Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Second Original Sin: Art In the Atomic Age

The atomic cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945.
On August 6, 1945, mankind committed an act of mass murder that would forever haunt us. President Harry S. Truman decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan that was as devastating to the human soul as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The world has not been the same since. Just as Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, so the entire world seemed to be in revolt against mankind for spreading nuclear radiation  that spread like sin itself.
Why is any of this important?
Granted, it was decades ago, and radiation never caused giant rabbits to overrun Washington D.C., or attacks from giant lobsters to destroy a high school dance, and massive tarantulas never carried off the women folk; but the most influential directors in Hollywood today grew up with those films where those things did happen, and they still reference them in their work. Further, the visual language with which we are familiar today really started becoming mainstream then, and it's in these "campy" sci-fi films that some of the most basic moral dogmas are encoded at a time when everything seemed uncertain. The following clip is a Turner Classic Movies channel documentary called Watch the Skies, about the influence of sci-fi films on Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, James Cameron and all of American society (the rest of the hour long documentary may be viewed at Youtube here).
So if TCM has all ready solved the importance of sci-fi films, why am I covering?
I think they are all wrong.
Films such as Them! and The Thing From Another World, and Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Blob and The Monolith Monsters, wasn't about them, the Communists, they were about us, the ones who dropped the bomb, the world we created and what we became when we dropped the bomb: those giant ants, rabbits, spiders, tomatoes, whatever you want to cite, wasn't about everything else growing so big, it was about how small we became when we indiscriminately unleashed the effects of technology against a city of humans utterly unprepared for what we were going to do. It wasn't that aliens were attacking us, but that we had become alien to ourselves and couldn't recognize ourselves anymore. The "alien within us" effected us from the country's status as a superpower to our sexual relationships and the relationship between parents and their children.
The climax of giant creature-features.
I am not, under any circumstances, making a historical judgment on whether or not it was the right thing to do by dropping the bomb, but the questions and doubts lingering in the unconscious of people living after the dropping of the bomb and for whom the sci-fi films of the 1950's provided that catharsis of seeing, not them, but ourselves is the center of my focus. The science fiction, giant creature-feature films didn't end until 1975 when budding director Steven Spielberg made his film Jaws, "regarded as a watershed film in motion picture history, the father of the summer blockbuster." I will be going into extensive analysis on Jaws, but, like Them! or any of the other giant creature features, the Great White shark was a giant, 25 feet long, and like the films Spielberg grew up with, it directly dealt with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) is really the cornerstone to what was happening from 1945 throughout the 1950s. Watch the Skies says that The Incredible Shrinking Man is really just the opposite of creatures becoming giants (part 2 of the film), but I hold that it's the exact same thing, because size is relative, when ants become giants, we become ants. In The Incredible Shrinking Man,  Scott Carey, on a boat off the California coast, is overtaken by a radiation cloud and from that day on, he begins getting smaller and smaller. The following trailer for the film doesn't show any of the great clips from The Incredible Shrinking Man, (we'll save that for my upcoming post) but it is narrated by none other than the great Orson Welles (please note how this still image in the trailer you see here resembles the poster art for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo):
But the point is, as men were getting smaller women were becoming larger. This is the basic point of my contention with Spielberg, Lucas, Scott and Cameron: their interpretations of the 1950 sci-fi thrillers as vehicles of paranoia about Communism doesn't apply to other genres of film at the time, the film noir or Westerns, or dramas. Rebel Without a Cause has moments and hints of the Cold War (Plato being cold all the time, for example) but there isn't anything about Communism or suspected Communism in there, but the film is full of how small and insignificant Jim (James Dean) feels and how "the kids" at school treat others (please see James Dean vs Charles Darwin: Rebel Without A Cause).For an historical analysis of film to work, we have to be able to trace aspects of it to other genres and the Communist threat isn't there. However, the sexual role reversal as a result of radiation contact is evident in the 1958 film, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman:
What is the conflict between the man who is shrinking into nothing and the woman growing into a colossal? As I mentioned, both of the mutant sizes are the result of radiationthey didn't win the war, the bomb won the war, and that feeling of shame, and the responsibility of killing women and children because of the bomb dropping on them, was what caused men to lose their self-respect, and that is the radiation cloud which causes men to grow small and simultaneously caused women to become empowered, because the men lost the war on the front line, but the women won the war on the home front; it wasn't just the Rosie Riveters from war production faculties that "rose up" (grew) to the challenge of supplying the Allied Powers with war equipment, but that men shrunk from their duty to solidly defeat the enemy.
This horrible dichotomy was at least partially repressed by the incredible rise of consumerism in the 1950s, the "buying power" that a loss of power here could be compensated by a gaining in power there. These are bits and pieces that we can find in films such as The Best Years of Our Lives, The Asphalt Jungle, Sunset Boulevard, many Westerns such as Shane and nearly all the film noir films.
Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past, 1947.
I am making some pretty bold claims, however, I have also been researching them for over ten years and in great films and bad films, the same holds true that we were more interested in ourselves artistically than in the Communists (which was mostly a political agenda that individuals could capitalize upon for their careers). I will be posting on films throughout the next month on this topic and within this theme to explore how Hollywood could make a great films like James Dean's East of Eden and the same year make It Came From Beneath the Sea!  and the two films be basically about the same thing, concerned with the same consequences.
Clint Eastwood's first, uncredited role.