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GROUND ZERO

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.

Unfortunately, unlike The Atomic Cafe, Public Shelter has yet to win a wide audience. Only 1,600 copies of the CD-ROM were ever produced, most of which were given to members of the press and broadcast media, while only about 500 of those copies were actually sold. Loader's original plan was to seek out a publisher upon finishing the CD-ROM. That didn't happen; she was rejected by publishers as big as Microsoft. (As Loader says with a laugh, Microsoft reps essentially told her, "Well, Jayne, if we wanted your CD-ROM, we would've made it ourselves.")

She hopes that the wins at the Invisions Awards may bring interested publishers. So far, they have failed to materialize.

Aside from the good reviews and the award, Loader says, "Public Shelter has not been quite that satisfying--in hard cash." But she has found digital technology lacking in more important ways, as well.

"I think that the film [The Atomic Cafe] is more powerful emotionally," Loader says. "A good film can make a much bigger impact than a CD-ROM ever can. Because with a CD-ROM, the maker gives up a lot of power."

The CD-ROM's "message," its point of view, she says, is switched off because the user controls the medium. This interaction, of course, is exactly what is being touted as the power of the new digital medium. But powerful point of view is a theme she's passionate about.

The TV documentaries that were produced for the the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a case in point, Loader says. "Lots of them were really, really terrible," she says. "They had no point of view. They would say, on one hand, it was bad to nuke the Japanese; on the other, it was good. They tried so hard to be balanced that they didn't take a position. While not taking a point of view is a point of view, it's a wishy-washy one. That's what I hate about most television."

She singles out Microsoft's CD-ROM that chronicles the history of the atom bomb, Critical Mass, as an example of a listless point of view. The only possible way a CD-ROM, with its immense capacity for information, can have point of view, Loader has concluded, is through the design of its graphic interface and the selection of its video, audio, and text material.

It's this idea that she implemented into the overall design of Public Shelter, both the CD-ROM and Website. Yet, she says, it still falls short emotionally because things work differently in a medium that is affected by the audience and not the other way around.

"A CD-ROM doesn't allow you to manipulate people in the same way that you can with a movie. You can really jerk people around with movies," she says. "The Atomic Cafe makes a stronger statement. Public Shelter provides more information."

And, indeed, The Atomic Cafe delivers its message to the viewer more effectively in its 90-minute running time than a user spending anywhere from several minutes to hours perusing through Public Shelter's reams of text. The Atomic Cafe takes you on a ride. Just ease back and relax as the film does its light-and-sound show. Basically, as Loader intended, Public Shelter is really about storehousing history. Sure, interacting with it can be a pleasurable experience, but its fun comes from clicking on a video or sound clip and looking at the photographs. This describes most multimedia reference CD-ROMs (and why they have such a hard time finding publishers).

Public Shelter in some ways refuses to function like a typical reference CD-ROM. It lacks a table of contents and, like The Atomic Cafe, there is no narrative to accompany you through the experience. You wander through Public Shelter's contents with only your curiosity leading the way. Using this CD-ROM solely for reference, thus, can be frustrating. It's like going on a scavenger hunt without a list--the only objective being to find something cool.

 

Interacting--or "playing," if you will--with Public Shelter recreates the thrill that Loader and the Raffertys must have felt when they searched for five years through government archives for those choice films and declassified documents that were used for The Atomic Cafe.

"I found the artistic and intellectual challenges greater in CD-ROM. It's harder to do this medium right," Loader says.

But delivering a message, a definitive point of view, is what challenges Jayne Loader and, so far, she has found that the new medium has failed to deliver--or has, at the least, made such efforts extremely difficult.

"The point of view [of multimedia] is that Americans are stupid--give them games," she remarks sarcastically.

Backing Loader's assertion, at this year's Invisions Awards, the Adult Edutainment category was canceled because of a lack of entries, the category in which Public Shelter would have naturally been nominated. Many multimedia companies have ceased producing educational entertainment titles geared for an adult audience. For the European marketplace, Loader says, it's a different story. There's still a market there for products like Public Shelter, she says.

Worse, Loader says, even though everybody seems to own or use a computer these days, there are still not enough wired folks to make the computer as influential a mass medium as it might be.

"Until everybody in the United States has the ability to spend three or four hours in front of the computer every night, it can't be as effective," she says. "I think it's already as effective as it can be--with a certain group of people: the intelligentsia, the art-and-entertainment world communities. But, in terms of moving a mass market, more people have to have access to the hardware, and right now they don't."

In conquering her own technophobia, Loader found computers liberating. And with this new sense of empowerment, she hoped to use the digital medium to reach a new, younger generation with the message of The Atomic Cafe. More importantly, she was on a higher, personal mission. Public Shelter would archive the hundreds of recently declassified documents concerning nuclear secrets, like those detailing radiation experiments on people, so that the American public would always have access to the information should policies change and the documents become reclassified.

That isn't as far-fetched a possibility as it might seem. While producing The Atomic Cafe, Loader and the Raffertys had free access to virtually all the propaganda films in the various military archives by simply asking to see them. Today (in part due to The Atomic Cafe), you can't simply walk in to the nearest base or government archive and ask to see a film. You have to negotiate a bureaucratic web, involving filing Freedom of Information Act paperwork, in order to see anything.

Loader hopes that Public Shelter will help make further barriers to the information pointless. Yet, with the CD-ROM in the hands of fewer than 2,000 people, Loader's original intent for the project--securing control of these nuclear documents for the public--has turned up short.

The Atomic Age and its dilemmas never went away and remain stubbornly relevant in the Information Age. For her part, Loader continues as a persistent player in multiple media. She travels the world to speak about nuclear issues, is curating media workshops for the multimedia, interactive venture of PBS's POV television series, and writes about cultural issues in a weekly column for the Net, "World Wide Wench" (at the Public Shelter Website).

As for her future with CD-ROM, there's the possibility of a project with the producers of a recent "acclaimed documentary about basketball" that she says she is not at liberty to name (presumably the Academy-snubbed Hoop Dreams). And the cross-media project concerning the WWI woman aviators still beckons.

Loader hasn't given up on Public Shelter and hopes that a publisher will come forward to help fulfill its mission. But she realizes now that a message is only as effective as the medium that delivers it. So things are going to be different with her next CD-ROM, this independent filmmaker and pop-media maverick has decided.

"I'm going to form a relationship with a publisher early on in the process, instead of waiting until the thing is done and then try to sell it. One of the main things I've learned is that publishers want to have input into what the shape of the program is. So, next time, I'm going to be a good little soldier and play the game a little bit."

 

She considers these words more carefully for a moment. "I'm not saying I'm going to work within the system--I would never do that. I'm going to try to work on the margins of the system, instead of completely outside it. How does that sound? Sensible, doesn't it? That's not something you'd normally hear coming from my mouth.


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