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By Jonathan Haeber
It’s easy to forget – at least for me – the proximity with which our current times coincide with one of the most monumental eras of our modern time. What I speak of is the era of the atomic weapon.
It was only 60 years ago that the doomsday machine was set into motion and Oppenheimer had managed to turn a desert experiment into a national source of pride (which ironically also became the very subject of national paranoia). With the atom, we had managed – if only for that brief moment before the Soviets had discovered the same route – to command primacy in the world stage, unfettered by jingoist competition.
But what really has me reeling is not the fact that I underappreciate its proximity to my own generation, but the fact that my own generation knows little or nothing about Nikita Khrushchev, Operation Crossroads, Nagasaki, or Hiroshima.
Today we take little note, yet the undercurrents of a post-atomic society are more relevant than they’ve ever been – they manifest themselves in color-coded threat levels, between the margins of network news, and within the very fabric of our modern think tanks. It’s a purely Hegelian wellspring that runs below the surface of American society, but in its seemingly diminuitive nature, it affects every aspect of our politics.
The fact that Iran is about to have one doesn’t seem surprising any more. After all, North Korea is about to have another and it seems to be the modern day mark of Progress for any self-respecting nation. If not a deterrent, it surely is a bargaining chip.
What I saw tonight reopened my eyes to its true meaning. As a collection of ephemera, gathered together from various war department films, promotional spots, talk shows, and propaganda shorts, Atomic Cafe brings you into the mindset of the 1950s – a time when rapid expansion of the federal government led to Eisenhower’s sober warning about the military industrial complex (when a former general – a war-man – decries the unsustainable rise of a state-sponsered defense industry, well, one just has to listen). Isn’t Eisenhower the man who connected all of these atomic bases by a national highway system?
This film is true because it is unaltered and free from the commentary that taints most documentaries these days. It’s not very often that a film simply speaks for itself. Even the modern documentary is rife with shaky secondary sources and personal, impassioned, commentary from the filmmaker. Though Atomic Cafe has no qualms with establishing its strong stance, it’s a very believeable and naturally affinity-inducing stance.
As an explorer, I often find myself in the creations of that era. I did not live through that time. I have no recollection of what it must have felt like – or how my mind would have wrapped itself around the anima in the air. What I do have, as a humble explorer, are my experiences as an observer and analyzer who has catalogued dozens of these places (from the deepest of contaminated ICBM silos to the tallest industrial escalator). In the former, I had stood in front of the 40-foot-wide 150-foot-deep cylinder in awe of its size and demeanor of power; in the latter, I ascended the rusty escalator links to get a birds eye view of where ships contaminated by nuclear tests in the Bikini Atolls were dismantled.
Atomic Cafe reminds me of a project that has special meaning to me: The collection of dying archival materials – many of which are finding themselves vanishing in the midst of the sheer volume of their existence. And two individuals who have adopted this much-needed cause are Rick and Megan Prelinger. The two of them maintain the Prelinger Archives, a collection of ephemera that has recently taken the notice of the Library of Congress.
It didn’t take a nuclear standoff to destroy much our nation’s cultural heritage – much of it simply vanished because of neglect. For example, the Library of Congress says that only 1 in 10 films made before 1928 exist today. Thankfully, what is presented in Atomic Cafe tells us a little about one of the most influential milestones of the millenia. Where we go from here nobody knows. All we can do about these clippings from the past is talk about them, tell the truth, and make sure that these stories don’t die.