The Atomic Cafe
is an American documentary film
Documentary films constitute a broad category of nonfictional motion pictures intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record...
produced and directed by Jayne Loader
Jayne Loader is an American director and writer. She co-directed The Atomic Cafe with Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty. She is the author of Between Pictures , a novel, and Wild America , a collection of short stories. In 1995, Jayne created the CD-ROM and Website Public Shelter...
, Kevin Rafferty
Kevin Rafferty is an American documentary film cinematographer, director, and producer, best known for his 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe.-Background:...
, and Pierce Rafferty
Filmmaker Pierce Rafferty grew up in Connecticut and moved to New York City in 1982. Some of his relatives include grandfather Marvin Pierce, president and later chairman of McCall Corporation, the publisher of the popular women's magazines Redbook and McCall's; and an early New England colonist...
The film covers the beginnings of the era of nuclear warfare
Nuclear warfare, or atomic warfare, is a military conflict or political strategy in which nuclear weaponry is detonated on an opponent. Compared to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare can be vastly more destructive in range and extent of damage...
, created from a broad range of archival film from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s - including newsreel clips, television news footage, U.S. government-produced films (including military training film
A training film is a form of educational film – a short subject documentary movie, that provides an introduction to a topic. Both narrative documentary and dramatisation styles may be used, sometimes both in the same production...
s), advertisements, television and radio programs. News footage reflected the prevailing understandings of the media and public. A quote which illustrates how the producers used archival footage to illustrate the absurdity of the government's public nuclear propaganda of the time:
- Civil defense film: Be sure to include tranquilizers
A sedative or tranquilizer is a substance that induces sedation by reducing irritability or excitement....
to ease the strain and monotony of life in a fallout shelter. A bottle of 100 should be sufficient for a family of four. Tranquilizers are not a narcotic
The term narcotic originally referred medically to any psychoactive compound with any sleep-inducing properties. In the United States of America it has since become associated with opioids, commonly morphine and heroin and their derivatives, such as hydrocodone. The term is, today, imprecisely...
, and are not habit-forming.
Though the topic of atomic holocaust is a grave matter, the film approaches it with black humor
A black comedy, or dark comedy, is a comic work that employs black humor or gallows humor. The definition of black humor is problematic; it has been argued that it corresponds to the earlier concept of gallows humor; and that, as humor has been defined since Freud as a comedic act that anesthetizes...
. Much of the humor derives from the modern audience's reaction to the old training films, such as the Duck and Cover
Duck and Cover is a civil defense film produced in 1951 by the United States federal government's civil defense branch shortly after the Soviet Union began nuclear testing. Written by Raymond J...
film shown in schools. A quote to illustrate what can be perceived as black humor culled from the archives:
- Army information film: When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
The film was produced over a five-year period through the collaborative efforts of three directors: Jayne Loader, and brothers Kevin and Pierce Rafferty. For this film, the Rafferty brothers and Loader formed the production company "Archives Project Inc." The filmmakers opted not to use narration, and instead they deployed carefully constructed sequences of film clips to make their points. Jayne Loader has referred to The Atomic Cafe
as a compilation verite, meaning that it is a compilation film with no "Voice of God" narration and no new footage added by the filmmakers. The soundtrack utilizes atomic-themed songs from the Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...
era to underscore the themes of the film.
One of the filmmakers, Kevin Rafferty, was later befriended by a young Michael Moore
Michael Francis Moore is an American filmmaker, author, social critic and activist. He is the director and producer of Fahrenheit 9/11, which is the highest-grossing documentary of all time. His films Bowling for Columbine and Sicko also place in the top ten highest-grossing documentaries...
who was seeking advice on how to make his first film Roger & Me
Roger & Me is a 1989 American documentary film directed by Michael Moore. Moore portrays the regional negative economic impact of General Motors CEO Roger Smith's summary action of closing several auto plants in Flint, Michigan, costing 30,000 people their jobs at the time and economically...
. Rafferty ended up becoming the cinematographer on the film and acting as a filmmaking mentor to Moore - who has acknowledged the influence on his own filmmaking. According to Moore, in an interview with Amy Goodman, aired most recently on labor day, September 6, 2010 and Chapter Two of Stupid White Men, Rafferty is the nephew of George Bush.
The film cost only $300,000 to make. The group did receive some financial support from outside sources, including the Film Fund; a Washington, D.C. based non-profit . Grants comprised a very nominal amount of the team’s budget, and the film was largely funded by the filmmakers themselves. Jayne Loader stated in an interview, “Had we relied on grants, we would have starved" Pierce Rafferty helped to support the team and the film financially by working as a consultant and researcher on several other documentary films including El Salvador—Another Vietnam
, With Babies and Banners
, and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter
. The Rafferty brothers had also received an inheritance that they used to support the team during the five years it took to make the film About 75% of the film is made up of government materials that were in the public domain. Many reviews of the film are quick to point out large amount of old tax money behind the film, an irony not lost on the filmmakers. Though they could use those public domain materials for free, they had to make copies of the film at their own expense. This along with the newsreel and commercial stock footage that comprises the other 25% of the film (along with the music royalties) represents the bulk of the trio’s expenditures .
The film was released on March 17, 1982 in New York City, New York. In August 1982, a tie-in companion book of the same name, written by Kevin Rafferty, was released by Bantam Books
Bantam Books is an American publishing house owned entirely by Random House, the German media corporation subsidiary of Bertelsmann; it is an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group. It was formed in 1945 by Walter B. Pitkin, Jr., Sidney B. Kramer, and Ian and Betty Ballantine...
, ISBN 0-55301-462-5.
20th Anniversary Edition of the film was released in DVD format in Region 1 on March 26, 2002 by New Video Group.
In 1995, an adult educational CD-ROM
A CD-ROM is a pre-pressed compact disc that contains data accessible to, but not writable by, a computer for data storage and music playback. The 1985 “Yellow Book” standard developed by Sony and Philips adapted the format to hold any form of binary data....
companion to The Atomic Cafe
with many of the clips and other materials from the film, plus additional clips from declassified films, audio, photographs, and text files that archive the history, technology, and culture of the Nuclear Age, was released by Public Shelter; a web site based company Jayne Loader and her husband Eric Schwaab began. The Public Shelter
CD-ROM release only sold 500 copies and failed to find a publisher.
When the film was released, film critic Roger Ebert
Roger Joseph Ebert is an American film critic and screenwriter. He is the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.Ebert is known for his film review column and for the television programs Sneak Previews, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Siskel and Ebert and The...
discussed the style and methods the filmmakers used, writing, "The makers of The Atomic Cafe
sifted through thousands of feet of Army films, newsreels, government propaganda films and old television broadcasts to come up with the material in their film, which is presented without any narration, as a record of some of the ways in which the bomb entered American folklore. There are songs, speeches politicians, and frightening documentary footage of guinea-pig American troops shielding themselves from an atomic blast and then exposing themselves to radiation neither they nor their officers understood."
Critic Vincent Canby
Vincent Canby was an American film critic who became the chief film critic for The New York Times in 1969 and reviewed more than 1000 films during his tenure there.-Life and career:...
praised the film, calling the film "a devastating collage-film that examines official and unofficial United States attitudes toward the atomic age" and a film that "deserves national attention."
More recently, critic Glenn Erickson
Glenn Erickson is an American film editor and film critic. He started in the film industry in 1975 as an editor of low budget films and later worked in minor technical crew capacities in such major films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1941...
discussed the editorial message of the film's producers: "The makers of The Atomic Cafe
clearly have a message to get across, and to achieve that goal they use the inherent absurdity of their source material in creative ways. But they're careful to make sure they leave them essentially untransformed. When we see Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover
John Edgar Hoover was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation—predecessor to the FBI—in 1924, he was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, where he remained director until his death in 1972...
posing with a strip of microfilm, we know we're watching a newsreel. The content isn't cheated. Except in wrapup montages, narration from one source isn't used over another. When raw footage is available, candid moments are seen of speechmakers (including President Truman) when they don't know the cameras are rolling. Caught laughing incongruously before a solemn report on an atom threat, Truman comes off not as callous, but human.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes is a website devoted to reviews, information, and news of films—widely known as a film review aggregator. Its name derives from the cliché of audiences throwing tomatoes and other vegetables at a poor stage performance...
reported that 100% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 14 reviews."
- Boston Society of Film Critics
The Boston Society of Film Critics is an organization of film reviewers from Boston, Massachusetts, United States, based publications.The BSFC was formed in 1981 to make "Boston's unique critical perspective heard on a national and international level by awarding commendations to the best of the...
: BSFC Award, Best Documentary; 1983.
- British Academy Film Awards
The British Academy Film Awards are presented in an annual award show hosted by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts . It is the British counterpart of the Oscars. As of 2008, it has taken place in the Royal Opera House, having taken over from the flagship Odeon cinema on Leicester Square...
: Flaherty Documentary Award, Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty; 1983.
A vinyl LP record
The LP, or long-playing microgroove record, is a format for phonograph records, an analog sound storage medium. Introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, it was soon adopted as a new standard by the entire record industry...
of the film's soundtrack was released in 1982 by Rounder Records
Rounder Records, originally of Cambridge, Massachusetts, but now based in Burlington, Massachusetts, is a record label founded in 1970 by Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin and Marian Leighton-Levy, while all three were still university students...
. Some of the credits for the record, include: co-produced by Charles Wolfe, The Archives Project (Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty), album cover artwork by Dennis Pohl, cover design by Mel Green, and booklet text by Charles Wolfe.
- 1. "Atom and Evil" by the Golden Gate Quartet
- 2. Audio Clip: Maj. Thomas Ferebee
Thomas W. Ferebee was the bombardier aboard the B-29 Superfortress, Enola Gay, that dropped the atomic bomb, "Little Boy", on Hiroshima in 1945.-Biography:...
, "Enola Gay
Enola Gay is a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, named after Enola Gay Tibbets, mother of the pilot, then-Colonel Paul Tibbets. On August 6, 1945, during the final stages of World War II, it became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb as a weapon of war...
" bombardier, 08/15/45
- 3. "When the Atom Fell" by Karl and Harty
- 4. Audio Clips: President Harry S Truman, 08/09/45; Capt. Kermit Beehan, "The Great Artiste
The Great Artiste was a U.S. Army Air Forces Silverplate B-29 bomber , assigned to the 393rd Bomb Squadron, 509th Composite Group, that participated in the atomic bomb attacks on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Flown by 393rd commander Major Charles W...
" bombardier, 08/15/45
- 5. "Win the War Blues" by Sonny Boy Williamson II
Willie "Sonny Boy" Williamson was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter, from Mississippi. He is acknowledged as one of the most charismatic and influential blues musicians, with considerable prowess on the harmonica and highly creative songwriting skills...
- 6. Audio Clip: David E. Lilienthal, the first Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission
The United States Atomic Energy Commission was an agency of the United States government established after World War II by Congress to foster and control the peace time development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S...
- 7. "Atomic Power" by the Buchanan Brothers
The Buchanan Brothers were two brothers, Chester and Lester Buchanan, who recorded country music during the 1940s on the RCA Victor label. They had a top ten hit, "Atomic Power", released in August 1946; this song was also featured in the 1982 movie The Atomic Café...
- 8. Audio Clip: Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...
- 9. "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb" by Lowell Blanchard
Lowell Blanchard was an American radio presenter and performer. Blanchard, a native of Chicago, Illinois, was a station manager and popular show host for WNOX-AM Radio in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was inducted into the in 1977. He is said to have given country performers Henry D. Haynes and...
and The Valley Trio
- 10. Audio Clip: Rep. James E. Van Zandt
James Edward Van Zandt was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.-Biography:...
(Republican), Penn., 05/08/53
- 11. "When They Drop the Atomic Bomb" by Jackie Doll and His Pickled Peppers
- 12. "Atomic Sermon" by Billy Hughes
Everette Ishmael "Billy" Hughes was a Western Swing musician and songwriter. Born in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, he left for California during the Okie exodus of the 1930s. Billy Hughes and His Buccaroos performed during the 1940s and early 50s. He also owned an independent recording company, Fargo Records...
and his Rhythm Buckeroos
- 13. "Old Man Atom" by Sons of the Pioneers
The Sons of the Pioneers are one of America's earliest Western singing groups whose classic recordings set a new standard for performers of Western music. Known for the high quality of their vocal performances, musicianship, and songwriting, they produced finely-crafted and innovative recordings...
- 1. "Uranium" by The Commodores
- 2. "50 Megatons" by Sonny Russell
- 3. "Atom Bomb Baby" by The Five Stars
The Fives Stars is one of the best known bands from Samoa, and a popular band known in the Polynesian community.-History:Formed in 1974 the Five Stars were mainly a family outfit. They consisted of brothers Alofa and Solomona Tu'uga and their relatives Samu Poulava-Selesele, Faifua Fa'atoe and...
- 4. "Satellite Baby" by Skip Stanley
- 5. "Sputniks and Mutniks" by Ray Anderson and the Homefolks
- 6. "Atomic Cocktail" by Slim Gaillard Quartette
- 7. "Atomic Love" by Little Caesar with the Red Callendar Sextette
- 8. "Atomic Telephone" by Spirits of Memphis Quartet
- 9. "Red's Dream" by Louisiana Red
Louisiana Red is an African American blues guitarist, harmonica player, and singer, who has recorded more than 50 albums...
- Atomic Age
The Atomic Age, also known as the Atomic Era, is a phrase typically used to delineate the period of history following the detonation of the first nuclear bomb Trinity on July 16, 1945...
- Culture during the Cold War
The Cold War was reflected in culture through music, movies, books, and other media. One element of the Cold War often seen relates directly or indirectly to the threat of a nuclear war. Another is the conflict between the superpowers in terms of espionage. Many works use the Cold War as a...
- Duck and cover
Duck and Cover was a suggested method of personal protection against the effects of a nuclear weapon which the United States government taught to generations of United States school children from the early 1950s into the 1980s. This was supposed to protect them in the event of an unexpected nuclear...
- Nuclear weapons in popular culture
Since their public debut in August 1945, nuclear weapons and their potential effects have been a recurring motif in popular culture, to the extent that the decades of the Cold War are often referred to as the "atomic age."-Images of nuclear weapons:...
- List of films about nuclear issues