This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

11Jul/19

SECRET HISTORIES — THE FILMS OF KEVIN RAFFERTY & FRIENDS: THE ATOMIC CAFE

America prepares for the bomb in The Atomic Cafe

America prepares for the bomb in The Atomic Cafe, recently restored documentary about the Cold War

THE ATOMIC CAFE (Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader & Pierce Rafferty, 1982)
Metrograph
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Saturday, July 13, 6:30
Series runs July 12-14
212-660-0312
metrograph.com

The time is ripe for a 4K restoration of the absurdist 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe as President Trump deals with the nuclear capabilities and arsenals of Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty were searching archives for propaganda films when they discovered a treasure trove of military and government shorts about the atomic and hydrogen bombs and how the American people should face any oncoming threats. The three filmmakers, who will be at Metrograph on July 13 at 6:30 to introduce a special screening of the 2018 restoration, weaved sensational footage together into an hour and a half of clips that range from the hysterically funny to the dangerously outrageous. Young students are taught to “duck and cover.” Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets Jr. describes how easy it was to fly over Hiroshima and drop the bomb but then admits his shock over the eventual destruction it wrought. Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower discuss the impact of the bombs. A radio duo makes jokes about the decimation. Scenes of the horrific damage to Japanese victims are shown in silence. Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy defends the Bikini Atoll test, where island residents are assured everything will be fine — as are soldiers who will be in the vicinity of various tests.

While Russia escalates the Cold War — yes, they were our avowed enemy for quite some time, although the film includes President Richard Nixon joking around with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev — and a battle between North and South Korea looms, Americans drink “Atomic” cocktails and dance to “Atomic” songs. The execution of Ethel Rosenberg is explained in disturbing detail. A military officer tells the troops, “Watched from a safe distance, this explosion is one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man,” and in a training film a military chaplain says to a few soldiers, “You look up and you see the fireball as it ascends up into the heavens; it’s a wonderful sight to behold.” Loader and the Raffertys fill the film with a vast array of black-and-white and color footage of nuclear bombs exploding into immense mushroom clouds, accompanied by a wide range of mood-enhancing music. It would be easy to dismiss most of the archival material in the film as ridiculous, outdated propaganda from a bygone era, but in this age of fake news, social media, lies from the White House, a war on journalism, and a president cozying up to enemies and taking issue with longtime allies, it’s more than a little bit frightening too. The Atomic Cafe is screening in the three-day series “Secret Histories: The Films of Kevin Rafferty & Friends,” which runs July 12-14 and also includes 1991’s Blood in the Face, 1992’s Feed, 1999’s The Last Cigarette, and 2008’s Harvard Beats Yale 29-28, offering unique looks at parts of the American experience.

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