trump-like president in place of the colorless Muffley. No more Mr. Nice Guy beating apologetically around the bush on his hot-line call to Premier Dmitri Kissoff. He’d find a way to blame the mess on the Soviets. Like Guy Grand, who spent millions staging humiliating and hilarious spectacles to prove that every man has his price, he’d treat the whole affair as a cosmic practical joke. Add some of Buck Turgidson’s steroid-to-the-max sexuality and Bat Guano’s pig-headedness and you’ve got a creation far more fascinating than Alec Baldwin’s one-dimensional Saturday Night Live travesty of the Donald. Except that then was then and now is now and who’s laughing?

The Twitter Storm

Is it possible the tyranically paranoid president-elect would be incapable of seeing the humor in this twistedly, brilliantly hilarious send-up of sex and doom, militarism and cold war paranoia? Consider his response to his current bête noire Saturday Night Live, which was among the many shows launched from the mothership of Dr. Strangelove, and for which Southern himself was a writer in the 1981-82 season. Say the picture was in theatres nationwide at this moment and say it was causing the stir it did in 1964, you can envision the gusts and squalls of the Twitter storm emanating from Trump Tower.

“Stupid! Unfunny! Could never happen! Insult to our military command! Unwatchable!”

“Hit job on America! Disgusting! Bad joke that dumb cowboy riding on the H-bomb!”

“Shooting the Coke machine insults a great American business! the bald sissy president, must be a Democrat, a disgrace to the office!”

“Ending is an insult to humanity! What’s funny about the end of the world? This film should be shut down!”

More than one Tweet would surely complain about the treatment of Trump’s current enablers the hated “Ruskies,” as Slim Pickens, pilot of the B-52 of doom, calls them.

“Biased! making the Russian ambassador a fat pig! and premier Kissoff a drunk! bad taste! no respect! Sad.”

Fluoridation as Hacking

Watching Dr. Strangelove with January 20 looming, it’s hard not to see a sinister resemblance between the movie Russia’s pollution of our “precious bodily fluids” and real-life Russia’s cyber pollution of our electoral process, both with catastrophic results. While Russian hackers and Wikileaks enablers may not have been wholly responsible for blowing up the election, all it took to set off the orgy of world-ending explosions in Kubrick’s film was one man with a first-strike mind-set attempting to protect himself and his troops from the menace of fluoridation.

The General Ripper scenes remain, I think, the glory of the film, and Hayden is uncannily brilliant as he nails every psychotic nuance of Southern’s dialogue, all the while aided and abetted by Sellers’s frantic British-to-the-core Group Captain Mandrake.

For all the great moments in Dr. Strangelove — Scott’s turgid pyrotechnics in the War Room, the classic coke machine/telephone booth “preversion” routine, Strangelove’s lascivious account of the carnal possibilities in a doomsday underground afterlife, President Muffley’s painfully awkward hot-line call to premier Kissoff (“well you see Dmitri he went a little well funny in the head”) — nothing quite matches the mad duet performed by Hayden and Sellers. Watching the interplay between cigar-puffing Ripper’s ponderously laid-back lunatic logic veiled in towering smoke-clouded close-ups and Mandrake’s proper British officer with his impeccable BBC accent reduced to politely dithering hysteria, you almost wish Hayden and Sellers had taken the show on the road, perhaps teaming up as a black-comedy Crosby and Hope.

Keeping in mind the still-brewing Russian hacking controversy, listen to Ripper telling Mandrake about fluoridation: “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.” When Mandrake, who is being clutched in the big man’s embrace, indulges him by asking how he, uh, developed this theory, the general sounds tentative, halting, almost thoughtful, “Well, I, uh … I … I … first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love …. 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 …. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh … women sense my power and they seek the life essence …. I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence.”

So, besides sapping and impurifying our precious bodily fluids, Communist infiltration disables the libido. The sex life of America is at stake! The theme’s there right from the opening credits of B-52s refueling in mid-air taken from stock footage showing two of the big planes swaying as they connect, transfer fuel and then disconnect, the refueling rod withdrawing while “Try a Little Tenderness” plays on the soundtrack. Then, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the flight crew is reading Playboy, Buck Turgidson is on call to a horny mistress in a Bikini (think nuclear test sites), and every male in the War Room — a vision out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — is salivating, even President Muffley, at the idea of ten women to every man in Dr. Strangelove’s vision of life post-apocalypse. When the Russian ambassador de Sadesky (a nod to the notorious Marquis) hears that the women will be selected for “sexual characteristics of a highly stimulating nature,” he calls it “an astonishingly good idea.”

Fast forward to the present and here we are still reeling from an election campaign dominated and distracted by its focus on the sexual appetite of the male candidate.

Birch to Breitbart

It seems we’ve come a long way, the Soviet Union is no more, the Red Menace long gone, with groups like John Birch Society giving way to the president-elect’s Breitbart advisors. It was the Birchers who peddled the conspiracy theory that fluoridation was a Communist plot, an idea that caught on in rural America, where some towns not only banned fluoridation of water but mandated arrest for anyone who advocated it.

Filmed during the spring and summer of 1963, Dr. Strangelove was scheduled to have its first test screening on November 22, 1963. Figuring the day Kennedy was shot would be seriously bad timing, the producers postponed the release to late January 1964.

The post-assassination climate was almost as fraught with fake news and fear and loathing as the post-election present. The Right Wing loonies were having a field day. The craziest rumors were exploited and disseminated (NATO troops invading the U.S. was one), though with none of the scope and complexity possible in an online universe.

Two months later we were laughing at Dr. Strangelove. Then came Beatlemania and by mid-summer our spirits were lifted by A Hard Day’s Night. The year that began with Kubrick’s endgame black comedy began one of the most tumultuous best-of-times, worst-of-times periods in American history. In half a year we’d gone from dread and despair to a black comedy holocaust to the Beatles, the British invasion, music, joy, and hope. And then …. And now….

So Long Atlantic City

The source for Dr. Strangelove was Red Alert, a novel by former RAF pilot Peter George, who is co-credited on the screenplay and was said to be unhappy, at first, to learn that his dead-serious work had been give a black-comedy rewrite. One potentially comedic turn in Red Alert that Kubrick and Southern missed was in the concession offered the Soviets during hot-line negotiations. In the book, codes were found that enabled the calling back of all but one of the H-bomb-carrying B-52s. When it appeared that the one plane might get through, the U.S. President offers the Soviet Premier the compensatory right to destroy an American target. The choice was Atlantic City. Since Red Alert, unlike Strangelove, ended without a nuclear catastrophe, every Monopoly player’s hometown was spared. Not so Peter George, who took his own life with a double-barrelled shotgun in June 1966 two years after the film was released. He had just completed a novel about a post-apocalyptic world tyrannized by a dictator.