New York

“The Atomic Cafe”

Film Forum

In Reflections, published in the New Yorker (February 1, 8, and 15, 1982), Jonathan Schell writes that “The right vantage point from which to view a [nuclear] holocaust is that of a corpse, but from that vantage point, of course, there is nothing to report.” For the mass detonation of nuclear warheads would result in the almost total annihilation of not only human life, but of nearly all forms of life on earth. There would be no reportage on evacuation procedures, no emergency health-care centers, no radio or television transmission of civil defense information. Just the simplicity of nothingness; extinction.

It is just this possible condition that has been handily omitted from all the projected scenarios of nuclear conflict. From 1945 on, the “information” on atomic testing and nuclear warfare and their effects on human beings reads like a bumpy little fairy tale rife with tiny discomforts, reducing global strategies to the level of slightly belligerent nursery rhymes. These farfetched narratives are the stuff of The Atomic Cafe, a film by Jayne Loader and Kevin and Pierce Rafferty. Consisting of governmental, military, and educational films of the ’40s and ’50s, it is an anthology of the propagandistic presentation which aimed at convincing its viewers to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. Exhibiting a studious understanding of the visual power of its “original” footage, the film strings together dozens of horrifyingly deluded narratives. A plane’s shimmering silver wing sinks into a South Seas blue sky; a farmer, small and humble on his tractor, is slowly shadowed by the sleek elegance of a passing jet. These shots, functioning with the grace of a Chanel commercial and punctuated by such atomic-era melodies as “This Cold War With You,” armored their viewers from the fact of their own vulnerability. The animated sequences, honed to silly perfection, tell tales of pudgy little rockets chugging along toward their targets like friendly baby locomotives. Cartoon figures of Commie troops loom like the bogeymen replicas they’re supposed to be. Soldiers at a test site are shown running toward ground zero after the officer in charge has advised them not to worry about themselves, they’d be OK. A family in a fallout shelter waits for the blast while Dad announces, “If there’s an explosion we’ll wait about a minute and then go upstairs.” Then there’s “Duck and Cover,” a filmic ditty which purportedly instructs the viewer on what to do when the bomb falls. “Duck and cover,” croons a helpful animated turtle friend. “That flash means act fast.” Unfortunately none of this information mentions the fact that “fast” will never be fast enough, and that the bright-eyed children, modest moms, and competent dads, and even their cute little turtle friends, will all be incinerated in a heap of burning flesh and melted charm bracelets.

The Atomic Cafe is a powerful reminder of the lunatic forces at work in the world and of the perennial love affair between a guy and his warhead. An ambitious exercise in editing, its acuity lies in the gathering and quoting of images and words already existing as film—a propaganda of propagandas. Through this appropriative device and reproductive structure, it connects with certain strategies within the art subculture: those of works that engage both implicit and explicit commentaries. But the filmmakers have resisted the explicitness of a voice-over, using the editing procedure as the sole alteration of the original footage. This editing exhibits a strenuous virtuosity which allows for both a succinct restatement of the clips’ original sentiments and a subtle recreation of meaning. The ridiculously baroque constructions of the government footage finally give way to audience laughter.

This amusingness, coupled with the dated, nostalgic quality of the original sermons, results in a kind of sweet, distanced entertainment (as if terms like “window of vulnerability” and “margin of nuclear superiority” weren’t being bandied about today). The Atomic Cafe’s focus on the implicit reading of its clips can be seen as a tactical error, but its charm might allow the film a broad theatrical and video distribution. And its accessibility is the value of this movie, along with its possible ability to pave the way for more explicitly critical works, less mired in liberal cuteness. But despite its cuteness, The Atomic Cafe is a thoughtful suggestion to us all: that it might be pleasurable for us to continue breathing.

Barbara Kruger