Saturday, March 24, 2018

Doomsday Machine: Same As It Ever Was . . . .

Dr. Strangelove . . . Strangelove . . . Strangelove . . .

We've got to try a thousand different ways of getting people to wake up to the danger posed by nuclear weapons, and to do something about it.

I was reminded of the fact that no one is in possession of the one solution today while reading Joan Didion's essays in the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I come across a long riff on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

Didion is loaded for bear on the perceived presumptuousness of auteurs ("Ask what [filmmakers] plan to do with their absolute freedom, with their chance to make a personal statement, and they will pick an 'issue,' a 'problem.' The 'issues' they pick are generally no longer real issues . . . . ") and films that failed to hold her attention ("Dr. Strangelove was essentially a one-line gag, having to do with the difference between all other wars and nuclear war"), and in this essay dated 1964 I can't help suspecting that she wrote it fresh from a screening of Kubrick's film, which was released that year.

By the time George Scott had said "I think I'll mosey on over to the War Room" and Sterling Hayden had said "Looks like we got ourselves a shootin' war" and the SAC bomber had begun heading for its Soviet targets to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," Kubrick had already developed a full fugue upon the theme, and should have started counting the minutes until it would begin to pall. (Picador edition, p. 226-7)

The essay in which this review appears is called, "I Can't Get That Monster out of My Mind," and it is notable that the "monster" Didion is referring to is the Hollywood establishment, the alleged-by-some-to-be-inhibiting studio system. In other words: maybe she's not giving Kubrick's art a chance because she's not really focused on how challenging the issue of nuclear weapons really is.

And maybe I'm just touchy because I watched Dr. Strangelove again a few weeks ago, and thought, "My God, what more could we have asked for? Why, in 2018, do we still need to have a "Virtual Roundtable on Presidential First Use of Nuclear Weapons," why does the Senate Foreign Relations Committee still need to hold hearings on the nuclear weapon command structure? Kubrick laid it all out for us in 1964!"

And don't just take my word for it: Daniel Ellsberg describes seeing Dr. Strangelove with a colleague when it first came out in 1964:

We came out into the afternoon sunlight, dazed by the light and the film, both agreeing that what we had just seen was, essentially, a documentary. (We didn't yet know -- nor did SAC -- that existing strategic operational plans, whether for first strike or retaliation, constituted a literal Doomsday Machine, as in the film.) (The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, p. 65))

This was written at a time when Ellsberg was investigating in minute detail exactly the kind of command issues for nuclear bomb delivery that are the material of Dr. Strangelove.

We couldn't ask for it to be much more explicit or obvious.

So: what's it gonna take? What next? What is to be done?

Obviously, we need to try the thousand-and-first way of getting people to wake up to the danger posed by nuclear weapons, and to do something about it.

For my part, I'm working on a screenplay about a guy working on a screenplay about the dangers of nuclear weapons and he goes to see a retired nuclear planner and is told that the story has already been told with perfect precision by Dr. Strangelove and then . . . .

Please share this post . . . .