Friday, August 21, 2015

Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
seen @ "Movies With a View" @ Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn NY

If I were to pick one word to describe the films of Stanley Kubrick, I would pick "tense." Even in a comedy like Dr. Strangelove, there's a palpable sense of tension that Kubrick always knew how to generate. I've always thought it was the result of his cinematography - the way he framed certain shots and then held them, shooting long takes with minimal cross-cutting. It looks simple, but the way he did it was so distinctive. I'm thinking of the scenes between Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers in Strangelove; the "Open the pod bay doors, HAL" scene in 2001; the scenes between Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd in The Shining, the bathroom scene with Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket, the bedroom scenes with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut - if you know these films, you probably understand what I'm talking about. You can always spot a Kubrick film.

Kubrick got his start as a photographer, at a very young age, before he became a director. In this random selection of some of his photos, you can see hints of the greatness to come in the field of filmmaking. Like the best photography, they look both spontaneous and posed at the same time. Composition is also key; knowing where to shoot and how to frame the shot is something you have to have an eye for, but it also has to be well-trained.

I remember taking a photography course in college, back in the prehistoric days before digital photography. Yes, sports fans, I learned how to develop pictures in a darkroom - chemicals, machinery and all, and I remember finding it a wonderful challenge. It was fun going all over Manhattan with my uncle's old Nikon, just snapping shots of anything and everything, and then figuring out how to make them come alive in the darkroom. I paid attention to things like composition and light and shadow, but not too much. I tended to save that for the developing end. 

Of course, photography was an expensive medium back then, particularly for a college kid who was much more of an illustrator than a photographer anyway, so I never stuck with it - and now, these days, anyone with a cellphone can fancy themselves the next Vivian Meier. Indeed, a few of my friends have been experimenting with digital photography through their cellphones, posting their work on their Facebook pages. 

Taking pictures with my phone was, like most of my forays into digital media, something I begun with the most tentative of baby steps - a random shot or two here and there, posted on my page as if they were kindergarten finger paintings. Now I take photos in bunches whenever I go someplace unique. I do wish I were a little better at it - if you've seen some of my film festival photos, you probably wish the same thing - but it's not a priority in my life.

Getting back to Kubrick: like contemporary filmmakers such as Steve McQueen and Andrew Dosunmu, a background in photography served Kubrick well in film. Strangelove is a good example. Some of the most memorable shots include: the wide shot of the war room, with that halo of light shining down on the circular conference table, and the Big Board in the background, makes for a startling and memorable image. This shot of Sellers as Dr. Strangelove looks like a Frank Miller comics illustration. The worm's-eye-view close-up of Hayden as he rants about "purity of essence" emphasizes both his menace and his madness. These shots linger long after one has seen the movie.

Much has been written about Kubrick's meticulous process in not only setting up a shot, but making a movie in general. This epic video highlights his use of one-point perspective, for example. The recent documentary Room 237 goes deeper than deep into the perceived meanings behind The Shining, based on Kubrick's cinematography, set design, and many other subtle cues. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can probably count on one hand the number of directors who inspire this level of obsession. Something about Kubrick does, though, probably because he never tried to explain his process in any way. What is it they say about staring too long into an abyss...?

Nothing much to say about seeing Strangelove at Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was a beautiful night, another huge crowd, the usual plethora of bugs (my bug spray did little to fight them off). At one point about a third of the way or so into the film, a great big sailing ship passed behind the inflatable movie screen, slowly making its way up the East River towards the bridge. I should've taken a picture; it was a nice sight.


  1. You explained Kubrick's "eye" very well. It is an admirable aspect of his filmmaking.

    I am related to two photographers who got their start in those olden days of dark rooms, etc. I actually took a pretty decent shot of a couple of swans on a pond in Stratford once. (Wonder whatever happened to it.) I just never caught the bug. But, truly, if that ship was moving slowly how could you have missed that photo op? It's just not in your soul.

  2. What can I say? By the time I thought to take the picture, it went behind some trees and I couldn't get a good shot. Oh well.


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