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.

The Last Eatery in Japan

This is the last photo I took in Japan. I turned around and snapped a picture of the FaSoLa Cafe, just before going through Gate ?? at Narita Airport, down the jetway, and onto my plane.

There is something fascinating about the FaSoLa. You experience Japan as an apparently endless succession of restaurants, cafes, bistros, snack bars, patisseries, and ice cream stands — but actually it isn’t endless, and the little cafe at Narita (the FaSoLa, in this case), just yards from your gate, is the Last Station. Here you can park your carry-on bag and sit down at a clean table for one last aloe-laden grape drink and yakisoba, while the last few minutes of Japanese television you are apt to see for a while provides the backdrop. Then, you wipe your mouth, take your tray to the collection counter, make sure the table is tidy for the next guest — and leave a spiritual imprint of yourself there, while picking up a little memory in return. You walk just a few steps, through the gate, down the jetway, and through the main hatch.

The next time you walk through it, as you deplane, the FaSoLa won’t be there anymore. It will have transformed into a bank of Burger Kings, Jamba Juices, and Quiznos.’ You’ll be in America, as if you never left — except for the little bit of yourself that you gave to the FaSoLa and the little bit of it that you brought with you.

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.

Dream: Lake Jimi

I dreamed last night that I’d joined a group of young people on a car trip to a historic northern town. The place was home to a rather morbid tourist industry, for Jimi Hendrix, in this alternate reality, had drowned there in his car, while trying to cross a river. (Cars were amphibious, but only under calm conditions.) In fact, we arrived by driving across the fatal lake, and I was quite nervous about it, somewhat cramping the style of the carefree whippersnappers I was with.  While browsing the town’s emporia (which sold various Hendrix-related merchandise, including a computer-generated simulation of how he might have escaped his sunken car and what his music would sound like had he lived), I gathered that younger visitors frequently capsized their cars on purpose upon departure, in order to achieve maximum identification with Jimi. Usually, they were able to swim to safety, but occasionally, they drowned. It seemed that my young driver was especially determined to swamp us, after our day’s shopping. I sat in the back seat, trying to imagine how to squeeze through the undersized rear window, in the likely event of down-flooding. As fate would have it, there came a loudspeaker announcement that someone had just drowned, and the news sobered my driver just enough to induce him to give up his pursuit of the ultimate Jimi Hendrix experience.  “I guess we’ll just do it next time,” he said, and I hastily agreed, “Yes, of course. Next time. Next time.”

Dream: The Sparrow

I dreamed that I was watching a sparrow being chased by a hawk. The sparrow tired; the hawk did not; and the distance between them narrowed. The hawk attacked with its beak, and the sparrow fell crippled to the ground. Thereupon, the hawk perched at some distance and seemed content to bide its time, waiting until later to claim its prey. Dozens of other sparrows, fellows of the unfortunate one, settled around it and began pecking unconcernedly through the grass, confident that the hawk would leave them, at least, alone, when the time came for it to finish its work. And so the wounded bird continued to limp among his teeming community, friendless and doomed.

Movie Review: Just a Sigh

During a recent visit to my public library, I was intrigued by a DVD that did not have a picture of an exploding helicopter on the case, and since films without exploding helicopters are generally my favorites, I decided to take it home. Just a Sigh (France, 2013) was written and directed by Jérôme Bonnell and cast with Emmanuelle Devos and Gabriel Byrne as the leads.

The absence of exploding helicopters always promises a decent drama, and for the most part, I was not disappointed, although the drama of Just a Sigh is a little blasé in a European way. The protagonist, Alix (Devos), is a struggling stage actress who might be described as a late bloomer but who is beginning to suspect that her career, and her life, may never really bloom at all. She gets along poorly with her sister Diane (Aurélia Petit), in part because the latter is more conventionally successful and happy. In fact, Alix has a maladjusted, Holden Caulfield air about her, although, at 43, she’s got a few years on Holden.

While on a Paris-bound train from a show in Calais, Alix spots walking-wounded Doug (Byrne); their eyes meet, and an exchange of pain takes place. They bump into each other again in the city, which, in any culture, is a sign that they are fated to meet. They strike up a conversation, which steadily increases in intimacy. The tactics of their seduction are comically complicated when a clueless academic horns in, but Alix and Doug give him the slip, make their separate ways to Doug’s hotel room, and hop in the sack.

I don’t remember much of what happens after that. It comes out that Doug, an academic of the jaded variety, is in Paris for the funeral of a past love; and the film ends, as one might expect, with uncertainty as to whether or not Alix and Doug will make their tryst more permanent. However, I lost my concentration during the sex scene, owing to technical distractions. My DVD player, so ancient that it is also a VCR, tends to show images with a reduced brightness, and thus the hotel room setting appeared so dimly that I could barely make out the lovers’ making out. Furthermore, as I fiddled with the TV remote to boost the brightness to eleven, I noticed that the color was distorted: Whatever flesh was not in darkness was tinted a throbbing purple. I grew desperate at the controls, but I could not restore Ms. Devos and Mr. Byrne to their natural hue. Neither actor is a spring chicken, frankly, and the dark magic of my DVD player made each resemble a decomposing corpse. Mr. Byrne’s cheeks and biceps glowed as though from gangrene, and Ms. Devos’s sagging breasts, which she must have been contractually obligated to reveal, called to mind two dead blowfish in an oil slick. I felt like I was watching a necrophiliac orgy in a morgue or the suicide of two people making love in the core of a nuclear reactor.  My own face began to turn blue from laughing. I coughed out my popcorn and, as I said, ceased following the film’s subtleties.

My friends think the problem might have something to do with the cable box being on top of the DVD player.