Out of This World

Dr. Strangelove possesses a great many distinctions as a work of the imagination, but I should like to cite it, first and foremost, for valor: I think it may well be the most courageous movie ever made. It is certainly one of the funniest. A nightmare farce which proceeds from horror to horror, culminating in the annihilation of the human race after an American hydrogen bomb has been dropped on Russia, it is, despite its cata-clysmic conclusion, a peculiarly heady, exhilarating experience. I can account for this partially by the fact that the movie pays absolutely no deference at all to the expectations of its audience. Artistic courage always soothes the spirit and makes glad the heart, but when this quality enters as craven a medium as the American film one feels curiously exalted, ineffably happy. Then, too, there is something extraordinarily liberating in the nature of the movie itself. It is the kind of total theater that Antonin Artaud would have admired, with its dark humor, its physical and anarchic dissociation. Dr. Strangelove is a plague experienced in the nerves and the funny bone—a delirium, a conflagration, a social disaster.

What Stanley Kubrick has done is to break completely with all existing traditions of moviemaking, both foreign and domestic. While the European art film seems to be inexorably closing in on the spiritual lassitude of certain melancholy French or Italian aristocrats, Dr. Strangelove invests the film medium with a new exuberance, expansiveness, and broadness of vision; compared with the sweep of this masterpiece, the weary meanderings of Resnais, Fellini, and Antonioni seem solipsistic and self-indulgent. Moreover, Kubrick’s film is fun—this is its one debt to Hollywood. It is enjoyable for the way it exploits the exciting narrative conventions of the Hollywood war movie—say, Air Force or Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo—and even more, for the way it turns these conventions upside down, and cruelly scourges them. This is what is arrestingly new about the film: its wry, mordant, destructive, and, at the same time, cheerful, unmoralistic tone. We have heard this sound emanating from our comic novels, cabaret acts, satiric revues, living rooms, and dreams, but, although it rumbled a little bit under the conventional noises of The Manchurian Candidate, it has never before fully entered the mass media. With Dr. Strangelove, a subterranean vibration becomes a series of earthquakes, shattering cultural platitudes, political pieties, and patriotic ideals with fierce, joyous shocks. If the picture manages to remain open, it will knock the block off every ideologue in the country: even now, I suspect, Sidney Hook is preparing the first of fifteen volumes in rebuttal.

To avoid a repetition of Mr. Hook’s embarrassing performance on behalf of Fail-Safe, where he wrote some eighty-odd pages of closely reasoned, technical argumentation to refute the premise of a cheap, best-selling fantasy, let me announce that Dr. Strangelove is frankly offered to the audience as a cinematic sick joke, and that it is based less on verifiable facts …

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Letters

Strangelove & Fail-Safe March 5, 1964