‘This Is the War Room!’
The 40th-anniversary special-edition DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove makes fascinating viewing in this tense post-9/11 period, not long after the political and economic collapse of the Soviet empire as a feared global nuclear threat seemed to promise a period of peace and prosperity for the world. Back in 1964, however, there were mixed feelings about this dark comedy-satire-farce concocted by Mr. Kubrick and his co-screenwriters: Terry Southern, who supplied much of the absurdist humor, and Peter George, who supplied much of the straight narrative from his book Red Alert .
Dr. Strangelove waged a close battle with the comparatively escapist My Fair Lady for the New York Film Critics prize, but My Fair Lady won. Similarly, Strangelove was nominated at the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Peter Sellers) and Best Director, and in each instance lost to the nominee from My Fair Lady . The nuclear activists yelled foul, but much of the public was unimpressed with the film, despite the growing furor over the Vietnam War.
Even back then, it was widely known that Mr. Kubrick had scrapped a custard-pie-throwing finale in the War Room because he deemed it too farcical for the gravity of the subject. It was also known at the time that Peter Sellers, who plays three roles in the film, was supposed to also play the Wild West cowboy pilot of the American nuclear bomber that causes the annihilation of the earth’s population. Slim Pickens was chosen for the role instead, and played it to the hilt with the director’s encouragement.
In his perceptive introduction to the DVD, Roger Ebert focuses on the bumptious physical acting by George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, who is given the only mild sex scene in the movie-with a woman definitely not his wife-just before all hell breaks loose. He is only one of the gargoyles in the President’s War Room, presided over by Sellers’ sly take-off on Adlai Stevenson as the President. Sellers is flanked by an anonymous assistant, played mutely with a permanent scowl on his face by Terry Southern, the author of much of the merriment. Sellers is also deployed to play an ex-Nazi scientist who is now a Herman J. Kahn–like nuclear enthusiast. (Mr. Ebert suggests that younger viewers may think of Henry Kissinger instead as the object of derision.) Another version of Kahn was provided by Walter Matthau in a more solemn antinuke movie that same year, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe , which this critic found as unintentionally funny as Strangelove was intentionally funny.
Yet the only out-and-out belly laugh is generated by Keenan Wynn as a hard-as-nails military policeman who refuses to shoot up a Coca-Cola machine for coins to make a public telephone call that may save the world from obliteration because, as he says reverently, “That’s private property.” Most of the time, however, Strangelove audiences-still remembering our brave boys on bomber crews in super-patriotic World War II movies-were uneasy with the straight playing of the sympathetically cast bomber crew, notably James Earl Jones in a very early role as the conscientious bombardier who does everything by the book.
For that matter, the attractively virile Sterling Hayden is a strangely monstrous madman in terms of casting. Though primarily a noir actor after an early pretty-boy period, he was usually sympathetic, even playing doomed noir characters in films like The Asphalt Jungle (1950). To Kubrick’s credit, he kept the bomber scenes comparatively straight to set off the uncontrollable lunacy in the War Room. It remains some slight consolation that the threat expressed in Strangelove 40 years ago has not yet come to pass. The question this film still raises is: Do we have another 40 years?
[ Dr. Strangelove , 1964, 93 min., $19.95.]
It was an amateur mistake, watching the Ultimate Party Collection sober. In my unaltered state, Dazed and Confuse d and Fast Times at Ridgemont High seemed like horror movies about the descent into adulthood. Which is to say: I kept hoping these kids would just pile into their cars and light out like Huck Finn for somewhere unsettled by parents and safely far away-before they lose their virginity, start paying bills and turn into zombies.
There’s just no hope for the teeny-boppers in 1982’s Fast Times . Director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe have actually given us, despite all the wacky fun and the spectacle of Phoebe Cates’ boobs, a deeply conservative, pro-conformity movie. In Mean Girls , the high-school cafeteria is diverse, but at Ridgemont High everybody listens to the same Oingo Boingo song on the same radio station; everybody gives a shit about the big game. Improbably, popularity is a matter of Reaganomics rather than, say, hotness, and the coolest kids are the proto-yuppies with the best jobs on the best side of the best mall.
But then again, Fast Times finds plenty of room for Sean Penn as tasty-wave-riding, coolly buzzed, doin’-fine Jeff Spicoli. Spicoli, like Belushi in Animal House , is a 12-year-old’s idea of an anarchist-loopy, dense and as amiably primitive as Tarzan. Spicoli will wreck your car and disregard posted rules about shoes, shirts and service. He will save Brooke Shields from drowning and then blow all the reward money getting Van Halen to play his birthday party. He’s Chicolini Marx if Chico and his bros were raised within spitting distance of the Santa Monica Pier.
All in all, I prefer Dazed and Confused : On the last day of school, 1976, a bunch of Texas teenagers drive around, haze freshmen, drink beer, smoke up, gossip, flirt, argue, fight, mess up mailboxes, dream about Aerosmith tickets, try desperately to get to second base or third. But like everybody else in a Richard Linklater movie, they will mostly spend the night talking and talking. This is the large-heartedness of Mr. Linklater, a genius filmmaker who’s still as curious as a college freshman about what everybody else might have to say. So he gives his kids piss-funny lines, but also ideas-an embarrassment of ideas-about everything from the design of the dollar bill to misanthropy and McCarthyism to livin’, man, L-I-V-I-N.
[Ultimate Party Collection (Dazed and Confused / Fast Times at Ridgemont High ), $27.98.]
In the last month or so, Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2004 has been floating around cyberspace. (“Check it” at ifilm.com. Respect.) The six-minute clip features America’s favorite white wannabe gangster, Ali G, waxing idiotically to a twentysomething audience, who are in on the joke, and to their parents, who were probably just clued in by their kids beforehand. They all giggle reflexively as he mistakes Harvard for Princeton and remarks that President George Clinton was an alumnus-typical Ali G flubs. But at one point, Mr. Cohen breaks the Andy Kaufman–esque charade to deliver a Jon Stewart–like aside: “By the way, Kofi Annan’s speech is quite like this, tomorrow.”
That’s when you realize why you are not enjoying the speech as much as his popular series, Da Ali G Show . The Harvard video reveals a side of Mr. Cohen-the side that most closely resembles himself, the witty, ironic guy who concocted the character-that’s never seen on the show. And for good reason. Mr. Cohen doesn’t get the big laughs that Ali G does while interviewing, say, an unaware James Lipton or an ignorant Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Instead, he’s just a tepid Saturday Night Live character, funny for about as long as a five-minute skit.
Ali G Indahouse , Mr. Cohen’s attempt to bring his HBO character to film (and now available on DVD), fails for the same reason. (The movie, in which Ali G becomes a member of Parliament, was released in the U.K. in March 2002, but was never released in the States.) He never breaks character-but he’s never as sharp as he is when he has an unassuming real person to play off of. With enough fart and penis jokes to shame even the Farrelly Brothers, the British jokester-whose modus operandi on cable TV is lampooning American culture-proves that he can make a film that’s too low-brow even for his supposedly uncultured across-the-pond neighbors. Perhaps he should just stick to his day job.
[ Ali G Indahouse , 2002, 88 min., $27.90.]
– Jake Brooks