My Strange Love

Stuart Klawans

 Vol. 26, No. 2, 2002

 

If we’d thought to name our afternoon’s pastime, we might have called it Spot the Bomb. We made it up while rambling through the neighborhood one overcast spring day: a game whose first move was a shouted “I saw the flash in the sky!” Whoever called out the sighting would point east, across the Yates Avenue playground toward the steel mills’ smoke, or west, from the schoolyard’s asphalt toward the railroad tracks, or south, past 100th Street to the yellowish haze over Calumet Harbor. Whoever questioned the sighting would be told, “You have only five seconds from when you see the flash!” Then, screaming “Get down!”, we’d all drop into the fetal position we knew as Civil Defense.

I don’t recall any great anxiety in this game, apart from feeling that one of the kids was a missile bully. He bellowed us down, and did it for twice as many bombs as anyone else spotted. Besides, he prolonged the sport beyond the point where I would have preferred the swing set. But I couldn’t have refused to play. Everyone knew that South Chicago was a prime Russian target, its round-the-clock industries scheduled for destruction right after the White House. For just that reason our teachers had educated us to cower beneath our desks, heads down and eyes closed. For that reason our television sets whined in the middle of programs—a test, we were told, of the Emergency Broadcasting System—and sirens practiced their howling each morning at 10:30. I can guess the year we invented Spot the Bomb because I know when those sirens set off a panic. It was autumn 1959, when the White Sox won the pennant in a night game, and the Fire Department blasted an off-hours salute.

Most likely, then, I’m remembering a pastime invented in spring 1960, when green elms were lined up along the streets and imported earthworms glistened under the bushes. (Worms and soil were both new to this place, built over acres of slag from the mills.) Winter left the houses bubbled and peeled; but with winter gone, our two-story duplexes looked moist and strange against a shifting CinemaScope of clouds. If we’d wandered east, we’d have come to the factories: Wisconsin Steel and International Harvester, vast and dark, brooding for miles along Torrence Avenue. And to the west, I’d discovered a stand of poplars at least eight feet deep, thick enough that you could pretend they were a wood. Step in, and you were suddenly out of the neighborhood, gazing in solitary peace at a marshland beyond, which stretched as far as 103rd and Doty and its colossal incinerator tower. I loved to look at the massings of flame and rusting metal that bounded us, just as I loved the raw, not-quite-domesticated nature in our midst, which a developer had thought would prettify our streets, but instead had made them poignant.

What a thrill I felt, a few years later, when I first came across The Prelude! It turned out that somebody else had grown up “Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.” In Wordsworth’s case, though, the faculty that awoke in childhood had matured into a poet’s imagination. My power to refigure the world turned out to be no more than a critic’s; and so, over time, I’ve found consolation both in the Romantics and the rationalists. Think of Hume, who refuted Wordsworth in advance, discovering nothing godlike in a “fancy” that was principally good for tossing out “winged horses, fiery dragons, and monstrous giants.” These, Hume demonstrated, were the products of a “gentle force” of the mind, which busied itself by linking single ideas into compounds.

If I were to try to reconcile these two accounts of the imagination, I might propose that Hume was analyzing from the outside and Wordsworth experiencing from within. But that explanation says nothing about the motives of the writers, or the mindsets of the readers who found them persuasive. In 1739, in A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume demoted the imagination to something quasi-mechanical and semi-idiotic. In 1798, with the publication of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth launched the exaltation of that same faculty. Only sixty years had passed. Why the change?

Since Hume didn’t believe in causes and effects, I won’t pretend to establish any; but I do notice that this shift in attitude coincided with a shaking of confidence in the public sphere. England’s empire endured its first contraction during those sixty years. In the same period, a newly, freakishly militant France began to threaten the security of all institutions and borders. Just when political and economic relations were growing unstable, imagination became individualized—more fastened on autobiography—and yet, paradoxically, more primordial. To simplify grotesquely: Hume and his first readers did not know the Terror: Wordsworth and his first readers did.

These thoughts, of course, were unavailable to a nine-year-old in that spring when John Kennedy invented his missile gap. I knew only that the majesty of my neighborhood stirred me, and that its obliteration would be mercifully quick. That was the happy meaning of our game’s five seconds. No one in South Chicago would need to linger in a lonely underground shelter or waste away with radiation poisoning. According to our skeptics, we might not even experience the flash—for how could we see the white light that would pierce our eyes, when by definition it was blinding? We stretched our minds, trying to picture this sublime moment, and found that the effort calmed us, as did our newspapers when they spoke not of a Reign but a Balance of Terror. The phrase had a reassuring, middle-of-the-road tone.

The time was coming, though, when I would not be reassured. In the years just after Spot the Bomb, I became better acquainted with the Terror, largely because two “educational” films inadvertently moved me to doubt everything official. In so doing, these pictures also incited me to my first acts of film criticism. No movies ever affected me more—which is funny, since I don’t even know their names.

The first one I saw in my grammar school’s gym. Boastful Mrs. Fitzgerald, who read aloud from J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit and thanked herself for it on our behalf, one day announced an assembly and marched our seventh-grade class down the length of the building, through the wide double doors to the gym and into a buzzing gloom. The lights high overhead were dim in their cages; the walls were hung with the broad crepe of the blackout shades. As I took a seat in the cramped ranks of folding chairs, I saw that, far ahead, the basketball backboard had been cranked to the ceiling and the screen unrolled at the rear of the stage. Had anyone bothered to explain this assembly? If so, the speech must already have been delivered. The gym abruptly went black, the kids all shouted, the teachers threatened indiscriminate reprisals. Then the projector’s beam touched the screen and, by reflex, we all grew quiet again.

With that, I learned that the Luella Elementary School, from fourth grade through eighth, had been summoned to learn about Our Shield in the Sky. Nuclear bombs would never touch American soil, we were told, because the pilots of the Strategic Air Command were on duty day and night. A movie voice yawned and rang from all sides, booming from the speakers and bouncing around the gym. It took a second or two for the words to coalesce into sense; but they were clear enough that I could understand the film’s climax. With the latest advances, the narrator said, our planes would soon outrace even an intercontinental ballistic missile. Here is a demonstration.

On the screen, a rocket shot upward, a plane took off, a rocket trailed across the sky, a plane zoomed higher, a rocket trailed across the sky, a zooming plane shot fire from its wings, a rocket trailed across the sky and suddenly splattered in a great white cloud.

“Yaaay!” shrieked the assembled kids, exulting as one—all except me. I sat silent and alone, thinking, “But there was no missile!” The man had said this would happen someday, not that it could happen now. Besides, this was a movie. The attack we’d seen didn’t even come from Russia!

Now the A-bomb really had me worried. Through the agency of this movie, its cross-cutting so crude that even I saw through the technique, the bomb had instilled in me a new kind of fear: not that I would vanish in a flash, but that my life would be prolonged among the gullible. Worse still, I now saw that the people in charge of us knew all about gullibility and were ready to encourage it—clumsily, at that.

Just how clumsily, I was to learn a bit later, with a second cinematic technique.

My parents, ever generous, had bought me a television set, which sat before the window in my attic bedroom, up in the overheated skull of the house. I watched even on Sunday mornings. If nothing else was on, I would tune in to the educational channel, where a Japanese man would be teaching origami, or an unseen lecturer carrying on about Goebbels and his tools of propaganda.

So, while idling in my room, I got to see an example of Goebbels’ work at its worst. The narrator sounded furious about it; and I was pretty shocked myself. This clip from a Nazi newsreel showed Winston Churchill carving up the world. Or, rather, the newsreel showed the image of a spinning globe, onto which the director had superimposed some footage of Churchill at the dinner table, doing the honors with a roast.

That the victim of this mendacity was Churchill seemed outrageous to me, but no more so than the method of the lie. How dared the Nazis combine images? They had made something happen on the screen that never took place in front of the camera. For the first time in my life, I had come to prize an essential truthfulness in movies, thanks to seeing it violated.

But that was only the first half of the shock. The second came on a Sunday morning a few weeks later, as I sat in bed in nay pajamas watching a Pentagon-produced show called The Big Picture. The feature that day was a Signal Corps newsreel about the Communist menace. It was full of the usual stuff: maps being darkened by the encroachment of Soviet arrows, minor chords in the brass being blared sforzando. Then came the moment of revelation. The image of a spinning globe filled my TV screen. Superimposed on this toy world was footage of Nikita Khrushchev at the dinner table. He was doing the honors with a roast.

After that, I had a better handle on my dislike of Mrs. Fitzgerald. Ever prickly about my elders’ self-satisfaction, ever ready to deflate it, I now understood her preening anti-Communism as a form of pride in being fooled. But what a strange thing to be proud off Surely she knew—since even I knew—how our fear of Russia was being slapped together for us, with one ready-made picture pasted over another. (The imagination does not create; it combines.) Yet she pretended not to know, and thought her pretense made her superior. It was as if we’d let the missile bully scare us for real with Spot the Bomb; as if we’d formed a Bomb Watchers Gang and pressed other boys to join, when we all knew our founding member had been faking. I understood very well the sense of power you get from a gang; I’d helped form a few, and had been excluded from more. But in the Bomb Watchers Gang, you’d be a member and an outsider simultaneously, a liar and the willing victim of lies. And what pleasure would you get? Not the chance to brandish cap guns and celebrate triumphs, but only to duck and cover. Mrs. Fitzgerald, I saw, had agreed to live in perpetual fear. As recompense, she got to admire herself for planting fear in others.

So ended my grammar-school training in film studies and the Balance of Terror. A much larger field of inquiry now waited outside the bounds of the neighborhood, in the near-black Victorian hulk of Bowen High School. I was a child of twelve when I entered the place, in autumn 1963. I was still just thirteen the next summer—but well prepared for the experience—when I went with a few friends to the Hamilton Theater on 71st Street and encountered Dr. Strangelove.

I think of it as my first art movie. By that, I mean it surpassed and defied expectations, which in this case were modest enough. Our group walked into the movie house with the notion that Dr. Strangelove would be funny and dirty, and that the Hamilton’s management hoped never to hear from our parents. On all these points our wishes were fulfilled, from the cashier’s grimace at our arrival to the world’s annihilation at the end. No viewers could have enjoyed more hugely than we the dreamy, loving insertion of a fuel hose into the slitlike opening of a bomber’s tank. (We’d all been tipped off what that was about.) None could have howled more happily at the mention of “precious bodily fluids.” We’d even brought to the movie a rudimentary conception of “satire,” having read this word in MAD magazine.

The more delighted we became, the less amused were the older members of the audience. With the typical bigotry of adults, they assumed we had no right to appreciate Dr. Strangelove out loud. They thought we couldn’t understand it. We understood, all right—though at a distance. The attitudes we’d learned from MAD were our substitute for a first-hand knowledge of politics; our study of Playboy allowed us to savor the movie’s dirty parts. Looking back, I think we weren’t wrong to approach the movie through these impressions from magazines—though I regret that on the subject of women and what you could do with them, I, too, was readily gullible. I might have applied to Playboy and the sex jokes of Dr. Strangelove the same skepticism that I’d discovered in watching Red Scare propaganda; but I didn’t. I came out of the Hamilton Theater a satisfied customer.

Yet I was also dissatisfied, in a way that was utterly new to me. I worried, as a fish worries at the hook, because of Dr. Strangelove’s sudden ability to rise from his wheelchair. Of course I understood why the excitement of the moment might make his right arm shoot upward in a Nazi salute; I knew why, under pressure, he forgot himself and addressed the President as “mein Führer.” These slips testified to certain facts of post-war history, which a Jewish boy could register without recourse to MAD. As a movie-mad kid, I also could recognize Kubrick’s parody of psychiatric melodramas, which always called for the climactic cure of one kind of cripple or another. But what was the meaning of this miracle cure? Why did it happen? What did it have to do with anything? The mystery nagged at me so much that a week later, riding home from a visit to Aunt Molly and Uncle Phil, I was still talking about it, at length, from the back seat of the car. “Enough!” my mother finally snapped from the front. “It’s just a movie!” With that, I knew for the first time that I’d seen something more than a movie.

Something more: That is to say, I experienced my dissatisfaction as a surplus, which overflowed the ninety-three minutes of the film. My task, as I understood it, was to locate the hidden source, in which I would discover a truth that would explain not only   but also something of the world into which I’d emerged from the Hamilton, trailing clouds of puzzlement as I went. I was thirteen. I thought art was embedded with secrets, which you could decode.

Reconstructing those feelings now, almost forty years later, I can analyze how the movie went about bothering me. One of its tricks was to ascribe great importance to Strangelove, who made nothing happen. He didn’t build a Doomsday Machine; he didn’t order a nuclear attack; he didn’t climb into the bomb bay of an airplane to loose the all-fatal nuke. Strangelove scarcely even spoke until the final scene; and yet he was the title character. I couldn’t see why.

Nor could I comprehend why the movie’s high point seemed to be his liberation from the wheelchair. The immense clouds that erupted after his cure, blossoming across the whole planet, seemed to express his joyful recovery. I understood, of course, that this healing could be interpreted in a straightforward way, as you would have read the editorial cartoon in a newspaper. Strangelove equalled the Nazis, with their heartless efficiency and brutal power. His mobility, regained, must therefore have equalled the return of unencumbered fascism. This would all have been plausible enough, except that the moment bore no resemblance to editorial cartoons. It played more like something from the Gospels. Toss down your throw-weight and walk! Despite my being a Jewish boy, I wanted to know: Were we all saved in Dr. Strangelove?

And was Strangelove as irrelevant to the action as he seemed? He was played by Peter Sellers, who in the same film also portrayed a British officer and the President. I felt that some sympathy accrued to Strangelove from these other characters, just as a portion of Strangelove’s suffering bled into them. Maybe the officer and the President, too, were crippled in some way. Maybe they, and we, would be redeemed with Strangelove when the world blew up.

Right then, had I known enough to search for feelings rather than answers, I would have had all the answer I required. Yes, Strangelove’s cure was a miracle. He received it just before we were all granted our prayer for annihilation. Hadn’t we once passed a happy afternoon anticipating the blast? Didn’t the movie’s most vital, exuberant character straddle the outsize phallus of a bomb and ride it, crowing, into the cataclysm? Weren’t the finale’s mushroom clouds so many puffs of orgasm, deferred since the beginning’s refueling scene? We ached for the ultimate release. We wanted it bad.

This was the aspect of Dr. Strangelove that qualified as secret knowledge—secret only because I refused to know about it. We refused in 1964, when war was still officially unthinkable (despite being ongoing) and a celebrated television commercial, directed by Tony Schwartz, convinced most Americans that Barry Goldwater intended to nuke a daisy-plucking child. By this point in the development of my movie mania, I could inventory the parts from which Schwartz had assembled his fiery dragon, his monstrous giant. I could define his radically simple montage as an example of suspense editing; and what’s more, I could enjoy the effect. This commercial was far more skillful than the propaganda that had inspired my first, lackadaisical skepticism. Besides, I agreed with Schwartz’s propaganda, which made his cheating juxtapositions something to admire, not deride.

I was ready for such argumentation; but nothing had prepared me for Kubrick’s imagination, which made room for ambivalence. I couldn’t add up everything he cross-cut or superimposed, because so many elements of the mix were invisible on the screen, inaudible on the soundtrack. They were mental processes—memories and associations—which interfered subtly, unpredictably, with the more mechanistic operations of “fancy.” Since I was too pious to own up to a big chunk of my thinking—the part that longed for the flash—I also was unable to fathom Strangelove’s miracle cure. All I knew was that some bigger meaning had been opened: something too threatening to be called either funny or dirty, though it masqueraded as both and so was all the more troubling. I thought of the hint of vanity in Strangelove’s wavy blonde hair, of his flirtatious smile and flattering, sibilant speech. I put those traits together with his apparatus of sadism: the tinted eyeglasses, the black glove, even the circular slide rule (a tool of domination, as any high-school kid would know). I combined the elements in my mind, but the sum kept coming out wrong. They yielded more.

I hadn’t known this was something a movie could do. I wasn’t sure, at this point, that I wanted it done. But the appetite for ambivalence, once aroused, turned out to be insatiable. At first it was reading, more than moviegoing, that fed and sharpened the hunger—though movies figured in it, too, once I pushed beyond 71st Street. Within a few years, I discovered filmmakers who were even more subtle and unpredictable in the way they played on my associations. Kubrick would not be one of my favorites.

But that doesn’t matter. Like any lover in middle age, I still smile when I think of him, my first. I miss him, too, when I watch those movies today that are big-budget, bankable-star versions of Our Shield in the Sky, such as Independence Day, Armageddon, The Peacemaker, The Sum of All Fears. Week after week, I sit through these exercises in cross-cutting, which cater to our nihilism and our piety alike, but always in sequence, never at once. First some terrible destruction rains down; then the source of the destruction is destroyed. At both times, the kids shriek “Yaaay!” And I sit in the dark, alone.

Or rather, I would be alone at those times, except for my memory. Allied with Hume’s “fancy,” memory gives rise to a function of imagination of which I was ignorant when I first saw Dr. Strangelove, but which matters to me deeply now. Imagination allows us to converse with our dead.

The dead one at times might be my father, who helped train me in film criticism, since he, like all good fans, was a critic himself. I often recall how he leaned toward me in the middle of one picture—a comedy, not a thriller—and said, “You know what’s coming next, don’t you?”

The dead one can also be myself. The teenager who watched Dr. Strangelove still comes around to haunt me when the lights go down—though, more often, I’m visited by a slightly older ghost, the one who got out of the neighborhood and past the high school, to have his first encounters with subtitles. This is the kid for whom terror became a normal presence. He knew he would probably stay out of Vietnam and jail, but he could never be sure of it. He doubted he would be killed in a riot—or a full-scale race war—but he didn’t see why not. This kid had found himself in a nation of Mrs. Fitzgeralds, who wanted their government to incinerate Asians, to murder blacks who complained too vehemently, to keep those bombs piling up. He didn’t need to scan the perimeter at all hours, watching for harm; but he understood very well that most of his fellow citizens wouldn’t have minded if it came to him.

When my imagination awakens in the dark, I sit with that kid, more than with anyone else. His discoveries remain fresh in me; I feel his fears, and (even more) his loves. That’s why, when I search for beauty in the movies, I’m always happiest to see it in scenes that resemble the South Loop, where a narrow iron bridge crossed the brown trickle of the Chicago River, and the bays of the Polk Street Station stood abandoned and rusting alongside the water. I loved that place because my father worked there, in a loft building with the honorably tired appearance of a factory worker coming off an overtime shift. I loved the place because I thought Antonioni could have used it for a location.

During my first summer home from college, when Antonioni and daily terror were so new to me, I worked there, at 310 West Polk Street, in a mindless job my father had secured for me. I loved him more for seeing him in this setting, where he was no longer my father but one of several paunchy, cigar-chewing men, who worked together and kibbitzed and nursed their resentments against a cool, disapproving boss. Because my father had become finite, localized, he was more precious to me; and I loved the silent car rides we shared each day—rides in the same direction that led to college and a bigger world of movies.

We’d leave at seven to beat traffic and go north on Jeffrey Boulevard until it turned into a highway, which stretched and curved along Lake Michigan’s shore. To our left, the wooded edge of Jackson Park blurred past; to our right was a vast hemisphere of clouds, and silver waves as far as the horizon. My memory has retained no blue days over the lake; the scene is always overcast, so it seems we’re driving by a bandshell as big as the world, built so that no orchestra is needed. The dome and platform are the music. I attend the performance every day of the week.

This is Chicago’s sublime—in my experience, as much natural grandeur as most people ever get. In a dream from that summer, I stand on the rocky shore, at dawn, as a deep roar passes overhead. There is no flash. The sky darkens, and I see that the massed power of the Chinese air force is coming from behind me, from the lake, spreading west over Chicago. As soon as the planes reach the Illinois Central tracks, miles and miles of low slum dwellings and factory sheds burst into flame. The whole city is an orange panorama, and I am leaping with joy.

 

 

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