Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dr. Strangelove

Thinkers of the unthinkable

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At the symposium that I attended over the weekend, the figure whose name seemed to come up the most was Herman Kahn, the futurologist and military strategist best known for his book On Thermonuclear War. Kahn died in 1983, but he still looms large over futures studies, and there was a period in which he was equally inescapable in the mainstream. As Louis Menand writes in a harshly critical piece in The New Yorker: “Herman Kahn was the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals, the men who, in the early years of the Cold War, made it their business to think about the unthinkable, and to design the game plan for nuclear war—how to prevent it, or, if it could not be prevented, how to win it, or, if it could not be won, how to survive it…The message of [his] book seemed to be that thermonuclear war will be terrible but we’ll get over it.” And it isn’t surprising that Kahn engaged in a dialogue throughout his life with science fiction. In her book The Worlds of Herman Kahn, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi relates:

Early in life [Kahn] discovered science fiction, and he remained an avid reader throughout adulthood. While it nurtured in him a rich appreciation for plausible possibilities, [his collaborator Anthony] Wiener observed that Kahn was quite clear about the purposes to which he put his own scenarios. “Herman would say, ‘Don’t imagine that it’s an arbitrary choice as though you were writing science fiction, where every interesting idea is worth exploring.’ He would have insisted on that. The scenario must focus attention on a possibility that would be important if it occurred.” The heuristic or explanatory value of a scenario mattered more to him than its accuracy.

Yet Kahn’s thinking was inevitably informed by the genre. Ghamari-Tabrizi, who refers to nuclear strategy as an “intuitive science,” sees hints of “the scientist-sleuth pulp hero” in On Thermonuclear War, which is just another name for the competent man, and Kahn himself openly acknowledged the speculative thread in his work: “What you are doing today fundamentally is organizing a Utopian society. You are sitting down and deciding on paper how a society at war works.” On at least one occasion, he invoked psychohistory directly. In the revised edition of the book Thinking About the Unthinkable, Kahn writes of one potential trigger for a nuclear war:

Here we turn from historical fact to science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels describe a galaxy where there is a planet of technicians who have developed a long-term plan for the survival of civilization. The plan is devised on the basis of a scientific calculation of history. But the plan is upset and the technicians are conquered by an interplanetary adventurer named the Mule. He appears from nowhere, a biological mutant with formidable personal abilities—an exception to the normal laws of history. By definition, such mutants rarely appear but they are not impossible. In a sense, we have already seen a “mule” in this century—Hitler—and another such “mutant” could conceivably come to power in the Soviet Union.

And it’s both frightening and revealing, I think, that Kahn—even as he was thinking about the unthinkable—doesn’t take the next obvious step, and observe that such a mutant could also emerge in the United States.

Asimov wouldn’t have been favorably inclined toward the notion of a “winnable” nuclear war, but Kahn did become friendly with a writer whose attitudes were more closely aligned with his own. In the second volume of Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, William H. Patterson describes the first encounter between the two men:

By September 20, 1962, [the Heinleins] were in Las Vegas…[They] met Dr. Edward Teller, who had been so supportive of the Patrick Henry campaign, as well as one of Teller’s colleagues, Herman Kahn. Heinlein’s ears pricked up when he was introduced to this jolly, bearded fat man who looked, he said, more like a young priest than one of the sharpest minds in current political thinking…Kahn was a science fiction reader and most emphatically a Heinlein fan.

Three years later, Heinlein attended a seminar, “The Next Ten Years: Scenarios and Possibilities,” that Kahn held at the Hudson Institute in New York. Heinlein—who looked like Quixote to Kahn’s Sancho Panza—was flattered by the reception:

If I attend an ordinary cocktail party, perhaps two or three out of a large crowd will know who I am. If I go to a political meeting or a church or such, I may not be spotted at all…But at Hudson Institute, over two-thirds of the staff and over half of the students button-holed me. This causes me to have a high opinion of the group—its taste, IQ, patriotism, sex appeal, charm, etc. Writers are incurably conceited and pathologically unsure of themselves; they respond to stroking the way a cat does.

And it wasn’t just the “stroking” that Heinlein liked, of course. He admired Thinking About the Unthinkable and On Thermonuclear War, both of which would be interesting to read alongside Farnham’s Freehold, which was published just a few years later. Both Heinlein and Kahn thought about the future through stories, in a pursuit that carried a slightly disreputable air, as Kahn implied in his use of the word “scenario”:

As near as I can tell, the term scenario was first used in this sense in a group I worked with at the RAND Corporation. We deliberately choose the word to deglamorize the concept. In writing the scenarios for various situations, we kept saying “Remember, it’s only a scenario,” the kind of thing that is produced by Hollywood writers, both hacks and geniuses.

You could say much the same about science fiction. And perhaps it’s appropriate that Kahn’s most lasting cultural contribution came out of Hollywood. Along with Wernher von Braun, he was one of the two most likely models for the title character in Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick immersed himself in Kahn’s work—the two men met a number of times—and Kahn’s reaction to the film was that of a writer, not a scientist. As Ghamari-Tabrizi writes:

The Doomsday Machine was Kahn’s idea. “Since Stanley lifted lines from On Thermonuclear War without change but out of context,” Khan told reporters, he thought he was entitled to royalties from the film. He pestered him several times about it, but Kubrick held firm. “It doesn’t work that way!” he snapped, and that was that.

“Open the bomb bay doors, please, Ken…”

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Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove

After the legendary production designer Ken Adam died last week, I found myself browsing through the book Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design, a wonderfully detailed series of interviews that he conducted with the cultural historian Christopher Frayling. It’s full of great stories, but the one I found myself pondering the most is from the making of Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick had just cast Slim Pickens in the role of Major Kong, the pilot of the B-52 bomber that inadvertently ends up triggering the end of the world, and it led the director to a sudden brainstorm. Here’s how Adam tells it:

[The bomber set] didn’t have practical bomb doors—we didn’t need them in the script at that time—and the set was almost ready to shoot. And Stanley said, “We need practical bomb doors.” He wanted this Texan cowboy to ride the bomb like a bronco into the Russian missile site. I did some setups, sketches for the whole thing, and Stanley asked me when it would be ready. I said, “If I work three crews twenty-four hours a day, you still won’t have it for at least a week, and that’s too late.” So now I arrive at Shepperton and I’m having kittens because I knew it was a fantastic idea but physically, mechanically, we couldn’t get it done. So again it was Wally Veevers, our special effects man, who saved the day, saying he’d sleep on it and come up with an idea. He always did that, even though he was having heart problems and wasn’t well. Wally came back and said, “We’re going to take a ten-by-eight still of the bomb bay interior, cut out the bomb-door opening, and shoot the bomb coming down against blue backing.” And that’s the way they did it.

I love this story for a lot of reasons. The first is the rare opportunity it affords to follow Kubrick’s train of thought. He had cast Peter Sellers, who was already playing three other lead roles, as Major Kong, but the performance wasn’t working, and when Sellers injured his ankle, Kubrick used this as an excuse to bring in another actor. Slim Pickens brought his own aura of associations, leading Kubrick to the movie’s single most memorable image, which now seems all but inevitable. And he seemed confident that any practical difficulties could be overcome. As Adam says elsewhere:

[Kubrick] had this famous theory in those days that the director had the right to change his mind up until the moment the cameras started turning. But he changed his mind after the cameras were rolling! For me, it was enormously demanding, because until then I was basically a pretty organized person. But I wasn’t yet flexible enough to meet these sometimes impossible demands that he came up with. So I was going through an anxiety crisis. But at the same time I knew that every time he changed his mind, he came up with a brilliant idea. So I knew I had to meet his demands in some way, even if it seemed impossible from a practical point of view.

Which just serves as a reminder that for Kubrick, who is so often characterized as the most meticulous and obsessive of directors, an intense level of preparation existed primarily to enable those moments in which the plan could be thrown away—a point that even his admirers often overlook.

Design by Ken Adam for Dr. Strangelove

It’s also obvious that Kubrick couldn’t have done any of this if he hadn’t surrounded himself with brilliant collaborators, and his reliance on Adam testifies to his belief that he had found someone who could translate his ideas into reality. (He tried and failed to get Adam to work with him on 2001, and the two reunited for Barry Lyndon, for which Adam deservedly won an Oscar.) We don’t tend to think of Dr. Strangelove as a movie that solved enormous technical problems in the way that some of Kubrick’s other projects did, but like any film, it presented obstacles that most viewers will never notice. Creating the huge maps in the war room, for instance, required a thousand hundred-watt bulbs installed behind perspex, along with an improvised air-conditioning system to prevent the heat from blistering the transparencies. Like the bomb bay doors, it’s the sort of issue that would probably be solved today with digital effects, but the need to address it on the set contributes to the air of authenticity that the story demands. Dr. Strangelove wouldn’t be nearly as funny if its insanities weren’t set against a backdrop of painstaking realism. Major Kong is a loving caricature, but the bomber he flies isn’t: it was reconstructed down to the tiniest detail from photos in aeronautical magazines. And there’s a sense in which Kubrick, like Christopher Nolan, embraced big logistical challenges as a way to combat a tendency to live in his own head—which is the one thing that these two directors, who are so often mentioned together, really do have in common.

There’s also no question that this was hard on Ken Adam, who was driven to something close to a nervous breakdown during the filming of Barry Lyndon. He says:

I became so neurotic that I bore all of Stanley’s crazy decisions on my own shoulders. I was always apologizing to actors for something that had gone wrong. I felt responsible for every detail of Stanley’s film, for all his mistakes and neuroses. I was apologizing to actors for Stanley’s unreasonable demands.

In Frayling’s words, Adam was “the man in the middle, with a vengeance.” And if he ended up acting as the ambassador, self-appointed or otherwise, between Kubrick and the cast and crew, it isn’t hard to see why: the production designer, then as now, provides the primary interface between the vision on the page—or in the director’s head—and its realization as something that can be captured on film. It’s a role that deserves all the more respect at a time when physical sets are increasingly being replaced by digital environments that live somewhere on a hard drive at Weta Digital. A director is not a designer, and even Adam says that Kubrick “didn’t know how to design,” although he also states that the latter could have taken over any number of the other technical departments. (This wasn’t just flattery, either. Years later, Adam would call Kubrick, in secret, to help him light the enormous supertanker set for The Spy Who Loved Me.) A director has to be good at many things, but it all emerges from a willingness to confront the problems that arise where the perfect collides with the possible. And it’s to the lasting credit of both Kubrick and Adam that they never flinched from that single combat, toe to toe with reality.

Ken Adam on sketching

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As we’ve discussed, I had a good grounding in architecture, design and composition. Drawing with a hard pencil and a T-square certainly appealed to my pedantic sense, and these beautiful drawings, these early drawings, were a kind of self-defense, really. I was playing safe. I was inhibited. I was afraid to let go and express myself…So with the help of felt pens—which had recently been invented—I changed my drawing technique completely. My designs became much bolder and more expressive. I increasingly used a felt pen with a wedge-shaped tip instead of a pencil, conté or pen and ink. A Flowmaster, rather than a hard pencil. I used broader strokes and eliminated unnecessary details…And I now begin with a sketch, rather than a technical drawing—which was important in helping me to visualize the eventual effect in three dimensions—however rough the sketch. It has something to do with the way my mind works.

Ken Adam, production designer of Dr. Strangelove and the James Bond films

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

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