Hollywood: Impact on Changes in American Culture?

While most Hollywood films reflect dominant ideology or reaffirm the status quo, few works are truly ahead of their zeitgeist in terms of themes, ideas, characters, tone, and style.  In 1964, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy “Dr. Strangelove” was so much ahead of its time in subject, sensibility, and style that conservative critics like Bosley Crowther, then unfortunately the dean of the New York critic, didn’t know what to make of the film or how to evaluate it.  He wrote: “The whole thing, while cleverly written and most skillfully directed and played, tends to be a bit too contemptuous of our defense establishment for my comfort and taste.”

 

Crowther was not alone. 

A senior political reporter in Washington D.C. complained:  “No Communist could dream of a more effective anti-American film to spread abroad than this one.  United States officials, including the President, had better take a look at this one to see its effect on the national interest.”

 

Fortunately, the public was more open-minded to Kubrick’s black humor and anti-nuclear message, and “Dr. Strangelove” became a commercial hit. By its own standards, the Academy proved adventurous too, conferring on the film four major Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor to Peter Sellers.

 

I recommend that you watch Columbia’s 40th anniversary edition of “Dr. Strangelove,” which made its fifth appearance as home entertainment in 2004.  The transfer, for the first time High-Defintion, makes the film look darker, lending it a more elegant and sinister look.  Considering that the original negative is gone, forcing the use of footage several generations away, Sony’s restorers have done a marvelous job of eliminating a lot of debris from the older DVD version.

 

Revisiting the film 45 years after it was made shows how much Kubrick benefited from the changes that took place in Hollywood’s filmmaking as well as in American pop culture, both at a crucial era of their evolution.  The wildly titled “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” became that year’s most unlikely hit, elevating Kubrick to the front rank of directors.

 

Filmed on a small budget (like Kubrick’s B-budget features “The Killing” and “Killer’s Kiss”), “Dr. Strangelove” experienced an unexpected success, proving that certain qualities once associated with the underground–anti-Establishment, counterculture, innovative filmmaking–were beginning to be absorbed by the mainstream. “Dr. Strangelove” was a scathing satire of the government and military; laced with dark comedy, “sick” humor, and highbrow intellectualism seldom seen in Hollywood movies.

 

The film boasted an impressive array of character actors, and featured an unheard of pessimistic ending: The destruction of civilization as we know it.  This apocalyptic resolution was presented not as serious drama, as in Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach,” but as an outright satire. Indeed, “Dr. Strangelove” featured everything the mass audience would supposedly be offended by.  Defying Hollywood’s commonsense, “Dr. Strangelove” was embraced by American moviegoers, showing that the long-prevailing distinction between underground and mainstream filmmaking was declining, and that the public was more accepting of ideas and images once thought of to be the exclusive domain of avant-garde and European cinema.

 

The opening title sequence was particularly shocking, showing a jet aircraft refueling from a mid-air station, which is photographed in a way that appears to be a sexual act.  The viewers are then introduced to General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a right-wing military who holds that a Communist conspiracy is polluting the body fluids of American citizens under the guise of fluoridating the water supplies. As a retaliation, he dispatches jet bombers equipped with missiles and nuclear warheads toward Russia, led by the first-shooting, then-thinking Major T. J. King” Kong (Slim Pickens), a Texas cowboy turned air force commander who wears his old Stetson on bombing missions and never misses a target.

 

When General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) learns what has happened, he quickly reports to President Muffley (Peter Sellers). Before long, the President is embroiled in a heated debate over the hot line with the Russian premier, informing him that his country will be attacked by nuclear warheads since there’s no way to abort the mission and recall the planes.

 

It just happened that in 1964 a similar a theme was also the center of a serious film, Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe,” starring Henry Fonda as the U.S. President. But the more melodramatic “Fail Safe” pales compared with Kubrick’s treatment, which blends avant-garde techniques, comic book characterizations, burlesque humor, and surrealistic style. More specifically, the striking lighting employed for the War Room confrontations, and the very size of that room, helped make “Dr. Strangelove” a visual milestone on the order of “Citizen Kane.”

 

Also exhilarating is the image of the President’s special advisor, Dr. Strangelove (again Sellers), a former Nazi scientist whose mechanical arm constantly slips into an uncontrollable “Sieg Heil” salute.  The vision of Major Kong, riding his nuclear warhead down to the target like an old-time cowboy straddling a bronco at a rodeo, later influenced filmmakers like Coppola in his depiction of the grand, surreal, and operatic attacks in “Apocalypse Now.”

 

More importantly, for the first time, paranoia was comically treated on American screens: World War III is fought to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.” In the late Fifties, when nightclub comics like Lenny Bruce introduced black humor, he was perceived as deviant and a “sick,” and his sensibility was rejected by the mainstream.  However, a decade later, dark humor had become a more popular medium of expressing protest and commenting on timely social issues. Kubrick deserves credit for bringing a satirical mode to Hollywood’s commercial cinema, though, initially, he was criticized for his wild, caricature-like portrait of the power elite, and for depicting military generals as irresponsible puppets with huge egos, small brains, and limitless power. 

 

Receiving his first Best Actor nomination, Peter Sellers was established as one of the most gifted actors working in cinema, a result of his bravura performances of three widely contrasting roles: the U.S. President, a British RAF Captain, and best of all, the mad German scientist, whose heavy accent was inspired by the physicist Edward Teller.  If an injury had not prevented Sellers from playing a fourth role, as the leader of the bomber crew, and thus cornering the fate of the world from all directions), “Dr. Strangelove” would have been a more disturbing and brilliant satire, since one actor would have embodied four different perspectives.

 

As a serious farce about the temptation of global destruction and deadpan plea for a nuclear freeze, “Dr. Strangelove” displayed an innovative brand, cinema of the absurd.  As Andrew saris pointed out, the film’s visual gravity created an odd tension with its verbal levity and its fondness for caricature. Kubrick’s most bravura stroke was forcing American viewers to root for their own extinction by locking them into the point of view of a gallant and madcap bomber crew.