FILM COMMENT : How We've...

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

There is a time, says the Bible, which ought to know, for every purpose under heaven, and in the world of theatrical movies, the past several years have been the time for elaborately ballyhooed re-releases of classic films.

Though Disney, with its practice of periodically unleashing the gems of its animation library, has been re-releasing for decades, it was Columbia's decision to give new life to "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1989 by adding once-discarded footage that probably kicked off the current craze.

And a craze it's been, with the list of films getting a second chance, with or without restored scenes, including "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Midnight Cowboy," "Blade Runner," "The Guns of Navarone" and "La Strada." Both "Woodstock" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" are currently playing in Los Angeles in new prints, and "The Conformist," "Mickey One" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" are due in the foreseeable future.

Even given this logjam, this coming week is a banner one for the cause. For, to mark the 30th anniversary of "Dr. Strangelove" and the 25th of "Easy Rider," new prints of both films will get first-run theatrical treatment, the former at the Nuart in West Los Angeles starting Wednesday and the latter at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood starting Friday.

Both films share more than their concise 90-something-minute length. Each has Terry Southern as one-third of a screenwriting team (he was Oscar-nominated both times), and each contains one of the great symbolic images of the decade: from "Easy Rider," Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their outlaw choppers across the American landscape, and from "Dr. Strangelove," the irrepressible Slim Pickens as Maj. T. J. (King) Kong grandly waving his Stetson and riding a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco.

In other ways "Dr. Strangelove" and "Easy Rider" have surprisingly little in common, though, and taken together they point out both the blessings of this wave of reissues as well as the different philosophies that motivate a film's revival.

Where "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is concerned, a respect for quality is the driving force. In a new print made from a negative created from director Stanley Kubrick's personal copy, it emerges as, if anything, a more potent piece of filmmaking than it appeared three decades ago.

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Seeing it today, with all its audacious black humor undated, one is not surprised that "Dr. Strangelove" is cited by directors as dissimilar as Steven Spielberg ("one of my favorite movies of all time, without a doubt") and Oliver Stone ("I suppose many of our fears of big government are rooted in that theme, in Kubrick's paranoia") as a key career influence.

Kubrick scholar Norman Kagan notes that the director "had been interested in the problems of the nuclear arms race for six years before starting 'Dr. Strangelove,' including reading over 70 books on the subject of nuclear combat and control, and subscribing to Aviation Week and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists."

But though Kubrick's initial thought behind buying the rights to "Red Alert," Peter George's thriller about accidental nuclear war, was to make a serious film on the subject, he found he simply couldn't do it.

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay," Kubrick told one interviewer. "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep from being funny; and those things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."

From its opening sequence of the midair refueling of a giant B-52 bomber played against a soft instrumental version of "Try a Little Tenderness," the film's strength is this ability to be at once funny, chilling and intellectually engaging.

Certainly the story line is more than unnerving. A rogue American general in the Strategic Air Command decides on his own initiative to send planes to attack the Soviet Union and is able to do so just as that country secretly activates a doomsday machine that will automatically destroy the world if so much as one bomb falls on the U.S.S.R.

What makes this horror funny is the controlled comic exaggeration of both the Kubrick-George-Southern script and the acting that animated it. As a satire on the military mind, filled with lines like "Gentlemen, no fighting in the War Room," "Strangelove" is one of those rare Hollywood scripts, both pithy and outrageous, that was not second-guessed by studio worriers.

When it comes to the acting, starting with Peter Sellers and his celebrated trio of roles, all the principals manage to be both outrageous and in control. From Sterling Hayden as Gen. Jack D. Ripper, worried about a plot to impurify our vital bodily fluids, to George C. Scott as the befuddled Gen. Buck Turgidson and Keenan Wynn as Col. Bat Guano, more concerned with protecting private property than stopping nuclear catastrophe, everyone has an understanding of the pitch this roguish script ought to be played at.

Interestingly enough, it was just this mixture of serious subject matter with maniacal humor that infuriated many critics on the film's initial release. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther said it was "defeatist and destructive to morale"; the Los Angeles Times' Philip K. Sheurer called it "an evil thing about an evil thing," and others followed suit.

Yet, even with the abeyance of the Soviet threat, "Dr. Strangelove" seems continually relevant. What is especially poignant about the film today is realizing the difficulty something this politically engaged would have getting made now and how unlikely it would be, given what he has done lately, that the talented Kubrick would be the person to pull it off.

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Despite all the fuss made about it, "Dr. Strangelove" was not as big a hit in its time as "Easy Rider," which shocked the studio Establishment by earning more than $50 million domestically on a budget of $375,000. Though nowhere the artistic accomplishment that "Dr. Strangelove" was, it definitely touched a nerve in the country, and its re-release is an attempt to see if just as many people will respond with dollars the second time around.

Although "Easy Rider" has come to be the quintessential 1960s movie, it is important to remember that it came out in 1969, when the era it celebrated was just about over. Rather than an influence on a moment in American cultural history, it was a mythologizing and a goodby that affected other movies more than it did society at large.

Loosely directed by co-star Dennis Hopper, "Easy Rider" follows cool dudes Billy and Wyatt (Hopper and Peter Fonda), flush with money from a rich West Coast drug deal, as they motor out to New Orleans for a Mardi Gras celebration of their fiscal success.

The most immediately noticeable thing about "Easy Rider" is how much it has become dated, turning into a relic of an era that has disappeared. It's not just hearing about people getting their thing together so they can have a groovy experience that now seems archaic but also the stoned philosophizing about the meaning of freedom that went along with it.

Running through all of "Easy Rider" is a naive awe at those lucky folk who "live off the land, doing your own thing in your own time." Most embarrassing is a visit Billy and Wyatt pay to an archetypal commune, where the marks of hippiedom, from the I Ching and Tai Chi to tepees and faded VW buses, clamor for attention.

Still the freshest thing about "Easy Rider," it will surprise no one who remembers it, is Jack Nicholson's supple breakthrough performance as a Jim Beam-drinking lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. To experience Nicholson curiously examining a joint or declaiming on everything from UFOs to New Orleans hookers is thankfully as much a pleasure as it ever was.

And as dated as so much of "Easy Rider" is (who wouldn't like to forget the oafish rednecks and that embarrassing New Orleans drug trip?), some of the simplest things the movie did prove to be as effective now as then.

First of all, the soundtrack, featuring songs by the Byrds, the Band, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and others, still sounds alive. When the music is joined to Laszlo Kovacs' invigorating cinematography, "Easy Rider" is able to call forth the sense of freedom and possibility that made it such a sensation way back when. More a time capsule than the enduring classic "Dr. Strangelove" is, it remains a long strange trip all its own.

* "Dr. Strangelove," the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; opens Wednesday; (310) 478-6379. "Easy Rider," Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; opens Friday; (213) 848-3500.

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