Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Take It then Face It

London Can Take It (1940), one of the most successful propaganda films produced in the UK during World War II, presents the chilling scenario of a city as target during total war. Directors Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings used the American journalist Quentin Reynolds to write and narrate the voiceover, which to modern ears has the effect of making the opening of the film seem a bit like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where Rod Sterling introduces in earnest tones a drama of dreadful yet often plausible horror. This admittedly superficial resemblance to popular science fiction is not so far out, perhaps, since part of the purpose of Reynolds' narration is to provide critical transatlantic distance -- to speak to an American audience that is observing from far away, as if from another world -- and at the same time to carry the sense that what happens in London makes a difference in the United States. The film toured the US in a slightly modified form as Britain Can Take It, and President Roosevelt attended a private screening. The Blitz-torn London depicted here is a disturbing world that is all too familiar and yet morbidly strange; it is both reassuring and saturated with dread.

Little more than a decade after London Can Take It, Americans were making their own propaganda films about being at war, though this time the strangeness is of a different order. Typical of the civil defense films of the early 1950s, the breezily confident title of Let's Face It provides reassuring evidence that the civilian soldiers of the military-industrial complex are on top of things if the worst were to happen. While the narrative stresses the fact that everyone has a part to play in the job of preparing for possible nuclear war, Let’s Face It is fairly aggressive in its insistence that duty resides with the individual. This is in quite striking contrast to the broad collectivist spirit celebrated in London Can Take It, where there is little mention of individual interests and the stress is repeatedly on the ‘people.’ The later film’s individualist ethos obviously serves to avoid any trace of similarity with Soviet-style collective mobilization, but it also locates the burden of responsibility for national security squarely with the individual subject. This is a tall order and there is something about the depiction of Cold War American life in Let’s Face It that is more coldly menacing than the bomb itself.

So what is the ‘it’ that must be taken or faced. The article is suitably and necessarily indefinite but also capacious enough to gesture toward a spectrum of possibilities that includes the likelihood of a horrible death. For the Londoners dealing with the Blitz, ‘it’ is already happening, has happened, and will continue for an indefinite future. While the Luftwaffe bombers are not shown in London Can Take It, they are heard as a low ambient hum that precedes the detonations. This is real war and real bombing. London has taken it so far, but the unspoken question that drives the narrative is concerned with how long London can keep taking it.

In Let’s Face It, despite the great effort the film goes to in order to embody a practical response to nuclear threat, the fact is that what is being faced here is a far more spectral ‘it.’ The only bombs represented in the film are ones Americans have dropped, either in the jarring if brief glimpse of the aftermath of Hiroshima, or in the more protracted and overwhelming footage of overground detonations at the Nevada test site. These stand-ins for the real ‘it’ are horrifying enough, but the film also points out that it is impossible to test the impact of the most up-to-date actually existing bombs because they are too powerful. In other words, the ‘it’ we are shown is a mere shadow of the power of the real ‘it’ we are being asked to face.