What is the overarching literary device that produces the humor of Dr. Strangelove?
The film draws its humor directly from the use of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is not the kind of “what a bummer of a coincidence” irony you may know from the Alanis Morrissette song that forever caused people to use the word wrongly. Dramatic irony is illustrated in Dr. Strangelove courtesy of presenting the facts of the movie completely straight, as if it were a drama and with absolutely no over indication that the film is to be taken comedically (aside from the funny character names) as a way of heightening the intensity of the idiocy that the audience is watching. That idiocy that we recognize as the tools of comedy is the proper definition of irony.
In what way is Dr. Strangelove an homage to the mad scientist movies of the past?
One of the most oft-repeated themes in Hollywood History is that people should not tamper in God’s domain. This theme forms the very basis for the existence of the mad scientist movies from the 1920s right up to the year before Dr. Strangelove was released in January. In most cases, the mad scientists (think Dr. Frankenstein) engages in scientific experimentation into those aspects of life best to God (or nature, if you prefer.) The thing about those mad scientist tampering in God’s domain is that precious few of them ever created an experiment that was successful enough to produce a change that could be used on a massive basis. Dr. Strangelove sits alongside Dr. Frankenstein, but on a higher plane because while that other doctor’s Creature is a lone individual barely capable of terrorizing a large village, the tampering in God’s domain conducted by Strangelove produces technology capable of creating the kind of mass extinction of the species that God Himself fashioned out of the flood.
Much speculation has been provided on the subject of the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove with candidates ranging from the very unlikely Henry Kissinger to the far more suitable Werhner von Braun. The speculation about the real life model for General Jack D. Ripper has usually started and stopped with just one man: General Curtis LeMay. Why?
The reasons for the general consensus that the Jack D. Ripper character was at least partially based on General Curtis LeMay ranges from the mere cosmetic such as the fact that both enjoyed chomping on an ever-present cigar stuffed between their lips to the more psychological such as the fact that LeMay was a quite ardent and vocal supporter of basing America’s nuclear policy on the belief that a pre-emptive strike could result in a unqualified victory. LeMay’s reputation as a potentially rogue warrior capable of going off the deep end like his cinematic counterpart can be traced back to the real life American general’s response asking if such a pre-emptive strike was national policy: “No, it’s my policy.” Of special note is that General Curtis LeMay was one of the military advisors that Pres. John F. Kennedy consulted during the Cuban Missile Crisis that had brought the world closer to the reality of the nuclear brink dramatized in Dr. Strangelove than it had ever been before or has been since. As might be expected, LeMay’s position was a bit more hawkish and aggressive than that which eventually defused the volatile real-life nuclear scare.
What effect does the style of filmmaking that director Stanley Kubrick chooses for Dr. Strangelove have on the presentation of the film’s satirical perspective on its darkly dramatic subject?
The absurdity of the story and the outrageousness of its characters are intensified by Kubrick’s choice to film his satire in a semi-documentary style. Some of the shots of the battle taking place at Burpelson Air Force Base even feature the kind of handheld camerawork that was almost the exclusive domain of documentary films in America at the time. The sterile lighting and non-intrusive camerawork create a distinct sense of detachment between what an audience has come to expect from such a realistic style of filmmaking and such an unrealistic device as satire. By 1963 when principal photography was conducted on Dr. Strangelove, Hollywood was just a few short years away from near-total adoption of color for all its production, which means that Kubrick consciously chose to shoot the movie in black and white as another means toward achieving his end of giving the film the look of a documentary-style drama.
Stanley Kubrick paid homage to classic Hollywood comedies by filming a pie fight in the War Room that was intended as the climax to the film. What effect might ending the film with such a slapstick and obviously “comedic” sequence have had on the initial audience reaction and subsequent legacy of Dr. Strangelove?
A pie fight is one of the icons of early Hollywood slapstick comedy. So pervasive was the pie fight during the silent era and early periods of the talkies that it might even be said to pass over from iconic status to mere stereotype. That status places the pie in the face as the ultimate image of slapstick and the kind of farcical attention to something intended to be funny which runs directly counter to the carefully calculated serious cinematic effects that have not only marked the style of Dr. Strangelove but are absolutely integral to creating its satirical humor. Ending the film with a sequence that is so jarringly out of step with every frame of the film to the point could have two distinctly different outcomes. The pie fight might have had the effect of releasing the tension in the way that that device traditionally known as “comic relief” does in authentic dramatic motion pictures. Since Dr. Strangelove only takes on the appearance of being a drama, on the other hand, such an conspicuous use of comic relief might instead have had the effect of actually undermining the non-stop tension which is central to sustaining film’s satire.
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