Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Best Movie Ever, Or: How I Learned to Laugh at Nuclear Holocausts, Shudder at My Laughter and Laugh at My Shuddering

I was supposed to wait for Brent, I know. But I'm also supposed to leave for Mumbai in 20 hours, and when I'll next have a computer and internet access, I do not know. So, here it is. My number 1.


I’d heard of Dr. Strangelove before. It was funny. Hilarious even. So, when I was a junior in high school and ready to have a guys night, I agreed with my two buddies (one of whom is co-writing this blog with me, the other of whom is engaged or married to my co-writers ex-girlfriend) that we should watch this movie.

I didn’t last long though.

They were refueling a plane. Then there was a woman in a bikini, and I remember liking that. Then we started talking about something and lost all track of the movie. War room, what? Did they just say that guy’s name was Turgetson? What’s a British guy doing in this movie?

In short, Dr. Strangelove did not grab me at first as a contender for the title best movie ever. And, truth be told, I can’t really remember the second time I ever saw it.

But I do remember watching it again and laughing to myself. And then watching it again. And again. And again. And suddenly it dawned on me: “this is everything I love about movies, and nothing I hate.”

There is no overwrought sentimentality. There is no hackneyed dialogue. There are no unnecessary shots of explosions or breasts or any of the kind of things that executives seem to assume we want.

There is a reflection of human behavior. Fear. Hatred. Malice. Love. Lust. Ego. Pride. All included for the purpose of making the situation—as absurd as it is—as real as it can be.

There is, simultaneously, witty banter (“Shoot…a guy good have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all this stuff”) and smiple, honest, awkwardness of language (“one of our pilots went a little funny in the head…oh, you know…just, a little funny.”)

There are explosions because that’s what the movies about, not glamorous, not slow motion, not “wicked cool” but total and utter annihilation.

There are breasts because it’s part of what leads to natural human behavior.

From the first shot, the audience has to acknowledge a different and divergent tone from almost anything they’ve seen before. Planes, mid-flight being refueled. Nothing particularly remarkable, Kubrick actually took it all from long ignored stock footage. And to have it all set against soft, subtle, almost tinkling melodies sets up a monstrous punch-line.

The cast, though limited in many ways to important men in ties or medals, manages to carry through a sense of humanity and personal connection to the audience in the three leads: Slim Pickens, George C. Scott, and Peter Sellars.

I’m as surprised as anyone that Slim Pickens has been in more movies on my list than Spencer Tracy, and I’ve already mentioned how brilliant George C. Scott is, so let me say this about Peter Sellars.

For every two bit, fart joke comedy that you see in the theaters this year, there is a Peter Sellars role that out strips it by a mile. For every lame innuendo and crass characterization, there is a Peter Sellars gag that will knock you out. And suddenly, in this movie, the jokes and easy humor and natural bumbling charm that are so palpable in the Pink Panther movies give way to a series of characters simultaneously absurd and familiar.

Any time I have to deal with a frustrating bureaucrat (which in India is more often than you’d think) I nearly say: “listen, colonel Bat Guano, if that is your real name.” Any time I feel awkward on the phone I nearly say: “Of course I like to talk to you Dimitri. This is just a call to say hello.” Any time my boss is fishing for an idea, I nearly say “mine fuehrer! I have a plan!” Sellars captures all of this in a mere line here, or a line there, in a cocked eyebrow or a nervous shifting of his weight.

And when it all comes to an end, with the iconic image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb to oblivion, and George C. Scott railing about “the mine shaft gap!” you’re left not really laughing so much as smiling, sighing and thinking to yourself: “damn, how close was that to really happening?”

It’s not just the 60’s and the red phone and fingers on switches. It’s today and orange alerts and…well…fingers on switches. It’s not just a thing to laugh at because it’s ridiculous, it’s a thing to laugh at because, if you don’t, you may become ridiculously involved in the fear and forget to laugh.
It’s not just a movie of it’s time, or a movie of it’s place, but it’s something that people can feel at any time, in any cultural context. And it’s a movie that can always, make you laugh.

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