• Babalugats

    I was born the year before the Berlin Wall fell, and I’ve never shared the same anxieties over nuclear weapons that the older generations felt. These weapons were the things that kept the Cold War cold. Sure, there was always a danger of some madman, a Saddam Hussein or a Kim Jong Il, getting their hands on one, but I could look down the road and see a future no other people in all of human history could see. An end to war. A world in which no country could possibly gain anything from warfare, and so no country would ever engage in it.

    I don’t see that future any longer. This was my great disillusionment in the face of Trump’s election. I was not surprised to learn that my countrymen are racist, sexist, and gullible. I’m not that sort of optimist. But I thought, if nothing else, we all shared some universal survival instinct. I don’t know how anyone could vote for someone who is so cavalier about using nuclear weapons. How he can be supported by his party, and by people high up within the government and the military. How could we have forgotten the danger of these things so soon? There are still survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki walking this earth. There are people who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis and then voted for Donald Trump. I can’t wrap my head around it. Now I don’t expect Trump to blow up the world, but he might. And if America can’t keep its nuclear arsenal out of the hands of men like Trump, eventually someone, somewhere is going to use these things. It’s inevitable.

    But what do you all think? Is the species doomed? And if we are, where we ever really worth saving at all?

    • When I wrote up Strangelove, I said that it hasn’t become dated as Fail-Safe has, because it’s really not about nuclear war but about the madness that leads to it. Get rid of all the bombs you want, that’s a constant in humanity and it’s not going away. (That last part is a theme of so many of Kubrick’s films; people are never more inventive than finding ways to fuck themselves up.)

      Are we doomed? We might be; it’s only the progressive spirit that assumes that we can keep going forever. (I like the double meaning of “secular” here, of “apart from God” and “continually increasing.”) Whether we are or not, I’ll keep fighting for what I love; either we save the world or we go down swinging. We only get to choose our actions, not the outcome.

      By the way, I agree with you on Fail-Safe: that is one damned effective, stripped-down horrorshow. I’d read the novel as a young ‘un and stayed up late one night (like 2am late) to watch the movie. Fucked me right up, that did. Well done on both.

      • Babalugats

        Thank you. And may I say, your essay was a hell of an act to follow. A wiser man wouldn’t have tried it.

        Fail-Safe is unique among horror films in that it really wants to horrify you. Not entertain you, not creep you out, not walk you to the edge of horror and pull you back. But to deeply, truly horrify you so that you leave the theater changed. It’s an absolutely ruthless film.

        It’s funny the ways that it’s become dated. The technology still seems pretty accurate. The movie’s a touch speechy, but still feels natural considering the circumstances. But this is so obviously a movie made before 9/11. The idea that you could destroy New York, and have any idea of what your culture would be in the morning. “What do we say to the dead?” Fonda asks, and I thought, “the dead are the least of your problems now.” There is a momentum to history, and Fonda’s a fool for thinking he hold it back.

        Strangelove seems to be getting less and less dated every time I see it. It feels like it’s been sitting there waiting for us all to catch up. I’ve been toying with the idea that every era of American politics has a single satirical masterpiece. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington for the FDR era. Burn After Reading(?) for the post-war era. And Dr. Strangelove for the post-Trump era. Haven’t hammered it all out yet.

        As for the species, I always knew the Earth wouldn’t last forever. That Sun’s gonna go out one day, and it’s going to be a hell of a job building a new one. But I never expected us to go looking for extinction. It’s the same way that I don’t expect to live forever, but do expect to make it to next Tuesday. And if I don’t, I want there to be a damn good reason I didn’t. I guess that’s just my pride talking, though. Nobody ever promised is this life was going to make sense.

        • Fail-Safe is unique among horror films in that it really wants to horrify you. Not entertain you, not creep you out, not walk you to the edge of horror and pull you back. But to deeply, truly horrify you so that you leave the theater changed. It’s an absolutely ruthless film.

          Threads: Hold my beer.

        • Conor Malcolm Crockford

          Reading this essay reminded me of how vital Strangelove
          is post election. The suggestion of the film that we are not rational and that our flaws and impulses will destroy us has been carried out already in reality. Our mistake was believing otherwise.

    • Over here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn (opposition leader and occasional spark of hope in a world gone mad) was widely portrayed as a “danger to the nation” for refusing to condone the use of nuclear weapons. It’s absolutely baffling to me that a reluctance to end the world is seen as a weakness in this political climate. So yeah, we’re doomed.

      • Conor Malcolm Crockford

        Corbyn is kind of delightful in how his sane, reasonable arguments – like how Western foreign policy may be spurring on terrorist attacks – are condemned as crazy and it really shows how fucked up neoliberal politics have become. The Overton window is absurdly small.

        • He’s not perfect, but he’s recognisably human, which puts him head and shoulders above nearly every other politician I’ve encountered in my adult life.

    • Dingle Jells Jells Dingle

      If we’re doomed, I think it’s to foolishness more than malice, that’s for sure. But for what it’s worth, if I can’t come up with many scenarios that involve a military takeover of this country, one of the scenarios I can dream up – that we would be utterly helpless to stop – would be an order for a nuclear strike that the military leadership of the day decided was unjustifiable. We have made it this far on luck, no doubt–but if I’m cynical about the game and the players in it, I have not given up hope for the species by a long shot.

      As for your second question, my answer is certainly informed by my religious beliefs but I am 100% convinced we’re worth saving. If there’s any absolute justice waiting for us on the other side, we’ll have some hard questions to answer for sure. But we’re still worth trying to save.

    • Drunk On EggNogpoleon

      Personally speaking, since the election of Trump, I no longer see the world in terms of “we”. There’s me, and then there’s the rest of you, and I’m taking you all on a case-by-case basis and not assuming anything anymore, and especially not assuming any kind of shared morality. “We” did not forget anything, they forgot, or never knew, or knew but didn’t care, and now I have to deal with them, and the best I can hope for is other people dealing with them too (and even then I have no expectation that they stay allies). Every question you ask here (including the ones you imply) is irrelevant; the real question is, what are you going to do about them?

      I wrote and rewrote this a lot and I was worried about coming off as a tool, but looking at it this really is what I believe.

      • Babalugats

        This is a bit harder for me as an American. I’ve got friends and family who voted for Trump, and I’m not willing to write them off as the enemy. I think the outlook you’re describing is dangerous (although some of this is just the way our personalities lean. That mix of arrogance and cynicism is something I fall into very easily and having compassion and respect for people who disagree with me is very difficult. I imagine we’re operating from different baselines here). But this kind of thinking is dangerous. Not everyone who voted for Trump is stupid or evil, and his election should be a reminder of the fragility of our own intellectual and moral standing. It’s very easy to be wrong about things, and very difficult to realize it when you are.

        I’m not worried about individuals here, I’m worried about systems of behavior. We depend on them every day for our survival. If not enough of us are acting rationally or morally this whole place goes up.

        I guess my question is what can I do? And what should I do? You can’t kill all the Republicans, there’s too many of them. I’m not so naive to believe I wield any real political power. My vote isn’t turning any elections, and nobody’s listening to any of my ideas about restructuring the government. If Democracy is not a sufficient check against nuclear war, what can any of us do about that. Do you know of a better system? Or do we all just keep marching towards our own destruction?

        As an aside, this all reads very contentious, but that’s the nature of the conversation. What I’m saying, I say with respect, and what you’ve said I find very interesting. Don’t worry about offending me, and please forgive me if I step out of line.

        • Drunk On EggNogpoleon

          (I’m gonna open by by acknowledging and appreciating your last paragraph and saying I’m feeling and approaching this the same way, especially the final line. I’m not trying to turn you to my way of thinking, and I’m definitely not trying to own you into submission, I’m just laying out my worldview.)

          To be clear, I’m not writing off these people as the enemy, and I’m not saying don’t have compassion or respect for people, I’m saying I don’t take responsibility for other people’s actions anymore. You’re right that not all people who voted for Trump are stupid or evil, but voting for Trump is a stupid and evil act, one that more people than I ever could have conceived of are capable of, or capable of supporting; I’m not going out of my way to assume every stranger I meet is a Trump voter (or a sexual predator, or someone who talks at the theatre) but I have to prepare myself for the possibility.

          You’re also right that we’re probably coming from different baselines – I’m definitely not incapable of arrogance or cynicism, but five years ago I definitely would have found my attitude now arrogant and cynical, but I see it as a confidence in my ability to tell right from wrong (and to see where I crossed over into wrong and can adjust my behaviour), and an ability to see exactly how far my reach extends, and to see how much good I can do from here.

          (For example, if this election has taught me anything, it’s how powerful voting can be)

          You say you’re not worried about individuals, but that’s the scale I operate on; the systems we operate in affect me a lot more than I affect them. You start this off saying you come from it as an American; coming from it as an Australian, there’s a non-zero possibility I might die in a nuclear holocaust because of an election I had no say in. You say my worldview is dangerous, and I can see where you’re coming from, but it’s also a survival mechanism and it’s the only way I can live in this world and not just walk into the sea.

          • Babalugats

            I think I misunderstood your initial point. You seemed to be advocating an us-vs-them, good people/bad people, worldview, which is exactly the kind of thinking the produced Donald Trump in the first place. Not only in his racism and xenophobia, but also the partisan loyalties that led people to vote for him even when they didn’t like, trust, or agree with him. We’re in an odd place where hyper-partisanship might destroy the earth, and the only solution anyone can come up with is to be even more hyper-partisan. But you’re saying you don’t take responsibility for other people’s actions, which never even occurred to me. We’re definitely starting from different baselines here. I can’t even remember the last time I assumed that everyone else shared my morality (growing up in the nation’s murder capital will do that to you). I assume most people are mostly motivated by their own self interest, and this election they didn’t even manage that.

            When I say “we,” it’s because these are decisions that we must make collectively, and that we will continue to make even after I’m gone. (Assuming the world lasts that long). And I think it is important to recognize these flaws as an inseparable part of humanity and not as some outside group that can be purged from the culture. And this is what I mean when I say I’m interested in systems and not individuals. I’m not surprised that voters are racist, sexist, or gullible. I’m not surprised by Donald Trump’s carelessness, nor his bloodlust, nor his short sightedness. He is not the first of his kind, and he won’t be the last. These are problems we’ll never be rid of. And so we must build a system where having bad leaders, and bad voters, doesn’t mean the end of the world. Or else it will mean the end of the world.

            Of course this is specifically about nuclear weapons, in most other areas I share your philosophy of practical goals on a level you can actually impact. But somebody’s got to fix this mess, and fast. And I suddenly feel like the only adult left in my country.

  • Miller

    “This is madness, and you can’t meet madness with reason. You can’t tell stories about the good, wise men who are busying themselves with the destruction of the planet.”

    Kubrick never pretending to even try to tell this story otherwise is so important. Everything is insane from the beginning, there’s no way to be let off the hook by a bad decision or a mistake — we own this and owned it the minute we created the bomb.

    • Babalugats

      When we tested the first H-bomb there was a very really concern that it would ignite the atmosphere and cause a mass extinction. We did it anyway, and that had been the game ever sense. Everything to lose, nothing to gain. The smartest people in the world working towards the stupidest goal imaginable.

    • Conor Malcolm Crockford

      This is, on a political note, why I usually don’t give a damn about the “reasoning” behind either the atomic bomb or the ’62 missile crisis. I don’t really care if Kennedy and Khruschev stopped it all, it still came far too close to happening and that they played with millions of lives like that is insane. (I don’t really trust authority, can you tell?)

      • Miller

        I think the reasoning is interesting if only because it’s the world we live in. I don’t particularly care for chess but if I was trapped on some giant chessboard (perhaps I’ve been zapped into a 60s Batman comic) I would very much like to know the rules and behaviors governing what could kill me at any minute, even if it’s unlikely I can stop it.

        • Conor Malcolm Crockford

          Oh no, I’m not saying forget the history, just don’t venerate Kennedy and Khruschev for stopping a nuclear war that they almost started either.

  • Son of Griff

    Fantastic assessment.of these films, their choices, and their historical context. I like your take on Lumet’s lighting and art design concepts. These are consistent in his work and should be evaluated more consistently. Your dead on right about FAIL SAFE’s casting as well.

    STRANGELOVE marks the emergence of Stanley Kubrick as the towering independent voice of English language cinema. it’s the first movie that embraces the absurdism of the anti-technocratic mindset that was perculating up through liberal culture at the time..

    • Babalugats

      Lumet’s commentary on Fail-Safe is a really excellent resource. He goes into a lot of technical detail about his lighting and camera setups. Something I found particularly interesting; there’s a pan around Henry Fonda when he makes his decision. It’s a very simple camera move. Lumet says that every single other shot of Fonda exists to set up this pan. The space is limiting his options so severely, and he needs to make this move feel impactful, so he has to withhold it for the rest of the film.

      Lumet also just comes off as a remarkably humble and generous man. He seems to have a real admiration for the people he worked with, he takes a lot of pride in the future successes of his actors, and although he’s not disparaging of his work, he’s critical of it in a way that I almost never hear in commentaries. He mentions, for example, that the scenes setting up the characters are unnecessary and ought to have been cut, which is true. Kubrick was the better filmmaker and he’s become a model for a lot of younger artists. I think we’d be better off if more people tried to emulate Lumet.

      And thank you.

      • On the Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead commentary, Lumet talks about the importance of heightened shots and camera moves: use them, but sparingly. His films are always slightly past reality, slightly heightened (he doesn’t push geometrical compositions as far as Frankenheimer), with one or two moments where he just cuts loose. In Fail-Safe, even more than the ending, it’s the moment when SAC gets bomber pilot Grady’s wife on the line: on “no matter what you hear, keep receiving,” Lumet just slams the camera forward and jump-cuts between all the characters. It’s pure cinematic violence, and he only does it once. (Fincher in Zodiac and McTiernan in The Hunt for Red October both pull similar moves, and just as effectively.)

        • Babalugats

          Lumet says that he doesn’t like when people talk about his technique because that means it’s drawing attention from the film, that it ought to be invisible (he then goes into more technical detail than any commentary I’ve ever listened to, because he’s a born teacher and a great human being). I don’t entirely agree with him, but when this approach works, like it does here and in the other films you mention, it can completely dissolve the space between the audience and the story. It’s all about discipline. Using exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. Lumet, above all else, was a precise filmmaker.

          Also since you bring it up, I’ve been describing this movie as “an examination of the consequences of a man hanging up on his wife” and I think that gets to the heart of it just as much as any of the film’s politics. A man has certain obligations, as a President, a pilot, a husband. To put the machine ahead of those obligations is to put your soul at hazard.

      • Son of Griff

        Lumet’s theater background allowed for an understanding of the process of acting that later generations of film school grads have had problems adapting to. His appreciation for actors stems from this respect given to the trade. As you point out, he uses Fonda’s ability to draw the audience’s empathy really well, so he doesn’t need a lot of backstory to draw in the viewer. This was a huge problem with the book too, as I recall.

      • The Ploughman

        1) This is great and I enjoyed reading it very much, from my hastily constructed underground bunker.

        2) If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Lument’s book Making Movies, which is something like a commentary track for his career.

  • BurgundySuit

    Wanna be as cool as Babalu? Then sign up for Year of the Month (from an idea by Elizabeth Lerner)!

    Here’s some of your possible topics:
    https://letterboxd.com/films/year/1964/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_in_music
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_in_literature

    And here’s who’s covering them!
    NO DATE: clytie: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
    Dec 6th: scb0212: The Up Series
    Dec 7th: Belated Comebacker: A Hard Day’s Night
    Dec 8th: Gillianren: The Three Lives of Thomasina
    Dec 9th: John Bruni: The Red Desert
    Dec 11th: Son of Griff: Marnie
    Dec 12th: Mr. Apollo: The Special Friendship
    Dec 15th: Anthony Pizzo: Mary Poppins
    Dec 16th: Burgundysuit: Chartbusting!
    Dec 17th: Conor Malcolm Crockford: Band of Outsiders
    Dec 18th: Joseph Finn: Viva Las Vegas
    Dec 19th: Pico: Kwaidan
    Dec 23rd: Jacob Thomas Klemmer: The Naked Kiss
    Dec 25th: BurgundySuit: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
    Dec 28th: Jacob Thomas Klemmer: Woman in the Dunes
    Dec 29th: Clytie: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

    • Belated Comebacker

      Hi there!

      So once again, I am sorry to say that I did not get around to watching “A Hard Days” night yet, and have vastly overestimated my free time to do so. Any chance you could spike it back to next week or something? I suspect I’ll be able to see it on December 7 and write up an essay over this coming weekend.

      • BurgundySuit

        On it! How does the 13th sound?

        • Belated Comebacker

          Works for me! (Thank you again for your patience)

  • Great essay. Nuclear weapons and the Cold War are so hard to wrap my head around. I was born in 1987, so I have a sliver of a memory of it (most distinct memory: starting kindergarten in 1992, and having the teacher explain that the big country on the map doesn’t exist anymore). But the thought that we were playing Russian Roulette with the entire human race – I can’t grasp that intuitively.

    I like these videos that try to describe the scope & scale of our nuclear fascination. Maybe these help.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLCF7vPanrY

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFiBXFFzT5c

  • pico

    I’d almost like to see a film that splits the difference between these two approaches: a serious look at two governments facing mutual catastrophe, where – best intentions or not – the absurdities of the system has promoted some genuine sociopaths to the highest decision-making posts. Like if you filmed Fail Safe as is but switched out Matthau for Scott’s Turdgidson. I feel like that’d be the closest to “reality,” sad as it is.

    • Babalugats

      In The Loop is probably the closest to that. Combining the versimitude of Fail-Safe with the cynicism of Dr. Strangelove. It’s a tough thing to pull off. Watching shortsighted idiots wielding massive amounts of power can be pretty frustrating and pretty demoralizing. It’s why nobody watches C-SPAN.

      • pico

        That’s a good point. I like Dr. Strangelove but I like it very much at-a-remove, whereas In the Loop made me sick to my stomach (it’s a great movie and very funny, but somehow even more cynical than Kubrick, really).

      • Belated Comebacker

        Many people have tried to make political satires on par with what Kubrick accomplished with “Dr. Strangelove.” For me, it was never even close: Armando Iannucci is probably one of the greats (which is why it’s all the more frustrating I can’t see “The Death of Stalin” yet.)

  • Conor Malcolm Crockford

    Excellent piece, especially the ending. I watched the movie when I was a kid and it had the perfect mix of cheerful irrelevance (perfect for a boy who’d loved Monty Python) and chilling truth. It’s the ultimate anarchist movie in its flagrant disrespect for all of authority and state and its belief that our world leaders are either incompetent or evil, obsessed with their own sexual neuroses and so myopic that they have no interest in the rest of humanity (The Thick Of It is brought to mind, when Hugh laments how awful his constituents are). I instantly got the ending and it was a total delight to me: its the end of everything and maybe thats for the best.

  • Dingle Jells Jells Dingle

    I must confess a degree of impatience with the “warhungry moron general” cliche. I know they’re out there, sure, but we’ve seen example after example of generals who were smart, pragmatic and clear-minded (if hard-nosed). War, after all, is a supremely unforgiving business; the military gains nothing and risks much by promoting guns-first idiots. Schwarzkopf, Powell, McChrystal and Petraeus all had flaws, but none of them were bloodthirsty morons–and yet this stereotype remains perniciously popular. (The latter two are best known for their respective falls from grace, but they were both noted for less violent approaches to warfare, during their careers, and even at their worst they were both clearly intelligent, capable individuals.)

    I’d be more open to it if the idea being put forward was that it only took one General Ripper to ruin everything, but characters like Gen. Turgidson seem to exist as a Hollywood generalization of all generals everywhere, to hear Hollywood types discuss it. It’s infuriating, because the deeds of the men themselves are on clear display for those who would simply go look at it. And frankly, I respect any given general a hell of a lot more than any given movie director, script writer or what have you. They accomplished a greater, harder task than to make a movie simply to have reached that office.

    Anyway, great write-up about some terrifying stuff!

    • Ripper is a riff on Curtis LeMay, who orchestrated the firebombing of Japan in WWII, wanted to nuke the Soviets ASAP, and was George Wallace’s running mate in ’64 & ’68. While generals are more sober than people usually realize, LeMay is that cliche come alive. (I think being only a decade removed from MacArthur wanting to nuke China influenced it, too).

      • Dingle Jells Jells Dingle

        I should’ve clarified: the military certainly has had elements that worked that way in the past. LeMay was a lunatic, and if Patton really was a genius, he was also more than slightly insane, too. (Just stop referring to yourself as a “god of war” at the very least, okay?) It’s safe to say that MacArthur – good old Dugout Doug – was not very high on my list of greatest generals, either. But when people start talking about how it’s working that way now, I get frustrated for the reasons I listed.

    • Babalugats

      Fail-Safe actually reverses this dynamic, with its highest general advocating disarmament while its civilian advisor pushes an all out first strike.

      I think it’s important to remember the political context of when these films were made. There was a lot more tension between the military and political establishments, and there were plenty of people high up in the military who were advocating the use of these weapons.

      On a broader note, I think we all kind of overshoot our feelings on the military. I’m very uncomfortable with the outright worship of the military, that I see in much of our culture. But that worship is largely a response to people calling soldiers baby killers and generals mass murdering buffoons. It can be hard to break free of that spiral.

      • Dingle Jells Jells Dingle

        Yes. I should’ve been more respectful of the historical circumstances under discussion in my post, because yeah LeMay, wow. The issue in general strikes a nerve with me, though. That said, I agree about open adulation of the military, too. It’s an ugly necessity that they exist, and our goal should always be that they have as little to do as possible.

  • silverwheel

    I couldn’t resist.

    “[Jones], on the other hand, has always taken the long view of humanity. He has no problem imagining the end of civilization, but he can’t imagine the end of people. And wherever there are survivors there to will be pride, greed, hatred, sexism, abuse, irrationality, mindless destructive competition, and every other flaw that we’ve carried with us since the beginning of time.”
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2981ed7e19bdd78e9bcfdf0672178d45a304b4c8858e1cd93584b39ec63c894f.jpg

    • Babalugats

      This makes the whole essay worthwhile.