I grew up in a house with a group of people who reveled in laughing at things at which polite society hath deemed not ought to be laughed. Humor could always be found in things both dark and disturbing. My mother being an RN in obstetrics and later a surgical nurse would generally provide dinner time conversation revolving around the latest rectal hernia case they worked. My father was the county director for Special Education and after dealing with many of the “parents” of emotionally and physically abused children, I think that finding humor amid such horrors kept him from losing his mind. Living on a horse farm also made us keenly aware of the harsh realities of nature. (Whoever says that birth is a beautiful process has obviously never seen a tractor drag a colt from a mare’s prolonged vagina.) So my sister and I gravitated easily into the orbit of guffawing during horror films and snickering at funerals.
Thus when I first read “Cat’s Cradle” by Vonnegut I laughed myself to tears as the world came to an end. I would watch Harold hang himself in his Mother’s parlor and find no end of amusement. A sketch wherein a man repeatedly attempts to convince a shop owner that the parrot that he purchased not half an hour ago was indeed dead? Hysterical!
The key to good dark humor is to get the audience to see the absurdity in something that would normally be terrifying. What could be funnier than the end of all civilization and human-kind as we know it? That’s right, nothing. And no work of art tickles that particularly sinister part of my funny bone quite as well as the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
The War Room
While many of the technical aspects are far outdated the sentiment is timeless. The U.S. has an enemy with whom the politicians dance the diplomatic tango, despite the fact that said enemy would gladly see us all dead and burned. In this case the enemy is the U.S.S.R. (Bear in mind that this movie was made in 1964 when Cold War tensions were high and the Bomb we learn to love is the Atom Bomb.) The Ruskies have invented a Doomsday Device which will destroy all plant and animal life on the planet should any of their key targets be attacked. It is intended as a deterrent, but fails as such as the Soviet Premiere was saving announcing its existence at a U.N. meeting the following month. Unfortunately, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Just one of the many great character names.) has lost what was left of his marbles and decided to save our drinking water from Soviet fluoridation by launching a first strike against the Godless, cowardly, pink bastards. A group of the best military minds, including the unabashedly scene-chewing George C. Scott as Gen. Buck Turgidson, a brilliant Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley (One of three roles he plays in this film.) and Peter Bull as the Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky are hard at work in the War Room coming up with a plan to stop what the mad General has started. Meanwhile, up in the clouds flies a plane piloted by Slim Pickens as Maj. “King” Kong who serves up his lines with a side of fried Okra and hominy grits. He and his crew are carrying their nuclear payload right to Ivan’s front door, and cannot be recalled because the only person with the recall code is our demented Gen. Ripper. Hysterical, right?
There's no fighting in the War Room!
Many parts of this film make me laugh from the broad, obvious jokes such as the line, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room,” to the more subtle nuances such as the choice of closing song. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) However, the parts that always makes me cramp up from insane giggles are all of the scenes in the War Room. While the world is leaning over the brink of destruction this team of leaders squabble like a group of 12 year old boys playing Dungeons and Dragons in a suburban basement. In possibly the greatest moment of the film, President Muffley makes a phone call to the drunken Russian Premiere to let him know that we are about to inadvertently drop a bomb killing many of his citizenry. Go ahead and watch. I dare you not to laugh:
Not really a spoiler, because even if you haven’t seen it, surely you have figured out how this all ends. Slim Pickens rides the A-Bomb as if it was a buckin’ bronco all the way to ground zero and the Doomsday Device becomes enabled. As we watch mushroom clouds engulf the planet under the closing credits, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again”. Now that’s a funny ending.
I am required by law to include
this shot when writing about this film.
The film’s source material is the novel Red Alert by Peter George. George’s novel is a thriller and was meant to raise awareness of a very real flaw in the then military chain-of-command. Kubrick did with it what he always did with source material, he took the parts he liked and changed the parts he didn’t, even character names. Thus, he took what was intended as a serious look into the complexities of arms management and turned it into a satire mocking not only the military and politics, but our own fears which had been trumped up by the media. Maybe now you see why I find the film so universal. Today the enemies may have changed, but the same social environment abounds.
So, if you are one of those folks who can’t read the obituaries without stifling a giggle, this may be the movie for you. If not this one, I have a list of many, many others that may suit your particular tastes. Believe me, when watched from the right perspective Sophie’s Choice can be downright rib-tickling.