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?