December 24, 2018
An artful assemblage of Cold War propaganda films about dealing with the atomic age and potential nuclear war, The Atomic Cafe’s near-singular mix of solemnity and gonzo remains as relevant as ever. The new Blu-ray restoration makes the film look and sound as good as it ever did, accompanied by a trove of bonus materials.
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Kevin Rafferty’s Harvard Beat Yale 29-29 is my all-time favorite sports movie of any kind — so much so that my boundless love for that 2008 documentary had to some extent watered down my memories of 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which Rafferty concocted a quarter-century earlier with his brother Pierce and Jayne Loader.
This is an unintended and certainly unfortunate consequence of intensely personal ardor for the later doc because it turns out that Cafe’s near-singular mix of solemnity and gonzo hasn’t lost a thing. If anything, it has likely gained even more current-day currency given those chills that shoot up the globe’s back whenever the current president goes “full Peter Lorre” playing a fresh game of political football with the nuclear one.
Given the picture’s recent 4K once-over that the filmmakers say (on this new Blu-ray version’s bonus material podcast) makes this assemblage of 16mm archival materials look and sound better than it did at the time, I just took a fresh look at Cafe to remind myself that it remains no less a marvel. Which is, turns out, absolutely true — not that this is any shattering surprise when you have foolproof material further enhanced by a savvy filmmaking team.
In fact, I’m amazed that Cafe didn’t get an Oscar nomination for feature documentary given that it was also cutting-edge popular at the time; the Rafferty’s and Loader were, for instance, among the first guests on Late Night With David Letterman. Certainly the narrative hook here is one with which Letterman could have really gone to town: an artful assemblage, with apt musical backdrop choices, of official government films. And not just any old government issues but those specifically from the Cold War era intending to facilitate — if not our exactly love of The Bomb — at least our willingness to ask it out on a date.
This black-comic history of a harrowing topic begins straight-faced enough with interview footage of Col. Paul Tibbets (who piloted the Enola Gay’s bomb-dropping on Hiroshima) and scenes from the aftermath. Wisely, neither of these are treated with straight-faced irreverence, but we soon get a sense of what’s to come from a brief radio clip — the actors’ voices suggest a “Fred Allen Show” — on which it’s quipped that the resulting rubble suggests the aftermath of an MLB New York double-header. Wince — but the gag merely foreshadows what we’re about to see once the Soviets get their own atomic bomb, and the U.S. government has to find a way to soothe our nerves at a time when movies and even pop songs were reacting to the new age. Though none of latter busted enough Billboard charts at the time to break Eddie Fisher into a sweat, it’s good for a few double-takes to discover the Bomb-motifed musical obscurities unearthed for the movie’s soundtrack.
The government-produced instructional shorts are, however, the era’s enduring legacy, treasures that are plumbed more to the max than anything here. Included, inevitably, is perhaps the most famous: Duck and Cover, which I suppose you can say kicked off the 1952 movie season with a Jan. 7 release. (Imagine: Duck and Nixon’s “Checker’s Speech” were byproducts of the very same year, speaking as one who used to haunt repertory theaters in the ’60s and ’70s, especially those with waggish programmers). The former features not a duck but a turtle — that would be Bert the Turtle, thank you — whose visage was famously utilized at the time as an example of how to avoid death and atomic fallout long before it enjoyed something of renewed revival the past couple years due to the animated creature’s oft-mentioned resemblance to Mitch McConnell.
The instruction here is to find a table or picnic blanket under which to dive upon being faced with a blast of Nuclear Holocaust — the same way as Bert puts his head into reverse and backs into his protective shell whenever faced with a detonated firecracker or some other personal peril. You can debate whether or not this approach made any sense for early 1952 (and you can see that folks do so in IMDb.com’s Cafe commentary page), but shelf life was not in its future; by later the same year, we had the H-bomb; shortly thereafter, the Soviets detonated their own, and a blanket just wasn’t going to cut it. And even later than this, the government was still churning out films (we see them here) about how stronger building materials could do a better job at saving your house after you emerge, post-blast, from your fallout shelter. One of these, again in the Blu-ray bonus section, includes a demonstration that brings to mind the buffing-puffing mayhem in The Three Little Pigs.
This is a Blu-ray where the film at hand, superb as it is, is almost literally only half the package. The full-length string of bonus short subjects run over three hours, and there’s 80 minutes more of material — President Eisenhower and Richard Nixon get respectively showcased in two of the entries — from what is described as an “ill-fated” 1995 CD-ROM project about the Atomic Age that Loader worked on. Anyone who wants to give Kino Classics some extra business can harmoniously pair Cafe with the company’s Blu-ray of 1954’s The Atomic Kid, Republic’s wild-ass farce (story co-credited to the young Blake Edwards) about Mickey Rooney surviving a test blast and, among other things, getting Nevada slot machines to begin pouring out coins whenever he passes them from the radioactivity in his body.