Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

WHO: Stanley Kubrick.

WHAT: 2013 would have been the 50th anniversary of Kubrick's last (and perhaps greatest- though The Killing certainly gives it a run for its money at the least) black-and-white film, had it premiered in December of 1963 as originally scheduled. The film wrapped production in April of that year, but the first advance press screening wasn't scheduled until November 22. This screening was cancelled when news came of President Kennedy's assassination that day, and the film would not be unveiled until January of 1964, as it was felt that audiences would be in no mood for pitch-dark political comedy so soon after. There has even been speculation that the infamous "pie fight" ending of the film was cut because it showed Peter Sellers as President Muffley being hit by a custard confection; Kubrick later maintained he cut it because it didn't fit with the rest of the film's tone.

Bill Krohn describes the film in his excellent book on Kubrick:
Made in England on sound stages and on futuristic locations, Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a meteor. Kubrick had fused documentary realism and grotesque comedy to portray the American military-political establishment as fools and madmen, putting on the screen for the first time the kind of satire made popular by Mad magazine.
WHERE/WHEN: Today at 3:30 and 7:15 at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: With the current news about probable air strikes in Syria, it may not feel like the best day to watch a film that turns the raw material of bombs and international diplomacy into fodder for humor. Then again, maybe today's just the right day to see a thoughtful satire made at the height of the Cold War. Dr. Strangelove screens with another 1960s nuclear-themed comedy made in England, Richard Lester's The Bed-Sitting Room; I haven't seen that one as it's far rarer, but Kubrick's film, at least, doesn't feel the least bit like escapism. Sometimes comedy is the best method of addressing the horrors of the world.

HOW: Though its double-bill-mate The Bed-Sitting Room screens in 35mm, Dr. Strangelove will screen digitally from a 4K restoration prepared by Sony's Grover Crisp. This version has screened before in the North Bay and the South Bay but I'm pretty sure this is the debut presentation of this digital version in San Francisco. Sort of.

In July 2012 the San Francisco Silent Film Festival brought Crisp to the Castro to show off the digital Dr. Strangelove by giving it a head-to-head competition against the first reel of a 35mm print of the film, both with the sound muted so Crisp could speak and answer questions from the audience. It was an interesting presentation, held on a much larger screen than a similar presentation in New York earlier in the year. I would be more interested to see a head-to-head between a digital Strangelove (or any 4K restoration) and a newly-struck print of a photo-chemical restoration, rather than with an average release print struck years ago. But those who felt the DCP handily "won" the match-up will finally get to see the full version at the Castro today.

If you've ever thought Dr. Strangelove would be better or truer to Kubrick's vision if the level of image detail was so clear that you could identify objects on the table reflected in the mirror behind Tracy Reed in the bravura single-shot scene pictured above, you might prefer this DCP version. I for one am not convinced that this degree of image clarity was intended by Kubrick (who surely considered the contemporary capabilities of lab reproduction of prints as well as he did other details like attendance patterns at urban theatres across the U.S. or projectionist changeover) in the first place. I hope the presence of a DCP version of Dr. Strangelove doesn't mean we'll never see a 35mm print and its attendant flicker and filmic quality that Kubrick probably never expected his films to lose when projected in cinemas. I have a feeling the Castro will also show The Shining on DCP when it comes (via the new September calendar) a month from now. But I'd love to be proven wrong when the theatre announces the formats for the coming month's films, which I expect to be any day now.


  1. Brian: Could also mention, kind of a nail in the coffin for the recently deceased cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, another one of whose outstanding black and white films, the completely different A Hard Day's Night, was also released in 1964. He worked several times with Polanski and later landed up shooting Star Wars.

  2. Ah, yes. I did mention Talyor's passing in my twitter feed last week. I'm glad you brought him up though; I wonder if he made any pronouncements on digital distribution of films he'd shot before he died.