Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Screening DR. STRANGELOVE

My favorite (if rather inaccurate) foreign poster.

Some films never seem to become outdated. Unfortunately - one might add considering the fact that what keeps DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) still fresh is the current revitalization of the policy of deterrence in some parts of the world. Fortunately however, even 50 years later the film itself remains compelling and dead-on.

I am currently preparing an introductory lecture focussing on dialogue and acting for a theatrical screening on June 13, 2013 in Zug (Switzerland). As usual, I cannot possibly incorporate every detail that I find into my lecture. So after a short summary of what I intend to center on, I will have a look at two rigid compositions that caught my eye.

Stanley Kubrick's third film about the absurdity of war and his last black and white picture was also the beginning of his trademark style of ambiguous narrators (just think of Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971). While he exposed a seemingly omniscient third-person narrator as slightly unreliable in THE KILLING (1956) and a literary first-person narrator as delusional in LOLITA (1962) he not only opens DR. STRANGELOVE with a Brechtian news-reel narrator but presents us with three self-proclaimed first-person narrators who each impose their perspective on an isolated group of people.

Capt. Mandrake - Gen. Ripper - Dr. Strangelove - Maj. Kong - Gen. Turgidson - President Muffley
As embodied by Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and Slim Pickens, these three characters are distinguished by contrasting voices and ways of speaking. The same goes for all the secondary characters played by Peter Sellers. In fact, it is the acting and Kubrick's dissection of military and diplomatic euphemisms that turns a dead serious thriller (Peter George's "Red Alert") into a biting satire. 

Disordered Communication and Framed Isolation
There are certain shots that fans and scholars have come to identify as Kubrickian: the low angle shot of a staring face, highly symmetrical long shots and the neverending tracking shot. A former photographer who often drove his DOP crazy or even operated the camera himself, Kubrick relied on meticulously composed images in almost every shot, though. This may be one of the reasons why his filmic worlds seem so inescapable and claustrophobic at times.

It is amazing in how many ways he is able to exploit Ken Adam's stylized James-Bond-type "war room" set, for example. When President Merkin Muffley talks to Premier Kissoff on the phone, a black bar in the background visually separates him from the Russian Ambassador, emphasizing the rift between the two and the film's major theme of communication between isolated spaces. Furthermore, this black bar looks like the splitscreen indicator common in movie and comic phone conversations. However, in this film, the phone seems to complicate communication - it separates the characters rather than bringing them closer together.
Ambassor and president in isolated spaces within the same frame.
SPOILER AHEAD: When General Jack D. Ripper tries to persuade RAF Capt. Lionel Mandrake of his fluoridation conspiracy theory, Ripper's head is narrowly framed by a doorframe. Soon after, we learn that this is the door to a bathroom in which Ripper's story finally comes to an end. And like arrows in a graphic representation, the guns at the wall all point to the characters' head like a visual reminder that their office is surrounded by attacking soldiers. But these guns may also foreshadow Ripper's bathroom scene.
In both of these shots, only one character looks at the other, there is no eye-contact. In the Ripper scene, Mandrake (left) is nervously messing around with a chewing gum, one of the few recurring props in the film that is not a communication device.

2 comments:

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...

Thanks for the eagle-eyed analysis! It's one thing to beautifully and purposefully compose a shot in animation but live action? Fantastic.
Doctor Strangelove is one my favorite comedies and that it comes from Stanley Kubrick of all people, who also directed one of my favorite horror movies (you know the one) makes it that much more if an interesting film.

Natalie Belton said...

What makes films like Dr. Strangelove so timeless, are how universal their themes about life are. It's the same reason why people still talk about Metropolis, The Godfather, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick again unsurprisingly), etc... We can all relate to the issue of corruption, war, obsession, pride, and so on.