The straight-faced lunacy visible in the restored 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe proves Einstein’s comment that the bomb changed everything but our way of thinking. It’s an unforgettable hideo-comic montage of newsreels, civil defense broadcasts and “schoolastic” films, edited together by Kevin and Pierce Rafferty and Jayne Loader. (Loader will be appearing at a one-night-only screening in San Rafael.)
It’s a no-narrator, no-comment montage of footage from the dawn of the atomic age, rich with mid–20th century faith in the American authorities. It repeats the old wisdom of the 1950s, that all we need to hold back the fury of an atomic war is a broom to sweep up the broken glass, and the certainty that the authorities will turn up to deliver some useful instructions.
This Mondo Atomico sees the world: American Southwest towns embracing their proximity to uranium mining and testing grounds by using “atomic” as a synonym for “Modern.” It also visits the South Pacific, where the Micronesians are given a nice government patronizing before they’re irradiated by hydrogen bomb tests.
To accompany this mix is a savory soundtrack of topical songs. The religious seized the idea that the advent of the atomic bomb was the sign of the imminent return of Our Lord, as per Lowell Blanchard & the Valley Trio’s “Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb.” Meanwhile, hipster Slim Gaillard takes the coming holocaust as a cue to sip his “Atomic Cocktail.” The weird light-heartedness about the bomb is such that the Enola Gay’s bombadier, Thomas Ferebee, jests on the radio that post-blast Hiroshima “looked like Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants!”
Key to not worrying and loving the bomb is the downplaying of radiation as well as the size of the explosion. “The affected area might be a poor picnic site,” intones a government official, and here too is the common 1950s lie that hiding under the desk during a bomb blast would be enough to save your bacon. Thus The Atomic Cafe’s most fondly remembered retrieval—a civil defense cartoon about doughty old Bert the Turtle advising children to “duck and cover!”
It was easy enough to soothe kids about the end of the world by portraying the event to come as a monkey scaring a tortoise with a firecracker. Here it is, 70 years later, and students are still having to hide under their desks, ducking and covering because of active shooters. The Atomic Cafe is a true horror comedy, with a wealth of death’s-head humor that even Dr. Strangelove can’t match.
‘The Atomic Cafe’ screens Sept. 29 at 7:30pm at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.