While many have eagerly anticipated the day when Film Forum emerged from a massive renovation this summer, Pierce Rafferty had extra incentive to look forward to the day when Karen Cooper, Mike Maggiore and Bruce Goldstein, the theater’s brain trust, reopened the legendary New York art house. The equally storied film “The Atomic Cafe” that he made with his brother Kevin Rafferty and Jayne Loader, would be returning to theater 36 years after first playing there to sell-out crowds with a brand new 4K restoration and he was hoping to make good on a promise Cooper had made to him following the film’s initial success.
“When I see Karen, I’m going to tease her about promising me free cappuccinos forever because about a year after the film opened, I got back there and tried to get my free cappuccino and I’m afraid that the aura had faded – I was off some list,” Rafferty said with a chuckle, suggesting that he might not be too strident when it came to holding Cooper to her word.
It just so happened that “The Atomic Cafe” would be ready to be re-released to coincide with Film Forum’s reopening after its selection for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2016 necessitated a fresh digital scan, but the timing has been fortuitous in other ways since the film, comprised of U.S. propaganda in the wake of Hiroshima during World War II that was intended to quell fear of the atomic bomb and even celebrate it, has never felt more relevant as a sitting president tells the country not to believe what they read or see with their own eyes. But beyond its still resonant political implications, “The Atomic Cafe,” shrewdly edited by Kevin Rafferty and Loader to play as a satire full of cheeky music cues that exposes the absurdity of educational shorts such as “Duck and Cover” drills, presaged an entire genre of nonfiction film that has recently exploded with such subversive all-archival films as “Our Nixon” and “The Reagan Show” in which a different context that strays far from the official government line shakes loose new truths that were hiding in plain sight.
After being a staple in both history and film school courses across the country and the world in the years that followed its original release, “The Atomic Cafe” is enjoying the benefits of returning to its original context, once again appreciated as the raucous crowd pleaser that made the film such a sensation during its initial run at Film Forum and even led to an appearance by the filmmakers on Late Night with David Letterman. On the eve of the film’s return to the Manhattan movie haven following a triumphant bow at SXSW in the spring, the Raffertys and Loader reflected on the legacy of “The Atomic Cafe” and its renewed relevance, as well as pioneering a nonfiction filmmaking format.
What was it like to revisit the film at that first screening at SXSW?
Jayne Loader: The South-By screening went really well. The only strange thing I’ve noticed, showing the movie to contemporary audiences, is that younger people seem less skeptical about the government than we are. They’re more willing to cut the government some slack!
Pierce Rafferty: I’ve had the opposite reaction, which is that in the Age of Trump, the idea of a government lying to us is resonating.
Jayne Loader: Interesting! For a very long time, people were not concerned about the atomic bomb. They were concerned with other issues like terrorism. After a screening, they’d say, “Wow! Were you really worried about World War III?!” But now that Trump is the president, the subject is worrying people again. So there’s been another shift.
Pierce Rafferty: It’s a subject that never goes away. But it goes under the rug for a while. It’s definitely been brought back to people’s consciousness by the notion of preemptive strikes and by the philosophy that’s really displayed in our film where people were calling for strikes on Korea decades ago. It has come full circle. When we released the film in ’82, the subject had really peaked and Reagan was talking about passing out shovels so people could dig their own shelters in their own backyards. Now we’ve come all the way around to a similarly loose philosophy, moving away from mutually assured destruction to the notion that we could somehow win a nuclear war. If our film engages people, it’s going to be on that level today.
Kevin Rafferty: I remember a screening back in 1983 at a community college in California. One woman shyly raised her hand and asked, “I’m a little confused. Was there actually a World War III?” Now, I was shocked by that question — and probably shouldn’t have been, given the state of education in this country — but I answered as calmly as I could, starting a little bit with the nature of satire and explaining that, no, there was not a World War III. Still, it was shocking to me. But I also remember they polled history majors at Columbia University in 1980 and a majority of them could not place the Vietnam War within 10 years. So it may be that our movie adds to the confusion rather than clarifying things. Some people are more receptive to the notion of irony than others.
There’s now many archival-based documentaries that recontextualize historical footage ironically, but “Atomic Cafe” really was trailblazing in that regard, as well as being entirely comprised of archival. Were there influences you could look to?
Pierce Rafferty: We each brought our own influences to the project, but it was a sequence of specific events that triggered the notion of making a film that was comprised of a lot of American propaganda. That was the original conception. There was an event in 1976 at the Pacific Film Archive that had Standish Lawder’s “Dangling Participle” (1970), Bruce Conner’s “A Movie” (1958) and a handful of other films, and that same year there was all the hoopla about the bicentennial. It was a time when American propaganda was in the air. Also, there was the fortuitous discovery of a book called “3,433 U.S. Government Films. “ I approached Kevin, a practicing filmmaker, to propose creating a film out of this material. The original notion was to turn these films on their heads and create a history of America comprised of American propaganda films.
After a series of meetings, Kevin and I and a third partner, Stewart Crone, decided to head east to do initial research at the National Archives. Traveling separately, we met up on the corner of Pennsylvania and Ninth in front of the National Archives on President Carter’s inauguration day, a date we picked because it wouldn’t easily be forgotten. Jayne soon joined the crew. The project that we thought would take months somehow stretched into years. We researched all elements American propaganda, from corporate propaganda to nation state propaganda, including World War I and World War II films made by America and its foes. Because we were pretty much committed to not adding narration, it proved very unwieldy to intercut films with very different moral equivalences, Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” films with anti-simetic German films for example, so the decision was eventually made in the editing room to focus entirely on atomic propaganda. The atomic material presented a coherent, self-enclosed world where the story could be presented without any commentary and the viewer could bring his or her own sense of the truth to the propaganda being presented.
Jayne, what gave you the confidence to rely entirely on archival material and narrow the focus to the theme of atomic propaganda?
Jayne Loader: The original concept of the film, from the very beginning, was to make a film with no narration – compilation verite! I don’t think this was due to confidence, or overconfidence –more like stupidity! But, as Pierce said, at one point, we lost our confidence or nerve or whatever it was we’d had. Our backers and friends in the anti-nuclear movement kept telling us that we were on the wrong track — and we believed them. So Kevin got out his 16 millimeter camera, I learned how to roll sound and off we went. We shot congressional hearings on the atomic soldiers and Bikini Islanders, interviews with various experts, anti-nuclear demonstrations and even Jackson Browne concerts, trying to get the definitive, live version of “Rock Me On The Water.” But when we tried to use the contemporary footage in our movie, none of it worked, and we went back our original no-narration concept. Focusing on the theme of atomic propaganda was a much easier call. It just made sense, given what was going on in the world — and how great the original atomic footage was! Once we made that decision, we never wavered.
Were there decisions that you made as editors that you may have been on the fence about at the time, but your ideas have changed about them as time has gone on?
Kevin Rafferty: Yeah, both in a positive and negative way. The original concept once we grasped it — which really took over a year to figure out what we were doing — was that we would use this material to depict a nuclear war before, during and after, so we had these dramas about life in a public fallout shelter, which was going to be the final act of the movie after World War III. But we decided that it was anticlimactic and we threw that out. The only thing I slightly regret was the appearance of the two professors from Columbia University who say that fallout shelters would be counterproductive and we learned from World War II, you’d be asphyxiated. They stick out a little bit because they were the only people telling the truth.
Jayne Loader: Yes, the Rosenberg sequence was always problematic for me. It seemed too sentimental and emotional. But looking at it now, for audiences, I think it’s cathartic. And as Kevin said, there were the two Columbia scientists, which we went round and round about. Was it the right strategy to drop a couple of experts, who are telling the truth, into a movie where most of the speakers are so unreliable? Actually, I’m still not sure if we made the right call on that one!
Film Forum must be a special place to start this re-release since it’s where the film first took off and the theater has been newly restored as well. What’s it like to go back?
Kevin Rafferty: It’s wonderful. I remember we were down in Virginia trying to finish the movie and there were lots of people saying, “God, you guys are crazy. You can’t make a movie like this without narration. No one’s going to get it.” And we just ignored them. And then a phone call came from Karen Cooper [President and Director of Film Forum], who had seen a workprint version of the film when we applied to the New York Film Festival. We did not get in, but she had seen it, she saw what it was and she called us up and I didn’t know who she was [or] what Film Forum was, but she said, “If you guys finish this movie, I will show it.” That was a motivational phone call, believe me. And when it opened, it was selling out. [Karen] was locked into a two-week run because she was on a calendar and only had one screen at the time, but we moved to another theater four blocks away and we played for four months there. So Karen was very important to getting the ball rolling — over the years, that was the first of five movies I’ve had that opened there, so I have special feelings for the Film Forum — and we’re very happy to be going back there.
Pierce Rafferty: Yeah, it was really great for all of us and they were very supportive. John and Janet Pierson of SXSW met while working for Karen, and were they both involved in publicity on “The Atomic Cafe,” so that was another fabulous connection at the time.
Jayne Loader: Pierce, Kevin and I were really broke then, so Karen would slip us some cash after the last screening so we could go have a nice dinner at Capsouto Frères. She was very kind. Plus, it was on the basis of the Film Forum run that we got our original distributor, Ben Barenholtz of Libra, who was watching the film sell out every show. Ben thought it would be a good bet to go forward with us and offered us a distribution deal. So, yes, it was a great time.
“The Atomic Cafe” opens on August 1st in New York at Film Forum and will expand across the country in the coming months. A full list of theaters and dates is here.