The Plague. The War. The Bomb. Different eras, different moments in history have their sententious monikers. The plain, definite references denote events that defined times, aimed at common experience and understanding. If one lived it there would be no mistaking the meaning.
I’m trying to find some meaning in our current, soon-to-be era defining crisis, as well as some comedy. Sheltered in place, locked down and distancing socially (what lovely vocab we’ve added to common lexicon), I’m snuggling up to my wife, at times whimpering with angst, but otherwise treading a tender path, taking in the warmth. We can resemble a pair of penguins when we’re quietly touching. Head-to-head, worried yet holding on, we contain each other’s trembling. I recall what I dub ‘The March’, a reference to a favorite nature yarn, March of the Penguins. Death march of the penguins, I once called it, or penguin gulag. That’s my black, if sympathetic humor taking over, making fun out of that which depresses. I quipped to my wife, “Do you think they ever ask, ‘are you bored? Wanna go somewhere?’ when they’re touching heads, just hangin’ out on the glacier flats?” My wife giggled, shook her head softly and then let her laugh slide into a sigh. A common, endearing habit. She had a supposition of her own, having seen some pictures online of deer wandering onto roads in (packs? Whatever the word for groups of deer is) the recent absence of cars. The point: the humans are in retreat, having been taken down by something that doesn’t even live in the ways we understand living. Nature is taking over. Taking revenge?
If you’ve followed this blog for a while you might think I’d turn to Hitchcock at this point and start pontificating about The Birds, with its nature’s mysterious revenge theme, coupled with an Oedipal crisis for its protagonist. But the film that’s most been on my mind in recent months, and even more so during the outbreak of what I’ll now call “The Virus”, is Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. See, I was due to talk about the 1964 comedy classic at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina in May; that is, until “The Virus” intervened, forcing a cancellation of the event. Naturally, I’m disappointed. For a hot-tempered minute, I was bitter, thinking that I’d been waiting for years for a chance to give a presentation like this, and had spent at least six months diligently preparing. Well, in case you wonder, I have managed to get over myself, and in case you further wonder, I’ll not give up on that goal, though it’s not clear if or when I’ll get to present my subject live. Meanwhile, my wife decided that I needn’t wait to see what will happen in the future, instead suggesting that I provide a version of my presentation as a voice-over to my power-point slide show, and then place the whole thing on You Tube.
And so I have. In between client sessions that now take place exclusively by either phone or video connection, and also between efforts to otherwise adjust to the upheaval that “The Virus” has brought everyone, I have found time to salvage my “Dr. Strangelove” project and adapt it in the manner that my wife has suggested. It wasn’t easy. Among other things, I’m not adept with things, including computers, so synchronizing the slides alongside my voice commentary, not to mention incorporating clips from the film that couldn’t simply be inserted via online media, proved to be a painstaking, patience-thwarting task. I became doubly aware of the ironies. Already, Dr. Strangelove exudes a critique of modern technology, man’s obsession with technical minutia, industrial progress; machinery and war. The previous and unchanged subtitle of my talk, “How I learned to stop worrying and love my phone” was of course a reference to yet another aspect of mine and others’ tethered existence.
Now I need them more than ever, those damned phones. I need computers more than ever. Whose idea was this? Of all the conspiracy theories that are being advanced currently, and which I am not listening to because I have better things to do, are there any being aimed at our precious technocracy? It’s not that I think our machinery intrinsically evil. I’m painfully aware that my Luddite predisposition is a result of fumbling inadequacy, and that my protest against that which has its own rules and idiosyncrasies, and which increasingly forces consumers to figure out processes via trial and error (seriously, where did all the manuals go?), is a persecutory fear projected at the inanimate substitutes of an invisible authority. As the applications that promised a transfer of my power-point plus commentary display into a You Tube-compatible video blocked or mocked me at one turn after another, my thoughts began to drift into the kind of psychotic state that would have fitted right in with the Mad Men assembly of Dr. Strangelove. I vaguely thought I should add something about H.G Wells at some point. Then, as the visage of Stanley Kubrick crossed my mind, I had a thought that I should be talking about HAL and 2001 instead.
That prompted more ideas: one was to include one or two lines from 2001, like “Open the pod bay doors, please”, which could be discussed in terms of Wilfred Bion’s ideas about beta elements and psychotic functioning, for example. More importantly, I thought to reference that line a second time, during a passage wherein I am talking about Major Kong’s (Slim Pickens) attempt to fix the short-circuited bomb bay doors moments before the film’s climactic bomb run. Open the pod bay doors, I imagined, would have fit perfectly as a linking piece of psychic function. Alas, topical or not, I chose to not entirely re-do my Strangelove presentation. The focus upon misguided technology, existential threats to the planet, our returning fear of the Russians, plus our observation of Mad Men in positions of power had already made Dr. Strangelove a still-relevant work of art for the 21st century—hence the first clause of my title: “Dr. Strangelove in the 21st century”. But as I watched the last clip of my presentation, feeling more or less satisfied that I have endured all of technology’s glitches so as to offer a worthy product, I noticed one more thing that I might have said but didn’t, and which I will include here instead.
In a clip that features the eponymous Strangelove character (Peter Sellers) wrestling with his wheelchair, the sense of farce and tension mounts with the knowledge that “The bomb” of the plot has been dropped, thus triggering the dreaded doomsday device that, according to Strangelove, will render the surface of the planet uninhabitable for ninety-three years. He then explains that human beings could live in mine shafts while being unemployed and having little to do except copulate and thus repopulate the earth. Now, on the one hand, this hilarious piece of satire furthers the film’s repertoire of themes: sex and death diffused; man and machine intertwined, etc. I could have added something about that, I thought. On the other hand, I was feeling weary. I didn’t want to do another recording. And maybe I’ll get to do a live presentation someday after all, I thought, feeling hopeful for a change. Then another chilly set of thoughts came to me: what about the future? Has life changed? Will I be unemployed in the near future, have little to do. That doesn’t sound very sexy, actually. I’m not one of the Mad Men. I loved Dr. Strangelove as a film with lasting relevance, but I didn’t and don’t love the bomb. And despite whatever silver lining or life lesson emerges from our present crisis, my thinking belies my play-upon-a-title: I don’t think I’ll learn to love the virus.