Friday, March 17, 2017

Atomic Café

In the seven years since I inherited the 11th Grade Humanities course, I have made some sweeping changes to the curriculum.  In the process, I have removed some activities, lessons and materials that I really enjoyed, but which did not have a clear connection to my course themes.  Other lessons and materials, however, have stood the test of time, finding their way back into my syllabus year after year.

Atomic Café is one such example.

I love teaching Atomic Café, but I feel like it has been only in the last year or two that I have gotten to the point where I teach it well.

For those who aren't familiar, Atomic Café is a 1982 documentary directed by Jayne Loader, and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty.  Eschewing such popular documentary techniques as voice-over narrations and contemporary interviews, Loader and the Rafferties instead spent five years sifting through thousands of hours of archival footage from the 1940s and 50s: military training videos, newsreels, government propaganda, Duck and Cover drills, and more.  Exclusively using these old clips, underscored by a soundtrack drawn from Cold War and A-Bomb-inspired songs released in the 40s and 50s, the filmmakers put together a brilliant 85 minute glimpse into the early years of the Cold War, and the alternating enthusiasm and hysteria over a world with atomic weapons.

I learned through several painful years of even usually responsible students sleeping through the documentary that it requires extensive set-up and commentary on my part to ensure that the students appreciate and learn from it.

Context--not only on the Cold War, but also on the cultural climate in the late 70s and early 80s when the film was produced--is a must.  I now do this through a set of lecture videos that I assign the students to watch before we view the documentary; these videos do not go into great depth, but provide a basic framework for engagement.

I've also learned that while we are watching the documentary, I need to comment regularly on the strategies used by the filmmakers, pointing out what makes the best moments of the documentary so good.

One reason that I love teaching Atomic Cafe is that it is an incredibly layered documentary.  It fits well within our unit on Stewardship, Science and Technology, as it shows how society's faith in science and technology can shift and change, and as it emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself, and not merely accepting propaganda at face value (something we discuss in an earlier lesson on Rachel Carson and DDT).

It is also a masterful satire, a dark comedy that provides laughs even as it tackles serious subject matter.  Deconstructing how the filmmakers manage this is a feat in film analysis as well as argument analysis.

Early in the documentary, the filmmakers use an audio track of commentators comparing the desolation of Hiroshima to "Ebbets Field after a double-header with the Giants."  These flippant remarks are played over footage of the rubble, including several shots of charred corpses.

In a clip of unedited newsreel, President Harry S. Truman can be seen laughing and joking with someone off-camera before suddenly becoming grave, to make the announcement about the dropping of the first bomb.

The jingle from the famous "Burt the Turtle" Duck-and-Cover tutorial is played over clip after clip of children diving under desks, couches, beds and teeter-totters.

A propaganda reel about fall-out shelters is inter-cut with a scientist describing how the intensity of the fire-storm created by the atomic blast would incinerate or asphyxiate anyone hiding in a fallout shelter.

And of course, there's the film's soundtrack--I make a point of printing the song lyrics for the students to refer to as they watch.  These songs have not stood the test of time, and come across as unsettling or ridiculous to modern ears.  Consider, for example, "When They Drop the Atomic Bomb" by Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers, released in 1951:

There will soon be an end to this cold and wicked war
When those hard headed Communists get what they're lookin' for
Only one thing that will stop them and their atrocious bunch
If General MacArthur drops an atomic bomb

There'll be fire, dust and metal flying all around
And the radioactivity will burn their playhouse down
If there's any Commies left they'll be all on the run
If General MacArthur drops an atomic bomb

Or this bit from Carson Robison's "I'm No Communist":

The bureaus and departments have been busy night and day
They're figuring out just how we gave our secrets all away
And Congress has appointed a committee so they said
To find out who's American and who's a low-down Red

These lyrics are strikingly played over footage of men in suits looking through a pumpkin patch and scrutinizing each pumpkin carefully.

Because the music at first feels seamlessly integrated with the clips chosen by the filmmakers, the viewer can easily forget that they were not originally paired together, and possibly miss out on the lyrics, so I intentionally draw attention to the music and the lyrics as the students watch.

This year, we followed up our viewing of Atomic Café with a discussion of what the filmmaker's point of view was, and how they managed to convey that point of view.  The students were able to identify the critique of government propaganda, the call to think for oneself, and the bleak perspective on a world with atomic weapons, and perhaps just as importantly, they were able to identify specific moments and strategies throughout the documentary that had revealed the filmmakers' point of view.  

Atomic Café can feel like a bit of a slog initially, with its grainy black and white footage, its lack of a guiding narrator's voice, and the degrees of separation that my international classroom has from post-war America, by virtue of time and distance.  However, with the right set-up and commentary, it can be a rich and engaging teaching tool.  I'm already looking forward to using it again next year!

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