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.

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 perhaps 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 it might have something to do with the cable box being on top of the DVD player.