By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Jayne Loader is too modest to admit it, but she was one of a trio that irrevocably changed American pop culture's perception of the Atomic Age. Fourteen years ago, she, Kevin Rafferty, and Rafferty's brother, Pierce, premiered The Atomic Cafe in New York City. Celebrities, including Richard Gere, Christopher Reeve, and Susan Sarandon attended the screening, and Atomic Cafe's makers were booked on The Today Show and Late Night with David Letterman.
Like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, The Atomic Cafe hilariously depicts how idiotically people in power behave when confronted with nuclear Armageddon, with one significant difference: The Atomic Cafe isn't fiction. It is, in Loader's words, a "collage movie"--the result of her and the Raffertys viewing more than 10,000 U.S. government propaganda films that were made during the '50s heyday of the nuclear-arms scare.
If you've never seen The Atomic Cafe, chances are you've seen at least snippets of these absurd yet terrifying government films, even if you weren't living during those years: soldiers climbing out of desert trenches to charge an erupting mushroom cloud; Dad instructing the family, nuked by the Commies, that it was time to help the neighborhood clean up the mess, behaving as if a mere thunderstorm had swept through; the kid riding the bicycle who instantly drops to the ground and takes cover under a park bench when The Bomb flashes, as advised by Bert, the "duck and cover" turtle.
While many of these short films are hilarious when viewed on their own--with their bad acting, outrageous and outright lies about the "safety" of atomic weapons, and questionable "survival instructions" presented with that "Gee, Wally" kind of naivete prevalent in 1950s America, it was Loader and the Raffertys who resurrected them, making the films even more memorable, popular, and relevant to the arms race climax of the 1980s.
The Atomic Cafe doesn't lecture its audience about how bad nuclear weapons are. It assumes we already know that. Instead, Loader and the Raffertys manipulated these films, editing together choice clips, not only to emphasize how silly they are but how stupid people were actually to have believed them.
Though the film received widespread praise (the harshest criticism came from the left, which felt it trivialized the threat of nuclear weapons), The Atomic Cafe didn't get a nomination for an Academy Award--thus becoming one of the first of several critically lauded, unconventional documentaries that would be snubbed by the Academy's stodgy documentary voters.
That didn't stop The Atomic Cafe from being one of the most deeply influential American documentaries. If not for Loader and the Raffertys sitting through reels upon reels of propaganda films, for example, all those jabs that the writers of The Simpsons frequently take at the nuclear-power industry might not have been so assuredly inspired.
Waxahachie's Loader, who brings to mind a New Age Earth mom with the muckraker's heart of Molly Ivins, is reluctant to claim credit for such cultural ramifications. "The Atomic Cafe was more influential formally than it was politically," she says. "A lot of people really liked it, but it didn't end the arms race, and it didn't shut down nuclear power.
"We did have a big influence on film as a form and on advertising," she acknowledges. "We really brought the stock-footage industry forward and made that [using stock footage] very trendy and hip."
Between 1982 and her return to Texas from New York City two years ago (she had lived in Fort Worth in the late '60s), Loader worked on two more films with Kevin Rafferty, published two books, and directed her own stock-footage movie, Why Do We Treat Them Like Animals?, which, as the title implies, concerns the various ways humans perceive and behave toward animals. Loader remained busy, but these artistic endeavors never won the attention that The Atomic Cafe earned. She also dabbled in television: a documentary for the Disney Channel about outlandish American fads (things like people swallowing goldfish and several college kids trying to stuff themselves into a telephone booth). That project was canceled when the Disney network deemed Loader's work on that production "too political," she says. She had always had a low opinion of the television medium, and this experience affirmed it.
In 1994, Loader and her husband, Eric Schwaab, decided to take on the new digital medium--interactive CD-ROM and the Internet--basing production in their new home in Waxahachie. Loader had been researching World War I woman aviators for some time as a subject for a documentary film, a novel, or, perhaps, a screenplay. She also considered making it the basis for a CD-ROM. But when the French resumed nuclear testing in the Pacific, she was prompted to return to the territory she helped explore in The Atomic Cafe.
A year later, she and Schwaab produced Public Shelter, an "adult educational" CD-ROM, and Internet Website (http://www.publicshelter.com) that mine the voluminous information only partially uncovered in the making of The Atomic Cafe.
Loader surfed the Net, visiting mostly U.S. government sites, to ferret out documents related to nuclear technology. Footage and outtakes from The Atomic Cafe, additional clips from recently declassified films, hours of audio, hundreds of photographs, and more than 1,500 text files archive the history, technology, and culture of the Nuclear Age. The timing of Public Shelter's release couldn't have been more appropriate. It was the 50th anniversary of the Manhattan Project, and the Department of Energy had just revealed that some American citizens had been unknowingly subjected to radiation tests. Like The Atomic Cafe, Public Shelter received nearly unanimous praise, all of which culminated when the CD-ROM won the gold medal in the Personal/Non-Profit category at this year's Invisions Awards, a ceremony honoring achievements in multimedia that was held in Chicago June 3. Public Shelter also earned an Award of Excellence from the judges.