Puppylove [2013)

Everybody likes sex, right?

Well, maybe not priests, but…

Ok.  Bad joke.

But sex is not a subject I’ve ever written about specifically in any of my film reviews.

And perhaps it is only fitting that Puppylove be the movie under the aegis of which I first do so.

There are several ways of situating this film “historically” in the medium of cinema.

One would be to take a recent frame of reference.

Blue.

In a strange example of Zeitgeist, Blue is the Warmest Color beat Puppylove to market by about six months.

Indeed, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 might be the best comparison.

But it is not a very historical one.

Which is to say, the two films are more or less contemporaneous.

Were the creators of the latter film influenced by the earlier release?

Because the connection is strong.

From the astounding Adèle Exarchopoulos, we can draw an easy line to the equally-sublime Solène Rigot.

Their characters, Adèle and Diane, are extremely similar.

But let’s take director Delphine Lehericey’s wonderful film back to an actual previous point in film development.

 American Beauty.

1999.

Solène Rigot is an easy comparison to Thora Birch (my favorite actress ever) in that film.

Likewise, Audrey Bastien is an exact overlay (no pun intended) on Mena Suvari’s character Angela Hayes.

[At this point I would like to quote Neil Young (“I fell in love with the actress/She was playing a part that I could understand”) and admit that Solène Rigot really stole my heart with this one.  It took me awhile to fully comprehend…who she looked like…someone who broke my heart…a Beatrice in my Dantean darkness upon a time.]

Back to film criticism, and sticking with 1999’s “Best Picture”, we should also note that Kevin Spacey is well signified by signifier Vincent Perez in Puppylove.

To paraphrase Godard, ever image in every film is a quote.

Which brings us to the fountainhead.

To wit, where does this style of filmmaking which Lehericey is practicing originate?

For me, there is no better answer than Monsieur Godard’s perfect film Je vous salue, Marie.

1985.

Hail Mary‘s most jaw-dropping asset was the inimitable Myriem Roussel.

Solène Rigot is a reincarnation of Roussel’s magic.

Instead of basketball, it’s field hockey.

But Puppylove goes on to quote delicately and successfully.

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water.

Perhaps even Kubrick’s Lolita (equally applicable to American Beauty…at least in theory).

But I’m the schmuck who wins the prize.

I didn’t care how “hot” Mena Suvari was.

And I don’t give a shit about Audrey Bastien’s skinny little frame either.

[Though Bastien is a much better actress than Suvari.]

I fall for the outcasts.

Jane Burnham (Thora Birch).

And, here, Diane (Solène Rigot).

Puppylove is not as earth-shattering a film as Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.

But Delphine Lehericey is an extremely gifted director.

And she had the secret weapon to pull it off.

Solène Rigot.

Puppylove will endure because Rigot is the real thing.

I’ve hardly talked about sex yet (like, not at all).

But that’s the way the master of understatement Hitchcock would have done it.

The most sublime moments in highly-sexualized European cinema are when the sex isn’t happening.

Exarchopoulos proved this.

And Rigot confirms it.

-PD

Reservoir Dogs [1992)

That annoying, whiny little prick is a genius.

That’s the retort.

I’m really batting below the Mendoza line regarding Tarantino.

And I’ll tell you why.

Because that annoying, whiny little prick is a goddamned genius.

As much as I want to judge him as a director based on his shrill, dorky acting, I can’t.

Because he’s made some brilliant films.

As much as I want to judge him because so many filmmakers have followed his example regarding ultraviolence (which he naturally ripped off from Kubrick’s treatment of Burgess), I can’t.

It’s not Tarantino’s fault that his example is attractive.

It isn’t much more than a girl and a gun.

[the famous Godard quote…all you need for a film]

Ah!  But it IS different.

There are no girls here.

There are no female characters in Reservoir Dogs.

Sure…there’s the waitress.

Does she even appear?

We certainly hear about her.

And then there’s a broad who gets shot in the head (bringing her 15, er, 7 seconds of fame to an end).

Yes, Reservoir Dogs is a good ol’ sausage party.

Why review this film now?

Why review anything but new releases?

Because it’s my website and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with it.

[as the inestimable Lawrence Tierney might have said]

I’ll tell you the real reason.

Because the movies of 2016 are such shit as to make Tarantino circa ’92 look like Jean Cocteau in comparison.

And so we watch for entertainment.

We might want a story.

Dialog is nice.

But whatever’s in it (or not in it), we want it to be compelling (damn it!).

Reservoir Dogs is that.

It’s tense.

Like another “dogs” (Straw Dogs).

Why the colors?  Because van Gogh.

Should be capitalized.

Don’t use your Christian names.

I just gotta say, Harvey Keitel is really good here.

No.  He’s fucking great!

Guy has range!

Buscemi is the ball of nerves we’ve come to expect.  Times ten.

More important than specific actors, we learn the nature of acting.

We learn what lends stories credibility:  details.

And as (perhaps) an homage to Andy Warhol, we see the excellent Tim Roth actually rehearse his lines during the film.

Tarantino would employ the shooting (camera) from behind trick (Vivre sa vie) in Pulp Fiction, but here he finagles a brilliance (the Roth rehearsal) that only a truly agile mind could conjure.

And so, once again, I must apologize to Mr. Tarantino for having denigrated his films so much.  I had seen them, I just didn’t appreciate them.

We fall in love.  We fall out of love.  We fall back into love.

 

-PD

C’est arrivé près de chez vous [1992)

Writing is a healing exercise.

We try.

We do the best we can.

Sometimes we have to laugh at how bad things are.

Nietzsche would say we’ve lost something.

And he’s right.

But still we must laugh.

Because nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen.

Jesus wept.

Jesu swept.

We must laugh because the walls are closing in on us.

Our lives should have turned out so much better.

But let’s be optimistic.

Let us remember the good times.

Times when we sang.

Cinema…CINEMA!!!

Times when we shat and sang.

And shits yet to come.

Future shits.

It is not wrong to count life in such base terms.

When we venture out in the world, we only hope that a pretty girl smiles at us.

It’s like a bunch of flowers.

And so we must smile.

With all the bravery we have.

If you drink, drink.

If you smoke, smoke.

If you do nothing, do nothing.

Life is too very sad.  Doesn’t make.

So very sad.  Oui!

In Belgium, perhaps, they can laugh.

As in my heart song Aaltra.

Always a dark song.  Like Jeanne Dielman.

And here is Tarantino back through the French.

Au contraire!  This film predates all Quentin-directed features.

But not by much.

However, QT had the distribution advantage by a few months.

Seems Man Bites Dog (our film “in English”) beat Reservoir Dogs to market by way of film festivals.

In particular TIFF.

But really this is like a Belgian Pulp Fiction (and so much better than that hunk of shite which was still two years away).

As you might know.

Two directors I can’t stand:

Spielberg and Tarantino.

In that order.

Quentin has some redeeming qualities.

Spielberg very few (if any).

But you might want to know about the film I’m reviewing.

Ultraviolence meets Spinal Tap.

Yes, I know that’s not the full title.

But you probably know what I mean.

Kubrick of A Clockwork Orange meets mockumentary.

If someone had described this film (or any other) on such terms, I wouldn’t have watched it.

So I’m glad I didn’t encounter my own review.

Because C’est arrivé près de chez vous is brilliant.

The camaraderie chez Malou…

Rémy Belvaux supposedly committed suicide in 2006.

But it’s probably just as likely that Bill Gates had him whacked.

God damn it…

André Bonzel hasn’t died (according to English Wikipedia), but neither has he been born.

A precarious situation, that.

But Benoît Poelvoorde is gloriously alive!

Damn it!!!

Is it strip-tease or stripe-ties?

Une Femme est une femme.

We are learning the language.

French speakers English.

And English speakers French.

And Turkish.

And Romanian.

And Farsi.

Allors…

Tarantino has acknowledged his debt.

And so I too apologize to Mr. T.

It’s a sad life.  When you’re 39.

Rest in peace, dear Rémy.

 

-PD

Il Deserto rosso [1964)

My hair hurts.

She says.

Yes.

This is one of the miracles of cinema.

Every frame a painting with a camérastylo.

One critic will boil it down to “mental illness”.

And Monica Vitti does that very well.

Red hair.  Red desert.

But we should know Antonioni by now.

This is that existential nausea you used to hear of at coffee shops.

Except the coffee shops no longer exist.

And Manhattan is a ghost ship with no one on board.  Saying nothing.

No doubt Kubrick visited this for 2001.  And George Lucas for THX 1138.

But we are more interested in Godard.

Il Deserto rosso is a film for filmmakers.

Mulholland Dr. stands no chance.

But why?

Because, yes, we all feel like this.

Lost.

The floating world in Japanese mythology.

No doubt Kurosawa pinched the end bit for Dreams.

It’s ok.

That’s what makes Il Deserto rosso a watershed film.

In the shed.  Surrounded by water.

A proto-orgy.

Roman atavism at the group level.

No, no…

I’m not getting anywhere.

The critics will cry “overwrought”.

What we have here is really a sick sadness.

Feel too much.

Bowie’s Low title is above the artist in profile.

Low profile.

And that color.

Her hair.

What acting!

Is it?

Bow down to the master Michelangelo.

One of the true auteurs.

For the uninitiated it will seem unbearably pretentious.

Or just confusing.

It will seem that there is no plot.

And, indeed, in space there is no “up” or “down”.

There are simply bodies with sufficient mass to exert gravity.

Is that the way to say it?

Is that how it works?

Because we are all floating, right?

32 feet per second per second.

[sic]

Acceleration of falling bodies.

God bless her…

Always a sinking feeling.

Because her husband is a vapid jerk.

And the most sensitive guy can’t get close enough…cause she’s nuts.

Makes perfect sense.

Our own worst fears played out by the players on the screen.

Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore.

Precisely.

Pirandello.

Logic bombs and bombs of illogic.

The latter in Dadaism.

Hackers who terrorize simply to make their point.

To outsmart.

Legacy networks and newer nets introduced in phases…

Allowing for GDP, profit margin, and public sector infrastructure.

Which is to say, DARPA.

And where does the film critic fit in?

Merely as a voice…reminding…don’t forget your Sun Tzu.

Everything else will be diverted to slag heaps and holding tanks.

Opaque tanks…glowing green like antifreeze.

Does this sound like a fun adventure?

Then Il Deserto rosso is for you.

And for me.

Because I identify with Monica Vitti’s character so much.

Afraid of everything.

My hair hurts.

 

-PD

Mulholland Dr. [2001)

How not to start a symphony.  With a rest.  #5 (7)j j-j o ^ (7)j j-j o

Beethoven started with a pause.  A pause, in this case, is unheard.  Felt.

No hay banda.

Il y a n’est pas d’orchestre.

I wish I was more confident in my French memory.

The Spanish is simpler.

[silencio]

It could be Roberto Benigni in La vita è bella reeling off a priceless punchline.

[silencio]

It could be John Cage forcing us to listen in 4’33”.

Painfully good.  A perfect film.  Mulholland Drive.  Dr. Mulholland.

I’ve either gained you or lost you by this point.

Dr. Benway.

You will excuse the word virus at work.

Perhaps the word bacteria predates Burroughs.

Always a cut-up in class.

And those classy suits.

It’s a talent to be weird, though Charles Mingus would argue otherwise.

A talent to be simple.

You have to stay with me like Lord Buckley or Lester Bangs.

I got yer Oxford comma right here.

, and don’t I know it!

She takes Hayworth’s name from Gilda.

Rita.

Laura Elena Harring.  Laura Harring if you’re into the whole brevity thing.  Concision of expression.  Bthvn.

If you really wanna impress the familia, it’s Laura Elena Martínez Herring.  Miss USA 1985.  Just missed 1984.

Or well, Wilbur…

Mr. Ed.  Paging Mr….

Herring.  Pink.  She is a living Modigliani onscreen for a brief moment on a couch.  A stippled nipple in deep focus.

But this is not her film.  She is a MacGuffin in heels.

No.  This is Naomi Watts’ film.  Boy is it ever!

But let us pop this balloon before it goes all Vivre sa vie on us.

Is this the best Amer-ican film ever made?  Probably.

Dog Star Man has a steep mountain to climb without a soundtrack to blow Sisyphus to his zenith.

F for Fake is to American cinema what Histoire(s) du cinema is to the French pantheon.

The only real challenger, then, might be Gummo.

But let us return to Maestro Lynch.  David Lynch.  Montana Dave.  The Cowboy…

This is, to reiterate, a perfect film.  Such creations do not come along often.

As such, we should savor each morsel of finesse embodied in this feast for eyes and mind.

And don’t forget the ears.  Badalamenti.  Badda bing, badda boom.

What would Chico Marx have made of this film???

Who cares…  It’s Chico stuffed into a dough ball suitcase with $50k and Groucho and Harpo mashed up

with even a good portion of Zeppo as Little Mr. Sunshine in Naomi Watts’ first character Betty Elms.

Nightmare on Elms’ street.

Mulholland Dr.

Great minds think alike.  Cannes premier of this film May 16, 2001.  Radiohead’s Amnesiac album?  June 5, 2001.

Rita.  Camille.  Diane Selwyn.

Kryptos.  Jim Sanborn.  Mengenlehreuhr.

Set theory.

(0,2,3,5)  Le Sacre du printemps.

Spitting espresso into a napkin, strikes fear in the hearts of the most hardened capitalists.

Fear.

The Flower That Drank the Moon.  Not a real film.

The Big Sleep.  She.  H. Rider Haggard.  Angel-A.

Finnegans, upon waking, diapasoned Wachet auf.

Just call me Death.  Everyone else does.

We don’t stop here.

We push on.  Like Gene Wilder on a magical fucking river of chocolate.

You can’t split the existential atom any further.  Kubrick tried in 2001.  And now Lynch had arrived at the same year.

If you open a MacGuffin, you will find nothing.

I have a bag full of money and I can’t remember my name.  That is Hollywood.

This is the girl.

And the gun.

24x per second.

Truth before the big lie even sprouted wings.  L’Effroyable imposture.  Vérités et Mensonges.

It’s like the old Edison tone tests.  Hit the lights.  Who’s playing?  The phonograph or the violinist?

Like looking at L.A. through Roy Orbison’s glasses.  A blur…a haze.

No one has split the literary atom any further than Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

[…]

Those three little dots.

The rhythm of speech.  From Modest Mussorgsky to Harry Partch.

Boris Godunov was lousy so we had to shave his armpits.

We would have never gotten to know each other so well, Boris and I.  Henry.  Mr. Bones.

Yeah, I keep on sloggin’ and get diminishing marginal returns.

Just a fancy way of saying less and less.  Nothing (more or less).

And then nothing turns itself inside out.

Naomi Watts goes from gee swell to Valerie Solanas.

The key.  CERN.  When they rev it up.

What does it open?

Möbius (stripped bare by his bachelorettes), even

[The Large Hadron Collider]

Mimesis.  Die a Jesus.

Greatest goal in life?

To achieve immortality and then die.

J. Hoberman.  J. Mascis.  J. Spaceman.

Putrefaction is merely Der Untergang des Abendlandes.  The decline of the evening lands.

Rises east, sets The West.

Civility.

L’Usine de rêves.

That killer blonde that we all want.  From Kim Novak to Daniel Craig.

Monty Montgomery.  Hope you only see him once more.

Good v. Bad, 410 U.S. 113 (2001)

The abortion of Newtonian physics.

Twice.

Thrice.

Michael J. Anderson as Larry Silverstein.

We don’t stop here.

This is the girl.

Maybe the smartest thing to do is pull it.

And we watched the building collapse.

That would be the shadow government.

An accident is a terrible event—notice the location of the accident.

Who gives a key, and why?

-PD

Violet and Daisy [2011)

Damn…  Damn.  Much more arresting than a discussion of exploding genres.  When a film kicks you in the gut.

Filmmakers study the different reactions which can be elicited through the medium of cinema.

They study their own reactions.  They observe the reactions of those around them.

They build up an arsenal of techniques.

And if the filmmaker hits it just right the effect is devastating.

Director Geoffrey S. Fletcher did just that in this unlikely masterpiece.

From the outset it appears that we are in for a hackneyed Tarantino-aping ride, but it gets better.  Much, much better!

The genre is superviolence.  Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs were merely updates on the Kubrick treatment of A Clockwork Orange.

But the auteur Fletcher explodes the genre (to borrow a metaphor from James Monaco) and makes it do things previously unknown.

The superviolence genre can’t handle the intellect injected into its flippant form in Violet & Daisy (and thus a new genre is born).  The genre evolves.

Saoirse Ronan is magnificent as always, but she has great backup provided by her partner Alexis Bledel.  Yet, the real star of this miracle film is James Gandolfini.

There is no way of knowing what plot-twisting brilliance is afoot when you sit down to view this flick.

The surprise of this film (for me) also hinged on just how good Bledel was in the role of Violet.  Bledel and Ronan have unbelievable chemistry in this strange tightrope of a film.

I am stunned by how good this film was…

One last note:  Gandolfini’s performance here is so convincing that it seems impossible this was anything other than his last film.  What a masterful turn!

See this and be enlighteningly shocked.

-PD

The Enforcer [1976)

Damn.  It takes a lot to laugh.  It takes a train to cry.  Bob Dylan said that.

I just said damn.

This film was released the year I was born.  Yeah, I’m an old son of a bitch.

Figure of speech (you understand)…

It’s hard to talk about this film without talking about Tyne Daly.  How beautiful she looked in this film!  What great acting!

But let’s start at the beginning…

Jocelyn Jones.  Any fish bite if you got good bait.  Henry “Ragtime” Thomas said that.

Numb nuts.  Jocelyn said that.

I know the type.  Bait.  Numb nuts.

Think Lana Turner.  That first appearance she makes in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Or Sue Lyon in Lolita.  Kubrick.  The hard stuff.

Those little heart-shaped sunglasses.  Her eyes replaced by your mind.

It’s not “Pleasant Valley Sunday”…rather, Mill Valley.

No Monkees.  Just a bunch of bloodthirsty punks after some money.  A rag-tag group of Vietnam vets and ideological dupes.

Director James Fargo goes for the kill early on.  The tight shot of those blue-grey eyes.  A little awkward.  But DeVeren Bookwalter more or less delivers.  Not quite as terrifying as Andy Robinson in the original Dirty Harry…ok, actually a straight rip of that character minus the fascinating Zodiac Killer angle.  But Fargo turns in a pretty convincing film.  No small feat.  While the James Bond franchise was busy dicking around with numerous directors, the Dirty Harry series showed them how to strike an emotional blow with an economy of means.

Of course we get another shite superior…Captain McKay…played pretty well by Bradford Dillman.  Not as convincing as Hal Holbrook in Magnum Force, but hey…  And again, a straight rip of the Lt. Briggs character.

All of this would seem to indicate that this is a watery domestic facsimile with a lack of imagination.  Not quite.  This is a damn good film.

Tyne Daly really provides the foil to Eastwood that was needed to make this picture transcend.

Fargo’s silhouette version of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) is frankly brilliant.

Albert Popwell makes powerful use of his limited screen time.  Swahili for freedom:  uhuru.

It brings us to a Hitchcock moment and reminds us of the ultimate case of the wrong man:  Osama bin Laden.  As Ralph Nader described George W. Bush:  a corporation disguised as a human being.  Osama.  THE Company.

Not even the head of the snake.  Not even the tip of the iceberg.  More like a figurehead asset.  A fall guy.  A bogus bogeyman.

And so the real terrorists run free.  Suits and ties.  Top Secret security clearances.

It’s as hollow a feeling as that famous “mission accomplished” pronouncement.  On the USS Abraham Lincoln no less.  Yeah…it’s time to open up some crusty old prisons for the real terrorists.  Places that’ll make Guantanamo Bay look like a goddamned Sandals resort.

-PD

Dirty Harry [1971)

Cops get a bad rap.  It’s only fitting that Kinney National Company, by way of their 1969 purchase of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts film company, should bring you this message.  Kinney National Services, Inc. was the product of a 1966 merger between Kinney Parking (as in, parking lots) Company and National Cleaning Company.  The former, a New Jersey operation, was owned by three gentlemen…at least one of which was a mobster:  Abner Zwillman.  But wait, it gets richer…

Before Kinney Parking Company was publicly listed in 1960, it merged with the funeral home (!) company Riverside.

Ah yes…Abner Zwillman.  Newark.  Cut numbers…  Tosches.

Zwillman did alright for himself…  Dated Jean Harlow…

Along with Al Capone, Zwillman controlled the movie projectionist union.  Histoire(s) du cinema.

Funny that an extortionist should start a company which would eventually make a film about an extortionist.

Zwillman died an untimely death by hanging…just before he was to appear before a U.S. Senate committee organized crime hearing. 1959.

Another chthonic founder of Kinney Parking Company was Manny (Emmanuel) Kimmel.  Keep in mind, folks–this developed into Time Warner!  Yeah.

Along with the racketeer/bootlegger Zwillman, Kimmel used his garages to store the liquor which the former was smuggling into the U.S. from Canada in armored WW I trucks during Prohibition.  The FBI “compelled” him to testify in two notable mafia trials (including Zwillman’s).

Kimmel…legendary New York horseracing bookie, blackjack card-counter, “compelled” witness.

Kimmel and Zwillman (to say nothing of Sigmund Dornbusch) circuitously brought you the film Dirty Harry.  Oh, the irony!

And thus it starts:  perhaps the most quintessential American movie.  No, dear friends, you cannot watch this with commercial interruptions on AMC…no way.

And TCM has been slow to “get it”…though their screening format is superior.

Don Siegel hits a vein–a gusher–with this one!

From that first rifle scope focus…that first glamorous victim…that icy blue summer swimming pool atop the roof suddenly tinged with blood…

We could have mentioned Vito Genovese.  Meyer Lansky.  Bugsy Siegel…

But we will focus on the immensely talented Don Siegel.

In Don Siegel we encounter the difference between American montage and French montage:  not at all the same thing.

We find Peckinpah as an assistant.

Friends…

Hell, Siegel even directed Baby Face Nelson in 1957 (a couple years before Zwillman was suicided).

But the big story?  The big scoop???  Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood was born in San Francisco (the setting of Dirty Harry).  11 pounds and 6 ounces.

The mid-60s were good to Eastwood…three spaghetti westerns helmed by Sergio Leone with Clint in the lead.  All three were financial successes…low-budget and high box office return.

By 1971 Eastwood had just completed his directorial debut:  Play Misty for Me.

But let’s not forget the Finks who wrote Dirty Harry’s script:  Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink!

The Finks were joined by Dean Riesner and John Milius.

Now they just needed a villain.  A mashup of the Zodiac Killer and actor Andy Robinson provided just the right level of disgust for audiences to swallow the vigilante Harry Callahan.

Yeah, a butcher knife and a hard-on is probably probable cause…though D.A. Rothko would likely disagree.

The Smith & Wesson Model 29…we’re talking about a handgun that approaches three pounds (depending on barrel length).

I know what you’re thinking.  Did he just put two unrelated phrases ass-to-ass on purpose or on accident?

Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself.

Scorpio…

Signed crosshairs.  Benicia.  Vallejo.  Lake Berryessa.  Presidio Heights.

This was real.

Well, Harry’s usual hot dogs had not kept him in the greatest cardio shape, though he admirably runs from payphone to payphone.  It’s a pretty ingenious plot device.  The thrilling uncertainty would do Hitchcock proud.  Yes, Hitch would direct two more films after Harry Callahan hit the world’s stage.  One can’t help wondering if he saw this masterpiece.

When Eastwood stabs Scorpio in the leg…that is cinema.  It’s not far from the iconography of Kubrick’s The Shining or Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (though it predates both).

When Eastwood steps into the arena (sand) of Kezar Stadium, we know there will be blood.  Would you torture a psychopath to save an innocent teenage girl?  These are the types of questions which came to dominate Clint Eastwood’s amazing career.

Even smalltime shits like Scorpio understand the concept of the good old false flag, but it doesn’t work.

And then like Superman with no name…sun at his back on the railroad trestle…Eastwood hops the short bus.

“But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

It’s too long to be a haiku, but it floats…

-PD

Dr. Strangelove [1964)

…and you will know us by the title which follows the colon.  Yes, Dr. Strangelove is indeed a mouthful when its title is cited in full.  Some years ago I proffered that this film summed my personality up better than any other single motion picture.  Whether or not that remains true, I still hold it to be one of the two perfect or near-perfect films which Kubrick made (the other being Lolita).

I won’t labor over the plot details too much.  Indeed, some may not yet have seen this masterpiece.  I suppose it would behoove me as a critic “of the people” to not always give away the ending.  But when I last viewed this piece of cinema, some things struck me which had previously slipped unnoticed under my nose in the fray.  Perhaps I am most ashamed to admit that I never realized one of the principal characters was named Jack D. Ripper.  He is, indeed, the problem child of this movie.

Played by Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar, anyone?), Ripper sets in motion a string of events which define the drama over the course of 94 minutes.  Neither had I recognized the humor in his operating base:  Burpelson AFB.  Perhaps there’s not as much meaning in the place, but the character is indeed aptly monikered.

The film really gets going as we see Peter Sellers (the true star(s) of this film) for the first time in one of his three roles.  As Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, he is the proper Brit whose tact makes him unable to quite fix the snafu in progress (a rogue launch against the U.S.S.R.), but whose diplomacy nearly staves off a most dreadful outcome.

There is an interesting element of this film which is approached tongue-in-cheek, but which nevertheless perhaps deserves further investigation at length.  That element is fluorine…in the form of fluoride…as in fluoridated water.  It just so happens that our resident kook (who has singlehandedly endangered all of civilization by ordering his bomber wing to attack) is very much against water fluoridation.  The year, we must remember, is 1964.  Ripper explains to Mandrake that fluoridation began in the U.S. in 1946.  He takes this (along with his rabid anti-communism) to indicate that water fluoridation is a grand Soviet plot.

Indeed, water fluoridation in the U.S. is said to have begun in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1945.  By 1951, the U.S. Public Health Service had made water fluoridation public policy.  In 1960, it is estimated that 50 million Americans were the recipients of fluoridated water.  In 2006, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving fluoride in their water was at just over 60%.  Any thought outside this narrow swath of inquiry is said spuriously to be the conjecture of conspiracy theorists.  Funny how the villain of Dr. Strangelove is one such fellow–a real doozy at that…inept at expressing himself…always talking about “bodily fluids.”  Indeed, something strange is going on with this subplot.  I will leave it to the reader to investigate the merits of pro-fluoridation and anti-fluoridation.  I myself avoid fluoride at all costs.

Back to cinema (and Peter Sellers), we next encounter another funny name:  President (of the U.S.) Merkin Muffley.  Merkin, of course, is the name given to “public wigs.”  And the muff in Muffley, well…  Again, I urge the reader to let their imagination guide their inquiry.

It would be germane to introduce my own bit of conspiratorial evidence at this juncture.  There is, of course, the oration of Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) where he urges the President to (thank you Rahm Emmanuel) not let this tragedy go to waste.  Yes, it is that age-old stain on humanity which Webster Tarpley so eloquently sums up as “cynical.”  Gen. Turgidson (another apt name) asserts with bombastic cynicism a plan so heinous (while holding his megadeath statistics) that it could only be concocted by Hollywood, right?  Wrong.

Case in point:  Operation Northwoods.  With apparent thanks to author James Bamford (and those who have railed against the Kennedy assassination as being something far different than it was characterized), documents from 1962 show the very real psychosis of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (of which, no doubt, Gen. Turgidson would seem to be part…if not the head).  No, Kubrick was not simply out to discredit conspiracy theorists.  Perhaps the fluoridation subplot is a smokescreen, but Gen. Turgidson shows verily that he shares a certain simpatico with our rogue Gen. Ripper (who launched the insubordinate attack).  Oh…what would Kubrick make of our post-9/11 world had he lived to see it?  Indeed, the timing of Dr. Strangelove couldn’t have been better (or worse, depending on how one looks at it), considering that just two months before its release J.F.K. was murdered in Dallas.

Ah, but President Muffley’s voice of reason prevails (just as J.F.K.’s voice of reason categorically refused the Operation Northwoods plan which was agreed upon and signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff…including their head, Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer).  I won’t deviate too far from the plan, but suffice it to intrigue the reader that Northwoods was a false-flag terror attack which would have used remote control planes, fake passengers (with “carefully prepared aliases”) and other such stratagems (including the death of American citizens) which certainly could have no bearing upon events in say, I don’t know, the past 15 years or so, could they?  Or course not.  How silly of me.

And while some ideas such as cobalt bombs seem preposterous today, in 1964 they must have seemed quite nerve-wracking indeed.  The Soviet doomsday device which figures in the movie is, of course, humorously inserted, but the technology was (at the very least) tested by the British in Australia in 1957.  Nevil Shute’s novel On The Beach (also 1957) leans heavily on this technology being quite real and not in the least silly.  Even the Eon series of Bond movies takes up the idea somewhat (in 1964, no less…same year as our film) in that Auric Goldfinger intends to use a device which incorporates cobalt to render the gold of Fort Knox uselessly radioactive for 58 years.  All experiments aside, the theory seems to indicate that radioactive cobalt would be a hazard for far longer than 58 years (as Dr. Strangelove himself points out in the odd segment just before the end of our film).  Indeed, 100 years is more like it (for all practical purposes).  Perhaps even 142 or so…

But I dare say the only name one needs remember in this piece of cinema is Col. “Bat” Guano.  The writers (including Terry Southern) were really having a larf by that point.  Our team aboard the one aircraft which didn’t get the recall “memo” head to what seems to be a made up locale in Soviet Russia:  Kodlosk.  By the end of this romp we are not only questioning the mental capacity of L.B.J. (newly sworn-in President when this came out), but also that of dear old George W. Bush.  One can’t help interpreting the role of Slim Pickens as symbolic of the cavalier disrespect for human life wrapped up in all of America’s nuclear ambitions.  And he just so happens to be a rural gent–a cowboy, if you will.  No matter that the real life Pickens was not only born in California, but died there (in Modesto, to be exact).

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?,” sing Pink Floyd in the song “Vera” from 1979’s The Wall.  Going on to reference the very song which ends Dr. Strangelove (“We’ll Meet Again”), it’s an appropriate way to broach how Kubrick’s masterpiece will go down in history.  I personally find only the ending to be a bit clumsy and, thus, the film as a whole (at least) near-perfect.

Sellers’ third role in the film is that of Dr. Strangelove himself.  An obvious remnant of Operation Paperclip, Strangelove is the former (?) Nazi who is wheelchair-bound (with a gimp arm to boot).  This really is Sellers at his surreal best, no doubt doing a good bit of visual improvising (as his bum arm seems to have a mind of its own–at one point choking the neck to which it is attached).

There is one (and only one) female character:  and she is a tightly-wound symbol of power.  Played by Tracy Reed in a bikini, she mainly figures into just one scene (that in which Gen. Turgidson is indisposed in the “powder room”).

Speaking of (and to) power, one would be remiss not to mention the RAND Corporation.  It has been ventured that Herman Kahn, John von Neumann and/or Henry Kissinger might have been templates for the character of Strangelove.  To that I would add Albert Wohlstetter.  All four were part of the aforementioned “think tank.”  Another possibility is Wernher von Braun.  Indeed, it is worth some study to learn how this former Nazi SS member became head of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Likewise, it is interesting how the International Institute for Strategic Studies played a role in the genesis of Dr. Strangelove.  It was, in fact, the director (Alastair Buchan) of this organization (ostensibly formed in 1958) who suggested to Kubrick the book upon which the film would be based.  That book was Red Alert by Peter George.  Silly me, all of these think tanks have me in a quandary.  I was quite sure Mr. Buchan was of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (a.k.a. Chatham House, formed 1920), but I see that I was mistaken.  I do, however, congratulate myself upon noticing that Kubrick’s chum Buchan was son of Hitchcock’s Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps).  Interesting also that the aforementioned Herman Kahn was a consultant on Dr. Strangelove.

As was noted in my article concerning Dr. No (1962) [see “Bond” section], Ken Adam went from that Eon Production’s set designer to being Kubrick’s man concerned with the same on Dr. Strangelove.  Indeed, that iconic table in “the war room” is covered in green baize.  One need not look further than Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale for the previous symbolic nature of this fabric (consider M’s door, for instance).

Back to Herman Kahn…  He coined the term “megadeath.”  But it took Kubrick and Peter Sellers and God knows who else to concoct the only line ending with which I can feel assured (the feeling is mutual, I’m sure) a sense of finality:  “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

 

-PD