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01.28.09

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Phaedra

The Atomic Cafe

Two discs; Docuramafilms; $39.95

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


The famous 1982 documentary by Kevin and Pierce Rafferty and Jayne Loader has been rereleased in a two-disc set that adds in full some of the archival material that the filmmakers mined so effectively. An impressionistic, rather than analytical, documentary, The Atomic Cafe uses found footage—TV broadcasts, news reports, press conferences and, primarily, government "information" shorts—to survey the rich folklore of American Cold War paranoia, from the testing and dropping of the first atomic bombs through the H-bomb scare and deep into the ultimate home-improvement scam of the 1950s: the home fallout shelter.

Without voice-over or explanation beyond some identifiers for historical figures, the film stitches together in jaunty collage fashion (helped along by some period ditties on the soundtrack) some jaw-dropping samples of American naiveté, propaganda and salesmanship. In advance of the tests at Bikini atoll, a government film asserts that "the simple natives of Bikini are willing to help" in the American effort to blow stuff up. Harry Truman emits an unexpected (and presumably not for prime time) laugh right before announcing the dropping of the bomb. Some upright American soldiers in a training film confront a shrill harridan of the peacenik movement. A suburban dad dresses his son in a padded radiation suit and then sends him off for a ride on his bicycle. Best of all are the famous civil defense films, like the ineffable Duck and Cover, which purported to teach the wee ones how to protect themselves from certain death by putting their hands over their heads.

The last section is a marvel of montage, as repeated moments from civil defense films are rapidly edited together to create a momentum of dread at the prospect of a nefarious Russian sneak attack. Finally, a stalwart dad calmly informs his family in the shelter, "If there is an explosion, we'll wait a minute, then go upstairs, look around and see if it's OK to clean up." This set includes eight government propaganda shorts from the '40s and '50s in all their glory, including Duck and Cover, Self-Preservation in an Atomic Attack and Our Cities Must Fight.


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