The aftermath of the Second World War left Americans in a profoundly ambivalent state. On the global stage the United States stood as the only major nation the war did not physically ravage. Compared to England, France, Italy, Japan, all that was at one time Germany, and especially the Soviet Union, America suffered minimal casualties. Economically, the war brought the end to the Depression. A new era of consumerism and disposable income dawned. Meanwhile, the Americans and Soviets were engaged in the Cold War and schoolchildren learned to consider a nuclear attack as likely as a tornado.
While federal funds developed such entities as the Air Force, Strategic Air Command, and National Aeronautics And Space Administration, successful corporations became monolithic and brand names took on new significance. Is it possible the Cold War and Cold Consumption were manifestations of the same anxiety? David Riesman, Marty Jezer and others have attempted to describe the factors contributing to the malaise of the time. It is as if the state of worldwide anxiety that Sigmund Freud diagnosed in Civilization And Its Discontents had been aggravated by the war and that the postwar American plentitude had only rendered the nation more anxious. We find evidence of this anxiety in a wide range of cultural artifacts, including such apparently disparate films as The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, directed by Nunnally Johnson in 1956, depicts a man's struggle to achieve comfort and happiness as he settles into a new position in a very large corporation. The film, adapted from a very popular novel by Sloan Wilson, is a prosaic melodrama with Bernard Herrmann providing the melos on strings. According to Variety, The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit was the third highest-attended film in the country upon its release in April of 1956. It rose to the number one spot in its second week, and remained among the leaders throughout its two-month run in the theaters of major cities that Variety uses as an index (weekly issues of Variety from April 18 to June 13, 1956). The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit ended the year as the fourteenth-highest grossing film of 1956, with an estimated take of 4.35 million dollars (Variety, January 2, 1957).
Suffice it to say, a lot of people saw this film, and many must have seen it twice or more. While there is little evidence as to exactly who saw the film, we can assume it was primarily an older audience, for whom the film affirmed the importance of their lives. Thus, melodrama is a very appropriate genre. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit tells people who commute from the suburbs to dull jobs in the city, and the spouses of these people, that their lives are potentially tragic and heroic.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1963 (release delayed until February 1964 due to the assassination of President Kennedy), is a dark comedy about the inevitability of nuclear Armageddon. The film is based on a novel by Peter George that carried the title Two Hours To Doom in England and Red Alert in the States. George's novel was a high-tech thriller. Kubrick acquired the film rights to the book. He first conceived of the film as a "straightforward melodrama" until, "he 'woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.' He said he could only see it now as 'some kind of hideous joke'" (Southern and Friedman 72). Kubrick brought in Terry Southern to help him add humor.
Southern came from the then-growing literary genre of dark comedy and subversive satire that included such writers as Vladamir Nabokov, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, and John Updike. These writers, and others, wrote novels and short stories that skewered institutions such as the family, church, medicine, and government. To a certain extent, the comedian Lenny Bruce, musicians such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, and the beat poets came from the same perspective. Whereas film noir came to an end as a viable genre once it became conscious of itself, these dark humorists fed off of their own self-consciousness; the more conscious they and everyone else was of their method, the more vicious their humor became. Ludicrous society demanded outrageous humor as commentary. Dark, subversive satire is the appropriate genre for Dr. Strangelove not only because of the fantastic nature of potential nuclear Armageddon, but because of the realities of the society that created such a possibility. Southern's novels up to that point include Candy, a modern take on Voltaire's Candide that makes a mockery of such institutions as the family, medicine, television, education, and the virtue of chastity. The Magic Christian, another Southern novel, made a joke of the wealthy and of commercialism. With a finely-honed wit that subverted every institution the older generation held dear, Southern was the perfect writer to punch up the dark comedy of Dr. Strangelove.
However the film touched them, people came out in large numbers to see Dr. Strangelove. The Variety "National Boxoffice Survey" said on February 12, 1964, that "'Doctor Strangelove' has a record in Toronto and continues mighty in two N.Y. theaters." The film reached the third position on Variety's chart on February 26 in its first week of extensive distribution. Dr. Strangelove remained among the most-attended films in the country until it left most of the major theaters in late May (weekly issues of Variety from February 9 to April 29, 1964). Variety rated the films of 1964 by domestic rental fees accrued by distributors. By this measure, Dr. Strangelove came in fourteenth (just behind The Pink Panther, Viva Las Vegas, The Sword In The Stone, and Hard Day's Night), earning 4.148 million dollars in rental fees and an estimated gross revenue of 4.42 million dollars (Variety, January 6, 1965). Judging by reactions in the press to this film, we can assume that a wide variety of people saw it, producing a wide variety of reactions.
This site will provide a reading of each of these films through the lens of The Lonely Crowd by Riesman, one of the most popular sociology texts of the time. Riesman describes three character types on which societies rely at various stages of development. While he provides a multitude ofrear guardd statements to ensure that his reader understands that all societies, and moreover all individual psyches, have elements of each character type, we can readily recognize the signs of this paradigm fifty years after the original publication of The Lonely Crowd. Each stage is primarily marked by the hegemonic force that encourages conformity and by the sanction on the individual who fails to conform.
In the early stages of a society's growth, when birth and death rates are each high, a society relies on "tradition-direction." We might term this the "clan" or "tribal" mindset. Brevity of lifespan and difficulty of subsistence require that the individual assimilate into a predetermined role for the good of society. The sanction on the individual who fails to assimilate is shame. This type of society has been virtually non-existent in North America, except of course for Native Americans and certain modern parochial communities. The last exception carries the qualification that membership in such a community is voluntary, even if it is ones parents who enact volition.
When technology increases lifespan while birth rates remain high and the needs of a society advance beyond mere subsistence to production society begins to rely on "inner-direction." The ideologies espoused by Thomas Jefferson, Max Weber, Horace Greeley, Horatio Alger, Henry Ford, and others are all manifestations of this mentality: produce, create, discover, increase, and save. In short, this is the classic American myth and symbol. The sanction on the individual who fails to conform-by "going west young man" or whatever means of making good for himself-is guilt. Individuals become motivated by what Riesman calls the "psychological gyroscope"; authority figures such as parents, religion, and school set the young individual moving in the "correct" direction, which remains "correct," with only slight corrections, throughout ones lifetime.
When a society reaches a point of relative population stasis and production meets or exceeds demand ideals such as resourcefulness and frugality can become detrimental. One can only produce and acquire so much, as we can see from the interior of a Victorian home. Consumption for consumption's sake becomes morality. At this point society relies on "other-direction"; although the individual may internalize some direction from authority figures, ones peer group becomes hegemonic.
Notions of empirical morality and ethics pale before ephemeral peer judgment. Those who cannot keep pace, or perceive that they are lagging, are punished with anxiety. Perhaps one of the most prescient aspects of the Riesman paradigm is his insight that figures in the mass media are very much part of ones peer group, and may in fact be trend-setters among the peer group. Celebrities may be revered for how exceptionally "just like us" they are; the popularity of the television program Friends illustrates the prescience of this point.
In 1950, Riesman saw that other-direction was becoming the hegemonic force: more so in America than elsewhere in the world, and more so in the largest cities than in smaller cities and rural America. The transition, understandably, is not always smooth. The shift in moral orientation produces anxiety. We can find evidence of these anxieties in the popular culture of the era. The two films under consideration here illustrate the anxieties produced by a society in transition from inner-direction to other-direction.
Please do not infer that these two films stand on equal footing aesthetically. They do not. Kubrick directs a far more cinematically interesting film. These films are only equal as cultural artifacts; each provides an index of its cultural milieu. Still, Johnson's film is very attractive. Within a wide screen, thanks to the CinemaScope technique, colored by Deluxe, Johnson captures a wide range of settings very pleasantly. Similarly, the acting performances in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit and Dr. Strangelove are really not comparable.
If Johnson's direction is not masterful, we must assume that it is at least competent; certain aspects of the film that do not quite jibe, and about which contemporary critics complained, shall be considered pressure points, not mistakes. For example: Betsy Rath complains to her husband that their house, which could stand some improvements but certainly seems comfortable, is full of "ugliness" and "defeat." Johnson could have used a telephoto lens to compress space, causing the actors to blend into their surroundings. Conversely, he could have asked Jennifer Jones to emote a little less. Here we shall read the film as-is; if Mrs. Rath feels defeated by her humble home, it is because peer influence has affected her perception.
Superficially, Dr. Strangelove is about the Cold War; on the same level, Paths Of Glory is about the corrupted ranks of the French army in the First World War, Lolita is about pedophilia, A Clockwork Orange is about juvenile delinquency, and 2001, A Space Odyssey is about space exploration. Of course, all of these films are really about something more. As Kubrick has said himself: "A film is-or should be-more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning-all that comes later. After you've walked out of the theater, maybe the next day or a week later, maybe without actually realizing it, you somehow get what the film maker has been trying to tell you" (Lyon 150). Kubrick has been trying to tell us that all human systems, including the complex matrix of other-direction, are inherently entropic.
The first chapter will use The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit to illustrate the ambivalence and anxiety many Americans felt in the 1950s. Consider why this storyline was suitable for a very popular novel and melodrama. To what extent is Tom Rath a role model, or is he a mythical hero?
Paul Goodman has observed that corporations diffuse responsibility, and Jezer has extended this observation to the Air Force. Air Force officers, likeexecutivess, have little contact with their charges and their competitors. Technology enables people in each sector to travel and communicate without meeting face-to-face. No one along the chain of command must take responsibility for his actions. They all take cues from other others, whom they may never see (Jezer 114).
With this in mind, the second chapter will offer a rather new reading of Dr. Strangelove. Most read this film as a grotesque cautionary tale about the nuclear arms race. While this project does not intend to dispell this reading, it does ask the audience to consider the film within the broader range of Cold War culture. To what extent is Gen. Jack D. Ripper not only a caricature of the upper military echelon, but a stand-in for anyone in an other-directed society. What happens one one man decides that the peer group is wrong, that he alone knows what is right? Is he a wise man or a lunatic?