A paranoia palimpsest

During a YouTube safari in search of Icarus Montgolfier Wright, the 1962 short film based on Ray Bradbury’s poem of the same name, I found that another Bradbury piece, the post-apocalyptic vignette “There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles, is a big favorite with animators.

For my money, the most striking is this 1984 production from Uzbekfilm:

In addition to being a pretty decent visualization, that Uzbekfilm production offers what you might call a paranoia palimpsest.

Bradbury’s story was written in the late Forties, when the Cold War’s chill was settling in and the postwar dread of nuclear war was in full noxious flower. A wave of novels and films about the aftermath of nuclear war was building: Arch Oboler’s Five would be released in 1951, a year after The Martian Chronicles was published, to be followed by (among many others) Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1951 nuclear warning film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original Godzilla, and innumerable B-movies in which attractive actors and actresses would contend with rubber-suited mutants spawned by radiation.

Leave it to Ray Bradbury to find a unique angle on the post-apocalyptic theme, one that combines a lampoon of Fifties consumerism (the robot kitchen that wakes everyone up, feeds them and gets them out the door) with the gradually dawning realization that all human life has been wiped out. Bradbury characteristically links it all to poetry — in this case, Sara Teasdale’s 1920 work of the same name:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

“Would scarcely know that we were gone.” A perfect line for a story in which humanity is defined by its self-inflicted absence.

Flash forward to the early Eighties. Ronald Reagan is openly joking about nuking the Soviet Union, fantasies of space-based defense against missiles are floating in the air, and members of Reagan’s administration are offering daffy scenarios about how to survive nuclear devastation. In response, Jonathan Schell’s 1982 essay The Fate of the Earth essentially starts the nuclear freeze movement, and the television film The Day After counters Reagan’s happy talk with a gut-wrenching depiction of how a nuclear war would look from the civilian perspective.

Where Teasdale’s poem (and Bradbury’s Fifties era use of it) imagined mankind disappearing without causing much of a fuss, the Uzbekfilm production imagines much harsher consequences in keeping with its release in 1984 from the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. There’s even a glimpse of nuclear winter, a term Carl Sagan and others used as often as possible, though there is still some debate about such an effect. But the fears of the Fifties overlap with the fears of the Eighties quite comfortably.

Along with the Soviet film, I came across this undated student production, which compresses the story considerably but still gets the point across :

And this 2006 live-action production from Chris Rowe:

And I don’t want to leave out this short film based on “The Pedestrian,” which Bradbury wrote after being accosted by police while taking an evening stroll:

Meanwhile, I have yet to find Icarus Montgolfier Wright. Anybody know where I can score a copy?

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3 thoughts on “A paranoia palimpsest

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Did you like Oboler’s film, Five?

  2. Steven Hart says:

    I agree with your take: somewhat underrated, certainly worth seeing, but chiefly of historical interest. As for “On the Beach,” I find it unwatchable. Stanley Kramer’s hand was even heavier than usual, and by about the twentieth repetition of “Waltzing Matilda” (which occurred about a half hour into the movie) I was rooting for the fallout.

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yeah, I had some problems with On The Beach — but then again, it is a 50s film and they tend to be heavy on the melodrama… So I suffered through it. But yes, Stanley Kramer rather bash you on the head with the message (for example, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) than explore it subtlety (and in my opinion, more effectively)

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