It may be way too early to say so, but I'd hope that my generation - those of us born in the seventies, the legacy of that lurid decade - was the last to grow up under the shadow of total nuclear anihiliation. Our formative years in the eighties were the last time the world faced a serious risk of going MAD. These days it's all tac-nukes, and briefcase bombs, and about doing the nuclear nasty on a small, limited level. The old idea of the world ending in an massive mushroom cloud is no longer as potent; other fears - a global epidemic, climate change - have taken the front rank.
But it sure as hell seemed real enough if you grew up in the early eighties. Hawks in Washington and Moscow kept the world on edge, and tensions were reaching a dangerous level. This was the last great flurry of the Cold War. Between 1979 and 1983, three crises and close-calls almost became total nuclear war. The worst was in November 1983; a NATO exercise named "Able Archer" was carried out so well the Soviets thought they were under attack. As they began to prepare a very real counterattack, things could have gotten totally out of hand. Fortunately for all, Matthew Broderick showed up and saved the day. No hang on, that was a movie. Anyway, the world didn't end, but it could have.
As it happens, 1983 was a great year for "World War III" movies. The issue was dominating everyone's mind. One film stands out in this genre - "The Day After". This was an immensely controversial and high-profile movie that seared the image of nuclear doomsday into popular culture like those eerie shadows of people vaporised at Hiroshima. (Check out what's left of this lady for whom the bank would never open.) To my eight-year-old mind, it was all pretty damn intense. This is the end of the fucking world - well, poor old Kansas City at least :
Man, I have such a personal antagonism to panic. I like to think that, if I knew a nuke was five minutes away, I'd just go up a nice hill somewhere and wait for the blast. Maybe sing a little. I would so want to see it, even though it's the last thing I'd ever see. It's that incredible flash - like the sun just exploded - or God opened his eyes on you.
After he saw this movie, Ronald Reagan noted in his diary that it left him "greatly depressed". I'm picking he wasn't the only person who felt like that. It is the utter horror of judgement day - the avenging angels raining down from the sky will wipe out everyone equally. That's what always made nuclear war unthinkable - no-one would survive; the whole concept was massive, collective suicide.
But "The Day After", as bleak as it got, was made for commercial TV. It had to have hope. At the end of the film, local doctor Russell Oakes (played by that world-weary ol' bastard Jason Robards) returns to the shattered ruins of his home. He is a few days away from succumbing to radiation sickness; he wants to die on his own ground. On his way he passes through a grand guignol landscape of surreal nightmare. Elsewhere, a woman gives birth; although they don't show us the baby, it must be (relatively) healthy; her reaction suggests some kind of final triumph, as the re-affirmation of life. When Oakes reaches what's left of his house, he finds some squatters have settled there. He snarls "Get out of my house" - the natural reaction of an aggrieved homeowner. But then one of them offers him an apple - showing that in all the carnage and fire and agony, human decency survives. Oakes realises that all the old bullshit, before the war, really meant nothing at all next to things like kindness. He weeps, and is comforted. The ending of this film does show - because it, creatively and commercially, had to - that humanity can survive and rebuild.
Some people note that British TV takes a much darker tone than it's American counterpart. This is a debatable generalisation, but one thing is sure - they do WWIII movies better than the Yanks. In 1965, the BBC produced a TV film called "The War Game". It was so stark and horrifying, it's makers had to fight for it to be shown. It was considered too grim for public consumption, and was not shown on-air until thirty years after it was made.
But it would be in Orwell's ominous year that the Brits produced the best depiction of nuclear horror. "Threads" tops them all with it's completely bleak tone and absence of all hope. I didn't see it myself until university, when I felt it blew "The Day After" away. Watching it again (it's all on YouTube) just confirms that belief.
The world ends slowly and quietly in "Threads". The story mainly follows the character of Ruth, a pregnant woman who struggles to carry her baby safely through the chaos. Her child, throughout the series, is seen as the hope for the better tomorrow.
Now watch the last nine minutes of "Threads" below, and compare it to the video above.
"Better tomorrow"? I don't think so. There's no happy ending here. When Ruth finally drops dead, her daughter plunges on, numb to all grief - her generation can feel no emotion. As these final minutes show us, the next generation is totally screwed - inarticulate, quite feral, and devoid of feeling other than the need to survive. Literally picking at threads. And the generation beyond that is going to be far, far worse…the camera freezes before she screams, but you know THAT baby is not alright.
All in all, I'm just glad New Zealand was never appeared on a board for Risk. Nobody can nuke a country that they can't find on a map. I reckon we would have been sweet - for once, geographic ignorance would totally save us. The subsequent fallout may have been bad for us in the southern hemisphere - as described in "On The Beach" - but at least we wouldn't be nuked. Well maybe the spiteful old French might have sent one over, but it would probably have hit Australia anyway. So it's win-win for Kiwis!
Now we'll get a little more upbeat.
A little while back I blogged on exploitation cinema. But before the cinema, there was the literature : pulp comics. These seedy and disreputable publications were hugely popular back in the thirties. They could show the things that the cinemas, for the most part, couldn't. By modern standards the stories are laughably tame, dealing mainly in overwritten innuendo. But, of course, they were meant to be nothing more than cheap thrills. The particular version of pulps we're looking at here are the "Spicys" [sic], which were meant to be the sleaziest of the lot.
The stories are virtually unreadable now, but the covers live on. It was the cover art that really defined the pulp genre. It added another language to modern art, one that is still referenced and recognised today. Although the art of the pulps is lost now it is enjoying a huge comeback in the Internet age. It is an irony of history : the original pulp artists considered it total hackwork, something many of them were ashamed of. The greatest pulp artist, Norman Saunders, actually destroyed the bulk of his paintings, for fear they would be discovered by his prudish family. But today, his original works sell for huge sums.
Without exception, the covers feature the same thing : a beautiful woman imperilled. White Middle America (who both wrote and read pulps) was obsessed with the idea of virginal white womanhood under threat. The circulation of the pulps hit a high point in 1933 - the same year "King Kong" came out. This, of course, prominently features an innocent white girl shrieking in a nightgown, while a big black hairy ape leers at her. Subtle, this is not. (The decade was spent in a constant moral panic - ordinary white American girls were supposed to be under constat threat from either white slavers or reefer men). Pulp covers, particularly the Spicys, were as close to the edge as an illustrator could go back then. The girls would be as naked as possible; the threat would either be a total thug, or some hideous racist caricature.
(Norman Saunders. Fun Fact : Saunders liked to base his subjects on contemporary Hollywood beauties; this is supposed to be Bette Davis)
So they are a pretty good example of what art historians call "the male gaze". Or, if you're feeling less tactful, they're soft porn - and dodgy soft porn at that. But then, would it surprise you to know one of the most lurid cover artists was a woman?
Margaret Brundage was considered one of the most controversial cover artists of her day. Working exclusively for the seminal horror mag Weird Tales, her identity was a secret at the time. This just increased the reputation of her covers. It could be suggested that the powerful effect of Brundage's covers pulled in a huge audience for the featured writers, who would not be otherwise read. The writers returned the favour by setting certain scenes in their stories, solely to provide her with a good subject. (The stories featured in WT were by guys like Lovecraft, and of far higher quality than the Spicys).
For Brundage, it was all about feeding her children and elderly mother. This was, after all, the time of the bloody Great Depression. She had an awesome talent. There was a use for it that paid well. So she did these covers. It was just work - although she took huge satisfaction from the fact that issues with her covers always sold out.
Eventually, the pulp age ended. When World War II began, strict rationing on paper and inks made them uneconomical. Television also took a massive toll on the readership. Instead, the cheap paperback - the 'classic' pulp fiction books - was produced. The spirit of the pulp lived on, but now it was pocket-sized. American soldiers serving overseas had a huge appetite for the things, and thousands were produced during the forties. These books would grab their own little place in modern popular literature, leading up to the movie "Pulp Fiction", which was a sustained tribute to the whole genre. Then the men's magazines came along the sixties, and things started to get really sleazy in a distinctly modern way. But the cover art of the cheap paperbacks would never approach the awesomeness of their pulp forbears. The style went out; things could be far more blatant. Suggestiveness is so powerful; blatancy leaves nothing to the imagination. It's what was not shown that made the old pulps so powerful. That's why they still retain their powers today - even if we laugh at their quaintness.
Here's a true gem to finish. Does this robot remind you of anyone?.
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