And Sellers plays the repressed social engineer Strangelove, the timid Merkin Muffley, and the persevering Mandrake -- all with mechanical precision. Kubrick's unflinching camera acts as a character, too, slyly observing the exposition of humanity in all its grimly humorous glory.
This film belongs to a culture that has rejected the status quo -- the quaint picturesque comedies of the 1940s and 1950s; it belongs to a culture that is bordering on nihilism, anarchy, revolution -- anything that will help it to get away from the culture that has brought us the faceless, nameless idiots running the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. The film offers no solutions -- it only asks us to present ourselves to world with fresh eyes, a pure soul able and willing to laugh at its human foibles and failings, and begin to meditate upon a new direction, a new solution perhaps to the problem of nuclear proliferation. It even suggests that there is no answer -- at least, no political answer to the Cold War fears that generated the framework of the film.
Dr. Strangelove is not likely to be funny to everyone. As Bergson states, in order to laugh, one must possess a kind of indifference. I have suggested that the indifference must be a kind of holy indifference rather than an earthly indifference. An earthly indifference is not likely to find humor in the comedy of man anymore than an unstable soul who cannot take a moment to see how he fits into the whole of society. But holy indifference allows one to see things in their proper place, allows one to observe himself and those around him with a steady detachment that keeps him from becoming overwhelmed by the drama, yet allows him to assist in the communal trials of social life. One must be more than indifferent in order to get the supreme joke: he must be a saint, happy even when witnessing the farce of low types attempting to be big men (as they do in Dr. Strangelove).
The target of the film is, of course, the war hawks mirrored by Ripper, Turgidson, the Soviet Ambassador, and others. Ripper represents the stolid, overwrought neoconservative taxed beyond his means by an undisciplined imagination. He is obsessed with water conspiracies and the loss of his "essence" through sexual intercourse; the reality is that he has no sense of his essence whatsoever -- which is why he is perfectly comfortable sending a squadron of bombers to blow up the world before he blows his own head off. Mandrake represents the typical diplomatic officer who very carefully navigates the minefield of Ripper's emotions to retrieve the data needed to halt the bombing. Muffley represents the weak and useless world leader. Turgidson represents the military man who lives in awe of military might and strategy but is, sadly, a boy not a man. Strangelove represents the repressed Id, which can no longer repress itself. Each of these is a kind of cultural stereotype. At moments, their seriousness forces the audience to take a big gulp, as when Ripper shoots himself, or as violence breaks out on the American base. But the comedy is essentially crafted to provoke the boundaries that Americans have set up in their own intellects. It is meant to posit questions about (if we have it) an unfailing devotion to and faith in American foreign policy and those behind it.
Kubrick and Allen: Two Different Types of Comedy
Woody Allen's comedies deal with romantic love; Kubrick's with socio-political problems. Allen's comedies are focused on the differences between the sexes, the failure of modern-day couples to work through their problems. Some are more light-hearted and hopeful than others (Broadway Danny Rose, for example, is Allen at his romantic best: he plays the bumbling talent agent, Mia Farrow plays the love interest who almost gets him killed, who causes him to lose his biggest act, and who breaks his heart -- yet humbly returns to him in the end to be forgiven, embraced, and absolved). Kubrick is not interested in absolution, so to speak -- at least not in Dr. Strangelove. He is interested primarily in framing a problem -- the absurdity of modern warfare, modern politics, modern everything in fact (Mandrake needs a quarter to call the War Department with the code that might save humanity, but the soldier beside him is infuriatingly reluctant to shoot the lock off the Coke machine because he fears what Coke might have to say about it). Kubrick is filming cutthroat satire and is not interested in affairs of the heart; Allen could also shoot cutthroat satire -- but he never lost sight of the heart, the way it hurts, the way it yearns for a connection, the way it tries to overcome.
Allen shows how the comic and the human are intimately linked, just like Kubrick does in Strangelove -- but the delivery by each is completely different in terms of showing. Allen shows humanity by depicting the humans in a sad, realistic way. Annie Hall is relentless in the way it hammers home the difficulty of relationships in the latter days of the 20th century. Midnight in Paris blends comedic reality with comedic fantasy, as the main character time warps back to the early 20th century. Overall, Allen cannot resist empathizing with his characters. Allen pities them, he loves them, he wants to see them happy, even if he knows they cannot always be.
Kubrick, on the other hand, does not exactly empathize with his characters. He is lampooning real persons. He is using satire to skewer Americana. He sees nothing worth saving in the facade of American politics and looks forward to the dropping of the bomb with apparent glee. He presents humorous characters and wild caricatures. The audience is not meant to empathize with Ripper, with Turgidson, with Mandrake or Muffley. He is meant to laugh at them, to question his own beliefs, his own faith, his own self. He is meant to see the "mechanical" contraption of American politics in all its unvarnished, unscripted horror.
The subject of Allen's comedies is love. He sees it is one of the eternal longings of man and woman: each wants to be in love, or to love -- but neither knows how to do it, or to please the other, or to fulfill the other, or maintain a loving relationship. He shows how the two sexes collide, how interest is sparked, how it is degenerates, how it dies.
Love in Kubrick's comedy is hardly apparent. Love is reduced, really to the sex instinct -- an appetite (equal to the appetite for destruction that the men in the War Room seem to have). Allen also focuses on sex (Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask gives as series of vignettes that hilariously spoof the sexual instinct that so confounds men and women). There is a touch of this spoofing in Dr. Strangelove. For instance, Turgidson's secretary (love interest?) is tanning in a bikini when Turgidson gets the urgent call (neither appears to be hard at work -- he is in his short pants and before departing barks and salivates over his secretary as though he were a cartoon character in a Merry Melodies short). Both Kubrick and Allen seem to think alike in terms of sexual comedy: it is a subject rich with absurdities. Yet, while Allen uses it to romantic ends, Kubrick uses it to a socio-political end in Strangelove: an underground harem where there will be ten women to each man is the "genius" plan to save humanity.
Dr. Strangelove is a satirical film, but in a deeper sense comedic sense, expectation is the subject: the conflict a trial of anticipation. Kubrick's Strangelove explores the range of possibilities that may or may not result from nuclear fallout. Those possibilities are pushed to absurdist extremes -- absurd because the premises upon which they are built are inherently absurd. (War is Peace?). Sellers as the eponymous doctor embodies the absurdity with pitch-perfect accuracy, revealing (both in his physical deformity -- he is "crippled," but not really -- and in his strange ideas: an underground harem?) the utterly depraved, contradictory ethos at the heart of the nation's foreign and domestic policy. If Beckett's characters in Godot unwittingly bring to light the serious, underlying theme of the play, which concerns the possibility/impossibility of salvation from the nothingness that threatens to consume them, Kubrick's characters in Strangelove unwittingly bring to light the serious, underlying theme of the film, which focuses on a struggle between psycho-sexuality (a swing from American Puritanism to American prurience) and the imminence of death. Beckett (and Allen at times) satirically examines the existentialist's meaning of life and the concomitant questions of faith, doubt, hope and despair; Kubrick satirically examines the modern political animal's meaning of life and the…