Monday, July 16, 2012

Exploiting Annihilation

Movie Reviews

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

Back in the good old days of the Cold War, when "the bomb" was a term everyone understood and we lived under the constant threat of annihilation by nuclear war between the US and the USSR, Russia and the countries that comprised the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were for most Americans a great unknown.

We knew nothing about things like Stalin's mass purges or the gulag, but neither did we know that Soviet citizens enjoyed the benefits of full employment and universal free education, up to and including an excellent university education.

Hugh Marlowe -
We knew what we were told by the Capitalist political establishment and its mouthpiece, the media. We might have heard about people waiting in line for food, but most often we were told about dictatorship and about a police state, where people lived in a complete lack of freedom and in constant fear. We were told that the USSR wanted to take over the world and make us live like they did.

Few were aware then, certainly not we the people, that the reality of the USSR, or the Soviet Union as it was often called, was a complex story that began in 1917 when a small group of highly idealistic revolutionaries suddenly found themselves in charge of a vast territory, the largest country on earth by far, and one the existing Czarist bureaucracy had never more than loosely administered, and that the nation that eventually emerged from their idealistic dreams of a better world was in some ways worse than life in the Capitalist West, but in many ways better.

We also didn't know that there was never very much of a threat of a nuclear war. Some suspected as much, but the threat was technically possible, and was so widely perceived that detractors couldn't really say anything for sure. Many people realized that the threat was being used by politicians to keep public discourse in the West centered on the threat and within a very narrow range on either side of it, but since it was real, or at least perceived to be real, there wasn't much that could be done about that, either.

The threat came to be interchangeable with Socialism, and was part and parcel of the propaganda against Soviet Socialism, or, as it was often called, "Russian Communism," but its use as propaganda by Western leaders was only the latest manifestation of a struggle that began well before the start of the Cold War.

It was always critical to the Capitalist class that Socialism be seen as a mortal threat. Early in the 20th century, Socialism had become a viable political alternative in Europe, and was beginning to be so for many Americans. There began to be many Socialists elected to public office in the US, including city council members and the post of mayor in some major US cities, such as Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

The economic hardships caused by the Great Depression, when Capitalism failed to deliver the goods to millions, caused millions more to consider the more humane alternative Socialism represented.

The fact that Socialism had gained a foothold in Europe and was spreading in the US is credited with the reforms embodied in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs.(1) By adopting Socialist programs like Social Security, Workman's Compensation, Food Stamps and welfare, (and the planned Medicare and Medicade that were finally implemented by Lyndon Johnson), and by removing some of the legal barriers to union organizing, and by using government to create jobs for out-of-work laborers to build the New Deal's big public works projects, Roosevelt removed many of the reasons for Socialism's appeal.

After fighting alongside the USSR in World War II, the post war attack on Socialism, via, on the one hand, the political witch hunts known of as McCartheysim and on the other, by the demonization of the USSR, began in earnest. Holding up the threat of nuclear annihilation and the false notion of a Soviet goal of world domination, the project Roosevelt had begun on behalf of Capitalism was continued. It's purpose was to end, not the threat of the Soviet Union, but the threat it represented to Capitalism, which was, and is, Socialism, or to at least  contain it as far as was possible. One can argue that Socialism never really existed in the Soviet Union, but it doesn't matter if it did or didn't. The USSR symbolized Socialism in a powerful way. It gave an almost omnipresent life to the idea that there was an alternative to Capitalism.

The direction for the manipulation of the Soviet threat came from government, which created generic sounding agencies that used scientists and scientific terminology to disseminate information about things like nuclear fallout and what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. This was when science was king, before the 60s and 70s when the scientific method itself was shown to be subject to bias and political manipulation. Because the voice of science was trusted, government warnings couched in scientific terminology didn't appear to be part of the anti-Socialist political propaganda.

Sterling Hayden -

The indoctrination was aimed at children, too. Many of us remember being made to take part in "civil defense drills." At my elementary school these consisted of having us file out of our classrooms into the hallway and line up along interior walls, where we sat and tucked our heads between our legs (the better to kiss your ass goodbye, as someone remarked) and covered our heads with our arms.

Popular magazines ran pictures of "fallout shelters," self-contained underground survival rooms that people were building or buying and installing that would supposedly keep your family safe from a nuclear attack and afterward provide a place to wait it out until the radiation decreased to safe levels. The threat became embedded in the culture and political discourse, and was the fuel that fed anti Socialist propaganda and incitement.

Fear And Film

Two movies of the post war, Cold War period, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Dr Strangelove, each addressed the threat of global annihilation, but from very different angles. Both movies are excellent in their own right, and for their own reasons, but they have in common the one subject that was never far from anyone's consciousness.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is about an alien from a planet far more advanced than ours who comes to warn Earthlings that their aggressive nature will lead to their end. Landing his spacecraft in the capital, Washington, DC, hoping to talk to the leaders of the world, the alien is seen as a threat, even when, with the help of an earth woman, knowledge of his mission's purpose reaches the president. He becomes the subject of a massive manhunt and, of course, is hunted down and shot.

When the film was made in 1951 it was still widely believed that nuclear power could be used safely and would be a cheap and abundant energy source. But there had been the wartime bombings of Japan and the Cold War was underway, and people were becoming conscious of the threat of global nuclear war. In its subtle way the movie is about how those in power perverted that threat for their own ends.

Dr Strangelove is about a general, drunk on power and the access to sex that comes with it, and crazed by suspicions of Communist plots, who orders the 34 nuclear bomb armed B-52s under his control to drop their bombs on their Russian targets. The leaders of the US and USSR become aware of what has happened, but not soon enough to prevent global annihilation.

In 1951, when The Day The Earth Stood Still was made, the United States was full of confidence after emerging victorious from World War II with the realization that it was the number one world power. Its director, Robert Wise, however, saw the reality that lurked behind that bravado. Although aware of the threat of nuclear war, the power elite was not capable of ordering the world in a way that was going to eliminate that threat.

By 1964, when Stanley Kubrik made Dr Strangelove, our era of national self-questioning was beginning, and although the great disillusionment was only just underway, Kubrick realized that despite all the posturing and billions spent on arms in the meantime, we were still not able to solve our biggest problems.

Although in 1964 the threat of nuclear annihilation was still on the minds of many people, it would soon begin to recede from the conscious into the unconscious, just as death itself does. We sometimes think about death, but since we see it as inevitable we learn to let go of our thoughts about it. We came to think of "the bomb" similarly. It meant death, but was beyond our control so we let loose of it. Dr Strangelove, besides being about the insanity of nuclear war, is about letting go of it by making light of it, by, so to speak, laughing in the face of death. It was part of the national process being undertaken of coping with the threat of annihilation.

Unlike the Film Noir earnestness of The Day The Earth Stood Still, Dr Strangelove is steeped in dark humor, the source of which is not far from the source of the dark urges and passions -- unmitigated and actively pursued -- behind the threat of global annihilation and represented by the two generals, played by George Scott and Sterling Hayden, and embodied in the crippled figure of Dr Strangelove himself, who in the closing moments finds he can walk after all, and who, incidentally, bears an eerie resemblance to a real war criminal who was just about to appear on the world stage, Henry Kissinger.

Both films were shot in black and white. The Day The Earth Stood Still with its stunning cinematography is a reminder of what has been accomplished in the black and white form. The way the film lays out its simple moral argument might be considered cranky or naive today, but the argument was intended for the mass, movie going public, which at the time was huge. Even so, director Wise works in some subtle social commentary along the way that fleshes out the film's argument, some of it by way of the acting of Hugh Marlowe, who played the handsome, ultimately slimy suitor of the movie's heroine, played by Patricia Neal. Notably for its time, 1951, before Martin Luther King or the modern feminist movement had appeared on the scene, the team of world renowned scientists assembled by the physicist the alien befriends is multi racial and includes women.

Patricia Neal -

A high point of the movie for me, besides the excellent cinematography, was Neal's  performance. Although in her last years her acting was overshadowed by the publicity she created by making anti abortion commercials in which she professed regret for an abortion she'd had 40 years earlier, she did win an academy award in 1963 for Hud, was nominated once more and was nominated for three Emmys for work in TV. In The Day The Earth Stood Still she brings surprising depth to the conventional Hollywood role written for the stereotypical, trusting, good hearted woman. If Marlowe's character's lust to profit from some diamonds used as money by the alien and his betrayal of humankind for a few pieces of silver is a metaphor for Capitalism, Neal's character, who gradually moves from trust in her man, and in her government to clear sighted heroism, can be seen as a metaphor for the disillusionment to come, during the two decades of cultural upheaval that followed those 1950s good times.

Dr Stranglove has that kind of excellent writing that successfully combines spoof with some serious shit, and boasts solid, ironic performances by Scott and Hayden and also by the great comic actor Peter Sellers. Sellers portrays an English officer who is attached to the US military command structure in charge of nuclear bomb carrying B-52s. He always seems to be one step behind everyone else, and plays the role in his typically buffoonish style, but in the end he's the only one who shows any moral conviction, and is rewarded for his buffoonery by being given a great polemic speech to deliver.

Continuing Significance

Now that Soviet Socialism has failed, and we're again becoming aware of the inability of Capitalism to deliver the goods to the majority of humankind -- and with a government bailout of the working class being ruled out this time -- the truths behind these films, and the notions that we can allow ourselves to harbor uncontrolled passions for consumption and power forever, are laid bare. Since the films came out we've just added problems that we can't solve, like choking ourselves with greenhouse gasses. Neither the threat of global warming, nor nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and the still ongoing Fukishima disaster, have swayed us from pursuing the twin fantasies of unlimited resources and safe nuclear power.

In fact, as regards nuclear annihilation, a situation exists that is almost the inverse of the one that existed during the Cold War. As evidenced by nuclear disasters like Fukishima and Chernobyl and close calls like Three Mile Island, the threat that all life can be wiped out by nuclear radiation continues, but there's no widespread perception of the threat.

On one level, these two films serve as cultural markers, as waypoints in the development of Western civilization. They tell us where we were then, by their point of view, by the styles in which they were made, and by laying out what we were thinking then, and are fascinating because of that.

On that level they are reminders that we still make the same mistakes, and that because we still suffer from the same hubris, we are still blind to them.

But on another level, they are classic reminders that, as a culture, our intellectual and emotional development is what it is because the reality we live in is created by Capitalism and its drive for power and accumulation.

We were fooled then. The struggle going on during the Cold War wasn't between two superpowers or between good and evil or between the Socialism, real or imagined by propagandists, of "Communist Russia" and the idea of freedom that is an integral part of the American mythology. The struggle going on then, and going on now as austerity and trickle down economics is enforced in America and Europe, is between the idea that the only way we can live is for a fortunate few to sit atop of vast piles of wealth while the rest of us struggle to survive, and the idea that there's enough to go around for everyone.

The question, unspoken, perhaps, and yet still clearly asked by these films, is whether or not we'll get fooled again.

(Note: Credit for my revisiting these two great films goes to New Mexico political analyst and blogger Jim Baca.

I recently wrote a web log entry listing my favorite movies of all time, to which Baca added the comment that his list would include these two films.

I'd not seen either, and have been meaning to order them, then last night, having come across some spare time and some spare change, I went looking for them. To my surprise and delight I came across web sites where each can be seen for free. Yes, free!

Here are the links:

The Day The Earth Stood Still

Dr Strangelove

These sites also have other films available for free viewing. {Note: the link I found to The Day The Earth Stood Still is not in that web site's current directory, which can be found here.})


(1) It has been argued that the support Adolph Hitler and his well known at the time Nazi projects received from many in the US capitalist class, like Prescott Bush, patriarch of the Bush political clan, and from many US politicians, and that at least some of broad political resistance to going to war against Germany that Roosevelt circumvented with his lend-lease scheme and was only overcome after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was because Hitler was clamping down on the group seen as most responsible for the spread of Socialism, Jews. It is true that many of the working class immigrants to the US who brought Socialist ideas with them were Jewish, but that, of course, is reason to celebrate them, not exterminate them.

The line of thinking that excused the Holucaust on economic grounds doesn't seem quite as shocking in the context of the existing conditions, in which it was acceptable for Capitalists in the US to hire private militias to murder striking workers and in which they could often call on governors and in one instance a president to send out national guard troops to do the same thing at taxpayer expense.


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