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Cold War Kid (Jenny Noyce)

October 18, 2009
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Fears about the Cold War were still very much in the air when I was growing up. Though we never did “duck and cover” exercises or heard explicit propaganda about “commies” in my elementary school, I nevertheless had a notion of Russia as a monstrous fascist country that could swallow up America if our government did nothing to protect us.  Reagan’s space race, too, contributed to my sense that our country was pitted against the Russians, and the first country to achieve “cosmic domination” would become THE world superpower.  These ideas were certainly rooted in a child’s sensibility, but their simplicity reflects the “good vs. evil” rhetoric through which Cold War conflicts were represented.

As I was reading history/medical/legal expert Daniel Kevles’s piece about “the contested earth,” I began to recognize the large role that Cold War fears (and other legitimate  national security concerns) have played in determining environmental policy.  According to Kelves, the American West changed when  Cold War imperatives produced “the conviction that national security required dynamic economic development.”  With the arrival of federal defense projects, the West (and the desert especially) became not a site to be preserved, but rather an “emptiness” rife for atomic testing and military development (as writer Terry Tempest Williams observed in Refuge).  This is a distinct shift in domestic political priorities motivated by a shift in international politics.  Before there was a force out there to be scared of, preservationists could make efforts to protect the environment from the domestic powers that wished to manipulate it.  But when “national security” trumps all other concerns, the preservation of the environment, as a political cause, becomes secondary (if not displaced altogether).

The irony, of course, is that the Cold War led to a ramping up of development of nuclear weapons in our deserts, and, subsequently, an increasing awareness of its consequences.  Says Kelves, “the cold war helped further to lay the foundation for the second environmental movement by generating controversy over radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the atmosphere.”  We didn’t want the Russians nuking us, but in the process of protecting ourselves, we did as yet unknowable damage to our environment.  Furthermore,  nuclear fallout is not limited just to the Western land degraded by nuclear and defense industries, but extends well beyond political borders.

In Stacy Alaimo’s “Discomforting Creatures: Monstrous Natures in Recent Films,” the author analyzes the ways in which monster movies reflect anxieties about the blurring of boundaries between human and animal bodies.  I think other types of movies popular during my upbringing might yield other interesting analyses about Cold War fears, as well as fears about environmental catastrophe.  Such films might be those that aided in producing my young brain’s notion that the Russians are the bad guys.  Consider action films: “Rocky IV,” “War Games,” “Hunt for Red October,” “Spies Like Us” (though a comedy).  By secretly watching the movies on HBO on the basement TV, I was receiving messages that reflected Cold War paranoia: the Russians are the big, muscular, nefarious bad guys who must be conquered!  Other movies, of course, are actually about nuclear war, and the fallout from it.  “The Day After” was filmed in my hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) in 1984.  The premise: what will the world be like the day after a nuclear explosion?  Well, of course we have no idea, but…

This is a “behind the scenes” look at the making of the film (which stars Steve Gutenberg!).  It’s set in Kansas because, as the director says, it’s the “social and geographical crosshairs of the continental United States.”   You’ll notice that the director talks at length about his motivation to explore the multiple human dimensions of the fallout; he does not mention the environment once.  It is, as the director says, a movie “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Wow.  It’s real, I promise.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. matthewshedd permalink
    October 19, 2009 12:15 am

    Jenny Noyce made some intresting points about _The Day After_ and its anthropocentrism. I think it is interesting when we think about this disaster film in comparison to the more recent films, _WALL-E_ and _I Am Legend_. Both of these seemed very invested in imagining what the world would look like after humans rather than focusing primarily on the human experience of a global disaster. Do these more recent depictions indicate a shift in public interest to the fate of the earth as a whole rather than focusing solely on humanity? If so, this could perhaps be a positive recognition of humanity’s radical interdependence with the natural world.

    Also for a sophisticated literary handling of nuclear fallout/planetary disaster, I would highly recommend Cormac McCarthy’s _The Road_ to anyone who might be interested.

  2. October 19, 2009 3:24 pm

    What fascinates me the most about the video you’ve shared, Jenny, is that nearly all the extras were attracted to the production because of the experience it would give them. Some seem more interested in “being in a movie,” but several want to experience the disaster, or “how it will really be.” Hollywood has only amped up its production of envirodisaster films since the 80s, to varying degrees of success. (Cf. the global-warming visual polemics of 2004’s /The Day After Tomorrow/ which flopped at the box office). I wonder if performing scenarios and creatively involving everyday people in environmental art might be a more effective way to communicate environmental risk or degradation on a grassroots level. What do you guys think?

  3. October 19, 2009 3:33 pm

    I also wonder–and this may be too big of a question: can we consider the Cold War a “risk” performance?

  4. October 19, 2009 6:40 pm

    Matthew’s point that recent disaster films (like “WALL-E”) imagine disasters as planetary in scope, and as involving nonhuman as well as human casualties begs a question. Is the sensibility of “The Day After”-–or of “Heroes and Saints” for that matter–– particular to the Cold War era? Do these very different dramas foreground human impacts (of nuclear weaponry, urban pollution, and agricultural pesticides) over and against nonhuman ones? And if so, do we see that sensibility decline in the post-Cold War period? Or is it simply one among several disaster ideologies / toxic discourses that we can observe in other periods?

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