Dr. Strangelove Essay, Research Paper
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb opens with a slow tracking shot of a B-52 nuclear bomber refueling over an ocean. This process, by which another plane tethers itself to the top of the bomber, is very sexual in nature, showing two planes in mid air seemingly involved in sexual foreplay. Immediately following is a shot of the phallic-like nose of the refueling plane. This theme of sexuality and the power associated with it is one that runs from beginning to end and is essential when depicting the traditional male dominated arena of war.
The first and most obvious example of these sexual ideas is introduced when we meet Commander Jack D. Ripper, named after an English sexual psychopathic killer, which, we will discover later is quite fitting. In his office, Commander Ripper is usually shot in high contrast lighting. This lighting effect is largely used for tragedies and melodramas and shows fear, evil, and the unknown, all of which Commander Ripper embodies. Ripper’s office, where all of his action takes place, is a wealth of interesting sexual connotations and figures. First, Ripper’s cigar, a constant prop throughout the film whenever we see him, is obviously a sexual device used to show the power of this man and how he alone holds the fate of the world in his hands. During these “cigar” shots Ripper is filmed from a very low angle, again to show his importance and to make us, the viewer, feel insecure and dominated.
Another recurrent theme in Ripper’s office is that of the gun, a very phallic and powerful image in itself. Ripper and his subordinate Mandrake, an English officer named for a plant root believed to increase fertility, are in Ripper’s office, where there are a number of guns in a large glass case in the background, lighted to underscore Ripper’s supremecy over the English exchange officer. Later, when Ripper’s base is under attack, Mandrake is enlisted to help insert ammunition into Ripper’s extremely large gun (insert smirk here). Ripper also blames his sexual inadequacy on the adversarial Russians’ conspiracy:
“I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love…Yes, 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, er, women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake…but I do deny them my essence.”
Overall, Ripper is the sexual tool of the film. With his large cigars and even larger guns, he is the power behind this nuclear operation and cannot be stopped by anyone but himself, which is eventually shown when he kills himself.
The next major locale is that of the war room. The opening shot is high-angle through a ring of lights that covers the room. The high-angle is used to show powerlessness and reduces the importance of the men seated inside. Traditionally, a circular image, as with the lights, is a symbol of life, togetherness, and rejuvenation. But because this is a black comedy, Kubrick uses the image for its opposite meaning. There is certainly no rejuvenation of life here, as it is a war room, where peoples’ lives are decided in an instant without their knowledge. As far as togetherness, this too is of an ironic nature since the men in this room are more prone to arguing than coming together to solve their problems, most notably the President and Buck Turgidson (dissection of his name reveals a male animal or stud, and turgid, meaning swollen). Again, as in Ripper’s office, a lot of high contrast lighting is used to illuminate the true evil of these men deciding the world’s fate. Another interesting lighting technique here is that of the “halo”. Almost every man in the circle at the table is shown with a sort of bright light coming down upon him. This angelic lighting design usually shows someone who is good or giving, but again, this is a black comedy and is used instead to show how these people may view themselves as god-like, which of course they are since they hold the world’s fate in their hands. In keeping with the idea of power in the war room Gen. Turgidson is shown very often in power shots, or low angle close-ups, emphasizing his sense of control and giving us an intimation of his insanity. The President, Merkin Muffley on the other hand is given none of these, mostly because the nature of his character is that of an ineffectual feminine persona evident in his name. Merkin has been used as a slang term for female pubic hair and Muffley used as a term for a pubic hair wig. These terms describe him as a very female subservient, especially when speaking with Turgisdon and with the leader of Russia over the phone. He comes across as a “wimp” who will do anything to stop this nuclear onslaught with Russia. Merkin is frequently shot between two nameless people, again showing his insignificance and showing the unimportance of the others at the table besides himself, Turgidson, and the Ambassador of Russia.
The Ambassador, who is admitted despite Turgidson’s opposition to the “serious breach of security…he’ll see everything. He’ll see the Big Board!” is another problem altogether. When he first enters, he is shown perusing a huge table filled with food, and the lighting dynamic for him is very high contrast, the recurring theme of power. The Ambassador has power over every man in the room since what he tells the leader of Russia is of the utmost importance. The theme of sexuality arises again, but this time more blatantly, but still in keeping with the spirit of the film. The Ambassador places a call to his leader to inform him of the problem at hand, an impending nuclear war. Initially the Premier is unavailable because he is “a man of the people, but he is also a man, if you follow my meaning.” The leader of Russia is tracked down to a brothel in Moscow and is quite drunk when President Muffley finally is able to speak with him. We never see or hear the Russian Premier, but given the conversation between the President and the Premier, the idea that Merkin is a small, subservient man is reinforced.
Another major component of the war room is that of the “big board”. The boards, lining the room on all sides, are filled with geometrical designs, probably to lend a feel of uneasiness and confusion. A great deal of attention has also been paid to the lights on these boards, most notably the triangles that represent the primary targets of the nuclear attack planes. These triangles are also representative of the conflict and drama that are generated by the inherent nature of the triad. In recent history triangles we also a symbol of homosexuality in Nazi Germany, labeling deviancy that was slated for annihilation. The squares on the other hand, showing the secondary targets, are usually a sign of togetherness or completion. Again, playing into the black comedy idea, these squares are the completion of the mission but by no means represent togetherness, rather the destruction of something. Another note on the big boards, which I do not fully understand, is that the dots representing a plane’s flight path only move when someone is looking at them directly or discussing them. Other than that they are motionless. This could possibly have to do with the concept that nothing happens unless someone is watching. When a tree falls unobserved in a forest, does it make a sound?
Finally, we are introduced to Dr. Strangelove. He is a small physically handicapped man, but by no means mentally challenged. He is the ultimate brain behind the nuclear mission and the authority on the Doomsday machine that the Russians possess. Because of his handicap, Dr. Stangelove is in a wheelchair, an element we might associate with someone who is weak and powerless. Kubrick uses this idea to toy with us, and in the following scenes, the Doctor is shown in another light. First, he is always filmed from a low angle, giving the viewer the impression that we are on the same level as him. Later, he is filmed again from an even lower angle, to show his power and intelligence. Another interesting component of the Doctor is his Nazi-like attitude and mannerisms. From a little research I have learned that Strangelove’s original name was Merkwuerdigich-liebe, literally meaning “strange love” and that he was an ex-Nazi “kraut” who changed his name when he immigrated after World War Two. His Nazi ideals are also essential to his plan in case the Doomsday machine is activated. Suddenly his wheelchair rolls into the light, getting the complete attention of the viewer and the military personnel present in the war. He proposes that within a number of mine shafts throughout the country we can shelter and protect several hundred thousand people, who will be selected for their “youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence and cross-section of necessary skills”. He also notes that there will be ten women to every man, another sexual idea that everyone is pleased with and that excites him as well. Apparently the idea of selective breeding is a great aphrodisiac for the Doctor. This is the Doctor’s idea of “strange love”, a loveless, assembly line of mechanical sex to further the human race genetically. To reinforce this insane Nazi ideology, the Doctor shouts out “Mein Fuehrer!” unwittingly.
The most important symbolic aspect of the Doctor, I believe, is his robotic right hand. This seems to represent some sort of uncontrollable need he has to see the world end and his own uncontrollable nature, especially when he begins to strangle himself with it. In addition, his hand also, periodically rises up quickly in a Nazi salute. With a lot of high contrast lighting and low angle shots, undoubtedly the man is a psychotic, and the way in which he is filmed reinforces this.
In the end, the Doomsday machine is detonated and the world is destroyed. We see horrific images of a series of nuclear explosions, which I have learned, were from unclassified footage of the Trinity test of 1945 and the Bikini Island tests. The world seems to be annihilated in endless “orgasms” of death and destruction creating nuclear fallout the world over. I suppose Ripper, had he still been alive, Dr. Strangelove, and Buck Turgidson, have all “gotten their rocks off.”