' ' Cinema Romantico: Stuck in a Dr. Strangelove Phone Booth

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Stuck in a Dr. Strangelove Phone Booth

“Look at those hands, are they small hands?” a potential GOP nominee for President of the United States of America rhetorically asked at a recent campaign debate. He was referring to hands in the context of something else, what tactful commenters might call his manhood and not-as-tactful commenters might term his junk. As in, the precise scope of his manhood and/or junk had been questioned by others and how dare they. “I guarantee you there’s no problem,” he guaranteed, before re-clarifying, “I guarantee.” And as he did so, I thought of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, the still-relevant, still-astonishing Cold War satire that turns nuclear annihilation into a dick-measuring contest between blowhard dudes. There is the immortal image of Slim Pickens aboard, to quote Tim Brayton, “the biggest piece of manhood ever devised”, of course, but there is also the omnipresent cigar of General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). A good Cuban cigar typically measures about seven inches, which isn’t too shabby in the realm of manhood and/or junk, and I imagine General Ripper likes to guarantee people that he and the cigar have quite a bit in common.

General Ripper is “Dr. Strangelove’s” principal villain, a man who orders an un-authorized nuclear strike on the Soviet Union to stop “the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face.” That plot boils down to “the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” through the scourge of water fluoridation. If his precious bodily fluids are compromised by fluoride, how he can perform in the sack? His theory, which was based on a very real theory of the time, is absurdist nonsense, naturally, that sounds no different than, say, claiming that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” But then, as Ripper’s executive officer, RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, discovers, you can’t reason with a lunatic.

Mandrake was one of Peter Sellers’ three performances in the film, along with the unhinged titular character and United States President Merkin Muffley, who is essentially a straight man, though less of a straight man than Mandrake. Indeed, while Sellers wrings untold amounts of deadpan humor from Muffley, he almost entirely dispenses with comicality when it comes to Mandrake; his RAF Group Captain is instead a mere mustachioed pile of quivers. David Denby captured it when he wrote of the film that it “is a kind of awed testimonial to the power of madness and an expression of contempt for sweet reason, which comes off as hapless.” Seller’s Mandrake is all sweat reason, and the powerlessness that it exudes in the face of Ripper, while funny, comes across, in present day context, awe-inspiringly terrifying.

Eventually, of course, Mandrake is able to deduce the recall codes for Ripper’s planes while Ripper blows his brains out when Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) comes calling. Even then, however, victory is unassured, because the element of fear that Ripper peddled is still so pervasive within Guano that Mandrake isn’t sure he will be allowed to manage the recall. He eventually reaches a phone booth, trying to call the White House collect, getting hung up on, and demanding Guano shoot the nearby Coca-Cola machine which Guano initially refuses to do. “It’s private property,” he declares. Only by the grace of eminent domain is Mandrake momentarily saved.

As I saw Mandrake in this moment the other night when I happened upon “Dr. Strangelove” on TV, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe, stricken by all the modern day parallels, a Commie-hating madman with a very profound junk inferiority complex unleashing that junk inferiority complex on an entire nation to prove he’s got the biggest. I felt like Mandrake. I still feel like Mandrake, a hapless straight man stuck in some horrible sketch, probably titled the Mutiny of Preverts, and alas, I don’t have the recall codes because no one does because the recall codes don’t exist.

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