Friday, November 26, 2010

Nyder goes Nuclear

I've become obsessed recently with tracking down footage of American 1950s nuclear damage tests-- the ones where they build houses, power substations, etc., then put them at Ground Zero of an atom bomb and watch what happens. I thought this might lend itself well to a small multimedia blog essay, selecting and reviewing some of the better ones.

Or, in other words, if you've got a spare fifteen minutes or so and want to get the context behind that piece of footage of a two-story house with its front blowing off that always turns up in documentaries about America in the 1950s, here's a good place to start.

1. Damage and Destruction

I put this one first, even though it's probably the least accessible, because it is essentially a lot of raw, loosely-edited-together clips of the preparation for and execution of, nuclear tests, without any contextualising voiceover (the YouTube description is vague on its purpose, so it might have been either the rough cut of a documentary or possibly, given the continuous jumping back and forth chronologically, something meant to accompany a lecture). Pretty much all of them turn up again in "Operation Doorstep", "Operation Cue" and "The House in the Middle" at some point. The silence, plus the rough nature of the film, gives the whole thing the feeling of some kind of really creepy Fifties home movie shot on Super 8.

2. "Operation Cue"

This is much the same thing, but with context, being a loose narrative in which a Girl Reporter "visits" the Nevada Testing Grounds and asks naive questions of a disembodied authoritative male voice as a means of explaining the run-up to, and the results of, the "Operation Cue" destruction tests (some sources indicate that "Operation Cue" wasn't their official name, but one dubbed onto it for the purposes of this film, and it was really just part of Operation Teapot). The film seems unsure whether it wants to scare the American public about the destructive power of the bomb, or reassure them as to the survivability of same, leading to a final sequence where, as the test crews survey the carnage and destruction, the Girl Reporter optimistically remarks that the buildings are easy to repair.

Also contains some footage not in the earlier film, of tests on mannequins and foodstuffs (just in case we were worried that she wasn't a Real Woman, what with her having a paid job and all, the Girl Reporter eagerly lets us know how interested she is in the effects of nuclear radiation on clothing and canned goods). Particularly disturbing is the sequence where, to test the results of the bomb blast on garment fabrics, a group of well-dressed mannequins are tied to posts facing the blast; it looks like the mass execution of the cast of Mad Men.

I'd also advise skipping to about two minutes into the film if you want to avoid a lecture on megatonnage and go straight to the Girl Reporter's day out.

3. "Declassified Nuclear Test Film #55"

Similar to the above, albeit without the patronising female questioner/male authority figure setup, just going for the traditional authoritative male voice, and with a mix of footage of different tests edited together to pretend they're a single test. The test footage starts about halfway through, following a hymn to civil defence and air-raid shelters. Also explains the purpose behind the tree tests and the materials tests.

4.. "The House in the Middle"

This film was declared "Culturally Significant" by the US National Library of Congress. They clearly weren't doing so for aesthetic reasons, but it certainly does provide a fascinating (as in, you can't look away) insight into the anxiety-ridden nature of life in 1950s America, as yet another authoritative voiceover explains to us emphatically that not painting your house could lead to it being destroyed in a nuclear explosion; indeed, just leaving the TV listings magazine out or the plastic covers off the armchairs could lead to the whole house burning down. The message is complex, at once reassuring the PTSD-ridden, demobbed former servicewomen/factory workers that indeed, they're serving their country even more by keeping the house spic-and span, encouraging xenophobic hatred of that family down the street who don't keep their fence painted, and bringing in all sorts of Freudian imagery about morality and hygiene.

5. "Operation Doorstop and Operation Cue."

(this doesn't seem to want to embed-- click here for the film if it isn't)

The back half of this video is just "Operation Cue" again; the first half, though, is a cleaned-up and edited film of the earlier test alluded to in the "Operation Cue" film, plus lots and lots of footage of mannequin tests (the researchers setting up their subjects into dinner-party groups, children playing, people in cars etc. with an almost sadistic glee). It handles the balance of fear versus reassurance better than "Cue," focusing on how the houses get destroyed (FEAR!) but the shelters don't (REASSURANCE!). The sequence where the authoritative male narrator observes that all the cars subjected to the blast were still driveable is rather ironic from the point of view of modern autos with their dependence on vulnerable electronic systems-- those 50s clunkers might have been driveable, but even my eleven-year-old no-frills Rover 25 wouldn't be. Also explains why the fixed-camera footage of the blasts has an eerily darkened sky-- the tests take place at 5:20 AM.

5. "Survival Town"

A short one this, apparently being a newsreel made up from "Operation Cue" footage, with some "Operation Doorstep" thrown in for dramatic effect. Some of the fixed camera footage from the 5:20 AM blasts has had the colour inverted, possibly to make it look like they take place in daylight and thus match them up with other footage in the reel of broad-daylight tests of military emplacements (populated by soldiers, many of whom are probably unwitting cancer statistics). The tone is also precisely the opposite to "Operation Cue"'s, emphasising that survival is down to the decisive actions of The Army and The Civil Defence, not builing materials-- hm, I wonder who paid for this film?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sunshine in a bag

Beauty and the Beast: A great film from Disney’s output during its 1990s “revival” period, this does what Disney arguably does best: taking a classic fairy-tale and retelling it with enough added riffs, bells and whistles to a) extend it to feature film length, and b) keep mums/dads/babysitters watching along with the kids. This one’s particular strengths for the adult market include an unbelievably trippy production number involving furniture and cutlery (complete with a Busby-Berkley routine performed by teaspoons) and a mad battle sequence also involving animated furniture, which is well worth slowing down to catch the background action (including, among other things, a quick visual reference to Battleship Potemkin-- there’s actually a lot of German and Russian Expressionist namechecking throughout). As for the romance plot, this one shines through being not a story in which the protagonist woos and wins a love object (e.g. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Lion King etc.), but in which both main characters woo and win each other. Which I rather think is a much better message for the kids, and more satisfying for the grownups.

For a Few Dollars More: Sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, in which Clint Eastwood’s drifting mercenary, now turned bounty hunter, teams up with mentor-figure Lee van Cleef and learns a lot about strategy, revenge, and gunplay. Features similarities to the first one (Eastwood infiltrating a bandit gang, a vendetta on behalf of a family member, Eastwood being found out and beaten up by gang members following which he manages to exploit splits within the gang to his advantage, and a bandit obsessed with a dark-haired woman), but, rather than simply repeating with variations, actually deepens the themes of the first, exploring the motivations of both bandits and bounty hunters in a bleak and unsympathetic West.

Tightrope: Boring 1980s Eastwood-vehicle cop-flick, borrowing liberally from Manhunter and Coogan’s Bluff, without being as interesting or disturbing as either. Its main saving grace is, first, casting Genevieve Bujold (and, particularly, Genevieve Bujold in jeans, utilitarian haircut and no makeup) as a leading lady and love interest for Eastwood, and, second, subverting misogynist cop-film tropes by making Bujold’s character a feminist and a rape-crisis counselor, but not then making this a setup to reveal that all these tough women are really weepy, teary girls inside and they really just Need A Man. This one, attacked by the inevitable serial rapist/murderer, fights him off, then tidies her hair and goes round to Eastwood’s place to make sure his kids are OK. We could have done with more of her sort in this genre.

Double Take: Fascinating, complicated news-clip documentary, which interweaves parallels between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the films and career of Alfred Hitchcock. Through using the theme of doubles, a clever melange of news clips and Folgers coffee adverts (no really), and a fantasy conversation between Hitchcock in 1962 and his own future self from 1980, the filmmakers set up America and the USSR as evil doppelgangers of each other. The crucial point comes from an excerpt from Kruschev and Nixon’s “kitchen debate,” in which Kruschev states that the USSR has a better space programme than the USA, and Nixon counters that the USA has more televisions—something which Kennedy later used as a stick to beat Nixon with in the infamous televised debate, but, well, if you think about it, it was television, not spaceships, which won the cold war. There’s a lot more in there to enjoy, so go and watch it two or three times if you can.

Movie count for 2010: 121

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Spartan settings

Go Tell the Spartans: Adequate Vietnam movie, loosely based on the Battle of Thermopylae, about a small group of Americans and South Vietnamese who get unexpectedly pinned down by Viet Cong at an outpost. Brings up a lot of interesting lines of exploration (the trigger-happy psychopath of a Vietnamese interpreter, the fact that the South Vietnamese are usually the ones who wind up paying for the Americans' military blunders, the interesting pasts of the various characters) but doesn't really follow up on any of them.

Movie count for 2010: 117. Have mostly been watching Colditz instead.

Monday, November 15, 2010

SJA Checklist: Goodbye Sarah Jane

..alas, no, I've got to keep on doing this for another year.

Crowds of People Under Alien Influence
: No, they can't afford both crowds of people and a CGI stomach that splurts.

Tie-in with Doctor Who story
: Not actually a canonical one, but one of the authors of this story did a Big Finish audio featuring an imposter version of the Doctor turning up and trying to take over. Plus Sarah gets to repeat her personal narrative about how she met the Man Who Changed Her Life.

Rani's Mum is Annoying/Is Absent: Episode one: the former. Pushy, nosy, gossipy, insisting on painting the house a pale lemon yellow. Episode two: she has a complete personality transplant and is suddenly the sweetest, kindest, least embarrassing mum in the world. This doesn't contradict anything, it just comes as a bit of a shock. Oh, and there's another implication that her husband is sneaking around behind her back with Sarah Jane.

Luke/K9 Cameo: Since it's the final story, they actually turn up in person this time-- well, Luke does, K9 is clearly still immobile after the kebab-van incident.

Sarah Jane Waxes Maudlin: Lots of it. As well as her traditional speech about how wonderful her gang are, episode one sees her going on about the Doctor, about how old and feeble she is (at fiftysomething), how nobody needs her, and how she wants to pass the torch to Ruby. The latter demonstrates her fitness for the job by making speeches about how wonderful the universe is (could this be... Ruby Wax-es Maudlin? Ahem). Ruby's faked message in which Sarah Jane waxes maudlin about the responsibility of her job is unsurprisingly spot on. Because it's the last episode, too, we get guest waxing: Clyde gets a nice maudlin Last Message on his mobile and Luke gets to go on about his special mum.

Mobile Phone as Plot Device: Episode Two is practially deus ex mobile, as Rani's camera-phone not only provides the clue to Ruby's identity but a means of shutting down her computer. Clyde also gets to record his last message on his smartphone.

Racism Towards Aliens: The moment Sarah Jane trusts one, she turns out to be an evil soul-devouring creature. Give those damn aliens an inch and they'll take a yard.

The Crimes of Sarah Jane: Surprisingly, none.

Sonic Lipstick: Handed over to Ruby as Sarah Jane leaves. There really is some kind of female rite-of-passage thing going on here.

Wristwatch Scanner: Within ten seconds of the opening.

One or More of Sarah's Companions Falling Under Alien Influence: Oh, go on, guess.

Sarah And/Or Companion Acts like a Selfish Cow: When Ruby turns up, she's rude, brusque and selfish... and Clyde's first reaction is to blurt out "she's just like you, Sarah Jane!"

And, because it's the last episode of the season:

Wide-eyed speech about the wonders of the universe and how great it is to be in Sarah Jane's gang: Yes, though a surprisingly brief one.

Monday, November 08, 2010

SJA Checklist: Lost in Time

Crowds of People Under Alien Influence: Nope, can't make this one work even at a stretch.

Tie-in with Doctor Who story
: Again, more plot-ripoff than actual tie-in, with the traditional quest-through-time-and-space format (q.v. The Keys of Marinus, The Chase, The Key to Time) heavily exploited. And the idea of Emily's granddaughter giving the key to Sarah Jane at the right moment is a steal from "Blink."

Rani's Mum is Annoying/Is Absent: The latter.

Luke/K9 Cameo: Not even a mention. How soon we forget.

Sarah Jane Waxes Maudlin: In episode 2, when telling Emily how lucky she is someone loves her.

Mobile Phone as Plot Device: Clyde determines that he's in the past by checking the signal, and Emily gets in a (ahem) heavily telegraphed comedy moment as she marvels at the idea that "Mr Bell's invention" not only caught on, but went wireless. Plus it seems MP3s have Nazi-repelling capabilities.

Racism Towards Aliens: Clyde, of all people, tells an SS officer that he's a blind bully who judges others only on appearances, and hates and fears anyone who's different to him. Tu quoque, Clyde.

The Crimes of Sarah Jane: None, though Rani gets in one count of Grand Theft Music-Box, and another of Impersonating a Tudor Personage. And the characterisation of the pantomime Nazis is indeed criminal.

Sonic Lipstick: No.

Wristwatch Scanner: Used to scan for "ghosts."

One or More of Sarah's Companions Falling Under Alien Influence: Well, everyone goes into the past under alien influence, technically.

Sarah And/Or Companion Acts like a Selfish Cow: Actually, Rani gets to be nicely unselfish for a change, giving up the chance to go back in order to urge Queen Jane to martyrdom.

Friday, November 05, 2010

SJA Checklist: The Empty Planet

Crowds of People Under Alien Influence: Non-crowds of people, removed due to alien influence. Sort of a bizarro-universe crowd.

Tie-in with Doctor Who story
: No out-and-out tie-in, but a lot of referencing: Turlough (alien prince hidden on the Earth), The Android Invasion (mysteriously deserted English urban conurbation), the Judoon, The Daleks' Master Plan episode 12 (returning to a planet to find it deserted), The Curse of Fenric (Clive's "I love you, Mum!" when finding himself trapped); plus a reference to "Survivors" when Rani says "Please don't let me be the only one."

Rani's Mum is Annoying/Is Absent: The latter, though that's no different to anyone else. And she does get a good panic at Rani's Dad over the phone when they think Rani is missing.

Luke/K9 Cameo: None, though Clyde and Rani spend a lot of time wishing there was one.

Sarah Jane Waxes Maudlin: Episode Two ends with a heroic maudlin-fest as Sarah Jane, Rani and Clyde gush about how great it is that they know each other.

Mobile Phone as Plot Device: Is back, hooray!

Racism Towards Aliens: When Clyde considers the possibility that Gavin might be an alien, he leaps straight away to the conclusion that Gavin somehow caused the disappearances. Although everyone can be forgiven for assuming initially that the great big Cyberman/NuDalek-offspring robots are up to no good.

The Crimes of Sarah Jane: Well, Sarah Jane is absent this story, but Clyde and Rani severally engage in: Breaking and entering (Rani, Gavin's flat), use of private property without permission (Clyde in the cafe-- it's not theft, as he leaves money to pay for it), and Grand Theft Bicycle ("we'll bring them back," Rani says, though there's no evidence that they do).

Sonic Lipstick: Rani grabs it and uses it repeatedly, in some kind of symbolic female rite of passage.

Wristwatch Scanner: Was presumably on Sarah Jane's wrist when she vanished, so Rani doesn't get that too.

One or More of Sarah's Companions Falling Under Alien Influence: Retroactively-- Clyde and Rani being grounded by the Judoon means they don't get Raptured along with everyone else.

Sarah And/Or Companion Acts like a Selfish Cow: To be fair to them, no more than anyone else would in similar circumstances.