Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick


Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove

George C. Scott as General “Buck” Turgidson

Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper

I did not see this as a Sunday night ABC Movie of the Week. This had to be a Friday night movie, starting at 11:30 or 12:00. I watched it by myself. It is a black and white movie, but I was well used to that. Almost all the horror movies of my youth were the black and white movies of Universal, or American… Besides, the first television I remember was a black and white set, which made the Wizard of Oz only a little less magical.

Why does this movie make it onto a list of movies about love? There is only one woman in the cast, Tracy Reed as General Turgidon’s “secretary,” and her part reveals more about the men than it does her. And at the end of the film, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of hydrogen bomb explosions. What I didn’t know when I first saw this movie was that “We’ll Meet Again” was a soldier’s anthem in World War II; it marked the hope for those (don’t know where, don’t know when) sunny days. To me it was just dark irony.

I grew up in the company of boys. I had two younger brothers. I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Almost all my playmates were boys. We played “tank” on the school playground, draping our arms over each other’s shoulders and marching pointedly across the field. I went to an all boys private boarding school from 9th-12th grade. Boys playing at being men was what I knew.

Already, by my teenage years, I could see the pitfalls. I was aware of the passionate intensity that could overwhelm sensibility—just as Buck Turgidson demonstrates the the guile of a B-52 pilot screaming over the countryside to deliver his payload. I had experienced the misbegotten “fairness” doctrine—just as President Muffley tries to be fair with his Russian counterpart over the hotline. I had witnessed the driven madness of conspiracy that illuminates General Ripper, and the dedication to duty that Colonel Guano defends. Dr. Strangelove’s and Major Kong’s maniacal genius and drive was often held out as a, more sanely but only just barely, goal. Only Mandrake’s befuddled competence stands out as a lone vision of something like sanity—and he is a stranger in a strange land.

Where is the place for love—strange or otherwise—in a world that totters toward Armageddon? Romantic love is the counterpoint to the well-meaning incompetence, or belligerent dedication of the world of men. Without it: self-destruction.

Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the late sixties and through the seventies, I didn’t know Thoreau at all, but I was naggingly aware of another desperation: one borne of the recent history of perpetual war and nuclear weapons. Those bombs waited like an exclamation point at the end of every thought about war, from World War Two, through Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then the Vietnam War. I often wondered who the men who bore responsibility for the weapons were, and if they were anything like the all too human men in my life. There came a point—it had passed to my way of thinking—when our weapons outstripped our ability to know how to use them. Desperation—existential anxiety—was a low thrum beneath all the humor, all the politics, and all the intensity of my teen age years.

And love? Could love stand against destruction? Imagine that. Only some equally powerful, equally misbegotten, equally passionate, dedicated, driven, and genius form of love, which is to say a love that was truly strange. How long would I try to fly that banner? Years.


What Transformation Means

My Fair Lady (1964)

Directed by George Cukor


Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins


myfairlady2I first saw this with my family in the den of the house on Tinkerhill Road in Phoenixville.  It was a Sunday Night event movie, probably on ABC. This was also how I first saw Lawrence of Arabia and The Great Race and Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.  I later saw My Fair Lady in a theater, first at Swarthmore College on a Friday or Saturday night movie night, and later when the print had been restored, most likely at the TLA in Philadelphia. I have seen it on television several times.

I remember looking for Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s play on which the musical is based, in my school library (it wasn’t there).  I looked it up over and over, as if this time it would have been added. A note that has nothing to do with anything else: I am an inveterate checker and re-checker of things. I used to call my answering machine several times; if there was a message it would pick up after two rings. I reload baseball scores and stock market indices on my cell phone with the manic fury of a dervish. I can play solitaire until the sun rises. It’s like mental chewing gum; it allows the homunculus who says “No,” to stay busy while the other dwarf imagines possibilities. Which does have something to do with My Fair Lady, after all.

The-Professor-rex-harrison-as-henry-higgins-28174493-500-368Higgins is a brilliant driven man, and he is also, what? “a bad tempered… conceited success.” He declares himself “an ordinary man,” a “very gentle man,” and a “quiet living man,” when all evidence points to the contrary.  He is an idealist and a snob. He rails against “verbal class distinctions,” while living in the lap of all the benefits of his class. I was fortunate that when I first saw this, I was able to instantly recognize that Higgins was a fool, if a fool surrounded by a stultifying upper class, and a set of gender norms (I did not call them that then) that constricted his heart and mind.  When he sings, “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him,” I knew he was delusional.

By comparison, Eliza’s songs are full of hope for connection. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” hqdefaultand “I Could Have Danced All Night,” are genuine, human wish songs. Eliza’s vision is never in doubt in this movie.  She is a “good girl,” but early on, while watching a group of older women string beans before the market opens, she realizes that they are her future, and if she wants something else, she is going to have to change.  Higgins words, “I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English,” haunt her. She goes to Higgins and undertakes the work of transformation.

Eliza and Higgins (and Colonel Pickering, charmingly played by Wilfrid Hyde-White) get the project underway.  There are predictable challenges (“Just You Wait”), bumps (Ascot), and the eventual success (“You Did It!”), but the story is not about Eliza’s transformation.  Of course, the story is about Eliza’s transformation, but it’s not about her learning to speak English well enough to masquerade as royalty at the Embassy Ball, or even speak well enough to work as a shop assistant.  Eliza learns her value, and she learns that value is not determined by the upper, middle, or lower-class morality, but by something more transcendent—something more ideal, platonic, “friendly-like.”

Did I know that part when I was 14 or 15?  No, I might have sensed it, but most likely it swam away from me.  What I did know was the Higgins had to change.  He could not remain aloof and professionally disdainful of the world–an intellectual bully–but had to accept that deep personal connection was not only possible, but necessary.  Eliza cracks his shell.  She sees him bereft of her presence, and he knows that she has seen him in this vulnerable state. He may not change his affect, but they will always know it is a front.

Whether or not they form a romantic attachment, they have become true partners, because he has shown her his vulnerability.  She will become his secret keeper (He is human and flawed), and she will also become his protégé and heir, and better than he was because her experiences have been more galvanizing. I knew that was what partnership was meant to be, and recognized that change only came when a personal cord was struck.

425124bg / Film - My Fair LadyAnd now to come back to those two little men living in my brain: Higgins is not aware that he has to change (or he will lose Eliza), nor is he aware that in his vulnerability he will gain strength (Eliza’s company). How often have I had to distract my thoughtful, intellectual self to gain access to the more vulnerable feeling self? Higgins, for whatever reason, has girded himself with thought and professional aloofness. The endlessly repeated exercises with Eliza—the servants only hear “Ay not Aye”— distract Higgins, and allow something new, something finer, to flower within him. Yes of course, it’s just Eliza’s newly potent personality that finally wins him over, but the seeds took root during those exercises.

Did I play solitaire until the sun rose because I knew it would distract my thinking brain, and help me “feel”? No.  It’s just what happened—over years, not the six months that Higgins had with Eliza.  Maybe what I needed was an “Eliza.” Or a household of servants. 40 more years certainly did not hurt.


What “Yes” Means

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich


Barbara Streisand as Judy Maxwell

Ryan O’Neal as Howard Bannister

When one encounters a force of nature, the best one can do is be moved by it. I was 15 or 16 when I first saw this, and fell head over heels in love with Barbara Streisand’s character, Judy Maxwell. I didn’t get half the jokey allusions, but that would come later, just as later I would see Howard Hawks’s absolute masterpiece Bringing Up Baby–which uses a dinosaur bone (the intercostal clavicle!) as opposed to four plaid overnight bags as the MacGuffin. The point was to set the romantic leads on an adventure, and watch them discover love along the way.

Ryan O’Neal plays Howard Bannister (as in sliding down the…) as a handsome nebbish. His highlight comes when he tinkles out “As Time Goes By” while Judy (Streisand) sings. Otherwise, he is the simply perplexed witness to the whirlwind that is Judy. At one point, Bogdanovich has him turn to the camera and implore, “Help,” to which the audience can only respond, “Submit.” Bogdanovich surrounds Bannister with a cast of men who are all more recognizable in caricature—it’s a bag of types, all of whom threaten to overshadow Bannister, who at least has the decency to distinguishing himself by sporting a narrow plaid bow tie. Otherwise he is seductively bland.

I’m going to cheat here a moment and compare O’Neal to the other leading men in these movies: Lemmon, Harrison, Sellers, Taylor, Finney, Scott. He is easily the most handsome, and also the least striking, which makes him nearly disappear. There’s just no way to get a grip on him—its like grabbing melted butter. Later, watching Cary Grant in the movie this was built on, Grant’s David Huxley sputters and mugs with alacrity. Bannister is simply overwhelmed—he can’t even untie his bow tie.

But there’s a magic in Bannister, and that is we can easily paste our psyches’ over his, and why wouldn’t we? Because, for reasons that are passing understanding, he draws the attention and affection of Judy Maxwell. There is no moment of kindness, no flare of brilliance, nothing. She swoops down and carries him off the way the roc would snatch an elephant from a caravan. What man doesn’t want to feel the full force of hurricane Barbara? Submit.

Of course, reimagine the parts, with O’Neal as Judy and Streisand as Howard, and the creep factor would explode. No man could get away with the barrage of attention that Judy lavishes on Bannister, unless he was wielding a knife, and that is a very different movie, thank you very much Dr. Lecter. It’s just a movie, a slice of fantasy and fun, and so enjoy it. Don’t think about it. Submit.

And because of this movie, and several others in this series, I never had any difficulty with “No, ” and I didn’t always trust “Yes” either. Unless the terms of endearment were as stridently proposed as Judy proposes them here, I bumbled romances. And for years I substituted someone else’s desires for my own. That changed, but it took time, and in the intervening years lead to some less that fortuitous choices.

I don’t know how Howard and Judy will end up. The quotidian part romance will probably only last as long as the cartoon that plays at the end of the movie. But it was nice to think (and feel) that there was someone as magical and forceful as Barbara Streisand’s character waiting in a shop to scoop me up and transport me to the land of joy.the least striking, which makes him nearly disappear. There’s just no way to get a grip on him—its like grabbing melted butter. Later, watching Cary Grant in the movie this was built on, Grant’s David Huxley sputters and mugs with alacrity. Bannister is simply overwhelmed—he can’t even untie his bow tie.

It does not escape my notice that the male protagonists of these movies had these jobs: architect, investment banker, surgeon, professor of musicology, hotel manager, professor of languages (although Professor Higgins’ actual job is never shown), and President/colonel/scientist (Sellers did triple duty). The women have no professions: wife, wife (Brubaker’s wife in the film is a realtor), wife, dilettante, escort, flower girl (and Eliza is worried about what she will do when she leaves Higgins’ tutelage), and secretary. Of the films I remember from my youth, there were precious few professional women. The Andromeda Strain featured a female scientist, played by Kate Reid, as a member of the biological threat team. Shirley Maclaine played a taxi dancer in Sweet Charity and a prostitute in Irma La Douce. Jane Fonda played a prostitute in Klute. Natalie Wood played a reporter in The Great Race.

The divide between men who worked and women who did not mirrored the world in which I grew up, although at some point, my parents hired a cleaning lady come to our house once a week, and almost all of my school teachers in elementary school and junior high school were women. When I reached high school, an all-boys private school, the teachers were called “Masters” and were, with only two exceptions, men.

Besides the obvious cultural morass I walked into, which would shape all sorts of expectations and norms that I fight with to this day, movies created a world in which men and women were primarily romantic partners. In the movies that I remember, even when there was an imbalance of power, the women nearly always determined the romantic course. Women initiate the romantic relationship in each of the movies I’m writing about here. Men are meant to work, even if the work is dissatisfying. This is their public role to fill in the world. Their romantic lives are secret, like the apartment Peter McDermott keeps away from the St George in Hotel. Sometimes love is secret even from the men themselves; only when the princess kisses them do they blossom into their princely selves.

Did I always wait for the women in my life to make the first move? I was shy. I made a few tentative moves, but mostly I waited. And for whatever reason, I never felt confident in the continued bond. I didn’t know that (or how) people who loved each other could have disagreements, let alone fights. Surely there were couples who argued (Mark and Joanna, Higgins and Eliza), but disagreements usually foreshadowed an ending. I never had the benefit of watching my parents fight and make up. Most of what I saw were beginnings and endings. The vast middle ground of actual life does not lend itself to popular cinema.

Have I learned? Sure. But the hearts first lessons are intractable. The new lessons are built on strange foundations. I have become aware of them, but only in reflection. Self knowledge is like a shoe that flies in through an open window. If it fits—that is if one is sensible enough to put the left shoe on the left foot—we spend the rest of our lives looking for the other half of the pair.

What Resignation Means

Petulia (1968)

Directed by Richard Lester


George C. Scott as Archie Bollen

Julie Christie as Petulia Banner

There’s a reason why Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” resonated with me as a senior in high school, and part of that reason is Petulia, which I had seen some late Friday night before then. George C. Scott, who I had seen in a number of movies (Patton, Day of the Dolphin, a television movie called Rage, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove) is an unlikely leading man. Because he is not handsome, he is genuine. Julie Christie is a vision, and now, should remind us how much more difficult a job a beautiful actress has, because her authenticity must shine through her dense surface beauty. It’s hard to tell who plays Prufrock and who plays the mermaid in this film, because no one hears the singing, and if they do, they hear the song while bound to the mast of a sinking ship.

This is at once a fanciful and a grim movie. The pace is jaunty, and the editing jumps the viewer forward, back, and side to side. Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead perform in the film. Lester creates momentary tableaux that are discordant and arresting. A happy person, well ensconced in a healthy relationship would dismiss it as an over-intellectualized and cynical film. Since, at 17, I was neither particularly happy, and never had a relationship, it struck me as a warning about what waited in adulthood, and what a horrible warning it was.

Archie, a successful surgeon is in the process of divorce. When asked by his best friend, “What was it Archie? The sex bit?” Archie answers, “Barney, what would you say if I told you that one day I got very tired of being married… I know what I want. To feel something.” How is it that marriage and success did not give Archie a place to feel?

In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes how the men of her class are fed into society as boys and emerge as cabinet ministers, or generals, or heads of colleges, and that they don’t have any real say in what they become; they are simply shot out. They do not have the opportunity to feel, and feelings are antithetical to their professional lives. Archie faces a similar challenge. He has been trained to rise above feelings, to perform medicine dispassionately. When he tells Barney that he wants to feel, Barney answers, “Grow up,” then asks, sadly, what he is going to do about his wife.

The film is set in San Francisco, and is populated by characters who act out and on their feelings. Archie is surrounded by a perpetual theater of feelings and opinions (and by the gruesome broadcasts of news from Vietnam). Lester’s film frames these performances as shallow, even callous. When asking for help speaking with a Spanish speaking man, one cool answers, “I only know Polish.” That’s how it is: the joke’s on you.

When Archie meets Petulia, she too speaks in cool shorthand, “I’ve been married six months and I’ve never had an affair.” The thing is, Archie is already cool—ice cold—and answers, “It’s been known to happen.” Petulia persists, and Archie resists. Finally she says, “Archie, why do you play this dumb game, this crappy pretense of resisting the beautiful lady? You should be jolly lucky I’m even talking to you.” She’s right, of course, but Archie doesn’t budge, until of course, he does, sharing a personal detail from his life. They make an abortive trip to a hotel. He sends her way. But they are far from done. “I’m trying to save you, Archie,” she implores later, “I’m fighting for your life.”

Petulia has a secret. She is fighting for her life. She witnessed Archie perform surgery on a small boy she and her husband became tangled up with—fixing the mess she and her husband made. Her husband abuses her. Archie is the solid, generous, and cool alternative to the privileged, abusive, and secretly volatile world she inhabits. She shows up at Archie’s bachelor apartment, bearing a tuba. Romance of a sort follows. And ends. Archie is perplexed, and then angry that Petulia stays with a man who beats her. And then knows there is nothing he can do.

I’m not sure how to manage the feelings of hope and resignation, but at 17, the balance was on hope. Mostly. 17 year olds can harbor a bent idealism that finds its respite in sarcasm and cynicism, but it’s an act. Real resignation must be earned and waits at the end of a long driveway. I fought against it. I still do. Petulia was a message from adults who were not pleased with any of the alternatives for adulthood being put forth at the time. I’m not sure if it appealed to me, as much as it haunted me. How could one lead an authentic life? And what was the place of love and marriage in such a life? I thought about that often at 16 and 17.

What Work Means to Love

Hotel (1967)

Directed by Richard Quine


Rod Taylor as Peter McDermott

Catherine Spaak as Jeanne Rochefort

My father’s work life was a mystery to me, which is to say that the world of work was a mystery. He drove to the train station every morning, and returned home in the evening. I had no idea what he did, nor did he talk about work. A movie like Hotel was a revelation to me. The workaday leading man, Rod Taylor, stars as Peter McDermott, the manager of the St. Gregory Hotel. He greets people, directs personnel, plans hotel events, organizes negotiations, intercedes in disputes, and counsels the hotel’s owner. He never stops working. He knows the high society guests, the bellmen bringing room service, and the singer in the lounge. Did I briefly fantasize about working in the hotel industry? You bet.

But this is about love, and Pete, so he is called by all who work with him, finds love when he woos away the French escort of the tycoon who comes to purchase the hotel. Catherine Spaak plays Jeanne, and is named in the opening titles as “The Girl From Paris” (It should be noted that Taylor is billed as “The Hotel Manager”). The tycoon introduces her as “Madame Rochefort,” but she is little more than his consort. She waits in her room of their suite while he plots the purchase and is awake for him when he finishes his business.

Pete gains Jeanne’s attention by greeting then speaking to her in French. Pete’s charm is that he makes everyone at the hotel feel at ease; he is the perfect host. Jeanne warms to Pete, recognizing in him the genuine kindness and concern that distinguishes him from her lover. He listens as she reveals her past, and when they are alone, at last, in his small apartment away from the hotel, she makes a pass at him. By the end of the movie, she leaves the tycoon, and joins Pete at the hotel bar.

Pete and Jeanne’s begin a sexual relationship after their first lunch. In the film, there is barely a first embrace, before a cut to a scene of Jeanne in Pete’s bed, and Pete dressed and waking her up from a post-coital nap. No “I love you’s” are spoken, they simply come to an understanding. Is that how grownups do relationships? Movie relationships almost always proceed at the speed of 24 frames per second. They blaze forth and illuminate the heart. The serious and affable Pete, and the beautiful and melancholy Jeanne have not time for a slow swirl into each other’s arms. Reflecting back to The April Fools, Brubaker and Catherine are on a plane to France 24 hours after meeting each other.

Neither Hotel nor The April Fools explore what happens next. They are tip of the iceberg movies—they show a fleeting and focused glimpse of the tangle of life. The tangle is raveled and unraveled by love, or something that looks like love. I learned that love solves and resolves life’s difficulties from movies like this. Later in life, I learned that love creates its own set of tangles (And some of the movies I write about address this). The ideal version of love portrayed on the screen created a ponderous gravity that was hard to escape. After all, if a man like Pete, a working day white knight, followed the steps, then why wouldn’t I?

I had that dream again.

I grew up at a time when nuclear annihilation was more imminently possible.  It was an ongoing theme of movies, television shows, and books. My favorite movie Dr. Strangelove is, at its heart, a move about nuclear annihilation caused by a series of preposterous missteps. The main gist of Strangelove, or Fail Safe, or On the Beach, or The Planet of the Apes was not just how easily self-inflicted catastrophe could occur—there was no complex multi-layered process that led to disaster, because what’s more important in an emergency: expedience or caution? expedience and doom always win the battle—but how ill-conceived the consequences of nuclear war were, how little those in power understood the horror they could unleash.

That was the background noise of my childhood. My parents insulated me from the tumult of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit of protest in the late 1960’s (news did not become a facet of our conversations until we reached late adolescence); and yet the horror of nuclear war was omnipresent. It permeated my dreams.

I dreamed of fireballs and explosions, desolate plains and skeletal cities. I was incinerated, eviscerated, desiccated, mutilated. I knew early on that “If you die in your sleep, then you die in real life,” was a lie. I died. Lots. What began as nightmares turned into storyscapes—choose your own post-apocalyptic adventures of the subconscious.  My journeys through strange charred landscapes became a nightly feature of my dreams. As I grew older and the threat of Nuclear War lessened, my dreamscape spread to other, less spare territory. My dreams flowered and matured until they included quantum physics, white rabbits, and characters that would inhabit my writing.

Two nights ago I dreamed that my daughter and I were outside when an ICBM was launched. It was launched from a silo in our city. It rose into the sky. I don’t know why I felt this way, but in the dream I knew that it was not intended for any target. I knew it was meant to explode in the air above us. I turned away, but my daughter could not help but watch. The blast seared the sky, it turned the blue cloudless sky into the white hot center of the sun. I knew she would be blinded. I knew the radiation would turn her skin—she wore an open backed dress—to a mass of burns. I knew we were all going to die, if not immediately, then soon from the awful lingering effects of the blast.

We walked into a destroyed structure. We walked through dust that washed over our shoes. Another man was in the structure. All our shoes began to disintegrate; the radioactive detritus eroded the leather of our shoes almost instantly.

I could not conceive why the bomb was detonated over the city. Why would our generals, our president, decide to destroy a part of our country?

I had that dream again.