Now Playing! Peter Sellers’ Pained Hilarity at the Castro

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Still from 'Dr. Strangelove.'

As the end of another year draws nigh, we ponder the future and reflect on the past. A December double bill of timeless masterpieces at the Castro compels me to contemplate the cultural importance of repertory cinema, our relationships to screens big and small, and the unchanging nature of human nature. Join me, if you will: Take a shot of melancholy, add a dash of bitters, garnish with ironic bemusement and enjoy a refreshing cocktail of Critic’s Grog.

An odd introduction, perhaps, to a pair of comedies. But Peter Sellers’ brilliant turns in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Being There (Thursday, Dec. 13) are tinged with madness and, dare I say, despair. Stanley Kubrick’s savage 1964 satire—featuring Sellers in three roles, plus macho men George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden at their peaks—of humankind’s race to mutually assured destruction remains simultaneously hilarious and horrifying; it’s dated only in the sense that we’ve swapped instantaneous nuclear annihilation for slow-motion environmental destruction.

Sellers’ slack-jawed portrayal of the dim-witted gardener elevated to the White House in Hal Ashby’s audacious Being There (1979) was viewed at the time as a critique of minor Hollywood actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan. It turns out that Chance’s obsession with television—“I like to watch” is one of the film’s most famous lines—and his habit of repeating things he’s heard out of context is more reminiscent and prescient of the current (at this writing) occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania.

Peter Sellers is one of a handful of comic geniuses in the history of movies. Let’s raise a glass to his memory and his movies, and the pleasure he continues to give us.