Film and the Citizen-State Interface in the Nuclear Age


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For the last few years, my collaborator Ned O’Gorman and I have been studying the transformations of citizenship that accompanied the United States’ emergence from World War II as a global nuclear power. Our specific interest is in the role film played in this process of reorientation, both as an instrument of nuclear science and as a rhetorical medium in the achievement and justification of nuclear superiority.

Our project has a few components:

  • We’re All Operators Now: a book in-progress on the figure of the console operator and the construction of a nuclear state.
  • Department of Defense Digital Nuclear Film Archive: an effort to assemble and contextualize a collection of government films produced as part of the development, testing, and deployment of atomic and nuclear weapons.
  • History of Lookout Mountain Laboratory: an account of the activities of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron of the United States Air Force, which ran a full film production studio in Hollywood for about 20 years after World War II.

Quick Links

  • a one-sheet overview of the film archiving project
  • a trailer for a 2011 lecture and screening series we organized at University of Illinois
  • video of me quickly pitching the film project during a Project Directors’ meeting at the National Endowment of the Humanities
  • a slide presentation (without annotations) about our process for designing an online archives
  • our articles published so far: one in CCCS (pdf)(also summarized here);  another in this book (pdf).

We’re All Operators Now

This book looks at several vectors of change over the decades of organizational, technological and diplomatic transformation since the first Atomic Bomb detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We see themes of orientation to a nuclear bureaucratic network in iconography as old as World War II radar operators, and as recent as network news coverage of potential terrorist threats. From science fiction cinema to the Kitchen Debates, from atomic testing in the Marshall Islands to product debuts in Silicon Valley, we find resonant depictions of labor  in support of a “Closed World” of efficiently networked citizens.
Throughout the visual rhetoric of nuclear weapons in America, interaction through consoles plays a defining role in distinguishing authorized use from illegal use, and mediating an awesome state power through a collective mind-body. The cyborg citizen is perhaps more intact than previously reported.

We hope to see the book completed in the coming months. We’ve published two chapters in journals or anthologies, presented progress at several conferences and guest lectures, and are constructing a portion of the project as an interactive digital work for the Scalar platform.

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Department of Defense Digital Nuclear Film Archives

Under a Start-Up Grant from the Office of the Digital Humanities in the National Endowment for the Humanities, we’re building a working prototype for a new way to view online video files. Our interface provides annotated links between specific moments of a film and relevant documents, images, websites or other artifacts. Viewers may either watch a film accompanied by this “second screen,” or navigate our assembled and authored collection of documents as a way of tracing themes within and across the archives.

This approach, unique among current research on video annotation, is very much shaped by the nature of our subject. The films in our study number in the thousands for a twenty-year period, fulfill multiple purposes for multiple audiences, and are largely determined by the serial nature of nuclear weapons testing, development, and deployment. They are also dispersed across a large number of archives in multiple private and public spheres, in and out of the reach of civilian publics. This dispersal itself is also worthy of study.

The sum effect of this corpus is one of atomization, in which the viewer is easily lost before the sheer quantity of information. As with other sublime technological subjects, the imagery grows easily opaque for viewers through its complexity and scale, or simply vanishes from sight into the realm of ubiquitous infrastructure. The films are also at times difficult to see through the haze of appropriation and camp that pervades many things Cold War.

Our interface deals with these challenges through explicating and re-situating the footage in the context of its origination, offering both interpretive summaries and expansive documentation of each stage of each film. The video playhead here becomes the stand-in for the viewer, moving through an archives for a project of supra-human scale. We also offer easy comparison of each film to others in a series for the same test, technology, or audience – a particularly important frame of reference when studying films produced as informational units within a bureaucratic system.

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Lookout Mountain Laboratory

Our initial inquiries into the role of film in nuclear weapons testing and deployment led us to the work of a singular production studio – that of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron of the United States Air Force. Active from the end of World War II until around 1968, this unique unit was responsible for the production, distribution and archiving of hundreds and probably thousands of nuclear weapons films during the height of the Cold War. Some of these were meant for lay publics, but the majority of them were produced for internal government use: briefings, training, and documentation.

The work and history of this onetime secret studio is notable for many reasons. Located in the hills above Hollywood, CA, the base initially served as an anchor for documentary work at the Nevada Test Site and the Pacific Proving Grounds, drawing heavily from the film industry labor and expertise in Los Angeles. As the Air Force rose to be prominent global force in the maintenance of networked and airborne nuclear defense, detachments from the 1352nd made their way to points around the world.Detachments followed the USO and Bob Hope to film television specials, mounted gun cameras on planes in Vietnam, and developed missile-tracking techniques at Vandenberg that NASA would employ at Cape Canaveral. Their clients included the Air Force Special Weapons Project, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and the Atomic Energy Commission.

Secrecy demanded that every piece of each project be constructed in-house, from the development of new film stock and cameras through scripting, scoring, animation, studio and location shooting, acting, storage and more. Around a hundred workers worked at Lookout Mountain Labs at any one time, including a range of civilian and military workers who were also granted access to classified government data.The facility’s closure led to a subsequent dissolution of the archives across the Department of Energy, the Air Force and National Archives.

Many of the remaining films are stored today in Albuquerque, as part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s DTRIAC collection. What is known and public about this corpus of films is largely due to declassification efforts initiated at the Department of Energy in the late 1990’s, intended to help victims of radiation poisoning seek just compensation. Since then filmmaker Peter Kuran has been the foremost champion of Lookout Mountain’s legacy and influence, through a series of documentaries, restoration efforts, and an event at the American Film Institute for the surviving veterans of the 1352nd. The Prelinger Archives, the Internet Archive, and the Fedflix project have all been key in ensuring access to some portion of the Studio’s output. The facility itself, long a private residence known only to the likes of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, received some new attention when it was listed for sale in 2011.

As we progress through our work on an online archive and larger thematic exploration of film’s role in nuclear weapons research, we’re sketching an outline of this Studio’s particular story as a remarkable synthesis of governmental, scientific, and media/communication interests. As interest in non-theatrical film rises among scholars of film and technology, we see some particular contributions to make in understanding how the Studio’s breadth, depth and methods reflects the specific functions of film in service of State science and security. We plan to turn to this portion of our project in full over Winter of 2013, when we’ll share a joint appointment in the Center for Advanced Study.

Here’s an anthology of some of the animation work – of which there is no small amount – from the LML films: