Reflections on Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove (2009)

A recent ‘History versus Hollywood’ event was a double feature of Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I had decided on this pairing, believing that the similarity of subject matter – accidental nuclear war – would accentuate the differences in how the subject was treated. I had grown up on Strangelove and was looking forward, with much presumption, to ‘turning on a new generation.’ Fail-Safe I had never seen before and assumed to be inferior in fame and in quality to Kubrick’s masterpiece. I actually showed Fail-Safe first, intending it as a sort of warm-up act.

Fail-Safe, of course, turned out to be extremely intense and disturbing. The horrifying ending left the audience aghast and silent. The last thing I wanted to hear in the heavy aftermath was the sound of my own voice saying something like, ‘And now for something completely different,’ as I introduced Strangelove – the funny film about nuclear war – but of course I had no choice; and naturally, Strangelove’s humor fell flat. (I could almost hear Lenny Bruce saying, ‘Go ahead, follow that on,’ in his skit about a comedian whose routine is sabotaged by the previous performer’s impromptu tribute to ‘the loved ones we lost in the war.’) After Fail-Safe, Strangelove just bombed. Since ninth grade, I’d regarded it as the best and the funniest film ever made, but now, I just didn’t like it any more.

During my mental post mortem on the evening, I realized that there was more to Strangelove’s bombing than my poor decision to show it after Fail-Safe. In fact, the films represent two conflicting cultures, separated by a great geographical (and perhaps a generational) rift. The most important difference between them, in my view, is one of characterization. In Fail-Safe, the characters, both political and military, are basically honorable people, and even the callous Walter Matthau role is rational and well-meaning in his own way. In Strangelove, everyone in the film is sexually perverted and bat-shit crazy, with the implication that the political and military professions are uniquely well-suited for such people. While Stanley Kubrick and scriptwriter Terry Southern were no doubt inventing grotesques to make their satire effective, the Northern sophisticate, who relies on art to help him appreciate reality, sometimes conflates the two; and up North, in the 1980s, we took it as a given that our leaders were sickos straight from the Strangelove set. In that milieu, then, Strangelove essentially preaches to the choir. The Southerner, of course, forms very strong opinions about politicians and military people, but he is not simply amused by them, as the over-educated Northerner is. The blasé detachment afforded by Yankee schooling is the chief prerequisite for enjoying a film like Strangelove. Without it, both because Fail-Safe stripped it away and because of the Mobile, Alabama venue, our Friday double feature didn’t work.

How I Ruined My Life at Age Six

One fateful day in the first grade, we were all working together in our math workbooks. Having, I suppose, achieved her lesson objective, the teacher gave each of us a choice as to how to spend the last twenty minutes of class time: We could continue working in our math books, or we could go to the book corner and read. I chose the latter option; very few others did, and I was discomfited to observe that they were mostly the class dullards. I read happily enough in my favorite old magazine about the space program, yet I felt at the same time a little guilty, for the teacher had called what we were doing “pleasure reading,” and I also had a nagging sense of having chosen the wrong fork in the road and watching everyone else curve away from me forever.

For the rest of the year, the students who had elected to keep working in their math books that day remained a good ten or twelve pages ahead of me, and I could never catch up. Periodically, I would steal glances at their desks and see the dazzling graphics of the lessons they were working on (including a big purple ruler, still embedded in my memory). They filled in the answers with a palpable triumph and pride, and indeed, those of the advanced echelon who had been my chums now found our friendship difficult to justify.

The teacher soon began sending the accelerated students to the second grade math class. Ultimately, a few of them were actually promoted into the second grade, leaving the rest of us behind. Years later, I saw one of them in an international newspaper, after he designed a computer program that beat a renowned chess champion at his own game.

And to think it could have been me.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part III: Shared Experience and Stimuli

The rain does more than simply to eliminate glare, blare, and the stress that comes with them. It also adds something: a feeling of community that comes from the knowledge that everyone is under the same umbrella. When the rain comes, everyone stops doing his own thing and begins doing the same thing, dealing with the weather. Although I think of myself as an individualist, I must admit to taking comfort in the conforming, equalizing potential of a good shower.

One of my favorite activities is watching an approaching storm on the radar.

Advancing Front

What a cure for loneliness! The front isn’t just advancing on me; it’s advancing on us. So there is an us, after all.

Of course, let’s hope none of us gets hurt or flooded out of his house; but, barring true disaster, it’s always fun to face inclement weather together. A lot of these feelings of excitement hark back to grade school “snow days” back home (in Baltimore, not Mobile), which involved such a consistent set of rituals – listening to the list of school closings on AM radio; jumping for joy when our school was announced; trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep; marveling at the bluish-white hue of the daylight; rushing outside to play, build snowmen, and shovel the walk; soaking our gloves and socks – that they were virtually group activities, even though classmates rarely got together. Even without the snow, and well past childhood, the anticipation and experience of even a modest rainfall seems to invoke a sociable giddiness. “Well, here we go, dashing to our cars.” And then, off we go, dashing to our cars, separately yet similarly.

The limiting of experience to that which is predictably communal is an effect that can have many causes, not just the rain. National holidays serve the same purpose, especially Thanksgiving. We can assume that a great many people will be traveling on Wednesday (and I really like that everyone reading this sentence knows that “Wednesday” means “the day before Thanksgiving”), cooking and eating on Thursday, and (nowadays) maybe even going shopping on Friday. We’ve all done these things ourselves; so we know what people are going through. We can even call our friends to ask what time Grandma is coming and to check on the turkey.

Like the limiting of experience, the limiting of stimuli often produces communalizing effects; although rain might not necessarily be a factor, darkness, which accompanies rain, would seem to be essential. Sometimes, the exposure of different individuals to similar stimuli yields surprisingly resemblant reactions. One evening, for example, I was driving back home with my brother, after we’d both seen a movie together. A drizzle was falling, leaving little to see, aside from streetlights and traffic signals. Suddenly and simultaneously, we both blurted, “Bay-ah-beeee SNAAAYakes,” the first line of the Frank Zappa song “Baby Snakes.” Fairly freaked out, I broke off and started howling at the coincidence.

My brother, however, was quite nonchalant about it. “It’s not that extraordinary,” he said. “We’ve got similar brains, we just saw the same movie, we both like Zappa, and we’re looking at the same stuff. Naturally, we would respond to the environment in the same way.”

“With ‘Baby Snakes’?”

“Evidently.”

In fact, nighttime drives and daytime rains are interchangeable for purposes of this discussion, in that they work equally well to limit environmental stimuli and thus encourage shared reactions and a sense of togetherness. Nothing brings two minds closer together than the luminousness of the car dashboard at night. During a transcontinental drive, my friend Gene and I supped at a diner in Flagstaff and then drove off into the desert, en route to the Grand Canyon. It was pitch black – we might as well have been in outer space – save only for the dash. The audible world was likewise monopolized by the radio: A local station was broadcasting an old dramatization of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (?), which, in the absence of anything else to listen to, was very absorbing; and Gene and I reacted to it with near uniformity (although we didn’t quite reach “Baby Snakes” territory). Between the glow of the dashboard and the roll call of votes to impeach (and, necessarily, nothing else), Gene and I must have been nearly of the same mind.

I am aware of the availability of sensory deprivation capsules and might like to try spending some time in one. However, two considerations dissuade me. First, it would feel too much like lying down in a coffin, and I’m not into that. Second, I would prefer some company in the capsule, or perhaps in a separate capsule, with identical simple images, like the moon or a car dashboard, projected inside, and the same Dvorak quartet or antique radio drama coming over the speakers.

Or I’ll just wait for the next rainy day.

A Lesson from the Annals of Personal Hygiene, Illustrating the Virtue of Perseverance

Bothered of late by hardened bits of mucus in my nasal passages, I resolved to irrigate the latter with my trusty Ocean Spray saline solution, which I purchased from Rite Aid in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1984. Locating the familiar orange and white plastic bottle after a brief search of my cluttered bathroom closet, I inserted it into my left nostril (I’m left handed) and squeezed. A thin jet of solution erupted from some unseen puncture in the bottle and shot directly into my left eye. Somewhat jarred, I let loose the usual exclamations and maledictions, to register my shock and discomfort.

Now, I am a man not easily dissuaded from my course, once I have chosen it. Furthermore, I have found that the lowering of expectations, and of standards, is the key to fulfillment and happiness, in the full range of human endeavor. In this particular adventure, saline solution did in fact reach the intended target (my left nostril), and so as far as I was concerned, the operation was a success. Getting shot in the eye, while a misfortune, was simply one of those things I have learned to tolerate, certainly no occasion for despair – or for reevaluating the situation. Nothing was really wrong, in other words.

Accordingly, I transferred the apparatus to my right nostril, to complete my project. At the first application of pressure, the entire bottom half of the bottle exploded, launching a massive payload of spilth into my gaping, protesting mouth. The viscous liquid had a dreadful, musty taste, which seemed to convey to every corner of my being all the wintry malaise accumulated in that bottle since the Reagan administration, when it was first used. It also rained downward onto my clavicle and shoulder, soaking my woolen turtleneck sweater and feeling very clammy and nasty.

My howling could be heard at the Rite Aid in Middletown, Connecticut.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part II: Sound

When the rain actually starts, extraneous sounds are banished, along with excessive light. A heavy downpour produces a dynamic variety of white noise, which, unlike mere static, fluctuates in intensity, with each pelting sheet; while lighter rain serenades us with the patter of individual drops. In either case, the effect is calming: it muffles external clamor, and it also harmonizes us to more natural rhythms.

I remember when I was a boy, if ever we were out driving in the rain, upon our return home, Dad would turn off the engine, and the wipers and radio would fall silent, too. Before running for the house, we would always sit for a moment, listening to the gently drumming rain on the roof. Nothing else was of any concern, during that precious interval.

Is the rain a mantra or drone that, in focusing our attention upon it, diverts us from our travails and other vexations? If so, I can imagine nothing as efficacious.

Poor Little Boy in New York City

One particularly bleak day in New York, I walked down Broadway to a stationery store. My plan for the weekend was to buy a purple pen and thus salvage a tiny part of my individuality.

As I completed the transaction at the counter, I noticed a young mother conducting her six year old son away from a set of shelves against the wall, where there were a number of stuffed animals on display. When they reached the counter, next to me on the right, the boy could not see over it. He looked up at the shopkeeper and pointed back at the stuffed animals.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in a fledgling, timorous voice. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear?’

The proprietor, an Asian man in his fifties, didn’t answer. Perhaps he was only accustomed to fielding questions from adults, and he looked up, not very interestedly, at the boy’s mother, just to see if she endorsed his inquiry.

She ignored both her son’s voice and the man’s eyes, though, fiddling instead with her pocketbook.

‘Excuse me,’ the boy tried again. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear? The big brown one.’

I checked awkwardly back and forth between the shopkeeper and the mother, waiting for one of them to attend to the boy.  Neither one did. The woman had found her wallet by then and was completing her purchase. She held her head unnaturally high, looking only at the man behind the register, determined never to direct even a single downward glance at her son, as though endeavoring to avoid eye contact with a panhandler. Her impatience and discomfort were becoming obvious; still she managed to keep pretending nobody was there. The boy continued to say ‘Excuse me….Excuse me,’ in his plaintive voice, until he finally gave it up. He looked down and around at nothing in particular, a resigned, hopeless look on his face, similar to the expression worn by King Kong before he falls off the Empire State Building.

By the time I made it to the door, I was crying. Halfway down the block, on the sidewalk, I almost fell down. I leaned over for support against the side of the building for a while, gasping and sobbing. I gave myself about five seconds. Then I pulled myself together and started walking up Broadway again.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part I: Light

Yuka says it’s because I have light-colored (green) eyes, but for whatever reason, I find glaring sunlight very oppressive, especially during the morning commute, with the sun just on the horizon and always in my face, slamming, boring into me. The southern haze is an all-subsuming intensity, light without color.

A cloudy sky can tame the sun’s tyranny, allowing all under its dominion to retain its natural shade. Perhaps it’s merely because the graininess of the air is removed as a factor (just as nighttime dispels the opaqueness of the atmosphere and permits us to see the heavens); perhaps it’s that everything we see is bathed, not drowned, in the light that remains; yet the world appears more clearly.

Though I’m no photographer, maybe all I’m talking about is the difference between an overexposed and a properly-exposed picture. Mellower light brings out subtlety, of hue and of texture. It makes our surroundings seem softer, more whole, and more interesting. I don’t think I’m exactly echoing Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, for he loved darkness for its capacity to conceal, and I, for its capacity to reveal. A better example from art would be Closely Watched Trains, a dark, black and white film, whose visual elements seem almost glowing, almost touchable.

Overcast itself can be beautifully marbled and inlaid, converting the overexposed world to a vast hall with an ornate ceiling. Like a soft, familiar blanket, it provides cover and comfort.

This old painting, from my parents’ house, perhaps illustrates what I’m trying to say about the glowing richness of subdued light.

Mellow Sky Painting

It’s so hospitable and friendly (“lovely, dark, and deep”?). Harsh sunlight would wash it all away.