Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Atomic Cafe

“Risk is part of a pattern of daily routine.” Quite true—and what better way to illustrate this than by showing an obese opera singer stepping on a bar of soap in the shower and taking a vicious (and very possibly fatal) pratfall?

This hilariously offhand sequence from an old propaganda movie is just one of the many nuclear-age curios unearthed in The Atomic Café. Directed by a trio of anonymous artisans (Jayne Loader, Kevin and Pierce Rafferty), the film is a collage of newsreel footage, army instructional films, television broadcasts, and other assorted audio-visual artifacts of Cold War dementia. Film essayists as diverse as Adam Curtis and Michael Moore bear the influence of this epochal 1982 work and its blending of archival footage and music, but those directors typically rely on narration to carry their arguments. In The Atomic Café, the images are the argument.

The film begins rather prosaically with an old interview with Paul Tibbets (pilot of the Enola Gay) framing the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as American society struggles to rationalize life under the bomb, the film’s tone grows more mordant, the footage simultaneously more disturbing and more ridiculous. There’s plenty of atomic kitsch on display here, from the well-known Duck and Cover, with Bert the turtle and his far-from-reassuring advice on how to respond to a nuclear attack, to a child in a radiation suit awkwardly riding his bicycle to the sweet country twang of that Lowell Blanchard and the Valley Trio classic, “Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb.”

But the film is more than a repository of outdated paranoia gathered together for our amusement. The directors construct two major threads running through the film: first, the propaganda and news footage serenely explaining the imminent threat of total death and the many forms this death will take, and second, the average American devouring all this heady information. A favourite device of the film is to introduce its next propaganda clip with some 1950s American family turning on their radio or television.

This isn’t just a glib narrative technique. The overwhelming subtext of the propaganda films is that the bomb can reach any American, anywhere, even in their most private and protected moments—even in the shower, for instance. The campy humour of Duck and Cover derives from its depiction of people in the middle of normal activities—picnicking, bicycling—dropping to the ground and cowering at a sudden flash of light. In traditional war, there is a home front and a battlefront, but in nuclear war the distinction disappears. You are vulnerable wherever you live. The front lines are everywhere.

This culminates in the film’s tour-de-force closing montage, which depicts an all-out nuclear assault cobbled together entirely from images both real and staged, all taken from news and propaganda films. The final punch line is not just how persuasive this sequence is, but the fact that it has been taken from films talking vigilance and safety, from the government’s feeble attempts at reassuring and educating the populace. The final assertion is that this endless talk of nuclear safety is specifically designed to spread nuclear fear and terrify the public into subservience.

This imagined nuclear blast essentially wipes out the film. The atomic-era domestic sphere reconstructed by the directors is finally obliterated not by war but the images of war. In the aftermath, a survivor calmly—because everyone in these films is insanely, terrifyingly, oozingly calm—says, “Nothing to do now but wait for orders from the authorities and relax.” And to the man lying in a wet pool at the bottom of the shower—paralyzed by confusion, pain, or helplessness, it doesn’t matter—this must sound like a very good plan indeed.

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