March 4, 2014

Directed by Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty, 1982’s The Atomic Café is a devastating take on the chronological snobbery of American disbeliefs and the scant knowledge of the A-experts at the advent of the atomic age. The film, informative yet entertaining, horrific yet hilarious, dwells on stereotypes of those first ten years of public ignorance and nuclear paranoia during the Cold War era, as well as errors and atrocities of its inventors.

With its wonderful montages of Cold War kitsch compiled with archival materials from the 1950s and 1960s reflect, The Atomic Café officially normalises the character of nuclear war. In doing so, it acts just like the other conciliatory propaganda films that were aimed at the American public for mystifying the nuclear fallout paranoia presenting a devastating collage is a true mirror of the official and unofficial attitudes towards American use of the atom bomb against Japan in the years following WWII and preceding the Cold War.

“ironically, he thanks God for guiding America to use the bomb ‘in His ways and to His purposes.'”

The film opens to the archival clips of the first successful Trinity Test at Alamogordo, a thriving Pre-WWII Hiroshima, the civilian target A-bombed, narration by Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Hiroshima bomber, the irradiated city baked and flattened, dying citizens, a Japanese shoe burnt into a bridge, and Captain Kermit K. Beehan, the pilot of the Nagasaki atomic bomber expressing that he was absolutely thrilled. The scene canonises domination to mirror the modernist aesthetics of desublimation. The hysterical triumph is turned into a Pyrrhic victory. According to critic Oloruntoba John Olubunmi, the camera, in a vérité moment, unobtrusively captures Harry S. Truman’s grin before he announces the use of the atomic bomb at the virgin civilian targets for the purpose of bomb damage studies and, ironically, he thanks God for guiding America to use the bomb “in His ways and to His purposes.” The Atomic Café cuts a sequence of Americans celebrating victory, peace and the baby boom, an American Navy officer advising Marshallese islanders of the Pacific Ocean to surrender to God’s will and move to a remote island as their true tropical paradise Bikini Atoll became “uninhabitable by human beings for the next 500 years.”

In the traditions of Soviet filmmakers Esfir Shub and Dziga Vertov, The Atomic Cafe delivers media caricatures of Burt the Turtle from the “Duck and Cover” campaign from 1951, an unrealistic normalising corporate response, but it never undercuts the seriousness of the atomic issues. This reflects public and soldier paranoia in juxtaposition to propaganda newsreel, government films, and military clips such as WWII victory celebrations, advertising, or demonstration films concerning the Trinity Test in the Alamogordo, on the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) desert. In a children’s training film, Burt the Turtle demonstrates his ducking skills inside the safety of his shell whenever a firecracker explodes in his vicinity, advice for “children to crawl under their desks” and cover “their eyes” if exposed to the flash of an A-blast.

“The God-gifted atom bomb becomes a symbol of American love for international peace, freedom, and democracy, until the red communists test their power.”

The film rivals any comedy in this sense because of what Peter Rollins describes as “film irony”. A powerful technique in which image and sound contradict each other through a process of compilation aimed at decontextualising, and recontextualising through exposé quotation or change of immediate context of shots for the purpose of reinterpretation. A powerful example of the simultaneous intermixing of these techniques can be seen in the newsreel of Hiroshima survivors that juxtaposes the clips of two radio comedians making fun of Hiroshima attacks, “It looked like Ebbets Field after a doubleheader with the Giants”. The sequence bears the spirit of an attack for a noble cause as the enemy dies for no cause. In an another hilarious sequence, a doctor diagnoses a patient with nuclearosis (nuclear war paranoia) and, while looking at A-charts, comments “it is absurd that 85 percent of the population should be so fearful when only 15 percent would be killed in an all-out nuclear war.” These satirical montages reflect the faith and confidence of the United States public figures in the American dream. The God-gifted atom bomb becomes a symbol of American love for international peace, freedom, and democracy, until the red communists test their power. The communists’ paranoia first parallels and then dismisses the nuclear paranoia. The public faith in the American dream is reflected in their trust in “duck and cover” and “fallout shelter”, you live if you survive the alpha particles for eight to ten days. It also mirrors their trust in A&H-bombs compared to “red” fever as a Southern Californian businessman, who believes that “shopping centers are an expression of the free world”, sponsors a nuclear defense drill. Similarly, the lens of a Navy periscope in juxtaposition to an American family watching television evokes the meaning that the people are being watched. Critic John Olubunmi sees a dialectic collision between “the inherent perspective of the original archive and its radical reuse” during recontextualisation, which according to Paul Arthur inverts “conventional meanings” and causes “a ‘politicised activation of suppressed ideas’”.

The Atomic Cafe hints at several American wars, conflicts, threats, and fears of communism, the iron curtain. In a hilarious sequence, a father tells his kids that in case of mass deaths following a nuclear detonation, survivors would have more to eat and divide among themselves. The film also refers to several eastern and western block political tussles by naming leaders like Eisenhower, Truman, Nixon, Reagan, Wilson, and several U.S. military figures. This chronological snobbery is brutally honest about a history of American paranoia and the officially normalising attitude toward the nuclear war. Its powerful and disturbing intellectual montages of anticommunist, pronuclear, paranoia films prefer a strategy of subjectivity over objectivity to efficiently mix satire with drama with apocalyptic black humor to leave viewers immersed in the absurdity of American historical truth and Bush’s first-strike policy in pursuit of political ideals. Though now over 30 years old and reflecting on an era fast fading from memory it is for these reasons that The Atomic Café, is still relevant today and still very funny.

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About Wajiha Raza Rizvi

Wajiha Raza Rizvi is the Founding Director of the Film Museum Society of Lahore. She collects the archives of Pakistani cinema, conducts research, produces films, and provides consultancy to a number of established film and media institutions.


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