I'm so glad I watched Atomic Cafe. I can't remember offhand how I was led to it, but it was kind of a world-wide-web sort of association that happened in researching this dark comedy film course I'm writing. Maybe it was when I was reading about Citizen Ruth that I suddenly remembered or saw it at the bottom of the imdb.com page under "if you liked this one, you'll probably like...." But anyway, this is the perfect film to show to start the course.
If you've never seen it, Atomic Cafe is a documentary assembled in 1982 entirely from American propaganda footage from the World War II and Korean War eras. Most would agree that it is a comedy, though in truth, some of the scenes are a horrorshow. The comedy arises from the incongruity between sometimes horrific scenes and jaunty music, upbeat country ditties about how the atomic bomb will hasten our introduction to good buddy Jesus Christ or the incongruity between the paternalistic advice of an Air Force training voiceover and the horrific scenes soldiers are shown. I love the scenes where they play, "Duck and Cover," showing the air raid drills, that terrible 1950s patronizing exercise in futility. "Duck and Cover," we can infer from the film, is just a nice way to say, "Bend over, grab your ankles, and kiss your ass goodbye," because you're going to be dust in milliseconds.
I was excited to see Atomic Cafe again because I knew it would be a perfect introduction to the cold war era, which would help lead in to showing first Dr. Strangelove and then Catch-22. In earlier posts, I mentioned that I feared about both of those films that students wouldn't understand them, wouldn't get the humor, because they wouldn't understand the references--other than the peculiar similarities to today.
Don't get me wrong--Atomic Cafe is rife with those as well. For example, early on we see a smirking Harry Truman address the nation on a newsreel. It's the smirk that gets me--a horribly inappropriate grin as he talks to the American public about using the atomic bomb and has the audacity to say that he thanks God for the atomic bomb and hopes that He gives us the wisdom to use it. That sounds a lot like old G.W., brazenly presuming that God would only protect our use of the atomic bomb and not, say, the Pakistanis! In scenes like that, it's easy to see why someone said thousands of years ago "there's nothing new under the sun."
But anyway, not long after that scene with Truman, we see a soldier with a Southern accent talking about what it was like to drop the bomb. He might as well be the bomber in Dr. Strangelove or in Catch-22, for that matter! Another horrifically American scene follows, where we view scenes of destruction in Hiroshima to the sounds of a radio voiceover of a baseball game. The announcer jokes about the bombing that he heard Hiroshima “looked like Ebbitt’s field after a double-header with the Giants." The juxtaposition between total devastation and the gross insensitivity of the joke leaves one with that modern-day paradoxical dark humor imperative: It's laugh or cry. So when they watch Atomic Cafe, I'm hoping the students will understand that the events in Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22 are not improbable, imaginary foolishness (which is what I really thought of those films as a college student), but real possibilities, potentially probabilities.
It's startling really how many issues are addressed in these many film clips. The pillaging of colonialism is addressed in numerous scenes. In
particular, we see scenes of the "relocation" of natives of Bikini Atoll. By some bizarre coincidence, just a few days before I watched Atomic Cafe this time, my stepdad Nathan happened to tell about the Marshall Islands at dinner one night. As a career military man, he might be expected to be less than objective about the army's treatment of these people, but I think his report was impartial. He said that the ouster of these people was horrible and sad. How else could it have been? They
lived, undisturbed on a tropical island paradise forever, surviving by lagoon fishing and eating coconuts, until we came and told them they had to leave because we were going to destroy their island and it would be uninhabitable. I think what the army told them was that they would be
compensated for life by the U.S. And they were until about the 1970s. But they were relocated elsewhere, to some other island where the island lagoon would not provide fish enough to sustain life. The people began to suffer from malnutrition and die from disease. So they were moved again, ultimately to another Marshall island, but one without a lagoon. The Army propaganda film shows happy Bikini natives who seem to welcome the Army resettlement, told it was for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars." This is juxtaposed with an actual statement made by a Navy Vice Admiral: ""The bomb will not start a chain reaction in the water, converting it all to gas and letting all the ships on all the oceans drop down to the bottom. It will not blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole. It will not destroy gravity. I am not an atomic playboy." Ironically, the voiceover on the Army film called the Bikini people childlike, though next to the statement by the vice admiral one wonders whether it was a case of children leading children.
Anyway, enough summary of this film. Whether you're a historian or a film buff or interested in comedy, The Atomic Cafe is well worth watching. It's particularly interesting to my mind for the study of comedy because it so clearly defines dark comedy, the gallows humor that one gets in the face of complete insanity. The fact that the footage is real explains the origin of this humor very well--I believe that deception was part of these documentaries and newsreels, but less so than we imagine in this cynical time. I think that the era--particularly early WWII--was one of innocence; we really didn't know the dangers of some of the remedies we promoted. So now, when we look back at ourselves earnestly proffering tranquilizers for use in the bomb shelters, "because, unlike narcotics, they're not addictive," it's just funny. We all smirk knowingly. And I guess a lot of dark humor is the cynical, knowing grin of one who's seen a bit of the horrorshow. I'm really excited about showing this one!