Irony and The Atomic Cafe

The Atomic Cafe, directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty, is the film I screened at tonight’s Dinner and a Doc. It is a remarkable film, a kind of collage that satirizes the whole of an era’s relationship to the atom using only the era’s own documents. There are no contemporary interviews, no editorial voiceovers, no expert analyses, only footage from the early atomic age, edited together in ironic and often humorous ways. This approach represents the source material in such a way that it can only satirize itself, and it forces the viewer to see the ironies in the official propaganda, the media hype, the well-intentioned education, and the opportunistic money-making that surrounded the cultural effect of the atomic bomb. The film makes unavoidable the gap between reality and what the average citizen is usually told.

I realized tonight, however, that this kind of satire only becomes effective when it is too late to be really useful. The culture in the United States during the fifties would not have interpreted much of The Atomic Cafe ironically. For many people at the time, the culture of the atomic bomb was still too present and too real, and the voices that were constructing this culture for them still held too much authority. In fact, to the degree that the editing made the irony unavoidable, many people of that era might have found the film untruthful and irresponsible. In order for people to see and accept the irony of the film, they needed to be separated by time and culture from what was being satirized.

This is an important idea for me, because it helps explain why irony and satire are not more dominant modes in Western culture today. The problem is certainly not that there are no opportunities for them, as the success of satirical news shows like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report can attest. The problem is that the broader portion of people in our culture are still too enmeshed in their own culture, still too subject to it. They do not often see the ironies of their own political, economic, and social existence, and they do not often choose to accept these ironies when they are forced upon them. It will likely take the next generation, looking back through the lenses of our own media, to point out the absurdities in our ideas of terrorism, or national security, or ecology. Of course, by that time, it will already be much too late.

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