Last Friday I wrote that, in one respect, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is outdated: we no longer talk about our missile gap with the Soviet Union.
In too many other respects, however, this filmic masterpiece feels all too contemporary, especially in the way it reveals how people intermix heightened paranoia, a longing for purity, erotic fantasies of explosive power, and dreams of orgasmic armageddon. Kubrick even shows us that we are strangely in love with our own destruction. How does one learn to stop worrying? Turn your death into the ultimate high.
It’s a mixture that may not seem to make sense, but look how many elements of it we have operating in the U.S. today. Millions of Americans listen daily to the paranoid conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Many of these same listeners long for purity, which they see embodied in unborn fetuses, the Constitution of the founding fathers, and “real” America (which is rural, small town and white). They are in love with the sense of power that they get from guns—as I wrote recently, our gun obsession is practically a sexual love affair—and they imagine being “raptured” into heaven in a spasm of end-of-the-world violence. (According to one characterization of the wildly popular Left Behind novels, “people disappear and things blow up.”)
Now take a look at the movie, starting with the rogue general who is responsible for the nuclear strike that triggers the Soviet doomsday machine and ends life on the planet. Shot from a low angle as he smokes a long and very phallic cigar, General Jack Ripper obsesses over contamination of the water supply. Longing for purity, he rails at America’s “socialist” government for putting fluoride in the drinking water and confines himself to rainwater and grain alcohol.
His obsession with fluids extends also to his sexuality. Terrified of vulnerability, he is traumatized when his first sexual encounter with a woman leaves him weakened. After that, he never allows females to rob him of his “precious bodily fluids.” As he tells his British aide-de-camp, “I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I deny them my essence.”
And if his egghead president Merkin Muffley doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to the Russkies, well, he’ll send America’s missiles himself in a preemptive strike. (Remember, the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq by our cowboy president was also a preemptive strike.) Nor is General Ripper the only figure in the film obsessed with erotic images of explosive power. Take, for instance, General Buck Turgidson, who is all prepared to “blast off” with his mistress when we first see him.
And especially take Major “King” Kong, who in the end sports a protuberance between his legs even more impressive than that of the giant ape to which he owes his nickname. In the ultimate culmination of this strange new love, he rides the bomb in a masturbatory moment, swatting at it with his cowboy hat and shouting “Yee, haw!” His life (and humankind’s) ends in the ultimate orgasm.
I suppose one could say that this scene foreshadows today’s suicide bombers–which makes me wonder whether blowing oneself up fulfills, at least in part, certain sexual fantasies.
Notice, by the way, that, while there’s plenty of sex in the movie, we don’t see reciprocal relations with women–which is to say, there’s no male vulnerability. The movie opens with a lyrical image of suckling, but it is one jet plane fueling another in midair. The one woman is Turgidson’s mistress, the film ends with images of a mineshaft Playboy paradise, and the men in the plane are issued survival kits that include (among other things) prophylactics, three lipsticks, and three pairs of nylon stockings. “Shoot,” says Major Kong, “a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”
Some people who want to save the world and who work in the tradition of the Enlightenment think that being reasonable will save us. Then they wonder why people aren’t heeding rational scientific explanations about global warming or rising gun violence. But when people are prey to fears, or when they fatalistically believe that all hell is going to break loose, Reason doesn’t go very far. Our Jack Rippers threaten to take over the national discourse and we enter the realm of apocalyptic fantasy.
Under apocalyptic fantasies, by the way, I include flooding the country (including college campuses) with guns, doing away with virtually all regulations on business (including food regulations), shutting down the government rather than raise the debt level ceiling, and throwing thousands of federal employees out of work at a time when we are just starting to crawl out of a major recession.
I believe that grown-ups are still in charge of the White House, Congress, and most of America’s courts and state legislatures (except for these ones), so all is not lost. Those other folks, however, are sure making a racket!