Stanley Kubrick: "Purity of Essence" Purified
David C. Pricer English 578
– Dr. John Hellmann
Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb presents a transcendent misogynist motif, recurrent across the breadth of Kubrick’s oeuvre. Within the director’s Cold War satire, the masculine is consistently privileged over the subaltern feminine. Rather than the absolutist dichotomy of John Foster Dulles, who perceived the Cold War as no less a struggle between good and evil, Kubrick translates the Cold War discourse by proffering his own interpretation; for the director, the global standoff constitutes not only a battle of ideologies, but also a battle of the sexes. The Cold War is a bitter confrontation between the supremacy of the patriarchic “capitalist” male and the inferior “communist” female. Cold War brinksmanship is represented by the auteur as the ultimate expression of masculine potency. Within this milieu, strength through action is privileged over effeminate reflection. Yet Kubrick intellectually destroys the foundation upon which the Cold warriors base their discriminatory arguments. In the concluding sequence, the auteur unambiguously reveals the consequence of violent and unrestrained misogynist gender dynamics: mutually assured destruction.
Kubrick consciously establishes the “supremacy” of the masculine within the Cold War context by all but excluding females from being represented upon the screen. The cast is dominated by male actors, the lone exception being Tracy Reed. Reed’s character, Miss Scott, hardly interrupts Kubrick’s design for a biased portrayal. This same gender dynamic had already been employed by the director, to similar effect, within his 1957 film Paths of Glory. Susanne Christian, who would later become the director’s wife, is represented within this film as a demure innocent who is prey to her dominant male captor’s licentious overtures. Herein, a misogynist barkeep introduces Christian’s character, among anxious jeering catcalls, as being the “latest acquisition.” The young German girl is no more than chattel, mere spoils of war; the barkeep acknowledges this depraved status by declaring that she is “a little pearl washed ashore in the tide of war.” Her trauma is expressionistically etched upon her face, and tears stream across her cheeks, as she is sacrificially brought forth among the frenzied male troops. The barkeep maintains that she is not much of a singer, but, gesticulating towards her breasts and womb, declares that she has “natural talents.” Kubrick underscores her innocence through both lighting and costume. With her blonde hair precisely above her shoulders, and light cast directly upon her, Christian appears angelic in her shimmering white blouse. The blouse itself is trimmed with expressionistic wing-like frills. In diametric opposition, the French troops are seated in prevailing darkness, the ambient light seeming to grotesquely distort their leering features. Kubrick’s cinematic treatment of Tracy Reed within Dr.Strangelove is as equally effective. Indeed, Miss Scott’s presence serves to enhance the dominance of males rather than dilute their sexual power. Despite this fact, her screen exposure is still strictly limited by Kubrick. Miss Scott is introduced near the outset of the film, establishing her as being the objectified sexual target for masculine possession. This cinematic expression is doubly achieved by the auteur. The first glimpse the audience is privileged of Reed is as the centerfold of Major Kong’s copy of Playboy. Major Kong, played by the incomparable Slim Pickens, is by far the most “virile” masculine character in the film: he is a B-52 commander, with direct authority over the aircraft as well as the lives of other men. He is furthermore entrusted to deliver nuclear payloads into hostile territory. Despite this tremendous responsibility, his concentration during his time on airborne station is represented as being devoted to the object of his sexual desire. It is additionally noteworthy, in this example of Miss Scott’s extant objectification by Kubrick, that her feminine form is covered by a copy of Foreign Affairs – the premier American diplomatic periodical. This signifies clearly the association of enlightened diplomacy with the inherent “weakness” of the feminine. Like Miss Scott, diplomacy should bend to the power of Major Kong’s militant will.
Tracy Reed’s remaining appearance upon the screen, occurring within five minutes of her introduction, solidifies her subaltern position as the sexual toy of militant men. Miss Scott, the secretary to George C. Scott’s General Turgidson, is provocatively dressed in a bikini, tanning herself upon Turgidson’s bed. Elizabeth Cowie offers relevant insight into Miss Scott’s presence; because she has assimilated to become a component of the masculine military infrastructure, though never a full member, Miss Scott is safely perceived as being “’one of the boys’ and is no longer a threat” to the expression of manhood (29). Following the phone call summoning Turgidson from his assignation, Turgidson declares that she “has” to answer his phone; the responsibility, thus, falls upon Miss Scott to explain her compromising presence: “We were just catching up on some of the General’s paperwork.” With Turgidson sequestered in his lavatory “throne-room,” her entreaties to him to speak with the General, whom she familiarly refers to as “Freddie,” are answered condescendingly by Turgidson’s barking: “Find out what he wants!” The self-apparent disparity in age and authority between the “lovers” (Turgidson could indeed be her father) introduces a whole subset of illicit exploitation, itself convoluted and exacerbated by the apparent casualness extant between herself and “Freddie.”
Despite this significant marginalization of the other, Kubrick further diminishes Miss Scott’s strength relative to Turgidson. Turgidson responds to Miss Scott’s annoyance at his departure by interrupting his preparations to leave, lunging across his bed, assertively straddling the divide separating their bodies, and declaring: “I’ll tell you what you do. You just start your countdown, and old Bucky will be back here before you can say ‘blast off!’” Herein, not only does Kubrick mimetically express the misogynist perception that the feminine craves the influence of the masculine, and must therefore simulate his presence in his absence, but, furthermore, he correlates masculine perceptions of violent war and death to those of sex. Buck’s promise to return prior to his euphemistic “blast off” evinces the nuclear arsenal at his disposal: his influence is the marriage of eros and thanatos. Given Miss Scott’s “intrinsic” weakness, herein established analogous to the misogyny of Aristotle, who philosophized that women were merely the benign “empty vessel” which required the active influence of the man, her vulnerability to Turgidson’s virile power is severe, and the “death” which she seeks is all but assured. Miss Scott, therefore, represents the ultimate sexual fantasy of the male warrior, she is not only willing to submit to his dominant possession, but she will happily martyr herself in order to fulfill the male fantasy to ravish and kill. This depraved perception of the feminine dovetails neatly to the vile, vice ridden, and empty “Mary Jane Rottencrotch” view of the feminine engendered within Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the notorious drill instructor in Kubrick’s subsequent film Full Metal Jacket.
Despite having only cast a single female role in the film, Kubrick enjoys a wealth of opportunity to represent his perception of the Cold War marginalization of the feminine. Within the satirized character Jack D. Ripper, Kubrick both amalgamates and translates the ideological paranoia of the crusading John Birch Society, Joseph McCarthy, and the “shoot-first-second-and last” attitude of the SAC commander General Curtis LeMay in order to mimetically signify the masculine archetype of the ultimate patriarchal Cold Warrior. Notably, “Jack D. Ripper” is an allegorical referent to the unidentified 19 th – century English serial killer who sadistically preyed upon women, and who was speculated to have been insane. In one of the most profound scenes in the film, Ripper is confronted by the precise RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, brilliantly portrayed by Peter Sellers. Kubrick’s identification of Mandrake as a Brit effectively manipulates the predisposed prejudices of his audience to reinforce the character’s screen extant “prissiness.” Kubrick employed this pattern of ascribing reciprocal gender characteristics to his actors throughout his oeuvre; however, this device is clearly reprised within Full Metal Jacket, and the hapless and effeminate Pvt. Pyle, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. In stark opposition to Mandrake, Kubrick underscores Ripper’s masculine dominance within the mise-en-scene of the confrontation . Ripper’s office is his virile kingdom, and his massive desk his connotative castle. Kubrick underscores Ripper’s dominance through the recurrent camera perspective, shot from over Ripper’s right shoulder while seated assertively upon his throne. Mandrake remains the hesitant, unassertive invader of this masculine space.
Within the scene, Mandrake, as though a recalcitrant daughter chastised by her father for failing to meet curfew, stands awkwardly before Ripper, awaiting stern judgment. The tension in the scene is powerfully communicated by the accusatory light situated just above Ripper’s desk, harshly bathing Mandrake’s face. This conflict is visually reinforced by the harsh lateral angles of the confining ceiling tiles, as well as those significantly depicted in the airbase mural on the left wall. Herein, the lines depict the source of Ripper’s tactical potency: the airstrips and taxiways from which his B-52 squadrons are deployed. This aggressive tension is further magnified by Ripper’s phallic pistol collection, which preside threateningly behind Mandrake’s back. Though Mandrake is certain something is indeed amiss, given his discovery of the uninterrupted broadcast of banal music upon the wireless, this knowledge is complicated by the effeminate Group Captain’s inability to confront Ripper. Indeed, despite the mortal exigency of the situation, Mandrake can hardly steel the nerve to stand before his virile domineering “father.” Ripper, lighting a phallic cigar which further evinces his potency, unequivocally declares that he will not recall his strike wing. Visually signifying Ripper’s potent power over not only the squadron, but furthermore all life on earth, Kubrick strategically positions the B-52 model atop the General’s desk such that it appears to have taken off directly from his crotch. In a distinctly deferential manner, Mandrake haltingly, in a low and submissive monotone, confronts the realization of Ripper’s masculine aggression, mumbling: “Oh…well…I would say…sir...there was something...dreadfully wrong somewhere.” Despite the impotency of this reply, Ripper perceives within the Englishman not only a thread of opposition, but also that which is much more distasteful to him: effeminate emotion. Chastising his daughter’s unseemly display, he declares “Now, why don’t you just take it easy, Group Captain!” Reaffirming his role as the patriarchal father, Ripper responds to his petulant daughter by locking his office, securing the proverbial latchkey, as well as Mandrake’s freedom, in his pocket.
Ripper’s depraved perception of the feminine, the source of the film’s narrative movement, is clearly revealed within his elaboration of the supposed feminist/communist conspiracy. Ripper’s argument, distilled to its lowest form, is that women seek to parasitically appropriate the life force, the very “essence,” of man. This condemnation echoes the depraved articulation of Jack Torrance in The Shining. Women, according to Torrance, are greedy “’ol sperm banks.” This fundamental feminine drive is further correlated by Ripper to the Birchean communist fluoridation of water myth. Seeking to justify his unilateral preemptive strike, and appropriating the irrational fluoridation outcry of the Birchers, Ripper declares: “I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids!” Ripper clarifies any ambiguity in his irrational declaration, revealing the source of his misogynist paranoia, in subsequent dialogue with Mandrake. According to the unbalanced patriarch, the moment of his conspiratorial epiphany occurred during “the physical act of love,” while experiencing “a profound sense of fatigue” and “emptiness”; Ripper declares that this emptiness was euphemistically a “loss of essence.” Perceiving the loss of potency as being correlated to the supposed feminine communist fluoridation conspiracy, Ripper declares to Mandrake that: “Women. . .women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly: loss of essence.” Ripper’s perception of women is reflective of the femme fatale archetype which was common in the film noir and New Wave genres; a clear description of this archetype is provided by Genevieve Sellier:
Female characters in these films are the male hero’s fears and desires made concrete, and the viewer has access to them through his gaze. They embody directly or indirectly the fatality that will befall the hero, for the very reason he has fallen in love with them. In order to exist, he must drive them away or destroy them, but he may also risk being destroyed himself. (149)
Sellier’s implication, that the unbalanced General maintains a dichotomous love/hate relationship towards women, is indeed accurate; though Ripper desires the feminine form, his inability to assert his dominance through force, consummating his base instinct, nurtures his malice. The expression of his hate, furthermore, is an expression of his love, as evinced by the title of his contingency authority: “Wing Attack Plan – R.” As Kubrick purposefully points out, the NATO phonetic device for ‘R’ is “Romeo,” and, just as in the case of Shakespeare’s transcendent lover, Ripper’s lascivious attention caused the death of his object. Thus, Kubrick’s depraved misogynist perceives that his preemptive strike is not only justified, but necessary in order to mitigate communist feminine “parasitism” while conversely asserting masculine/capitalist essence.
Kubrick, prior to Dr. Strangelove, had already mimetically represented the conflicting love/hate obsession of the misogynist repressor within the 1955 film Killer’s Kiss. Gloria Price, a taxi dancer in the employ of the seedy Vincent Rapallo, is assaulted, kidnapped, and nearly murdered because she had challenged the dominance and “essence” of her boss. Gloria’s abuser is additionally linked to Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove in that, like Miss Scott, her older “smelly” boss is utilizing his power to secure sexual favor. This relationship significantly also shares an extant incestuous Electra dynamic. Naremore avers that, though the audience is not privileged to the events which occur in Rapallo’s office, the “implication is sexual assault” by “the gangster who resembles her father” (62-3). Gloria unambiguously reveals the depravity inherent to her exploitation in her declaration to Rapallo that, if she were to remain his sexual prisoner, “I would be a slave forever.” Herein, Gloria’s rebellion from his influence inspires the consequence of the parallel love/hate dynamic represented in Jack D. Ripper’s homicidal character. Rapallo’s significant declaration that he is “mad about” Gloria, while he dominantly positions himself to corner her in her prison-like apartment, dually signifies the depth of his physical obsession toward her, as well as his willingness to allow his ungoverned passions to devolve into brutal violence.
Jack D. Ripper’s wholesale assault against the feminine, within Dr. Strangelove, is ultimately carried to consummation. His bombs are delivered to their target in the “effeminate” Soviet Union. The sexual implication inherent to the destructive act is indicated by the presence, within the survival kit of the airmen, of not only connotative items such as a pistol, lipstick, and nylons, but additionally a supply of prophylactics. The absurdity of this accoutrement is noted by Kong in his declaration that “a fellah could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” The expectation is that in the circumstance of being shot down, the duty of the fliers is to alternatively assert their potent essence against the atomic survivors – to both Westernize and dominate the feminine. Kubrick cinematically represents this concept within Full Metal Jacket, wherein the “bad” communist Vietnamese feminine, the NLF sniper, resisting the subaltern position as Westernized prostitute catering to the lustful Marines, is ultimately and violently destroyed for her nonconformity to misogynist domination. Thus, eros and thanatos are herein again inextricably linked.
Kubrick reflects the violent eros/thanatos relationship expressively within the denouement. Kong, utilizing his dexterous skill, penetrates the Soviet air defense network – as though a man violently possessing a woman against her will. Because sustained damage prevents his “payload” from deploying, Kong climbs atop the phallic torpedo-shaped bomb, straddling the device, to repair the malfunctioning door. After the wires are spliced, the bomb bay opens, and the camera dramatically reveals the feminine “peaks and valleys” of the Russian hinterland. Like the Playboy magazine previously, Kubrick reveals the “hero” lasciviously admiring the landscape, just prior to the bomb releasing from its cradle. Next, the phallic device, with Kong astride it, falls free of the aircraft. Kong, in apparent ecstasy of the sexual act, whoops and hollers as he dramatically waves his Western Stetson, riding the bomb all the way to the virginal landscape. Kubrick utilizes a unique form of his stylized tracking shot in this most critical scene; just as the audience is privileged the childlike perspective, through Kubrick’s extensive use of the low tracking shot in trail, of Danny’s big-wheel circumnavigating the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, so too do we assume the perspective of the nuclear phallus on its fateful patriarchal mission.
The expression of Ripper’s sexual essence against the communist “feminine” is the genocide of millions of men, women, and children within the Soviet Union. Kubrick has commonly demonstrated the violence of masculine sexual dominance throughout his oeuvre. Furthermore, the auteur analogously represents the phallus as a weapon of violent and domineering males against the feminine other in both Killer’s Kiss and A Clockwork Orange. Within the final confrontation sequence in Killer’s Kiss, Davey, wielding a phallic fishing gaff, and Rapallo, with a similarly representative axe, awkwardly wage combat against each other. With each wildly inaccurate swing or thrust, the duelists inflict wholesale devastation and dismemberment among the nude female mannequins which encircle them. Naremore describes a portion of the struggle, thus: “Davy pushes Vince down on a pile of female bodies, tries to spear him and misses, in the process getting his spear stuck in the lower half of the woman, which Vince swings at and chops apart” (65). Likewise, A Clockwork Orange offers numerous examples of the violent sexual domination of the feminine by the masculine utilizing a phallic device. The most noteworthy abuse, however, is the assault and murder of the Cat Lady by Alex with her overt “sculpture.” Alex taunts her with the phallus, conversely chasing her then poking her with the sculpture, before ultimately using the misogynist “work of art” to ruthlessly bludgeon her to death. Thus, Kubrick mimetically represents the violence inherent to masculine sexual domination of the feminine analogously to Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick clarifies Ripper’s conception of the patriarchal “purity of essence,” the death of the feminine, through the rationalization of Dr. Strangelove, notably the film’s title character. Following the initial atomic explosion, and the imminent threat posed by retaliatory strikes from the Soviet Union, Strangelove, a satirized amalgamation of Henry Kissinger and Werner Von Braun, expresses his belief that American “civilization” can persist within the protective shelter of mineshafts. Using his slide rule, he calculates that humanity would have to survive 100 years in the subterranean depths to avoid the radioactive holocaust. Strangelove determines that only several hundred thousand would be able to exist in these circumstances; he declares that, utilizing computer programming, survivors, other than the patriarchic “top government officials and military men,” should be selected based upon the misogynist criteria of youth, health, fertility, and ultimately, “characteristics of a highly stimulating nature”; these criteria are uncannily similar to the characterized “natural talents” of the German captive in Paths of Glory. Strangelove declares that the survivors will “breed prodigiously,” with a gender ratio of ten women to every man. Turgidson excitedly identifies this as the “abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship.” Herein, as Donald Mcaffrey insightfully points out, Strangelove performs the role of “pimp or whorehouse madam” (46). This constitutes the total sexual and political victory of the masculine over the feminine: she exists as no more than a machine providing distraction and transmission of the male essence through offspring. Having already addressed President Muffley as “ mein fuhrer, ” Strangelove loses the prolonged battle with his seditious arm, breaking into a fascist salute upon his excited dystopian declaration that survivors will rebuild with a nostalgic sense of “bold curiosity for the adventure ahead.” This signifies not only the fascist nature of the existing patriarchal structure, but also its ultimate triumph in the genocide of the feminine.
Similar to the mad scrawl on Ripper’s desk, Strangelove convolutes “peace on earth” with “purity of essence.” The auteur demonstrates that, immediately following the horror of their feminine genocide, the characters symbolizing patriarchal authority – Turgidson and Strangelove – are already concerned about the post-apocalyptic geopolitical struggle, namely the development of a “mineshaft gap.” Thus, the patriarch’s overt fascism will be the intellectual foundation of the new misogynist political structure. Eugenics, just as in Hitler’s Reich, will be instituted to create the masculine soldiers of the new order. Strangelove ultimately concludes that this selfless “sacrifice,” the unadulterated death of the feminine, is necessary for the “future of the human race.” For Kubrick, this depraved “life through death” represents an odious perversion of the theme represented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, wherein the Star Child, representing the imminent death of the lower form, reverentially signifies a peaceful stride in mankind’s evolutionary progress toward existential enlightenment and Utopian equality. According to Edith Hamilton, 2001 represents the demonstration of “modern man’s self-awareness and growth from technological savagery,” an unambiguous contradiction of the transcendent themes in Dr. Strangelove (cited in Kagan 164).
Stanley Kubrick alone is privileged Dr. Strangelove’s final rhetorical argument. Kubrick effectively deconstructs Strangelove’s misogynist “survivor” rationale by viscerally demonstrating the extant disconnect between “peace on earth” and “purity of essence.” Kubrick effectively marries extra-diegetic music and scene: Vera Lynn’s irrepressibly hopeful “We’ll Meet Again” is incongruously sublimated over the Burkean-sublimity of an apocalyptic H-bomb detonation. This disconnect is easily apparent. Mutually assured destruction ensures that there is no tomorrow for those existing outside of Strangelove’s dystopian breeding criteria: gender inequalities are eliminated by the indiscriminate equalizing holocaust of the mushroom cloud. Within Kubrick’s revisionist Cold War context, the ultimate consequence of the marginalization and violent destruction of the feminine, the “purity of essence,” is unequivocally the paradoxical destruction of mankind.
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