Vintage Cable Box: The Atomic Cafe, 1982

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“We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies.”

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The Atomic Cafe, 1982, Libra Films

It was an unexciting, routine mission until they saw the damage. New Mexico, normally a parched, barren section of little Earth; sand and dust, before and after, shows no real effects until you throw in the half-constructed homes and livestock. The “Trinity” Test yields an image of great beauty, often repeated, but as beauty can be a drug with effects that diminish over time, the first mushroom cloud, the report of the first bomb detonation arouses the scientific community, and the first parties of people involved are labeled “mad-men” and “lunatics”; it’s eerie and strange how those voices were silenced over the ensuing years.

Not long after, Harry S. Truman appears in newsreels announcing the destruction of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively end the war on the Asian continent.  The information is edited to remove the consequences of the attacks, but “The Atomic Cafe” pulls no punches.  We see the singed earth resting beneath stacks of bleached bones and graphic depictions of horrifying injuries sustained by the survivors.  The delicate sensibilities of pre-Eisenhower nuclear families that had no truck with unimaginable violence were too tender to witness the actual effects of the primary blasts, let alone the ash-ridden winters and radiation poisoning.

“PEACE!  It’s Wonderful!”  This is the post-war boom of America; the prosperity and the marching majorettes, returning soldiers, and dancing in the streets.  Operation: Crossroads begins with the “Bikini” Test, July of 1946.  The natives of the island sing “You Are My Sunshine” as the bomb is dropped, and an unbelievable cloud appears over the island.  The next year (1947 – “The Year of Division”), a new cloud forms headlining the “global struggle between East and West.”  In other words, Soviet Russia versus the United States.  The Cold War begins.

Propaganda films are quickly produced to demonstrate the threat of communism (like a virus) as it spreads throughout Europe and threatens to land on our shores.  Our “values,” or “freedom of speech” will be diminished, censored, and destroyed, and ideas like “humanity” and “emotion” are considered obsolete in Soviet Russia.  To counter this philosophy, our propaganda sells capitalism to the hilt as an antidote to the concept of communism.  Americans are encouraged to buy products, visit newly-built shopping malls; eat, marry, and reproduce – beef up our numbers.  Truman warns of atomic tests in Russia.  Protective devices, including boxes, suits, and bomb shelters are tested and then sold.  The police are militarized.

In 1950, as our government has enormous confidence in the ability to end any war with an atomic bomb, Korea is invaded.  The populace remains uninformed as to the true dangers of these new war technologies, and this is where the programming starts – by misinforming the public.  A character actor I recognize as James Gregory appears in a training film, wherein those preaching peace are ridiculed by the Military and civilians alike.  Paranoia reigns supreme; the impetus of which seems to have started when the Russians began testing their own atomic devices and then Senator Richard Nixon suspected espionage.  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are sentenced to death for selling secrets to the Russians.  These initial bursts of fear snowball, or mushroom into a full-fledged witchhunt.  HUAC proceedings begin, and those who question our government’s actions, or display sympathies that go against the grain of nation-worship are blacklisted, their lives threatened and their actions monitored.

Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you the Hydrogen Bomb!  Even more awesome destruction is guaranteed, but Russia remains one step ahead and develops their own Hydrogen bomb.  Testing of animals near bombing sites is accompanied by “Atomic Cocktail”, a jaunty Django Reinhart-like ditty, and then there are badly-acted training films made to assauge and calm fears of devastation and radiation sickness.  Fallout shelters are constructed with emergency preparedness kits, and rudimentary haz-mat suits become the norm for fashion.  This new age of paranoia even has a mascot – Burt the Turtle.  Burt comes with his own theme song, “Duck and Cover.”

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Produced at the absolute height of United States fear and suspicion, where even my generation was indoctrinated to hate Russia and the principles of communism and socialism, The Atomic Cafe is a devastating documentary comprised of newsreel footage, Military training films, and flimsy speeches about safety, and broadcast news, as well as preaching the doctrine of capitalism and false analogies of free speech, and religious exceptionalism.  I have friends (my age) to this day who still possess a strange, undeviated, irrational hatred (read: fear) of anything that is not uniquely American, including our system of government, accepted systems of religion, and finance.  Why?  Why would they still continue to feel this way?  If they (as I) feel that our Nation, our system of government, and our potential for wealth and prosperity are unmatched in this world, they should have no fear.  Yet, the dogma persists.

As Americans go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new President, keep this in mind (as evidenced by The Atomic Cafe): politicians yearn for war, but soldiers pray for peace.  Politicians thrive in division, to keep us fighting each other instead of questioning our government’s practices.  Politicians exist to keep themselves employed; all of them, regardless of religion, race, or gender, with no exceptions, no Party rules, and no compunction about dropping mindless, soulless bombs on innocent people.  We’re capable of so much more than this.  Keep that in mind.  Please.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “The Twelve Chairs, 1970”

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“I hate people I don’t like!”

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The Twelve Chairs, 1970 (Ron Moody), Universal Marion Corporation

While ostensibly labeled a “Mel Brooks comedy”, The Twelve Chairs, the under-appreciated 1970 follow up to The Producers, and essentially a lively chase across the then brand-new Soviet Union, the narrative follows devastatingly dramatic and tragic narrative beats. Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody, in a brilliant performance) was, at one time, of noble Russian blood; an aristocrat, who held vast properties, large mansions, whole swaths of acreage; acquiring treasures from around the world, but this was before the Bolshevik Revolution when all private property (for some strange reason) became public property. That is to say the “property of the People”; the people being the communist government.

When the communists came to power, they seized everything, including a garish dining room set consisting of a table and twelve chairs.  Before Vorobyaninov’s mother-in-law dies, she tells him of fabulous jewels that she sewed into the cushion of one of the chairs.  She also spills the secret to Priest Fyodor (Dom DeLuise, oddly out of place in this movie), who promptly shaves his ridiculous beard and abandons the church to find the jewels.  For reasons that are never explained, thief and con-man Ostap (Frank Langella, in his film debut), gets wise to the booty and hooks up with Vorobyaninov to find the chairs before Fyodor does.  This mission sends them to bizarre places, like the hilarious “Museum of Furniture” (where the chairs were recently on display) only to find they’ve been split and sold off.  Ostap poses as a clerk, forges the sales records and sends Fyodor off on a wild-goose-chase, where he terrorizes a beleaguered couple he is convinced possess the remaining chairs.

While Vorobyaninov and Ostap bond, in my view, they are at cross-purposes.  In a telling scene near the end of The Twelve Chairs, they argue and come to blows when Ostap suggests they beg for the money to purchase the remainder of the chairs.  Ostap schemes that Vorobyaninov should pretend to suffer epilepsy and then they will take money from sympathetic pedestrians.  Vorobyaninov is adamant in his refusal.  He is nobility, he insists.  Ostap labels him a parasite, and (almost proudly) proclaims that he has begged his whole life.  Vorobyaninov relents.  Now he knows what it means to beg, and while his pride may be wounded, he knows this is the only way to survive.  While Ostap is interested only for the riches, I believe Vorobyaninov wants to simply retain his dignity.  It is an incisive revelation, and occurs in a Mel Brooks movie at a time when we don’t know if we should laugh or cry.

Even more shocking is Fyodor.  A man of the cloth transformed very quickly into a monster at the first thought of riches.  As the concept of communism crept into Russia, notions of materialism (and more importantly, god concepts) deteriorated under the ideology of labor and financial equality, thus eliminating the need for God (or, as my wife, speculated, “the promise of riches and eternal happiness in Heaven”).  Father Fyodor exists as an anomaly; something that should not exist in the Godless Soviet Union.  Once he has made the leap to the greed and inequities of Man, the surprising cynicism of Brooks’ screenplay (based upon Ilf and Petrov’s classic piece of folklore and legend) becomes more pronounced, and also, curiously satisfying.  Where Fyodor has lost his humanity because of his greed,  Vorobyaninov has found his humanity when he realizes his survival depends on his greed.

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Ron Moody as Vorobyaninov delivers what is, in my mind, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) performances in the history of cinema for the modern age. Vorobyaninov is a miserable little man desperately holding on to outdated notions of honor and imperalism. His face lights up at the prospect of taking back the jewels. He suffers embarrassments at the hands of Ostap who shames him for his lack of vision and street-smarts. He expresses violent rage at the thought of demeaning himself, and then he eventually acquiesces to the lunacy of the situation. This is an incredible rendition of a man who turns his back to the “progress” of the new socioeconomic order. While Brooks’ outstanding screenplay adaptation was nominated for the WGA Award, and Langella won a National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor, Moody was robbed of any nominations or awards, which is staggering to me.

Even more staggering is that this is a Mel Brooks movie. There are the requisite sight gags (with emphasis on stand-alone visual cues), and silly sped-up chasing and action sequences, and memorable one-liners (as well as a Mel Brooks cameo), but the emphasis of this story rests in the tragedy of the old man, not the manic machinations of the corrupted priest. This is a cynical film, but stays true to the Brooks philosophy of the corruption of power, and the overwhelming dominance of greed.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.