The first time I saw The Atomic Café, sometime in the mid-'90s, it seemed a rather campy cinematic relic, not unlike Reefer Madness or Kidnapped by Mormons; produced with deadly earnestness to address the anxieties that kept our ancestors awake at night, such films had now become the stuff that giggly, completely baked college students watched when they weren't busy lying on top of one another or passing out on their dorm-room floors. Reefer! Mormons! Nukes! The idea that people had once lived in stark, mortal terror of such things was good for many an ironic chuckle in an era when the Soviet Union had collapsed and the biggest daily stressor many of us faced was an untimely knock at the door in the middle of one of our pot parties (a knock that usually turned out to be some dork trying to give us a copy of Watchtower, anyway).
But the times, they have a-changed, and one would have to be a fool to argue they have changed for the better. No doubt you have noticed those animated diagrams that have recently turned up on the news with rather annoying frequency—the ones that depict North Korea's nukes slamming the left coast, landing directly on our sorry asses. These days, only the primmest of grannies are terrified of refer, and the only people who are worried about being abducted by Mormons wear tinfoil hats . . . but the idea of perishing in a massive tsunami of radioactive fire suddenly seems a lot less quaintly amusing.
The Atomic Café—screening this week with Stanley Kubrick's apocalyptic classic Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb—is a collection of sometimes ghastly, sometimes hilarious, sometimes hilariously ghastly film clips from the '40s and '50s. The action begins with the eradication (and irradiation) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and proceeds through the A-bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll, America's proliferating nuclear weapons, the proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations that aren't America, and the steadily increasing hostility between America and these heavily armed non-Americas. We see U.S. soldiers witnessing an A-bomb test firsthand, rising up from their trenches to take in the once-in-a-lifetime (and lifetime-shortening) spectacle of a mushroom cloud at close range. We learn of an American town that was showered with fallout after one of these tests and shudder as the authorities advise the townsfolk to stay indoors for an hour or so and then worry no further. Along the way, we are treated to the notorious "educational" short Duck and Cover, in which Bert the Turtle tells schoolchildren they can survive a nuclear blast by hiding under their desks. Then there are creepy novelty tunes like Bill Haley's "13 Women," in which the singer of "Rock Around the Clock" is left alone on Earth with 13 ladies, presumably to begin humanity anew by breeding a rockabilly superrace. Through it all, we are left with the unmistakable impression that while our government probably knew they were lying to their citizens about the dangers of nukes, even they didn't really have a clue about what was going down.
While the black comedy of The Atomic Café is accidental, as we watch people attempting to comfort and entertain themselves and one another in the face of the biggest technological evil we've ever been foolish enough to loose upon the planet, Dr. Strangelove's humor is far more deliberate and just as lethally effective, if not more so. Despite taking very different routes to get there, both pictures end with the end of the world, at which point the laugh catches in your throat as the whole planet goes boom.
Across the generations, we now join our ancestors in laying awake in the dark, staring anxiously up at the cracks in the ceiling and waiting for it.
The Atomic Café and Dr. Strangelove screen at Cal State Fullerton, Humanities Building, Room 110, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3498. Sun., 5:30 p.m. Series continues through May 25. Free.